Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom. Icons used in advertisements for runaway slaves by the Planter's Advocate (P.G. Co., ca. 1850s)
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  • Baltimore County was a cross-roads of Maryland with large numbers of both free and enslaved blacks. The proportion of enslaved blacks in Baltimore County did not shrink as quickly as did other central Maryland counties.  Over the period under consideration the numbers of slaves remained small, though the proportion of enslaved blacks to free blacks, especially in the southern part of the county, remained constant. By 1860, blacks in Baltimore County represented fourteen percent of the entire population, while free blacks were fifty-seven percent of the black population.

    Residents of Baltimore County contributed 170, slightly less than four percent, of the runaway advertisements and notices of committal to the pool considered by this study.  Such a low percentage, given the number of Baltimore County and Baltimore City presses referenced, may have resulted from a number of factors.  Most obviously, the press favored by advertisers of runaways may not have been consulted by this study.  The largest contribution from a Baltimore-based newspaper came from the Sun.  The Sun, however, did not begin publication until 1837.  While it ultimately became the paper of record for Baltimore City and the state, many years likely passed before it gained wide circulation.  Advertisments from other Maryland jurisdictions and other slaveholding states appeared in the Sun from very early on, suggesting an alternative rationale for the dearth of Baltimore County fugitive concerns.  Many Maryland slaveholders south of Baltimore City saw Baltimore City as a destination for escaped slaves. However, it may have been that many Baltimore County slaveholders looked elsewhere for their slaves' destinations.  It is possible that the Pennsylvania press, for example, would be a more fruitful source for Baltimore County-originated slave advertisements because that county's fugitives ran out of the state to the North.  The perception on the part of pursuers that fugitive slaves fled to the North was largely accurate, yet there were some exceptions.  One boy boy, Nicholas Queen, fled Owings Mills, Baltimore County, in 1838.  The twelve-year old's mother lived in Baltimore City, so the boy was sought there.  In 1842 Nace Tilghman fled Dulaney's Valley, located a dozen miles north of Baltimore and his pursuers believed he was moving south toward Baltimore City even though Pennsylvania was less than thirty miles distant to the north.  Likewise, in 1849, after thirty-two year old Mary Snowden fled with her child from Middle River Neck, Baltimore County, she was allegedly seen in East Baltimore shortly thereafter. Most likely, she hid amid the substantial free black community there.

    The staff of the Maryland State Archives has discovered in the jail dockets of the Baltimore County and Baltimore City a second perspective of travel patterns for fugitives from Baltimore County. Of all jail docket entries for whom ownership was recorded, twenty-three percent resided in Baltimore County.  Yet with no information on if they were apprehended in the county or the city, interpretation is necessarily limited. 

    A fugitive's choice of either Pennsylvania or Baltimore may well have been informed by the slave's origin within the Baltimore county.  Of all Baltimore County's blacks, forty-nine percent resided in the districts contiguous to the city in 1860 (Districts 13, 1, 3, 9, and 12).  Few blacks, either enslaved or free, resided in the northern-most districts of the county contiguous with the State of Pennsylvania (District Six and District Seven; 117 enslaved, eighty-three free - together representing only four percent of the county's total black population in 1860).  Also, sixty percent of Baltimore County's free black population resided in county districts contiguous to Baltimore City by 1860.   Thus, resources and opportunities may have existed in the city, where by the 1840s greater than twenty thousand blacks lived.

    Not all fugitives in Baltimore City and County during the Antebellum Era started their flights there. Baltimore County held attractive features to fugitives from other counties and states.  No matter their origin, fugitives on the run recognized the opportunities in Baltimore City.  Not until 1851 did Baltimore City separate from Baltimore County.  As the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the state, Baltimore City attracted many immigrants, from both foreign countries and the native countryside.  African Americans, even those enslaved, migrated to Baltimore.  Baltimore was a slave city, and while it attracted a sizeable number of fugitives from slavery intent upon remaining there, it also served as an important way station, and a beginning of the final leg of the journey out of the South.  Movement out of Baltimore City, at least overland, required movement through Baltimore County.  In this way, the county's role in slave flight dramatically increased. It was Baltimore City that set Baltimore County apart from any of the other Maryland counties along the Mason Dixon Line.  Many of the others had large towns of their own - Allegany County (Cumberland), Washington County (Hagerstown), Frederick County (Frederick City), Carroll County (Westminster), Harford County (Belair), and Cecil County (Port Deposit) - but none of these was as large or diverse as Baltimore City.  William Still's work, The Underground Railroad (1872) attests to the central importance of Baltimore City as a hub for fugitives moving due north, through the heart of Baltimore County, or northeast toward the Susquehanna River to Wilmington, Delaware where abolitionists such as Thomas Garrett waited with assistance.

    Baltimore County was not merely to shadow the Baltimore City.  Baltimore County's indigenous black population, grew from 8,260 (29% free) in 1830 to 7,413 (57% free) by 1860, and greatly impacted the possibilities for flight out of Maryland.  Doubtlessly, many blacks from the county, Baltimore City, other Maryland jurisdictions, and the greater South generally, moved through Baltimore County en route to points north of the Mason and Dixon Line.  Past studies have questioned the abilities of fleeing slaves, often characterizing them as shuttering, trembling, and overwhelmed by the experience away from the plantation.  Historians of other aspects of slave culture and community have long-since set aside The "Sambo" stereotype of runaways.  It is time to carry this revision to interpretations of slave flight. 

