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Lincoln Boasts of “Slave Stampedes”

LincolnOn Friday evening, January 9, 1863, Abraham Lincoln held a private meeting at the White House with two key Republican senators –John P. Hale of New Hampshire and Orville H. Browning of Illinois—where he boasted proudly about the reaction of Missouri slaves to his recently issued Emancipation Proclamation.  While pointing at a map of the western borderland area, featuring Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, the president claimed that since the first public announcement of emancipation (September 22, 1862), “the negroes were stampeding in Missouri,” creating a backlash among Democrats in that region.  Lincoln wanted to use this moment to press for a compensated abolition measure in Missouri, describing this Western slave state, according to the revealing but little-known entry in Browning’s diary, as “an empire of herself,” claiming it would be more than “enough” for the legacy of each of these three men, “if we make Missouri free.”[1]  Lincoln’s use of the concept of the slave stampede was surely no accident.  He had personal experience with that term, because he had seen it bandied about in

newspaper article

Illinois State Journal, January 22, 1850

Springfield newspapers about a dozen years earlier, when his neighbor, Jameson Jenkins, a free black drayman, was accused of orchestrating a “slave stampede” from Missouri during the early weeks of 1850. Modern scholarship on the Underground Railroad and emancipation has not done enough to emphasize the impact of this concept of the “slave stampede” on the mindset of politicians like Lincoln.  Nor has there been quite enough attention to the importance of mass escapes within the overall process of seeking freedom in antebellum America.  This online research journal represents the first stage of a joint effort by the National Park Service (NPS) Network to Freedom and the House Divided Project at Dickinson College to address this relative oversight with new evidence and more extended analysis.  On this blog site, we will post examples of the historical material we are turning up in our digital and archival searches.  Eventually, these findings will form the basis of an online report and freely accessible database designed to provide resources for anyone who wants to teach or learn about this important subject.  For now, however, please consider this site as a kind of open historical laboratory.  We are trying to share our progress as it develops, seeking your input and assistance whenever it might be helpful.


[1] Diary entry, January 9, 1863 in Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, eds., The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning (2 vols., Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925), 1: 611-12.

Database Report –Genealogy Bank

Stampede Article

Plaquemine, LA Southern Sentinel, November 14, 1849 (Genealogy Bank Database)

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Cooper Wingert between December 12, 2018-January 9, 2019.
  • Keywords: slave and stampede, including variants: “negro stampede,” “black stampede,” “general stampede” and “regular stampede.”
  • Totals: Approximately 600 hits with concentrations of stampede attempts from Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and Missouri
  • NOTE:  Because of extensive results, this search was limited to the above terms.  We still need to attempt a wider array of search terms in GenealogyBank

Top Results

  • In September 1852, the St. Louis Missouri Republican directed its readers’ attention to a “large reward for the apprehension of runaway negroes” involved in a “negro stampede” from St. Genevieve, Missouri. (“Negro Stampede-Large Reward,” St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican, September 11, 1852)
  • In early November 1859, abolitionist papers cheered the “recent arrival at Detroit of a cargo of live freight consisting of twenty-six chattels all the way form Missouri.” (“The Detroit Underground Train,” New Lisbon, OH Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 12, 1859)
  • A “negro stampede” in December 1859 included “thirty passengers, five from the vicinity of Richmond, Va., twelve from Kentucky and thirteen from Missouri.” The group arrived in Chicago, and later successfully journeyed to Canada. The Missouri fugitives “were sold to go down the river the very day they started,” and were prepared to fight off any pursuers. “A stalwart six-footer and a Sharpe’s rifle were the only guides.” (“Negro Stampede,” Raleigh North Carolina Standard, December 21, 1859)
  • Multiple columns quoted a St. Genevieve, Missouri paper, which described a “stampede of negroes” from St. Genevieve County during the fall of 1862. The account detailed the decline of slavery throughout Missouri, including St. Louis, where “there were only 1400 slaves… two years ago, and the best judges now estimate that there are less than 500, and these principally old and decrepit home servants.” Overall, “negro property in Missouri has depreciated, and it is said to be nearly impossible to sell a slave anywhere in the country for one-fifth the ordinary price.” (“Slavery in Missouri,” New Orleans Daily Delta, November 13, 1862)
  • In 1848, the Louisville Journal detailed an elaborate plan for a stampede of “about forty negroes” in Woodford County. Equipped with free passes, “each was to steal a horse and cross the Ohio river before day.” The stampede was “frustrated” when another slave revealed the plot. (“Stampede Frustrated,” Indianapolis Daily State Sentinel, October 21, 1848)
  • A May 1850 column reported on a rumored slave insurrection near White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, suggesting instead that it was “simply a projected ‘stampede’ of slaves in the elegant frontier style of the day. These flights are becoming so frequent that they seem to be expected as a matter of course by the owners, nor does the offering of rewards seem usually to be attended with success.” (“Washington Correspondence,” Boston Recorder, May 23, 1850)
  • Commenting on the frequency of stampedes, a Worcester, Massachusetts paper gleefully reported that “scarcely a day passes, on which we do not hear it stated, that there has been a stampede–a flight of slaves from the prison-house of Southern bondage…. These stampedes, from their inception to the issue of them, are the most heroic events in American history; and yet they are made the greatest of American political crimes.” (“Stampedes,” Worcester, MA Spy, November 17, 1852)
  • In the aftermath of John Brown’s failed Harpers Ferry uprising, one abolitionist paper defended Brown’s plan to “run slaves, rather than free them by the slow process of legal and social reform.” “The Stampede is only a practical use of the Bill of Rights which God incorporated in the charter of human existence,” the paper argued. (New Lisbon, OH Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 26, 1859)
  • A Charleston, South Carolina correspondent for the New York Tribune reported a stampede plot among the city’s slaves in the midst of the Secession Crisis in early 1861. “The idea which possessed the slaves seems to have been that the moment the first gun was fired in Charleston Harbor, they should make a stampede, taking with them all the property they could lay their hands upon.” He confidently predicted that this was “no singular case,” and that “the first gun fired against the United States Government will explode a powder magazine the vaults of which extend beneath the feet of the whole South.” (“From South Carolina,” New York Tribune, April 2, 1861)
  • By the fall of 1863, newspapers in western Missouri were sounding the alarm about slave stampedes. “During the last two months the darkies have been leaving Platte county at the rate of about thirty or forty per day,” a paper in St. Joseph reported. “By the census of 1860 Platte county had a slave population of three thousand three hundred and thirteen, and our informant thinks that there are but two or three hundred left now. From all portions of North Missouri we have like information. The slaves are leaving by day and by night. Very few owners pretend to stay the exodus. Many pack up their duds and walk boldly off in broad day, while others quietly retire in the night.” (St. Joseph, Missouri Herald, quoted in “Slavery Passing Away in Missouri and Kentucky,” Worcester, MA Spy, September 9, 1863)
  • The St. Louis Missouri Democrat reprinted columns from multiple papers to depict the mounting “negro exodus” from the state. Quoting the Kansas City Journal, the paper informed its readers of “some thirty or forty negroes” who left Clay County in western Missouri, bound for Kansas, “taking with them a quantity of stock…. The Emancipation Ordinance has made a perfect stampede among the negroes, who cannot draw nice distinctions…. The same process is going on all along the border, and Missouri will soon be rid of her slaves, in fact, if not in name. The barriers which fence in the slave system in this State are crumbling daily, and while our politicians are talking the negro is quietly acting, without any reference to statute books or ordinances.” (Kansas City Journal, quoted in “The Negro Exodus,” St. Louis Missouri Democrat, August 21, 1863)
  • In late 1863, the Columbia Statesman in Boone County, Missouri, reported on a “stampede of negroes” to enlist in the U.S. Colored Troops. “Thirty negroes enlisted in Ray county last week. Ninety negro recruits were sent form St. Louis to Lexington…. thirty negroes left Pike county to enlist.” (Columbia Statesman, quoted in “Missouri Items,” St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, December 22, 1863)

