Wednesday, December 5, 2012

North Carolina Runaways

Slave Runaways in Colonial North Carolina, 1748-1775


When slaves fled, “stole themselves,” they dramatically denied the powerlessness defined by their status and challenged the carefully crafted controls their masters molded to regulate the lives, labor, and destinies of human property.1 Slaves probably frequently understood the political implications of their actions, no matter how psychologically battered or physically threatened, maltreated, or constrained they might be and no matter how different their individual reasons for flight.2 Obsessive reference to runaways in colonial laws demonstrates slave owners’ profound anxiety about the problem.3

The political manifestations of running away had universal significance among New World slaves, but variations in geography, demography, and the social and psychological makeup of individual slave populations affected specific runaway patterns.4 A number of scholars have analyzed such factors in other mainland British colonies, but none has done so for North Carolina.5 This essay attempts to fill part of this gap by examining the province’s runaways for the years 1748-1775. It compares North Carolina runaways with those from neighboring Virginia and South Carolina to clarify the North Carolina story, to identify broader implications, and to buttress statistics obtained from a too limited sample. Unlike North Carolina, more substantial samples are available for bordering colonies.6

Slaves who ran off to or formed maroon settlements best illustrate the importance of setting as well as the political dimensions of running away. At times these slaves settled among Indians or sought the security offered by other European powers such as the Spanish in Florida. Because they were closer to both the Spanish and the Indians in Florida than were the slaves of North Carolina or Virginia, many South Carolina slaves successfully fled southward. As a result, confrontations between runaways and whites frequently occurred. Such tensions, in turn, tended to make South Carolina slaves particularly receptive to open revolt, as was the case in the Stono Rebellion of 1739.7 The more limited and dangerously unpredictable chances of escape to the westward and the Cherokee, on the other hand, normally constrained North Carolina’s slaves.8

Other distinctive opportunities for maroons in South Carolina led to further differences between slave experiences there and in colonies to the north. The economic immaturity and the relative absence of a political and legal infrastructure in the South Carolina backcountry in the 1750s and 1760s created a milieu in which whites and some blacks, a portion of them runaway slaves, lived as hunters and marginal farmers and joined together to practice social banditry. Through direct action and the establishment of legal and political institutions, the Regulators—more substantial farmers importantly tied to the norms and values of commercial agriculture and the potentialities of slavery—sought to subdue the counterculture that threatened them.9 Although divided by other problems during this period, North Carolina’s backcountry ordinarily was made secure against such social banditry, as was Virginia’s, by a well-organized system of county courts, militias, and constabularies.10

Yet, neither Virginia nor North Carolina was impervious to problems caused by maroons. The Great Dismal Swamp, stretching southward from Norfolk, Virginia, to Edenton in the Albemarle Sound region of North Carolina, was an ideal hideout.11 Runaways deep in the watery isolation of the swamp were “perfectly safe, and with the greatest facility elude the most diligent search of their pursuers,” J. F. D. Smyth noted in 1784, and blacks had lived there “for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting... upon corn, hogs, and fowls....”12 If by chance they were discovered, Elkanah Watson observed in 1777, “they could not be approached with safety” because of their belligerence.13

Regions other than those within the Great Dismal Swamp were also threatened by groups of runaways. In September, 1767, the New Hanover County court in North Carolina learned “that upwards of Twenty runaway Slaves in a body Arm’d ... are now in this County....” The court promptly ordered “that the Sheriff do immediately raise the power of the County not to be less than Thirty Men well Arm’d to go in pursuit of the said runaway slaves and that the said Sheriff be empowered to Shoot to kill and destroy all such of the said runaway Slaves as shall not Surrender themselves.”14 Since the records are silent beyond this report, it is unlikely that a confrontation took place between the runaways and the posse comitatus. Perhaps the slaves escaped or returned to South Carolina.

Still, North Carolina slaves apparently had fewer opportunities than South Carolina slaves to form maroon communities, and this situation helped to restrict the growth of conditions necessary to spark a revolt.15 But this did not deny political dimensions to running off, or prevent close interrelationships between running away and other forms of slave resistance in North Carolina, or elsewhere.

The matter may be understood even more holistically. Slaves lived organic lives in both a psychological and sociological sense, as do all human beings in touch with reality. To whatever degree they compartmentalized elements of their existence, they integrated their experiences and comprehended the intricate interrelationships that exist among institutions, roles, values, and behavior. Slaves thus interwove in complex, profound, if often hidden ways, patterns of resistance and adjustment that historians commonly view as disparate slave responses to bondage: murder, arson, sabotage, flight, truancy, as well as a sustaining religiosity and powerful marital, familial, and communal ties. Confronted by apparently identical or similar situations, some slaves resisted and others did not; some ran off and others murdered or committed suicide; and the actions of individuals could also vary dramatically over time.16

Running away, therefore, offers important insights into the psychological and social situations that impelled many slaves to resist bondage. Why, how, when, and to what destinations did slaves try to escape? Quantifying the runaways’ behavior is difficult. There are few extant records for North Carolina that shed light on these fundamental questions. Yet as this analysis will demonstrate, there are several possible explanations for such behavior.

