Guide to the Records of Beneath the Underground:
The Flight to Freedom and the Communities of Antebellum Maryland
A fundamental objective of Beneath the Underground is to explore the legacy of the Underground Railroad with the primary documents available at the Maryland State Archives. The purpose of this guide is to help website visitors understand the usefulness and history of the records mined for this project, as well as, to give insight into our research methodology. The core focus years of the Beneath the Underground study are 1830 to 1880.
The principal goal for this project was to uncover unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad. Our interpretation of the organized Underground Railroad as a facet of the northern United States revolved around our focus on Maryland and a southern border state's struggle with legalized human bondage. Our findings are grounded in a broad array of primary records found at the Maryland State Archives. Ironically, those who we are most able to locate in the records are also the most likely to have failed in their escape attempt. Nevertheless, one person's
indictment on charges of aiding a slave to escape opens the door to several layers of historical discovery and review. For instance, Charles Heise' story
tells of a young man who may or may not have consciously participated as an agent against slavery.
Charles Heise (Heisey) (b. circa 1840 - d. ?) MSA SC 5496-3396
Accused of aiding slaves of William A. Talburtt to escape
Upon finding someone charged with a crime such as Heise, Archives' staff would review our criminal record series for the defendant's indictments and discharge history, including sentence and possible pardons. Pardons are an important record series to consider especially if the indictment occurred in the mid to late 1850's or early 1860's before all specific laws related to slavery became null as of the passage of Maryland's 1864 Constitution. The researcher might then decide to explore journalistic accounts of the incident by combing through newspapers contemporary to the occurrence. For instance, if a person was cited for 'aiding a slave to escape' in Frederick County, one might look in the Archives microfilm holdings of the Frederick Herald for additional coverage and possible runaway ads for the specific enslaved individual.
When the researcher has identified an individual of interest utilizing criminal records and newspaper accounts, he or she may then want to
pursue a chronological history by accessing the Maryland State Archives census indices for a variety of years. Depending on
the time of enslavement, imprisonment and freedom of the quarry, the Beneath the Underground database
includes entries of over 70,000 Maryland enslaved and free blacks from primarily 1830 through 1860 to review. Additional searches could be made using Archives online census indices for 1870 and 1880. The following two examples hint at what might be attainable by careful use of this site.
Ben Snowden (b. 1809 - d. ?)
MSA SC 5496-24660
Fled from slavery, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, 1828
On 5 June 1828, a runaway advertisement was placed in the Maryland Gazette for two runaways named Jim Wootten and Ben Snowden. The
subscriber of the advertisement was Sommerville Pinkney, administrator for the late Johnathan Pinkney. Sommerville Pinkney believed Wootten and Snowden
fled from the Pinkney farm near Annapolis in the company of a mulatto man named Henry Wallace, property of Julianna Brice. Snowden was listed as "about
19 years old, five feet 8 inches high, very black, and walks a little lame," a reward was listed for twenty-five dollars per slave if taken within
Maryland and fifty dollars per slave if taken outside of Maryland. Though it is unclear if the slaves were ever captured, the same advertisement ran
again on the first day of January in 1829, implicating that the three men were still at large. Additionally, a search in the 1850 US Census for the Third District of Anne Arundel County returned a listing for a free black man named Benjamin Snowden at the age of 45.
After comparing the ages given for Snowden in both documents, the runaway advertisement estimated his date of birth as 1809 and the census record estimated date of birth as 1805. Nearly all slaves of the Antebellum Era have no record of their birth, so there is an argument for accepting the four year difference between the Ben Snowden's in these documents. But one should also note that the owner Pinkney is listed in the Annapolis District of Anne Arundel County in the 1830 Census. It seems unlikely the fugitive Ben Snowden of 1828 would settle in the nearby Third District in 1850 listed as freeman Benjamin Snowden, especially before emancipation. Only further research would reveal if the two Snowden's are actually the same person or whether the records are simply a historical coincidence.
George Gale (b. ? - d.?)
MSA SC 5496-24661
Slave Owner, Anne Arundel County, Maryland
According to the Slave Schedule of the 1850 Census, George Gale is listed as the owner of 67 slaves on his property in the first district of Anne Arundel County. In the "fugitive" column, which was designed by census takers to account for slaves that absconded from their owner, it is recorded that three males ran from Gale in 1846. Indeed an ad was recovered from the pages of the Maryland Republican on 10 October 1846. The $600 reward was offered by George Gale for the return of his three slaves, James Williams, Jacob Boston, and Lewis Coward in the Republican. It would require more research to determine the ultimate fate of Williams, Boston, and Coward, but the comparative dates of these documents perhaps suggest that these runaways were fugitives for at least four years.