    While the images of slaves in the current historiography on flight from slavery are not quite ones of passivity and subjection, they nonetheless tend to remove agency from the enslaved.  Evidence uncovered in this study clearly demonstrates fugitives were often intelligent, and either recognized opportunities when they came or created their own.  Many non-slaveholding whites, for example, unknowingly assisted fugitives on the run because the fugitive disguised or withheld his or her status as a slave.  In 1841, for example, James Wilson of Baltimore City, an illiterate, middle-aged, English-born hack-driver, performed an unwitting service to a slave on the run. The record is unclear, but perhaps he transported a fugitive who claimed to be free.  For this transgression Wilson served a three year sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary.  Also possibly duped on assistance in 1852 was Joseph Sinnett.  Known to be a drunkard, the Englishman Sinnett worked as a common laborer in Baltimore County. Sinnett, a literate, single man, who had never been bound-out was convicted of enticing and persuading a slave to flee, and in December 1852, began a sentence he would serve until receiving a pardon in May 1859.

    In Baltimore County, and likely throughout Central Maryland, fleeing slaves did not have to resort to coercion or chicanery to gain accomplices.  Among blacks, family members often offered assistance.  For others, both black and white, empathy for a slave's degraded human condition probably sufficed.  John Robinson, a free black native of Norfolk, Virginia who had come to Baltimore City to ply his trade as a stonecutter, was prosecuted for aiding a slave's attempted escape. Details of the case are unclear, but perhaps he lent his free papers to a slave. The actual crime is less important than the record of his arrest, conviction, and sentencing as an accomplice to flight.  By all measures, Robinson was not an "abolitionist," per se.  Yet, in 1841 he gambled and lost his own liberty in an attempt to help someone escape from slavery.  So too did John Jones, convicted in 1844 on two counts of enticing slaves to abscond from their masters.  We know few facts of Jones's case either. Perhaps the slaves in question were family or friends or his wife and child.  What is without question is that Jones lost his freedom, at least temporarily, by helping others struggle to flee.  So too did Mary Ann Coates in 1862.  After an enslaved girl fled her Baltimore County master, she came to Baltimore City to the home of Coates, a middle-aged free black woman.  The girl pleaded with Coates to escort her to Pennsylvania, where the girl's grandmother lived.  Though married, and having been born free, Coates agreed and the two made for Pennsylvania.   While passing through Baltimore County, however, the two were stopped, arrested, and the fugitive was returned to her master.   Coates was tried, and in May 1862, found guilty of aiding and abetting a fugitive.   She received a sentence of six years in the Maryland Penitentiary. 

    Perhaps the least appreciated aspect of slave flight, and the single-most unique feature of the Southern Underground Railroad in comparison to the Northern Underground Railroad, was the assistance that Southern blacks could be to one another.  Free blacks often helped their enslaved loved ones to flee. William Adams, a free black barber in Baltimore City, convinced his mother to help him to escape from Maryland with the enslaved woman with whom he had fallen in love.  The woman, Lear Green, belonged to James Noble of Broadway, Old Town.  It was decided that the family would travel to Philadelphia aboard a boat in the Ericsson Steamer line, the mother as a passenger, Lear as cargo.  William and his mother helped Lear pack herself and provisions inside a wooden chest.  Risking her own freedom, Mother Adams then accompanied the chest on board the ship as it completed an eighteen-hour trek to Philadelphia. They both arrived safely sometime in 1854.   Even when running in groups, though some risks were greater, benefits might be greater as well. Slaveowner George Stewart of Baltimore County's Second District lost at least three of his roughly twenty slaves in the spring of 1853 when Louisa Pipkin, Grace Murray, and Harriet Brown fled.   Details of the journey are sparse but the three Stewart slaves were members of a larger party, which included Louisa's husband, Jefferson Pipkin.  They all reached Philadelphia in a matter of weeks, ultimately settling in Canada, near Toronto. 

    Similarly, in situations where one of a married couple was enslaved and the other free, they often conspired together and drew upon resources beyond themselves in the form of family and friends.  Such was the experience of the Amos Family: Stephen, Harriet, and their four children.  At the time of their flight all but the father remained in slavery.  The father's free status had been purchased less than two years previously.  It seems likely that the father spent a good deal of his initial months as a free man planning to steal away with the rest of his family.  What is more interesting about the Amoses' flight is that they came to Philadelphia from Baltimore, though the origin of their escape was Prince George's County some forty miles further south.  The movement from Prince George's County to Baltimore, and then from Baltimore to Philadelphia likely involved many, much forethought, and significant planning. 

    Many fugitives benefited from the kindness and courage of free people, both black and white.  Others, however, took matters into their own hands and created opportunities to flee by playing on the habits, routines, even vices of their owners.  Enslaved blacks viewed the holiday season as particularly opportune, when owners were often traveled away from their plantations, relaxed supervision, and indulged in distracting vices such as alcohol.  For example, although winter weather prevailed, each Christmas brought new episodes of flight.  Such was the case for Tom Hughson who, in 1847, fled Rezin Worthington's estate in Elsville, Baltimore County, during the Christmas Season.  In this case, the twenty-three year old Hughson was believed by his pursuers to have traveled along the Baltimore and Ohio Road, perhaps to Cumberland, Maryland, and beyond.  Likewise, Joshua Anderson and Basil White fled Leonard Quinlin's Kingsville farm, near Belair Road, during Christmas 1852.  Quinlin went to the U.S. District Court for Maryland, in Baltimore City, the very day of Basil and Joshua's escape and filed a petition to recover them under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

     


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