History of Runaway Laws

1751 runaway law Maryland hunted runaways from the time of its founding until the Civil War. With each passing decade, the supreme and compelling authority of law placed the power of retrieval at the disposal of those who employed un-free labor. Chronologically, this project focuses upon the Antebellum Era. Yet, that period's statutes concerning fugitives from service drew upon a long heritage, one reaching back to Maryland's colonial traditions. Emerging from a series of statutory attempts by white labor masters to control white indentured servants, runaway laws would become increasingly racialized as, more and more, tobacco planters used enslaved black workers. To meet the needs of these planters, late-seventeenth century Maryland invented a caste of life-long, hereditary laborers, whose movement had to be controlled to insure profitability.

The advent of institutionalized slaveryin the late-1670s brought with it the creation of parameters to control the enslaved population. By 1676, " An Act Relating to Servants and Slaves" (Assembly Proceedings, 1676, W H & L, p. 102) restricted freedom of movement for both slaves and indentured servants to ten miles beyond their respective masters' plantations. Not so much intending to deter slaves from fleeing, colonial legislators hoped the law would discourage non-slaves from assisting those on the run, while compelling non-slaveholding whites, specifically, to aid in the retrieval of those slaves that did run.

Time and again lawmakers strengthened fugitive laws, justifying revisions on the "ineffectual" performance of previous laws to compel citizens' participation in the security of planters' laborers. Toward this end, the 1676 statute placed fines of 500 pounds tobacco upon free persons who "detained" known slaves from returning to their masters in a timely fashion. This appears to address socialization and "lingering" more so the flight, attesting perhaps to the camaraderie among the lower orders of free persons (white and black), and enslaved persons. Acts in 1692 and again in 1699 strengthened the earlier measure.

Again, with these early laws, legislators hoped to compel the public at-large to police the servant and slave populations. Presumably, white citizens felt both burdened and empowered. While laws compelled all white citizens to aid in the capture of a runaway, it also gave white citizens legalistic superiority over non-whites in particular. Any white could legally stop a person on the road or in town and demand to see documentary proof that the person was not an absconded servant or slave. Consequently, these laws required all free persons (white and black) to purchase documents from county clerks asserting their free status, or risk being jailed. Citizens might gain handsomely from these police powers, as rewards of at least two hundred pounds of tobacco were awarded for successfully capturing runaways. Laws also required sheriffs, constables, and local authorities to post notices in public places of suspected fugitives nabbed. Completing the system of apprehension and return of runaways, authorities established an Annapolis "clearinghouse" where fugitives might be brought for later retrieval by their owners. As originally instituted, the law doomed apprehended persons suspected of being runaway servants or slaves. Unable to prove their free status, and unclaimed by supposed owners, they often lingered indefinitely in detention facilities. After the turn of the eighteenth-century, only blacks and mulattos suffered such a fate, as legislators fixed a cap of six months upon the detention of whites and Native Americans. During the early 1700s, municipalities sold at auction unclaimed blacks to recoup costs for their stay in jail, even if no proof to their fugitive status existed. The burden proof of free statues fell only to the black imprisoned.

The early 1720s drew lawmakers to address the development of fugitive encampments in the "backwoods" toward the west of colonial settlement in the vicinity of the Monocacy River. Similar encampments - likely, however, to be smaller and less established - existed elsewhere in the state. The problem of fugitive encampments persisted to such a point that lethal force proved acceptable in dealing with such "out-lying" blacks from the woods. If authorities killed a slave in such an action, the master would be compensated by the state. From this point forward, homicide was justifiable if it occurred during pursuit of fugitive slaves.

By the mid-1750s, lawmakers made attempts to curtail servants and slaves who fled via boats and ships. Strengthening earlier legislation aimed at fleeing debtors, the colony enacted "An Act to prevent masters of ships and vessels from clandestinely carrying servants and slaves, or persons indebted, out of this province" (1753, Lib. HS. Fol. 16). This law guaranteed against fugitive stowaways by requiring captains of ships to verify the status of all passengers aboard their vessels. Penalties could be levied for the presence of fugitive stowaways. Later evolutions of this law required each would-be black passenger to obtain a certificate from a county clerk, authenticating his or her free status and providing their physical description ("An act to prohibit the transportation of absconding slaves to Hayti; or elsewhere,"Laws of Maryland, 1824, ch. 85). The law required free blacks to present this certificate to any white person requesting to see them. It also empowered all whites to "arrest" suspected fugitives.

