Some enslaved people didn’t wait for their owners to grant them freedom legally; they took fate into their own hands and freed themselves. There is evidence of numerous enslaved people who ran away from their College owners, all but one a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors. Some of the escapes we know little about other than a name and date. Some of the attempts were successful, others not. All speak to the desire of enslaved people to be free.
Information comes from various sources: letters, hiring records, abolitionist records, census data, and newspaper advertisements. Not all slaveholders who found themselves with an escaped slave wanted to advertise that fact. Some twenty people enslaved by George Washington, for example, fled bondage, yet he advertised for the recovery of only a few.
Sometimes enslaved people who fled were soon discovered and returned to bondage. Other cases we simply don’t know the outcome. But we know that some people were successful in freeing themselves permanently. Regardless, constant flight attempts represented a problem for slaveholders and serious challenge to the institution. These actions belied claims that enslaved people were content, docile and incapable of life on their own.
list of freedom-seekers
Over twenty enslaved people ran away from College-connected owners, all of them (with two exceptions) members of the Board of Visitors and Governors, between 1789 and 1859.
- 1789 Tom ran away from donor Simon Wilmer
- 1793 Phil fled from subscriber William Embleton
- 1793 Easter ran away from lot renter and Board member Isaac Cannell
- 1822 Henry Highland Garnet and family escaped from the estate of alumus William Spencer and his heir, Board member Isaac Spencer
- 1823 Charlotte ran away from Board Treasurer Joseph Wickes
- 1828 Jim ran away from Board President Ezekiel Chambers
- 1846 Deborah escaped from estate of Board member George W. Thomas
- 1850 David ran away from Ezekiel Chambers
- 1855 “stampede” – 28 enslaved people from Chestertown escaped, including 9 from Board members James B. Ricaud, George Westcott, George W. T. Perkins
- 1855 Harriet Shephard and her 5 children ran away from George W. T. Perkins
- 1856 Isaac Reed fled from Board member Benjamin F. Houston
- 1859 Harriet Fuller ran away from Ezekiel Chambers
With research contributed by Salamata Jalloh, Class of 2022; Caroline Draper, Class of 2021; and Paris Young Class of 2021
In 1789, an advertisement appeared in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser seeking Tom, who had run away from Simon Wilmer, near Chestertown, about December 1, 1788. A detailed description, characteristic of the era, was given of Tom. He was about eighteen, slightly over five feet tall, and had pock marks on his face from a bout with smallpox. He was described as speaking with a slight lisp and being “much addicted to drinking and pilfering.” His clothing was also included in the description. His owner offered four dollars if Tom was found in state, eight if found out of state.
Phil, about forty years old, was enslaved by subscriber William Embleton on his farm at Howell’s Point (near today’s Betterton). A ten-dollar reward was offered for his return in the Apollo; or Chestertown Spy. Phil was described as being slender, “small-featured” and about five feet eight or nine inches tall. A description of his clothing was included in the advertisement. Embleton suggested that Phil could be found with his wife, a free woman who lived in the Quaker Neck area, or at his sister’s in Sandtown (the Queen Anne’s side of Millington).
Easter, age forty, reported as a “very tall, masculine, black negro” was advertised as a runaway in The Chestertown Gazette (Apollo) in September. The man who claimed her, Isaac Cannell, was a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors and also a renter of College lots. Cannell explained that Easter was “very apt to stutter when asked questions she cannot immediately answer”. He offered a four-dollar reward for her return.
Henry Highland Garnet and family, 1822 (in progress)
Charlotte, held in slavery by Board Treasurer Joseph Wickes, ran away while she was hired out to a Mrs. Comegys. She was either found or returned on her own, because she was hired out the following year to College President Timothy Clowes. (See Presidents) Charlotte does not appear again in Wickes’s hiring accounts. However, records document Wickes paying fellow Board member Dr. Benjamin F. Houston for medical treatment for a slave named Charlotte. This may or may not the same Charlotte who tried to free herself in 1823.
The Kent News of August 6, 1842, reported that Deborah, aged about twenty-four, belonging to the estate of George W. Thomas, ran away the previous month. Thomas, a Board member since 1822, had died in March. He was the owner of several properties in the area, including one called Upper Farm, rented at the time to an Edward Hartley. Deborah had been hired out previously. At the time of her escape a thirty-dollar reward was offered. According to Thomas’s probate inventory Deborah was to be freed the first day of 1844; she may have feared a new owner would not honor this agreement. It is not known whether Deborah’s escape was successful.
When the enslaved man Jim ran away from Board President Ezekiel Chambers, the slaveholder wrote to his brother-in-law and law partner Joseph Wickes to ask for help in recovering the fugitive. Jim appears to have left on New Year’s Eve, according to Chambers’ letter. The holiday season was a common time for enslaved people to leave, as they could be given time off between Christmas and New Year’s, sometimes even receive permission to visit family living at a distance. Chambers seemed confident that Jim would be found, suggesting that he knew or believed Jim had remained in the area. His next letter to Wickes reveals that Jim had been found and that Chambers planned to sell him: “I am glad to hear you have put master Jim into safe quarters. He is a great rascal and I shall be pleased to get rid of him on almost any terms.”