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General Notes

  • Genealogy Bank is a subscription database.
  • Although not part of the database’s coverage, the St. Joseph, Missouri Herald, the Columbia Statesman from Boone County and an unspecified St. Genevieve paper were quoted for their reporting on stampedes.
  • After the passage of the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the term was used to describe the movement of fugitive slaves residing in the Northern free states, who were reportedly “stampeding” to Canada to evade recapture under the stringent new law. A widely-reprinted report from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suggested that there was a “general stampede” of the city’s fugitive slave population, including “many… who were never suspected of being fugitives until the passage of this bill.” (“Excitement among the Colored Population,” Baltimore Sun, September 25, 1850) Many Southern papers remarked on the “regular stampede” of “fugitive negroes” from “Pennsylvania, New York and other free states.” (“Arrest of a Slave,” Montgomery Alabama Journal, October 7, 1850) An Easton, Maryland newspaper even ran the headline “Fred. Douglass in Danger,” while reporting on the “general stampede” of “runaway negroes” from Pittsburgh. (“Fred. Douglass in Danger,” Easton, MD Star, October 15, 1850)
  • Editors of the abolitionist Pennsylvania Freeman employed the term to mock pro-slavery arguments, satirically remarking that if slaves were so “enamored of the lash, the dungeon, the paddle, [and] the auction stand… one might imagine a general stampede of the fugitives in Canada and throughout the North, hurrying back to slavery.” (“Going Back to Slavery,” Pennsylvania Freeman, January 1, 1854)
  • A Georgia paper used the term to describe violence against suspected abolitionists. “One out of the four [abolitionists] was caught and ridden on a rail, the rest saved themselves by a stampede.” (Columbus, GA Times, quoted in Woodville, MS Republican, October 22, 1850)
  • The term was also used to describe the movement of free African-Americans. Reports circulated of a “compulsory stampede” of “free negroes” from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, compelled by white citizens who were concerned about “their pernicious influence among the slave population.” (Nashville Patriot, quoted in “Stampede of Free Negroes,” New York Herald, December 8, 1856)
  • In August 1857, “over a dozen” slaves stampeded from Washington, using a religious camp meeting as an opportunity for escape. Obtaining permission to travel to the gathering in Montgomery County, Maryland, they instead “embraced the opportunity to seek a more permanent camp in Canada.” (Newark, NJ Centinel of Freedom, September 9, 1857)
  • Stampedes could also include literal rail travel. An 1857 report noted a “stampede” of five slaves, who travelled using “horses and vehickles [sic]” from Hagerstown, Maryland across the border to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where they boarded the cars of the Cumberland Valley Railroad for Harrisburg. (“The Slave Stampede,” Easton, MD Star, June 2, 1857)
  • In the south-west slaveholding states, the prospect of slave stampedes into Mexico troubled slaveholders. An Austin, Texas newspaper expressed concern about patrolling its enslaved population, worrying about a possible “insurrection, or a general negro stampede for Mexico.” (“Patrol,” Austin Texas State Gazette, July 22, 1854) Stampedes also occurred among slaves owned by members of the Cherokee Nation, in present-day Oklahoma. “A large stampede of negroes was attempted from the nation to Mexico,” a Tennessee paper reported in 1860, “but the chiefs having been informed, by a faithful negro, of the movement, collected their warriors, under the pretense of going on a war trail against the Camanches [sic], and arrested the fugitives.” (Athens, TN Post, January 20, 1860)
  • The term was used to describe the escape of two Mississippi slaves owned by prominent Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. (“Stampede of two of Senator Douglas’ Slaves,” Wilmington Journal, September 17, 1858)

Most Relevant Coverage from Genealogy Bank Database

  • MISSOURI:  St. Louis Missouri Republican – 1849-1852 (Whig, pro-slavery)
  • MISSOURI:  St. Louis Missouri Democrat – 1862-1863 (Democratic, pro-slavery)
  • ILLINOIS:  Quincy Whig – 1854 (Whig)
  • MARYLAND:  Easton Star – 1849-1857 (Democratic, pro-slavery)
  • MASSACHUSETTS:  Massachusetts Spy, Worcester, MA – 1847-1863 (Whig and Republican, anti-slavery)
  • OHIO:  Anti-Slavery Bugle, New Lisbon, OH – 1848-1860 (anti-slavery)


Database Report: Black Abolitionist Papers and Black Abolitionist Archive

Stampede article, Weekly Anglo-African, October 7, 1859

Weekly Anglo-African, October 7, 1859

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Amanda Donoghue on Dec. 20
  • Keywords:  stampede, exodus, group slave escape, Missouri escape
  • Total results: Black Abolitionist Papers (BAP) = 6, Black Abolitionist Archive (BAA) = 1


