Beacons of Freedom: Slave Refugees in North America, 1800-1860
This project applies a social-historical approach to examine and contrast various groups of African-American slave refugees who sought freedom within North America between 1800 and 1860. It innovatively distinguishes between different “spaces of freedom” for runaway slaves, namely sites of formal, semi-formal, and informal freedom.
This project applies a social-historical approach to examine and contrast various groups of African-American slave refugees that sought freedom within North America in the period of “second slavery” (roughly between 1800-1860). It transcends current scholarly paradigms by providing a comparative and continental perspective on slave refugee migration, and by innovatively distinguishing between different “spaces of freedom” for runaway slaves, namely sites of:
- formal freedom (i.e., places where slavery was abolished and refugees’ freedom was uncontested, such as Canada and Mexico, even though the meanings of freedom in these places were heavily contested);
- semi-formal freedom (i.e., the northern US, where state abolition laws were curtailed by federal fugitive slave laws, so fugitives’ claims to freedom were precarious and often contested in the courts); and
- informal freedom (i.e., urban areas in the South where runaways tried to blend in with free black populations and pass for free, even procuring false free papers and often changing their names).
Beacons of Freedom considers themes such as slaves’ prime motivations for choosing to flee to various destinations throughout the continent; the social networks that assisted them in their escape attempts; how refugees’ settlement processes in receiving societies were characterized; and how slave flight impacted local, national, and continental discussions regarding freedom and slavery. It consists of a theoretical synthesis (to be written by the project leader) and three PhD projects, divided by geographical region:
- Slave refugees in the North & Canada (conducted by Oran Kennedy)
- Slave refugees in the South (conducted by Viola Müller)
- Slave refugees in Mexico (conducted by Thomas Mareite)
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the geography of slavery and freedom in the western hemisphere was radically and irrevocably transformed. First, the Age of Revolutions witnessed the legal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and of slavery itself in various states and countries/colonies of the Americas. Second, it witnessed the emergence (or bolstering) of free black communities within the slaveholding territories that remained (especially in urban areas) due to a spike in individual manumissions and self-purchase schemes by slaveholders. For many African-American slaves, it was an age of emancipation. Yet for others it was an age of what Dale Tomich has called “second slavery,” a period of intensification of slavery in places like the American South, Brazil, and Cuba. For those still enslaved, the emergence of free black communities throughout the hemisphere provided new opportunities to escape slavery and gave rise to waves of asylum-based migration,  as droves of slave refugees crossed into geographic spaces and places that constituted sites of formal freedom (where slavery was abolished according to “free soil” principles) or informal freedom (regions within slaveholding territories, such as urban areas, where refugees attempted to blend in with free black populations and escape the slave regime).
In North America the geography of slavery and freedom that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was even more complicated, as it included sites of formal, semi-formal, and informal freedom for fugitive slaves. The northern US, Canada, and Mexico all abolished slavery between 1777 and 1834, either gradually or immediately. Yet only in Mexico and Canada did spaces of full formal freedom from slavery for enslaved freedom seekers emerge on paper (although in practice the meanings of this freedom were contested in a multitude of ways). In the northern US, where state abolition laws were theoretically curtailed by federal fugitive slave laws, sites of freedom for fugitive slaves remained semi-formal (with state and federal laws conflicting), leaving refugees’ legal claims to freedom precarious and often contested in the courts. Meanwhile, sites of informal freedom for fugitive slaves emerged within the slaveholding South itself after a wave of individual manumissions in the revolutionary and early federal periods bolstered free black populations in countless towns and cities across the region, attracting innumerable runaways who attempted to escape their masters by getting lost in the crowd and passing for free. In the South as a whole, however, the institution of slavery continued to grow at a feverish pace in the post-revolutionary and antebellum periods, following the expansion of cotton across the Appalachians and into the southern interior, and generating a lucrative domestic slave trade that, like a massive torrent, washed almost a million American-born slaves from the Upper South and eastern seaboard to the Deep South. The more entrenched the institution of bondage became in the American South in the age of “second slavery,” the more determined some slaves became to flee captivity altogether, enticed by the prospect of freedom in various geographical settings throughout the continent.
A number of historians have contributed to our understanding of various aspects of slave flight to the North and Canada, especially organized escape routes and networks, and the political impact of fugitive slave laws on US politics. This scholarship focuses almost exclusively on fugitive slaves along the North-South axis, however, and as such misses a broader understanding of the geography of slavery and freedom in North America. In reality slaves fled in every direction—north, south, east, and west. Yet analysis of fugitive slaves in Mexico is still very much in its infancy, and virtually no scholars have analyzed the existence of permanent (as opposed to temporary) slave refugees within the urban South. Historians—including those of the North and Canada—have moreover largely neglected to analyze the experiences of fugitive slaves from a social-historical perspective (as migrants and newcomers in receiving societies), tackle the theme of slave flight from a continental or comparative perspective, or distinguish between sites of formal and informal freedom. The need to “reroute” and reconceptualize the geography of freedom in America during the age of slavery, as Rachel Adams has argued, constitutes a poignant gap in the historiography and is long overdue.
How was asylum-based slave migration in nineteenth-century North America characterized? What were slaves’ prime motivations for choosing to flee to various destinations throughout the continent, and what social networks assisted them in their escape attempts? How were refugees’ settlement processes in receiving societies characterized? And how did slave flight impact local, national, and continental discussions regarding the geography of freedom and slavery? Drawing from slave testimonies, runaway slaves ads, newspaper articles, court documents, diplomatic correspondence and other government records, and secondary literature, this project examines and contrasts the various groups of refugees that sought freedom within North America in the antebellum period (roughly between 1800-1860). The project consists of a theoretical synthesis (to be written by the project leader) and three PhD projects, divided by geographical region: Slave refugees in the North and Canada, Slave refugees within the South and Slave refugees in Mexico, including pre-revolutionary Texas.
Each project examines four main themes for each of the groups of slave refugees:
- the motivations for flight and for the choice of various destinations;
- the networks that facilitated slave flight to various destinations;
- settlement processes, including refugees’ economic adaptation, the legal development of their rights and status, and their social integration in receiving societies;
- the impact of slave flight on local, national, and international discussions on slavery (including local politics and diplomatic relations).
Beacons of Freedom’s innovative and pathbreaking character lies in three specific methodological elements:
- New conceptualization: First, this project will be the first study of slave refugees in the Americas to make a conceptual distinction between spaces of formal, semi-formal, and informal freedom. It will explain how slaves imagined these three types of freedom, their motivations for choosing various sites of freedom (with a specific emphasis on family and community ties), and the ways in which they navigated these types of freedom. It will also touch upon the interconnectedness of different spaces of freedom.
- Continental scope: Second, this project will be the first of its kind to take a comparative and continental scope on the phenomenon of asylum-based slave migration in the antebellum period. It will consider not only the “traditional” North-South axis, but also the Mexican borderlands and urban environments within the South. As such it will move away from narrower national and regional paradigms of analysis.
- Social-historical approach: Finally, this project will analyze slave refugees from a social-historical perspective, illuminating refugees’ migration and assimilation experiences. It will also introduce social-scientific terminology into historical discussions concerning fugitive slaves (concepts such as refugee migration, asylum seekers, etc.), and consider the broader repercussions of asylum-based slave migration for the (geo)politics of the North American continent.