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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  • Prince George's County held more enslaved African Americans than any other county in the state.  Toward the end of the Antebellum Era, Prince George's County held fewer free blacks than any other county in the state, except Allegany (467), and Charles (1,068).  The county's slave communities represented both the benefactors and beneficiaries of free blacks in Washington, D.C.  Along with other jurisdictions in nearby Maryland and Virginia, Washington's free black community grew as manumittees and free-borns from adjacent regions migrated there in the nineteenth century.  Ties of friendship and kinship bound these people to those left behind on plantations.  When flights occurred, both fugitives and their pursuers looked to the nation's capital for possible accomplices.

    Prince George's County, with no sizeable free black population of its own, and likely few internal white opponents of slavery, was connected to Washington D.C.'s population.  Much as Baltimore City, and to a lesser degree Frederick City, Hagerstown, and Cumberland offered opportunities for runaways in the northern regions of the state. Washington, D.C. provided them in Southern Maryland. There was a substantial presence of the Northern Underground Railroad in Washington, D.C. through the actions of abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey. However, the accomplices of those reformers, and others acting independently of the Northern Underground Railroad, were found in the slave-holding counties of Maryland, of which contiguous Prince George's was the largest.

    There were large clusters of African Americans, mainly enslaved, Within Prince George's County.  The holding of thirteen slaves per capita by 1850 only partially reveals the clustering of the black population.  Of the 879 slave holders in the county by that year, 177 (20%) held at least twenty enslaved blacks, thirty-two (4%) held at least fifty slaves, and nine (1 %) enslaved seventy-five or more.  There was also a concentration of these holders in and around the county seat, Upper Marlborough. It was little more than a hamlet, but in 1850 tobacco planters kept 2,793 blacks slaves there.  A mere ten miles separated Upper Marlborough from Washington to the west, fifteen from Annapolis to the east, and thirty from Baltimore to the northeast.

    In the Antebellum Era, black slaves out-numbered all other groups in Prince George's County.  It was situated between the Potomac River and Patuxent River, and featured a densely wooded area at its heart, literally called, "the Forest of Prince George's County."  The county's access to Washington, D.C., its rivers, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and within fifteen miles, the Chesapeake Bay, offered would-be fugitives a plethora of routes and possible destinations.  It is likely, however, that Pennsylvania by way of Northern and Western Maryland represented typical paths, for these seem to have been accessible from Washington, D.C.  Approximately eight percent of slaves arrested in Baltimore for whom owner information was docketed fled from Prince George's County.

    A survey of selected newspapers from several Maryland counties and Washington, D.C. suggests an overrepresentation of Prince George's County slaves on the run, or at least being sought within the state through newspaper advertisements.  Fully twenty-two percent of all runaway advertisements placed in several Maryland newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, and the Daily National Intelligencer concern an enslaved man or woman who fled Prince George's County.  By contrast, the two other Maryland counties of this study, Baltimore and Frederick were less represented with four percent and two percent respectively.  Few though they were, rightly or wrongly, free blacks in Prince George's County found themselves implicated at several points during the Antebellum Era for their alleged hand in episodes of slave flight. For example, authorities issued a warrant to search the home of free black Prince Georgian, Theophelus McDaniel, as they pursued the fugitive slave, Sarah, who had fled from Charles County, Maryland.  Likewise, the State indicted Alexius Boone of Prince George's County for his alleged role in the escape of an enslaved woman, Peggy.  Clement Brooks, a free black man in his mid-twenties, received a sentence to the Maryland Penitentiary in 1848 for allegedly enticing a slave to runaway.  Another free African American resident of Prince George's County, William Taylor, suffered the same fate.  Taylor was convicted in April 1857 for enticing slaves to run away.  He served five years, three months in prison.

    Whether or not these individuals played a hand in slave flight, records indicate that many of the enslaved fled Prince George's County, often with assistance from others.  In summer 1830, at age fifteen, a African American boy named Harry fled from Notley Young's plantation in the "Forrest of Prince George's County."  His pursuers believed he was headed to family and acquaintances in Washington D.C., many of whom were free.  Young feared their aim was to have the boy escape permanently.  Kinship bonds were a suspected resource to other county fugitives as well.  In February 1846, for example, Bill Carroll fled from Baruch Mullikin's farm in Nottingham near Upper Marlboro.  He was known to have a wife on the Skinner Estate, also in Nottingham.  The forty-five-year-old Carroll remained at large in the county for the better part of three months, before crossing the Patuxent into Calvert County. And, when forty year-old Mary fled with two other enslaved blacks from slaveholder Robert A. Clagett of Upper Marlboro in September 1851, their pursuers believed them to be moving east toward Bladensburg, on the Anacostia River.  Mary had once been held there as the property of George W. Bowie, and some of her relatives were still there.  Mary was also being sought northward, in "The Forest of Prince George's County," where her husband (by Samuel L. Brooke), and her father (by Dr. Benjamin Berry) were held as slaves.
    The lowly socio-political status of enslaved and free blacks did not keep them from being a resource to those of their number on the run.  For enslaved blacks, especially, the gesture might be reciprocated. There is evidence of successful fugitives, having secured their own freedom out of Maryland, returning to snatch away kinfolk.  An example of this involves a family held by a small holder in northern Prince George's County.