  • “A Cincinnati paper of the 28th ult says: A stampede of slaves took place on the evening of the 27th-the whereabouts of several of the fugitives having been discovered here, officers at noon today proceeded to make arrests-upon approaching the house where the slaves were secreted, the latter fired, wounding two or three spectators, but not severely. One slave woman, finding escape impossible, cut the throats of her children, killing one instantly, and severely wounding two others: six of the fugitives were apprehended, and eight are said to have escaped.” (Editorial, Provincial Freedom, Toronto, February 2, 1856)
  • “A number of fugitives, I have been informed-fifteen in number-have just passed through from Detroit into Canada. Quite a stampede.” (Our Detroit Letter,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, October 7, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • On Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry: “It seems to have been at the outset, an attempt to procure a large stampede of slaves, and to have grown, by force of circumstances, into an invasion of these United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” (“The Emeute at Harper’s Ferry,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, October 22, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • “A colored man named Harris, and his wife and two children were arrested here this morning, on a warrant issued by the United States Commissioner Conneau, and sent by special train to Springfield, where they will be examined tomorrow. The man is claimed by Mr. Patterson, of St. Louis County, MO” (“A Carbonari Wanted,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, April 13, 1861, Black Abolitionist Archive)
  • “[In 1843] Our next undertaking was a regular stampede from Maryland. We met at Banning’s Bridge, and mustered seventy strong at starting, but through some misunderstanding the wrong road was taken, and consequently they were tracked, and after a severe encounter, with the loss of three killed and many wounded, they were forced to surrender to superior numbers, who were well armed. When the return caravan passed through Washington a perfect panic prevailed among the slaves; and of the free colored people there were many who left for fear of the threats which were being made against them carried out.” (“Recollections from the Underground Railroad,” The Elevator, San Francisco, CA, September 22, 1865, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • BAP includes excerpts from Martin Delany’s unfinished novel Blake (1859, 1861-62) that includes a reference at the beginning of chapter 30 to slave stampedes:  “The absence of Mammy Judy, Daddy Joe, Charles, and little Tony, on the return early Monday morning of Colonel Franks and lady from the country, unmistakably proved the escape of their slaves, and the further proof of the exit of ‘squire Potter’s Andy and Beckwith’s Clara, with the remembrance of the stampede a few months previously, required no further confirmation of the fact, when the neighborhood again was excited to ferment.” [NOTE:  Delany serialized Blake at first in the Afro-American Magazine in 1859 –that was the version contained within BAP]

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General Notes

  • Black Abolitionist Papers (BAP) is a subscription Pro-Quest database that is available to Dickinson College students.  Black Abolitionist Archive (BAA) is available to the public for free through University of Detroit Mercy [WEB].
  • BAP is the larger, more comprehensive collection (over 15,000 items), but BAA director, Roy Finkenbine, was part of the editorial team at BAP, which includes a printed five-volume collection as well as a microfilm series (and now database).  BAP includes black abolitionist newspaper editorials, speeches, meeting and convention materials, and selective private correspondence. BAA offers about 800 published speeches and selected newspaper articles.  
  • Five articles were found using the term “stampede” to refer to the “colonization” movement of free blacks moving to Haiti or Africa to escape the risk of being enslaved or re-enslaved.

East or West? Group Escapes on the Western Frontier

Marion County Map, Historical Atlas 1855.

In November of 1853, 11 slaves escaped from six different farms in Marion County, located right along the Mississippi River. The group of freedom seekers converged from their different escape points, joining together on a Saturday evening to cross the Mississippi River heading eastward. [1] The group traveled through the night, moving through Missouri and eventually arriving in Quincy, Illinois. By Sunday morning, the group had reached nearby Menden.  Then they pursued freedom in Chicago. [2]

The Marion County group escape was just one of many mass slave escapes profiled in James Patrick Morgans’ book, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier (2010). Morgans focuses on slave escapes from the western border of Missouri and does not explicitly use the term stampede within the text, but his book covers a number of important group escapes, including some within our main project area (such as the one from Marion).[3]

Morgans also describes how increasing slave escapes along Mississippi River prompted many slaveholders in Eastern Missouri to move their slaves into the interior of the state, closer to the Missouri River and toward the states’ western border. During the 1850s, Missouri slaveowners hoped that Kansas Territory would eventually become a slave state, permanently fortifying the western border from slave escape.

Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 11, 1850. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Yet Missouri slaveowners were rightfully concerned. Throughout the 1850s, the eastern border of Missouri became riddled with slave escapes like the 1853 Marion County group escape described above. Slaves residing along the Mississippi River in Missouri used their geographical location to their advantage, slipping across the Mississippi and moving north and east towards the free states of Iowa and Illinois.   Many slaveowners along the eastern border became repeated victims of such slave escapes. In Clark County, MO, a slaveowner by the name of Ruel Daggs experienced the difficulties of owning slaves in the most eastern parts of Missouri. [4] In 1848, one of Daggs’ 16 slaves, John Walker, escaped his farm. Walker, who found safety in Salem, Iowa, eventually returned to Clark County in June to help rescue other slaves, helping not only his wife and children but also seven others escape from Dagg’s farm. [5]  With help from a free black man in the county, Walker and his group built a raft and crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. [6] Daggs responded to this episode by organizing a large armed posse of Missouri slave catchers, who eventually crossed over into Iowa and threatened the heavily Quaker settlement with violence.  Some of the freedom seekers were recaptured, but most escaped.  The case also led to a major verdict in Daggs’s favor (under the 1793 fugitive statute) in the summer of 1850 (before passage of the new federal law), but Daggs was never able to recover the thousands of dollars that the courts had ordered him to be paid.

St. Joseph Commercial Cycle, October 5, 1855. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Although some slaveholders believed that moving their human property to the western part of Missouri would prevent mass escapes like the one experienced by Ruel Daggs, they were soon put on notice that such group flight could occur out west as well  when 30 more slaves on the Kansas border attempted to escape bondage in 1850. [7] The group, “armed with knives, clubs and three guns,” were eventually stopped, but there were more efforts to come. [8] In 1855 in the western town of St. Joseph, MO, an owner offered a $200 dollar reward for each of his four escaped slaves, double the amount of a typical reward for recapture. [9] According to Morgans, by the mid-1850s, it “wasn’t unusual to see ten or a dozen successfully escape at the same time- especially from western Missouri.” [10]

While group escapes may have proved more feasible along the eastern counties of Missouri, Morgans’ research on the western frontier demonstrates that mass escapes could and did occur almost anywhere.


[1]  James Patrick Morgans, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2010), 69.

[2] Morgans, 69.

[3] Morgans, 1.

[4] Morgans, 94.

[5] Morgans, 94.