David Freeman, 1828
In 1850, another person Chambers held to forced labor attempted to escape. Like Jim, David Freeman was also unsuccessful in his effort. Freeman was captured and jailed, held on the charge of “running away from his master against his consent with a view to escape from servitude and thereby to deprive said master of his services”. In two letters to Joseph Wickes in early 1850, Chambers explained the help he required from his law partner. In the first letter, he sought a southern buyer for Freeman, writing, “I take it for granted the price of cotton has occasioned a rise in price in addition to the destruction of many slaves in the South by cholera.” In the next letter Chambers explains his strategy to move the sale process along quickly and rid himself of a troublesome slave. A potential buyer, whom Chambers apparently knew, suggested Chambers intervene with the Governor to have the case dropped. This was apparently done that day; David Freeman was released from jail, pardoned for his crime, then sold out of the state.
Harriet Shephard and her five children, Oct 1855 (in progress)
1855 “stampede” (in progress)
Isaac Reed, 1856
Isaac Reed was enslaved by Board of Visitors and Governors member Dr. Benjamin F. Houston. (See Board; Apprenticeships.) In the summer of 1856, Reed, forty, escaped from Houston’s farm with Perry Shephard, enslaved on a nearby farm. The two men made their way north, eventually arriving at the office of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad operation run by William Still. Still recorded their arrival, but little detail about their escape or circumstances in slavery. Reed left behind a family: wife Hester Ann and children Philip Henry, Harriet Ann and Jane Elizabeth. Perhaps plans for them to accompany him fell apart, or they may have followed him to freedom later. Enslaved people sometimes felt compelled to choose freedom over family.
Documents reveal several facts. In the 1860 census, Houston listed one fugitive, presumably Reed. The same census also shows Hester Reed, a free woman, forty, working as a “laborer”, and living among a cluster of black families in the same area as Houston’s farm, with Harriett, age ten. Isaac Reed had moved on, literally and figuratively. The Canadian census of 1861 lists Reed in York, Ontario, and working as a shoemaker. He had a new wife, a fellow American named Rachael, probably also a former slave. By 1871, the Reeds had moved south to Hamilton. Exactly how Isaac Reed got to Canada is unknown, but William Still worked within a large network of abolitionists across Pennsylvania and New York who assisted enslaved people fleeing to Canada. Once they crossed the border, black churches and mutual aid societies as well as support from white abolitionists helped former American slaves start new lives.
I am indebted to the research of David Armenti, of the Legacy of Slavery website for the this story.
Harriet Fuller, 1859
In 1859, yet another person Ezekiel Chambers enslaved, a woman named Harriet Fuller, ran away. We know about Fuller’s experience because she was successful in reaching the Philadelphia Underground Railroad Station operated by William Still, who kept a detailed account of those he assisted and later published it. Fuller escaped with her husband Cornelius. Cornelius Fuller was enslaved by a different master, a not uncommon situation in Maryland, where the average size of slaveholding was small, often resulting in family members being forced to live apart. We don’t know the details of how the Fullers made their way north. It is possible that they left hurriedly when opportunity struck, because they were obliged to leave behind their thirteen-year-old daughter Kitty. We do know what Harriet Fuller said about Ezekiel Chambers: “He is no man for freedom, bless you. He owned more than any other man in that part of the country; he sells sometimes, and he hired out a great many; he would hire them to any kind of master, if he half killed you.”
Harriet and Cornelius Fuller were helped by William Still and his Underground Railroad network in making their way out of the country and eventually settling in St. Catharines, Canada West. They appear in the 1861 Canadian census, with Cornelius (age 34) listed as a laborer, Harriet (age 30) not employed. St. Catharines, on the western shore of Lake Ontario just across the border from Niagara Falls, was a market town with a population of about seven thousand, spurred by the building of the Welland Canal. It was known as a city of refuge for fugitives, who could find assistance from the Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society, an interracial group founded in 1852. One member was Harriet Tubman, who had escaped from Maryland’s Eastern Shore several years earlier. Tubman rented a house to shelter recent arrivals. Next door to Tubman’s house was the British Methodist Episcopal Church (also known as Salem Chapel) where she worshipped; the church basement served a temporary shelter for recent arrivals. It is quite likely that the Fullers encountered Tubman, even worshipped with her, as the census lists them as members of the Episcopal Methodist Church.
What happened to Kitty Fuller is unknown. According to Still’s account, she was thirteen when her parents left Chestertown in 1859. Ezekiel Chambers’s 1860 census listing for Chestertown shows one enslaved girl aged fourteen and three girls aged fifteen, any of whom could be Kitty.
With research contributed by Cassy Sottile, Class of 2019