    Adam Smith, age thirty, fled Isaac Scaggs's Beltsville plantation on August 22, 1857.  Smith's mother was held by a Mr. Hamelton, near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  He perhaps headed for her, but he definitely fled to Washington D.C. Adam had run before, and between his duties for Scaggs and visits with his mother, he had likely familiarized himself with the city.  A short time after absconding, Smith arrived in Philadelphia, and was received by the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.  Within two weeks, the time it had taken him to travel to Philadelphia initially, Smith had allegedly returned to Scaggs's Plantation, unbeknowst to the owner.  When he left again, this time Smith took his wife, Maria, and their four boys (Dall, Lem, Bill, and Ben) with him.  The aid blacks gave runaways within slave states, especially to the kin and friends, should not be underestimated.  For Maryland, especially in Prince George's County, black's role was essential to any successful flight

    William "Bill" Brown decided to flee Prince George' County as his life promised to become more difficult following a confrontation with his owner.  His owner, William Elliott, was representative of many young planters during the 1850s who were coming into their own and attempting to curb an enslaved labor force who they perceived as growing more restless with their condition.  Prince George's County tobacco planters were stabilizing and expanding their operations, contrary to the state-wide trend of the Antebellum Era when tobacco farming was generally decreasing. Elliott, by 1850 in his mid-twenties, had a wife and daughter, held real property valued at nine thousand six hundred dollars, and a plantation on a 224 acre lot called Cool Spring Manor.  The plantation was located in the easternmost part of the county, in what after the early-1840s became Queen Anne's District.  Cool Spring Manor was situated near the Patuxent River, on the boundary between Queen Anne's District and Marlborough, just across the river from Anne Arundel County.  Part of Elliott's personal property was held in chattel slaves - twenty-five blacks, most under the age of fifteen.  By 1860, however, his real holdings had expanded to eighteen thousand dollars, and the worth of his personal holdings, including now thrity-five enslaved blacks, was twenty thousand dollars.

    Part of the growing black community at Elliott's plantation was the Brown Family.  One of their number, William "Bill" Brown, enacted an act of rebelliousness and insubordination by refusing, in all probability violently, to be flogged.  He expected that he might be sold South as punishment.  He learned, however, that he was to be worked cruelly to make an effective example of him to the other slaves at Cool Spring Manor.
    Brown fled on November 17, 1855, traveling for five weeks to Philadelphia.  Fearing that Brown was "making for a free state," Elliott advertised for the fugitive in the Baltimore Sun rather than more nearby press. In his add, Elliot assured readers that Brown "went off without the slightest provocation."  When Bill Brown fled, he was perhaps aided by his father, six siblings, and a grandparent who he left behind in slavery.
    Similar to the experience of Bill Brown, in terms of his struggles with his owner and his successful flight, was that of Jim Belle, who fled the county in 1857.  Zachariah Berry of Washington was a member of a prominent land-holding family in Prince George's County and Washington, D.C. In 1849, Zachariah Berry's father, Washington Berry of Washington [D.C.], purchased a tract of land from Richard C. Bowie.  Located in the Queen Anne's District of Prince George's County, along the road leading from "the Brick Church" (modern-day Church Road), in the middle of "the Forest," Berry began organizing his father's operation at the newly acquired plantation called "Bellmont."  Encompassing parts of three districts (Marlborough, Bladensburg, and Queen Anne), the region represented the heart of Prince George's County slave holdings, and perhaps the most concentrated slaveholding region in the State.  While greater than fifty percent of Prince George's County slaves were held in these three districts alone, less than thirty percent of its free blacks lived there.  Alone, these three districts of Prince George's County held more slaves than all but three Maryland counties. Only Anne Arundel County (7,332), Charles County(9,653), and St. Mary's County (6,549) had more.
    Bellmont became Zachariah's property outright with his father's death in 1856. 