[6] Morgans, 95.

[7] Morgans, 77.

[8] Morgans, 77.

[9] Morgans, 77.

[10]Morgans, 77.


Database Report –19th Century US Newspapers

Slave Stampedes Article

The Liberator, June 10, 1853 (Courtesy of 19th-Century US Newspapers)

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Cooper Wingert during week of Nov. 26-30, 2018
  • Keywords:  slaves and stampede(s) (both singular & plural) and stampeding, but found * (stamped*) didn’t work so well (too many false positives on the word, “stamped”), plus variants including negro, servile, fugitive, and exodus
  • Totals:  About 160 hits with concentrations reported from Kentucky, northern Virginia, Maryland and eastern Missouri.

Top Results

  • “Slaves are running away from Missouri, at the present time, in battalions,” reported the Alton (IL) Telegraph in the spring of 1853. Situated just miles from Missouri’s eastern border, the paper’s readers were already quite familiar with the term “Slave Stampedes,” which was the headline used for this and countless other articles. (Alton Telegraph, quoted in The Liberator, June 10, 1853)
  •  A correspondent for the London Times took special note of the term, writing that stampede was “a word which the Americans have borrowed from their prairies, and applied most expressively to a general rush of negroes from slavery.” (London Times, June 19, 1861, quoted in “English Speculation on the War and its Issue,” New York Herald, July 2, 1861)
  • The Democratic New York Herald once wrote of “servile stampedes,” while a Cincinnati newspaper describing the movements of Kentucky slaves used the terms “stampede” and “negro exodus” interchangeably. (“The South and Southern Safety–A New Presidential Programme,” New York Herald, December 4, 1859; “Kentucky Negro Exodus,” Daily Cleveland Herald, June 6, 1864)
  • Many hits contained only brief mentions, such as an Ohio newspaper’s succinct remark that “stampedes of slaves, from Mason and Nicholas counties, Ky. seem of common occurrence.” (“Items,” The Daily Scioto Gazette, Chillicothe, OH, May 8, 1851)
  • Then there was a New Hampshire newspaper, which in August 1850 ran a short article entitled “Slave Stampedes.” For a New England audience that was perhaps unfamiliar with the term, the editor conveniently took the time to offer up a definition: “an uprising and fleeing from bondage of a large number of slaves.” (“Slave Stampedes,” New Hampshire Statesman, Concord, NH, August 30, 1850)
  • As early as 1849, newspapers began using the headline “Another Slave Stampede,” underscoring just how common stampedes were (see Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette, December 15, 1849).  A decade later, the editor of the Charleston Mercury underscored this point, writing that stampedes described slaves who escaped “in startling numbers” on a near “daily” basis. “They go off, one, two, three, or a dozen at a time.” (“Slavery in Kentucky,” Charleston Mercury, May 10, 1858). These types of headline and comments reappeared straight through into the Civil War “Almost every day we hear of a new stampede of slaves in our county,” groused an editor from Port Tobacco, Maryland in September 1863. “Indeed, so frequent have they become of late, that no surprise or comment is excited hereby.” (Port Tobacco Times, quoted in “”Emancipation in Maryland,” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, September 17, 1863).

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General Notes

  • 19th-Century Newspapers is a subscription database from Gale available to students only through the Dickinson College Library Database Finder
  • The term took on a new life in the wake of John Brown‘s failed Harpers Ferry insurrection in October 1859. No less than 11 stampede-related articles dealt with Harpers Ferry. Barely a week after the botched uprising, the Democratic New York Herald published a batch of correspondence between Brown and fellow abolitionists, which was quickly picked up and reprinted by other papers. Among the correspondents was an English-born abolitionist named Hugh Forbes, a one-time ally of Brown who ultimately backed out of the plot. The search engine picked up on Forbes’s plan to instigate “a series of stampedes of slaves,” which he predicted would each “carry off in one night, and from the same place some 20 to 50 slaves.” (“News and Further Developments,” Newark Advocate, Newark, OH, November 4, 1859) In the wake of Harpers Ferry, slave stampedes were closely linked with other revolutionary acts, often appearing in conjunction with words such as insurrection, revolt and rebellion. A Jackson, Mississippi paper closely associated the term with armed revolt, complaining of “slave insurrections or slave stampedes.” (“Abolitionism of 1835 and of 1859,” Semi-weekly Mississippian, Jackson, MS, December 27, 1859) Similarly, citizens of Madison County, Kentucky, expressed suspicion that abolitionists were creeping into their community, “exciting insurrection and getting up stampedes among the slaves.” (“The Disturbances in Madison County, KY.,” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Bangor, ME, April 12, 1860)
  • The coming of the Civil War saw a similar spike in usage, as countless Northern papers speculated on the war’s impact on Southern slaves. Many articles used the term “general stampede,” predicting that such “a general stampede” of slaves would occur “as the war is carried into the enemy’s country, and slavery will abolish itself.” (Springfield Republican, quoted in “Let us Learn to Wait,” New Hampshire Statesman, November 30, 1861) Even in the Confederacy’s capital, a Richmond paper admitted that the presence of “a Yankee army creates as complete a stampede among negroes as the approach of a locomotive among cattle.” (Richmond Dispatch, September 22, 1862, quoted in Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette, October 3, 1862)

Most Relevant Coverage from 19th-Century US Newspapers

  • MISSOURI: Missouri Courier, Hannibal, MO – 1849-1853 (Democratic, pro-slavery)
  • MISSOURI:  St. Louis Missouri Republican (but with major gaps) (Democratic, pro-slavery)
  • ILLINOIS:  None from period 1840 – 1860
  • MASSACHUSETTS: The Liberator, Boston, MA – 1852-1862 (anti-slavery)
  • NEW YORK:  New York Herald  – 1861 (Democratic, pro-slavery)
  • OHIO:  Cleveland Herald – 1848-1863 (Whig and Republican, anti-slavery)

Missouri Slave Stampedes Crossing State Borders: The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen Muelder

In Peoria County, Illinois in the 1850s, many slaves escaping from their slaveowners stopped to seek shelter in Brimfield’s Congregational Church, which was under the ministry of “violent

Brimfield Congregational Church Drawing

Brimfield Congregational Church (Brimfield Union Church)

abolitionist” J. E. Roy. According to Illinois historian Owen Muelder, one episode even involved “a party of 11 escaped slaves, who had fled from Palmyra, Missouri, carrying along “a crippled woman whom the others carried in a sheet, tied at the corners and suspended on a pole.”[1] If nothing else, this remarkable incident demonstrates the importance of looking beyond the state’s borders when examining the experiences of escaped Missouri slaves.