Seemingly, such developments represented part of a larger effort to curtail the actions of accomplices to slave flight by instituting stiff penalties. For example, 1751's "An Act for the more effectual Punishment of Negroes and other Slaves, and for taking away the Benefit of Clergy from certain Offenders: And A Supplementary Act to an Act Entitled, An Act to prevent the tumultuous Meeting and other Irregularities of Negroes and other Slaves, and directing the Manner of trying Slaves," Laws of Maryland, 1751, ch. 14, spelled out stiff penalties to a wide variety of undesirable slave conduct. On the point of assisting runaway slaves, the law stated that any free person who "shall entice and persuade any slave in the Province to runaway," would, upon conviction, be liable to the owner for the full value of the slave. If unable to pay, they would be jailed for a year. If the guilty party were an indentured servant, the law made them repay the value of the slave to the owner either with money or with four years of service upon completion of their indenture.

In the years following the American Revolutionary Era, the State of Maryland took its most decisive steps to secure the human property of its white citizens. Through law, the increasingly centralized government enforced the compliance of habitually rogue sheriffs, who were reputedly lax in advertising captured runaways so that their owners might reclaim them. Under penalty of heavy fine, sheriffs were required after 1792, by "An Act to restrain the ill practices of sheriffs, and to direct their conduct respecting runaways," Laws of Maryland, 1792, ch. 72, to give notice of suspected fugitives committed in their jails. Such advertisements were to give the physical features and attire of prisoners, and any information the suspect surrendered about their origins. These advertisements were to continue until time passed and law allowed an unclaimed slave to be released.

In 1802 ("An act relating to runaway servants and slaves," Laws of Maryland, 1802, ch. 96), law mandated sheriffs to place notices within fifteen days of committal, and to place the notices in the newspapers of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Easton, as well as any other appropriate press. If, after sixty-days, the suspected fugitive had not been claimed, and/or the fees associated with incarceration had not been met, law required the sheriff to advertise a public sale of the supposed fugitive to the highest bidder with the auction to commence within three weeks of the announcement. The only protection given the prisoner was the restriction that the purchaser could not take his purchase out of state for two years - and this benefited the late-arriving initial owner more so that sold-off slave.

At the end of the eighteenth-century, acts addressed the assumed complicity of free blacks with runaway slaves. Kinship and friendship ties bound still-enslaved blacks to many already free. Often, free blacks gave or sold their certificates of freedom to enslaved blacks, allowing slaves to travel and perhaps even move out of Maryland under guise of free status. Apparently, it was no great feat for blacks known to be free to secure replacements for "lost" certificates of freedom. Such activities became particularly troublesome in the wake of the American Revolution as newly free states created desirable destinations for slaves. In 1796's "An Act relating to negroes [sic]" (Laws of Maryland, 1796, ch.67), the legislature set a fine of three hundred dollars for free blacks convicted of giving freedom papers of slaves, and made replacement certificates harder to obtain. Furthermore, while no such penalty threatened whites, blacks convicted of this crime who were unable to make immediate restitution of the mandated sum faced being sold into servitude to work off their debt.

Traditionally, the only way a slaveowner might recoup time lost when an enslaved laborer ran away was if the slave ran with a white indentured servant, and they were both captured and returned. Enslaved for life, that is, nothing could be done to make the black work a longer term. Beginning in the early 19th century, with "A Further supplement to an act, entitled, An act relating to negroes and to repeal the acts of the assembly therein mentioned" (Laws of Maryland, 1804, ch. 90), incarcerated fugitives awaiting claim could be assigned to masters for terms of work.

After 1817 , legislators took a step toward greater fairness - at least within the legal framework of slavery - regarding those committed to jails as suspected runaways with "An act to prevent the unlawful exportation of Negroes and Mulattoes, and to alter and amend the Laws concerning Runaways" (Laws of Maryland, 1817, ch. 112). While prisoners were made to endure up to more than a year of incarceration if they not claimed by an owner, with the act it was possible they might be released, even though they had not proven their free status. This act broke with previous laws, and met with much opposition before eventually being enacted.