    At the time Berry began building Bellmont, 11,510 enslaved blacks were held in Prince George's County.  By far the largest slaveholding county in the state, Prince George's County accounted for thirteen percent of slaves held statewide.  In 1850, a year after the Berrys purchased Bellmont, sixteen thousand people lived in District 7 (Queen Anne's District), fully sixty-six percent were black, and of those ninety-one percent were enslaved.  Some of the largest holders of the district lived within walking distance of Bellmont.  Zach Berry attempted to solidify his operations with laborers purchased from various sources.  Nearby planters sold slaves to each other, though the numbers of the county's slaves continued to climb throughout the period, and out-migration never surpassed natural increase and in-migration.  Outside of the county, the largest sources of enslaved blacks for sale were slave dealers head-quartered in Baltimore City, but with agents throughout the state.  Through these processes, Berry came to own Jim Belle, an enslaved black man from Baltimore County.  Belle's first owner, Edward Stansbury, died during the 1850s.  At an estate sale following his death, one of Baltimore's - indeed, the nation's - top slave dealers, Bernard Moore Campbell purchased Belle.  In business with his brother, William Lewis Campbell, Bernard built a solid network of dealers and traffickers which did much to transplant Maryland's surplus labor to a ready market in the Deep South.  Indeed, between the mid-1840s and mid-1850s, the Campbell Brothers are credited with having sold more than one thousand six hundred enslaved blacks from their Baltimore City base to the markets of New Orleans.

    Presumably, Berry purchased several slaves from the Campbells.  However, Berry did a poor job in securing his slaves.  Numerous flight attempts from Bellmont are known to have occurred throughout the 1850s.  For example, Hannah Dikes fled during June 1854.  Before that month ended, at least two more of Berry's bondspeople - this time "Dick" and "Betsy" - fled together.  These two had familial connections to other Prince George's plantations, as well as others in Calvert County.  The following spring and summer saw more escape attempts.  Luke Carroll, purchased from the estate of a local planter earlier in the decade, fled, as did Dinah Young, a woman in her twenties who had experience in Baltimore and a husband in Calvert County.  Luke Williams, who also fled Bellmont during Summer 1855, had kinfolk not only in Prince George's Countybut in urban areas like Annapolis, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.  Luke, in fact, was at least a two-time offender, having run before in 1851. Perhaps emboldened or even educated by the example of previous of previous escapes, the twenty-five year old Benjamin Duckett fled September 16, 1856.  Three weeks later, he reached the home of William Still in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    In order to continue building his plantation, and perhaps to replace fugitive slaves, Zachariah Berry of Washington bought from neighbors and dealers like the Campbells.  Berry purchased Belle during June 1856.  Berry seemed to look for opportunities to reinforce his authority of his slaves, reportedly flogging Jim once for misspeaking his title, calling him "Mister Zach," not "Master Zach."  On July 25, 1857, after only a year at Bellmont, Jim fled.  With a wife and mother-in-law, both presumably free, living in South Baltimore, and perhaps still other kinfolk living on the several Baltimore County plantations near the place which he had been previously held, his options for assistance were likely considerable.  How Jim made his way from Prince George's County to Philadelphia is not known with any specificity.  Jim Belle's pursuers believed his family and friends in Northern Maryland would give him aid.  By whatever means, Jim reached freedom.

    A final example of the role kinship and familial aspirations may have played in slave flight from Prince George's County concerns Nace Shaw, who fled from Sarah Ann Talburtt of Upper Marlboro, on September 11, 1858.  Talburtt's household consisted of five women, who were on average, forty years old in 1858.  "A more disagreeable family of old maids could not be found in a year's time," reported Shaw.  The matriarch of the house, Sarah Ann Talburtt was a woman of some personal wealth, by 1860 holding twenty-five thousand dollars in real estate and twenty-eight thousand dollars in personal assets, including twnety-six bondspeople.  Shaw played a significant role as foreman on the Talburtt Plantation in the Forest of Prince George's County.  Of the county's 13,606 blacks, ninety one percent were enslaved by 1860.  Furthermore, by 1860, blacks constituted six out of every ten Prince Georgians.  Nace's age (45) and privileged position as a foreman at once made him an unlikely candidate to flee, but also represented increased possibilities for flight.  Shaw certainly had connections and acquaintances within nearby slave communities.  He also enjoyed familial links to Washington, D.C., less than fifteen miles away.  Nace Shaw fled from Maryland, claiming "I wanted a chance for my life; I wanted to die a free man."  He traveled first to Washington, D.C., perhaps to his mother's home.  Nace Shaw latter arrived in Philadelphia, en route to his ultimate destination in Canada.

     


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