In The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, Muelder, who is the director of Knox College’s Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center, presents a thorough overview of the major agents and activities of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) network in the “military tract” region of Western Illinois. Each chapter, organized based on the different counties of the region, is filled with stories quoted directly from original sources. In sharing these stories exactly as they were told from the voices of the abolitionist agents themselves, Muelder helps readers to “visualize more fully” the lives and stories of runaway slaves, many of which originated from Missouri, “in the late 1840s and 1850s in their valiant bid for freedom from bondage.”[2]

According to Muelder, everyone –including slaves, slaveowners, and abolitionists– was aware of the importance of the borderland between enslaved Eastern Missouri and Western Illinois. In fact, Illinois abolitionists frequently took advantage of this proximity, leading to the concentration of UGRR agents who were “eager to liberate slaves from across the river” in towns right along that border, such as in Quincy.[3] According to abolitionist Hiram Mars, Quincy abolitionists would even go as far as actually crossing the state line to seek out slaves and convince them to escape.[4]

Many of the abolitionists who risked traveling into Missouri to guide escaping slaves across the Mississippi River were themselves once escaped slaves. Throughout his text, Muelder makes reference to the ubiquitous figure of “Charlie,” an escaped Missouri slave who spent his whole life traveling in and out of slave states along the UGRR. According to numerous sources presented by Muelder, Charlie helped Missouri slaves escape along the UGRR to the Illinois counties of Plymouth, McDonough, Knox, and Stark.[5] Little is known of Charlie’s actual life and most of what is known is impossible to corroborate, but the popular narrative is that after Charlie escaped his enslavement, he returned to seek out and rescue his wife only to find that she had already been sold away. Charlie then spent years helping countless other enslaved families escape, perhaps always still searching for his wife.[6] It is possible that this story has been romanticized over the years, but nonetheless it underscores the important role that previously escaped slaves often played on the UGRR.

Charlie was certainly not alone. Chapman’s History of Knox County, Illinois describes an 1858 stampede in which “a colored man was taken through [Galesburg] to Canada, who shortly afterward found his way back to Missouri and started with nine other slaves for the land of freedom, but reached Galesburg with only five or six. With these it is presumed he got safely through to Canada.”[7] This important fact about the nature of slave stampedes, that some of them may have been initiated and led by former slaves still in hiding, emphasizes a critical aspect of the network that was essential to enabling larger group escapes.

[1] Owen Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008), 93.

[2] “The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois,” Galin Berrier, Annals of Iowa 67, no. 2 (2008), 225.

[3] Muelder, 35.

[4] Muelder, 8.

[5] Muelder, 55-56, 69-71, 112, 136.

[6] Muelder, 136.

[7] Muelder, 110-111.

African American Lives in St. Louis and the Prospect of Legal Stampedes

Black and white portrait of Archer Alexander

Archer Alexander courtesy of Mid Rivers Newsmagazine

In Missouri during the Civil War, the Union army sometimes employed black slaves as spies. One of these espionage agents, Archer Alexander, made his escape from St. Charles, Missouri to St. Louis before his former owners, the Hollmans, ever discovered that he was slipping the Union “information about [their] Confederate sympathies and guerrilla activities.” [1]  After Alexander established himself in St. Louis, he asked to purchase the freedom of his family. The Hollmans refused. However, with the help of a neighbor and the protection of the Union army, the reminder of the Alexander family escaped and remained safely in St. Louis until slavery was abolished in 1865. [2] The Alexanders are perhaps a good example of wartime runaways who found freedom within Missouri state lines instead of heading across them.

Historian Dale Edwyna Smith’s African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865 offers an exploration of the “unique status of African Americans in that gateway to the West, highlighting the greater freedoms and opportunity that persons of color had in the city than elsewhere in the state and the blurred lines between slaves and free.” [3]  Smith focuses on the legal and social systems of African Americans, both free and enslaved, in St. Louis. In particular, she traces the laws restricting black mobility to their roots in the colonial French legal system, the Code Noir. Smith briefly mentions group escapes in Missouri, but she does not use the word stampede. Smith does note, however, that group escapes were “rare” and usually involved families. [4]

Map of Saline County 1857

Map of Saline County 1857

Using runaway ads from the Missouri Gazette, Smith tells the story of the Journey brothers, three enslaved men who ran away together from St. Charles.[5]  Another notable runaway ad, from slaveholder De Witt McNutt, described a mother and her young son, an individual man, and a husband and wife, who all ran together from Saline County. [6]  But in addition to these types of advertisements, Smith highlights two other ways that enslaved people in Missouri gained freedom. One process involved manumission, the freeing of slaves by their master or the purchasing of “slaves for the [expressed] purpose of manumitting them.” [7]   Another notable path to liberation in St. Louis was a contested legal process called “freedom suits.” At times, these two roads toward freedom intersected, such as in the case of the Milton Duty slaves.

Milton Duty wrote in his will his slaves were to be set free after his death. He moved from Mississippi to ensure that upon their freedom his slaves would be able to live in freedom. [8] However, a dispute over unpaid loans after Duty’s death halted the manumission of this group of 26. They were to be sold in order to pay off the debts Duty supposedly owed. And so, as a group, they sued for freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court in the spring of 1842. The charge was led by Preston and Braxton, slave brothers who seemed to have overseen organizing the Duty household in its move from Mississippi to Missouri. [9]  The adults sued simultaneously on behalf of themselves and their minor children. In Preston’s case, he sued on behalf of two boys, whose parentage was unknown, but “as their next friend.” [10] 

Black and White image of St. Louis Courthouse

St. Louis Courthouse courtesy Missouri Historical Society

According to Smith, the “Duty case [was] striking for many reasons, not the least because in it, so many slaves simultaneously, and collectively, sued to be free.” [11] In 1845, there still was no resolution, so the Duty slaves petitioned the court again.[12]  They made minor changes in the petition (adding Duty as their last name) and increasing the number of slaves suing for freedom, because James Duty was born.[13]

Tyler Blow, who famously purchased and freed Dred Scott after the Supreme Court denied his freedom suit, was also involved in the Duty Case. [14] In 1854, twelve years after the failed Duty case and sixteen years after Duty’s death, Blow freed Nicene Clark, whom he claimed he had purchased from the Duty estate. [15]  Although in the end, the vast majority of the Duty slaves were never set free, this extraordinary case –a veritable legal stampede– seemed to have caused high anxiety within the state because that same year (1842) the state legislature “amended its laws to prohibit anyone from bringing slaves to Missouri from other states to set them free at a later date.” [16]

[1] Dale Edwyna Smith, African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 165.