Newspapers are the richest source of information on runaways in every colony. Unfortunately, the surviving issues of colonial North Carolina newspapers are scattered unevenly across the years, are not properly representative of the several regions in the province, and account for under 7 percent of the issues published between 1748 and 1775.17 The practices followed by masters to recapture their runaways compound the problem. First, owners living closest to where the existing newspapers were published were most likely to advertise.18 Second, owners wherever they lived tended to advertise as a last resort, except when they lived near a newspaper and thought their runaways were lurking about the neighborhood. Generally, owners first relied upon their own devices and the services of the county courts to retrieve runaways.19 Jacob Wilkinson of Wilmington typified this approach. In November, 1766, he wrote Colonel Alexander McAllister that his “Negro Fellow Jack” had run off and was probably headed for Cumberland County. Wilkinson, who had purchased Jack there, urged McAllister to “Scheame so as to have him apprehended” and promised to pay the costs involved.20 For these reasons it is impossible to extrapolate from the 134 cited runaways to determine approximately how many slaves actually ran off during this period.

Data deficiencies also prevent a quantitative determination of the effects of the growing Revolutionary crisis upon runaway patterns in the colony. Since 30 percent of the runaways between 1748 and 1775 escaped during the last three years of the survey, for instance, it might be concluded that the crisis prompted slaves to run off in greater numbers. A more plausible explanation is that 37 percent of the extant North Carolina newspapers date from these same three years, 1773-1775.21

Whatever diachronic trends actually occurred, the paucity of available data also hinders a social and psychological description of the runaways. The most detailed information appears in formal outlaw notices for 10 runaways and in advertisements placed by masters of 61 runaways. Newspaper notices for 39 captured fugitives and 1 advertisement placed by a sheriff about an escape contain much less information but are more detailed than the brief references to 23 other runaways that appear in county court minutes, records of the colony’s Committee of Public Claims, private correspondence, an inventory, and a newspaper story.

Information most often included in these diverse sources concerns readily observable characteristics—sex, ability to speak English, and age, in that order. Masters and captors alike also noted traits such as family ties, scars, height, color, and demeanor and often commented in varying detail upon motives for flight and possible destinations. Occupations were listed when they distinguished particular runaways from others and hence served as important clues to identification.22 Occasionally, bits of detail about the runaways’ perspectives appear in these sources.

At times African origins are cited in the notices, but most often one must infer African nativity from a combination of characteristics such as scarification and the degree of facility in English. Masters noted origins other than African only when that information might lead to capture. For instance, a Virginia-raised slave might be thought to be headed for his home plantation. The origins of less than half of the runaways could be learned.23

Despite the limitations of the data, it is likely that the resultant samples fairly accurately reflect for the years 1748 to 1775 the runaways’ actual ages, sex distribution, occupational characteristics, and geographical origins. The ages of North Carolina runaways correspond with the pattern in other colonies: they were disproportionately young adults, 20 to 35 years of age (see table 1). Forty-four (62 percent) of North Carolina’s runaways were in this age category, although this population group comprised only about 30 percent of the colony’s slave population. Slaves 36 years of age and older ran away slightly more frequently than their percentage of the population would indicate: 24 percent of the runaways and 20 percent of the colony’s slave population. At the other extreme, slaves under 20 comprised about 50 percent of the slave population but only 14 percent of North Carolina’s runaways (see Table 1).24

The vast majority of slave runaways in North Carolina, 89 percent, were males. This is identical with Lathan A. Windley’s and Gerald W. Mullin’s estimates for Virginia, but Windley, Philip D. Morgan, and Daniel C. Littlefield compute percentages for males in South Carolina that range from 7 to 11 percentage points less than was the case in the two more northern provinces (see Table 2). Whatever the cause of these differences, since male preponderance among runaways is far greater than sex ratios would suggest in all the surveyed colonies, other factors must substantially explain this disparity. Indeed, South Carolina with the highest sex ratios also had the lowest discrepancy between male and female runaways.25

Familial considerations influenced many runaway slaves, inducing some to flee in order to join spouses, families, or prospective mates. The death of an owner or a direct sale of slaves, both of which often led to the separation of spouses or, more likely, children from parents, was significantly related to slave runaway patterns. The effects of such uprootings are suggested by the fact that over a third of the skilled slaves and 17 percent of the field-hand runaways had been owned by more than one master.26  

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