The next year, turning once again toward the assistance and encouragement slaves received from free blacks and whites, the legislature passed "An act entitled, A further additional supplement to the act entitled, An act concerning Crimes and Punishments" (Laws of Maryland, 1818, ch. 157) setting stiff penalties for enticing or persuading a slave to run, and for assisting or harboring slaves on the run. A person so convicted faced six years imprisonment, in addition to owing financial recompense to the runaway's owner. By the mid-nineteenth-century, the period of imprisonment was set between a minimum of six and a maximum of fifteen years (Laws of Maryland 1849, ch. 296). Whereas the 1818 statute applied to free persons only, within a decade the legislature amended the law regarding assistance and encouragement of flight to include punishments of slaves - thirty-nine stripes with a whip ("An additional supplement to the act entitled, An act concerning crimes and punishments," Laws of Maryland 1827, ch. 15).

Eighteen-Hundred Twenty Four's "An act to prohibit the transportation of absconding slaves to Hayti; or elsewhere," (Laws of Maryland, 1824, ch. 85) strengthened the law's ability to curtail fugitives traveling by boat. An expansion of previous acts, it required ship captains to facilitate requests for searches of their vessels when made or face a penalty of one hundred dollars. If they were discovered to have actually transported a fugitive, even unwittingly, the fine was one thousand dollars. The law required clerks to maintain a record of certificates given out, and all ship captains were to keep a list of black passengers traveling. By 1838's "An act to prevent the transportation of People of Colour, upon Rail Roads or in Steam Boats" (Laws of Maryland 1838, ch. 375) the potential resource for flight represented in the emerging railroad network was brought under the consideration of lawmakers, who made companies that operated railroads in Maryland, like those who operated boats, responsible for verifying that their black passengers had necessary certifications to travel. The principle means of meeting this responsibility was to maintain a log of all black passengers. Penalties for failing to verify that black passengers had all been cleared to travel - even if they all had been - began at five hundred dollars. Should an actual fugitive be discovered to have fled via the railroad, the owner could sue the railroad company directly for the value of that slave.

By the early-1830s, not only did private citizens of Maryland capturing runaways receive thirty-dollars per head, but law enforcement officers received additional monies for exhibiting energy in this aspect of their duties. As time passed, rewards continued to be enlarged (see: "An act to encourage the more effectual apprehending of Runaway Servants and Slaves" Laws of Maryland 1833, ch. 111; Laws of Maryland 1837, ch. 271). As well, to punish for fugitives, their sale to the Deep South was authorized by the legislature by the late-1830s. Running away was legally considered "stealing oneself," and was deemed felonious. Upon conviction, the law compelled Maryland sheriffs to advertise and sell such felons out of state. Penalties might also be levied upon a purchaser who, after buying fugitives so convicted, failed to remove them from Maryland. In order to recover fugitives and charge them under the new standards, Maryland Governors were duty-bound to make formal requests of other states for runaways suspected to have fled beyond Maryland (see "An act to provide for the recapture of fugitive Slaves," Laws of Maryland 1838, ch. 63). Finally, the 1830s witnessed the state's comprehensive legislative response to Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia ("An act relating to Free Negroes and Slaves" (Laws of Maryland , 1831, ch 323), and efforts to curb the proliferation and dissemination of abolitionist, antislavery, and black insurrectionary literature ("A further supplement to the act, entitled, an act relating to Free Negroes and Slaves, passed at December session eighteen hundred and thirty-one, chapter three hundred and twenty-three." Laws of Maryland, 1835, ch 325).

Thus, responding to demographic shifts and technological innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Maryland continually adjusted its laws concerning fugitives. As we have seen, these laws initially applied to white indentured servants, the most numerous of all un-free laborers. Yet by the nineteenth century, particularly the antebellum years, the character of un-free labor shifted radically and racially, from white to black. Thus, the focus of laws shifted as well. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws governing the lives and movement of un-free laborers had grown increasingly strict, in an attempt to control black slaves. Yet, the following pages demonstrate that neither slaveholders, nor the laws they created, could deter many of the enslaved in their quest for freedom, which they would achieve with the assistance of others.

NOTE: Those pursuing fugitives from slavery benefitted primarily from two federal statutes, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Click the respective law to read its text.