[2] Smith, 165.

[3] Robert Kett, “The Eventual Impossibility of Compromise” Western Illinois Historical Review (2017):  34. [WEB]

[4] Smith, 129.

[5] Smith, 127.

[6] Smith, 129.

[7] Smith, 130.

[8] Smith, 109.

[9] Smith, 109.

[10] Smith, 120.

[11] Smith, 119.

[12] Smith, 122.

[13] Smith, 122.

[14] Smith, 124.

[15] Smith, 125.

[16] Smith, 119.

Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War

Daniel Drayton

Daniel Drayton, captain of The Pearl, arrested in 1848, received a pardon in 1852

The Pearl incident was one of the largest attempted mass slave escapes in American history. On April 15, 1848, more than seventy enslaved people, including many children, boarded a schooner named The Pearl on the Potomac River in Washington, DC, in a daring effort organized after weeks of “preconcerted planning,” as scholar Andrew Delbanco puts it in The War Before the War (Nov. 2018), managed by an impressive network of free blacks, white abolitionists, and the enslaved themselves. The effort was shocking to many of their opponents.  Delbanco writes memorably in his new book about the fugitive crisis, that slaveholders in Washington awoke to find “Breakfasts were not ready, babies were not dressed, horses and chickens were going hungry; nobody was performing the morning tasks expected of urban slaves.” [1]

The freedom seekers, however, did not get far. Poor sailing conditions forced the ship to dock 150 miles down the Potomac, where officials soon boarded the ship, recaptured the fugitive slaves and arrested three white men who helped them escape. The failed escape’s size and proximity to the nation’s capitol exacerbated slaveholder fears about slave resistance, rebellion, and violence. While the Pearl escape was itself nonviolent, the jarring nature of the event made the threat of slave resistance seem ever more palpable in the slaveholder’s imagination.

1848 broadside

1848 poster made by the District of Columbia government shortly after the Pearl Escape, courtesy of wikepedia.org

Delbanco uses the Pearl incident as part of his wide-ranging effort to explain how the long crisis over fugitive slaves in the United States was a key dynamic behind the rising sectional tensions that ultimately led to the American Civil War. He describes the incident as the “capstone event of a decade during which the nation moved closer and closer towards a decisive confrontation with itself.” [2]

Delbanco does not use the term “stampede” to describe the 1848 event, nor does he apply that terminology to other types of group or mass escapes that he relates in his gripping narrative.  However, the noted scholar from Columbia University routinely employs phrases such as “group escape,” “maroons” and “mass exodus” when detailing larger bodies of freedom seekers escaping bondage together.  Nor does Delbanco focus explicitly on Missouri or the Mississippi Valley, but his work is still immensely helpful in contextualizing aspects of this project.  He does mention, for example,  that the “sheer volume of absconding slaves was immense” from the border state of Missouri. [3] He also explains how being a “slave in, say, St. Louis or Baltimore …meant better prospects for escape.” [4]  Although group escapes sometimes occurred in the deeper South or within interior regions, he details how they more often resulted in movement toward life as “maroons” hiding in “cleared ground and the swamp or forest beyond” for extended periods of time. [5] 

The term “stampede” does appear in Delbanco’s new book though in contexts different from antebellum mass escapes.  When describing the impact of the pivotal Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, for example, Delbanco writes that it “set off a stampede of enraged adversaries.”  The scholar also uses a memorable image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in June 1861, captioned originally as “Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia,”  This vivid cartoon predated a more famous one that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1861, captioned, “Stampede of Slaves from Hampton to Fortress Monroe.”  Both illustrations from the summer of 1861 depicted the emergence of wartime runaways or contrabands at the very outset of the war.  And ultimately, that is Delbanco’s point.  The resistance of runaway slaves, especially through stampedes or various types of group or mass escapes, had an outsized impact on the paranoia of slaveholders. “Black violence was always lurking- at least in the white mind. And no matter how much whites wanted to believe that blacks were passive under the putatively benign regime of slavery, fugitives and rebels were a continual rebuke to this belief,” argues Delbanco. [6]

Stampede from Leslie's

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861 (Library of Congress)

Stampede by Harpers

Harpers Weekly, August 17, 1861 (Library of Congress)




[1] Andrew Delbanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 214.

[2] Delbanco, 215.

[3] Delbanco, 25.

[4] Delbanco, 35.

[5] Delbanco, 109.

[6] Delbanco, 199.

Cheryl LaRoche – The Geography of Resistance (2013)

Slave escape boat

Fugitive slaves escaping by boat. (House Divided Project)

A slave in St. Louis, Missouri, William Wells Brown was filled “with the most intense anxiety” as he plotted his escape across the Mississippi River. Late one evening in 1833, Brown and his mother finally executed their plan, and riding a small skiff on a “very swift” current, the mother and son duo were “soon upon the Illinois shore.” Their taste of freedom was brief, however, and they were soon manacled by slave catchers and returned to bondage in Missouri. Yet in January 1834, Brown at last succeeded, smuggling himself on board a steamboat bound for Ohio. [1]

Brown headshot

After escaping from slavery in St. Louis, William Wells Brown became a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement. (House Divided Project)

Brown’s story is one of many profiled in Cheryl LaRoche’s book, The Geography of Resistance (2013). For years prior to his escape, Brown had worked on steamboats that canvassed the Mississippi River, gaining an intimate familiarity with the surrounding region. That he and his mother landed near the abolitionist stronghold of Alton, Illinois, was no accident, maintains LaRoche. Not only was Alton filled with anti-slavery sympathizers, but just miles away was a crucial, although often overlooked free black settlement, known as Rocky Fork.

Rocky Fork is one of four African-American communities along the North-South border that LaRoche profiles in her book. Of these four settlements (Rocky Fork and Miller Grove in southern Illinois, Lick Creek in Indiana, and Poke Patch in southern Ohio), just Rocky Fork survives today. With few written sources available, LaRoche taps into archaeological evidence, oral histories and geographical analysis (“using the land as a type of document”), to produce an account of what she terms “the geography of resistance.” What emerges is a portrait of African-Americans, on both sides of the border, acting as central agents in determining their own fates. Most freedom seekers, LaRoche notes, “negotiated either all or the most difficult or dangerous portion of the trip alone or with the help of other Blacks.” Quakers and other white abolitionists, she writes, while playing important roles, also harbored “ambivalent sentiments” towards African-Americans, and were not the driving force behind the resistance to bondage. In LaRoche’s view, geography bears this out. Many well-known Underground Railroad sites “operated within a two- to three-mile radius of small Black enclaves.” Documenting these often-overlooked black hamlets, LaRoche maintains, “visually clarifies and exposes the relationships between African American churches, settlements, and historic Underground Railroad routes.” [2] 

Missouri escapes figure prominently in LaRoche’s book, largely due to her first case study, Rocky Fork. A black settlement situated mere miles from the Missouri border, LaRoche notes that Rocky Fork was “ideally located, remote and not easily accessed.” The larger and better-known abolitionist community of Alton lay just three miles away. Difficult to reach by land, Rocky Fork was instead “highly accessible” by water, via the Mississippi River. Missouri fugitives could follow the river north to Piasa Creek, where two islands enabled them to swim or boat across to Rocky Fork Creek. The small settlement (at its peak counting 45 families) provided “a secluded, safe refuge” for Missouri fugitives, who by the 1830s were arriving with increasing regularity. Escaped slaves, LaRoche writes, enjoyed the advantages of rural living, often setting up house in remote, wooded areas, which “helped discourage pursuers,” who feared for their own safety venturing into the unknown wilderness. [3]

Map Alton

An 1857 map showing the abolitionist stronghold of Alton, Illinois (left center), a short distance upriver from St. Louis. Not specified is the free black community of Rocky Fork, located just three miles west of Alton. (House Divided Project)

LaRoche does not use the term slave stampede, but she does identify and discuss multiple “group escapes,” including many from eastern Missouri into Illinois. She posits that “as the slavery crisis deepened, the mechanisms of escape extended from lonely singular escapes to groups and families attempting to free themselves from bondage.” These larger escapes, LaRoche argues, turned increasingly violent and eventually gave way to “armed conflict in the name of freedom.” One of the earliest potential stampedes may have been the work of “Mother” Priscilla Baltimore, a former slave who resided in Brooklyn, Illinois, an historically black enclave located across the river from St. Louis. In 1829, Baltimore reportedly led 11 Missouri families (including both free and enslaved persons) across the Mississippi to freedom. Later, a “series of group escapes in 1845,” LaRoche notes, caused considerable consternation among Missouri slaveholders, who seethed that abolitionists had enticed their slaves to escape. Yet another potential stampede dates from 1854, when a free black coachman from Alton concealed 15 Missouri slaves in his carriage. He helped them cross the Mississippi in skiffs, and then sent them on to Chicago. [4]

Garnet engraving

As a child, Henry Highland Garnet escaped slavery in a potential slave stampede. (House Divided Project)

Accounts of other potential stampedes abound throughout the book. Josiah Henson escaped from slavery in Kentucky, traveling to Indiana and eventually Canada, but returned to help lead 30 Bourbon County, Kentucky slaves to freedom. Years later, during the Civil War, eight Kentucky slaves followed in Henson’s footsteps, escaping northward into Indiana. One was recaptured, but the remaining seven managed to reach freedom and enlist in the 28th U.S. Colored Troops. LaRoche also discusses potential stampedes from the eastern slaveholding states. One involved the noted black abolitionist and preacher Henry Highland Garnet, who escaped slavery as a child in 1824, along with 10 enslaved relatives. The group left New Market, Maryland, and reached the Delaware home of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett, and from there moved on to upstate New York. Another potential stampede dates from 1847, when 13 fugitives headed north from Williamsport, Maryland, after learning of their impending sale. Just across the border in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the fugitives linked up with a black operative, George Cole, who guided them to the small town of Boiling Springs, where they briefly stayed at the home of white abolitionist Daniel Kaufman. While the fugitives were ushered off to safety, the Pennsylvania abolitionist was later convicted of aiding their escape. [5]

In terms of this project, The Geography of Resistance adds valuable insight to our understanding of slave stampedes. In discussing group escapes, LaRoche highlights the often neglected roles played by free African-Americans living along the North-South border. Over the span of several decades, free black residents of Rocky Fork, Illinois, assisted large groups of enslaved Missourians in their attempts to escape bondage. As we continue our research into slave stampedes, LaRoche’s work reminds us that the border’s free black communities were not simply remote or isolated enclaves, but also potential paths to freedom for groups of escaping slaves.


[1] William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847), 67-70, [WEB]; Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance, (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 36.

[2] LaRoche, 15, 37, 40-41, 70, 85, 87-88, 101-102, 140.

[3] LaRoche, 22-24, 33-34, 37.

[4] LaRoche, 30, 33-36, 157.

[5] LaRoche, 66-68, 97, 128.

Contemporaries Using Stampede Terminology

1853 || From Freemen’s Manual: A Campaign Serial of the Independent Democracy (Vol 1, Columbus, OH: 1853):

“NEGRO STAMPEDE. Slaves are running away from Missouri, at the present time, in battalions. Three belonging to Mr. R. Meek, of Weston, ran away on Wednesday of last week—two of whom were afterwards apprehended. They were making for the Plains. Fifteen made a stampede from Ray county, the week before, and took the line of their march for Iowa. Several were captured in Grundy county, but the larger number made good their escape. It would be a glorious thing for Missouri, if all her slaves should take it into their heads to run away. If she only knew it, they are one of the greatest drawbacks to her advancement and prosperity. —Alton Telegraph.” (p. 39)

“THE KIDNAPPING CLAUSE (from the New York Tribune)….Here, then, is one salient point—at the date of the Constitution there were two distinct classes of persons who might flee from servitude and be recovered; and that which was most likely to require some provision for recapture was the class that could and did owe service, though its servitude was popularly termed “involuntary.” Negroes had not then reached the point of general stampede; their fugacity gave very little trouble; but the bound servants were in the very act of a general escape. They were utterly restless.” (p. 107)

“SLAVE STAMPEDE.  The Cincinnati Commercial says there was a serious negro stampede from plantations sixty miles back of the river, in Kentucky, on Saturday night. Of eleven slaves who decamped, five succeeded in crossing the Ohio, a few miles below this city, yesterday. *Their pursuers were in town last night, but learning that the fugitives had got twelve hours start, soon gave up the chase.” (p. 141)

“UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. We learn from the Fact that “still another slave stampede came off a few miles below Maysville on Wednesday night last. Five negroes—three of them very fair and delicate mulatto girls—succeeded in crossing the river.— All trace was lost a few miles back of Ripley, Brown county.” (p. 153)

1854 || From The Friend:  A Religious and Literary Journal (Philadelphia, 1853):

“Slave Stampede.—The slaves in Mason county, Va., are becoming migratory in their habits. Within the last fortnight eight have made their escape to parts unknown.”—Ledger. (p. 63)

1856 || From Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; with Remarks on Their Economy (London, 1856)

“Under this ‘Organization of Labor,’ most of the slaves work rapidly and well. In nearly all ordinary work, custom has settled the extent of the task, and it is difficult to increase it. The driver who marks it out, has to remain on the ground until it is finished, and has no interest in over-measuring it; and if it should be systematically increased very much, there is danger of a general stampede to the ‘swamp’–a danger the slave can always hold before his master’s cupidity.” (pp. 435-6)

1858 || From Salmon P. Chase Papers, Vol. 3 (edited by John Niven):

“EDITORIAL NOTE: Chase refers to a letter supposedly written in May 1858 by Col. Hugh Forbes (b. ca. 1813), a Scotch specialist in guerrilla warfare who had served with Garibaldi and with free- state forces in Kansas. According to the New York Herald, Forbes had organized a “stampede” of slaves from the border states. Included in the letter, which Forbes supposedly sent to several prominent antislavery leaders, was a notation that “Copies will be sent to Governor Chase, who found money, and Governor Fletcher, who contributed arms, and to others interested.” Cincinnati Gazette, Oct. 28, 1859; New York Herald, Oct. 27, 1859″ (3: 23n)

1859 || From New York Independent, Dec. 8, 1859 (quoted in The Independent, Vol. 74, 1913):

“John Brown failed in his scheme of a general slave stampede (he never planned an insurrection or a revolution) because in the very nature of the case this was impracticable. The slaves were not prepared for it, nor was there any feasible mode of accomplishing it. Such a movement, always doubtful and hazardous when the slaves themselves are enlisted in it, must, of course, be futile when they are not ripe for it; and to put in jeopardy the safety and the lives of a whole community in an unsolicited and necessarily hopeless attempt to benefit any portion of it, is a measure that cannot be justified by any code of ethics, natural or Christian.” (p. 126)

1859 || From Martin Delany, Blake, Or the Huts of America (1859):

“The absence of Mammy Judy, Daddy Joe, Charles, and little Tony, on the return early Monday morning of Colonel Franks and lady from the country, unmistakably proved the escape of their slaves, and the further proof of the exit of ‘squire Potter’s Andy and Beckwith’s Clara, with the remembrance of the stampede a few months previously, required no further confirmation of the fact, when the neighborhood again was excited to ferment.” (opening paragraph of Chapter 30, “The Pursuit,” p. 139)

1860 || From John Kagi, interviewed by Richard J. Hinton in James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860):

“It was not anticipated that the first movement would have any other appearance to the masters than a slave stampede, or local insurrection, at most. The planters would pursue their chattels and be defeated.” (p. 204)

At Washington City the military force was increased, and every precaution taken to keep the negroes down. A telegraphic despatch from the Capital, on the 18th — the day when John Brown was captured — thus portrays their fears and the reason for them: “It appears from intelligence received here to-day from various portions of Virginia and Maryland, that a general stampede of slaves has taken place. There must have been an understanding of some nature among them in reference to this affair, for the numerous instances — so I am Informed by the slave holders since this insurrection — they have found it almost impossible to control them.” (p. 267)

1861 ||  From South Carolina correspondent (NY Daily Tribune, March 19, 1861), quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (6th ed., 1993):

“There has recently been stampede of about 100 slaves from the interior of this State, about which but little is said, and of which, dare say, you will see nothing in the local papers. The demoralization consequent on the political disorders of the day has extended to the slave population. There is manifest uneasiness in this respect.” 

1861 ||  From Debates over North Carolina Secession quoted in Samuel A’Courte Ashe, History of North Carolina: From 1783 to 1925 (Vol. 2, 1925):

It was estimated that some 15,000 troops would be needed for State defense, and that the cost would be over six and half million dollars for the first year. This information challenged the thoughtful attention of the Convention and startled the delegates as to the expense of war. The necessity of protecting the coast was, however, apparent, and that subject early received earnest consideration. Day after day it was considered in secret session. “Indignation was expressed at the movement of troops by the Confederate Government. There was apprehension that there would be a stampede of slaves to the Federal army as soon as it appeared on the coast: but after much debate it was resolved that four regiments should be raised from the eastern counties to protect that region.” (p. 625)

1861 || From Edward Everett, “Questions of the Day,” July 4, 1861 reprinted in Orations and Speeches on Various Occasions (Vol. 2):

“How can peace exist when all the causes of dissension shall be indefinitely multiplied; when unequal revenue laws shall have led to a gigantic system of smuggling; when a general stampede of slaves shall take place along the border, with no thought of rendition, and all the thousand causes of mutual irritation shall be called into action, on a frontier of 1,500 miles not marked by natural boundaries and not subject to a common jurisdiction or a mediating power?”  (p. 397)

1861 || From Gen. Alexander McCook (Nov. 5, 1861) reprinted in OR, Series 1, Vol. IV):

“The subject of contraband negroes is one that is looked to by the citizens of Kentucky of vital importance. Ten have come into my camp within as many hours, and from what they say there will be a general stampede of slaves from the other side of Green River. They have already become a source of annoyance to me, and I have great reason to believe that this annoyance will increase the longer we stay. They state the reasons of their running away their masters are rank secessionists, in some cases are in the rebel army, and that slaves of Union men are pressed into service to drive teams, &c.” (p. 337)

1876 || From Thomas Wentworth Higginson quoted in Memoir of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe (1876)

“The next anti-slavery milestone was when, in 1858, John Brown came eastward. A keen thinker has said, that every path on earth may lead to the dwelling of a hero; and of course the track was plain enough between John Brown’s door and that of Dr. Howe. Few, if any, knew Capt. Brown’s plans in full detail; but the project of a slave stampede on a large scale was quite in Dr. Howe’s line, and he, with others, entered into it cordially.” (p. 121)

1877 || From John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (4th ed. 1877):

“STAMPEDE.  (Span, estampado, a stamping of feet.) A general scamper of animals on the Western prairies, usually caused by a fright. Mr. Kendall gives the following interesting account of one …From animals, the term is transferred to men: —The boys leaped and whooped, flung their hats in the air, chased one another in a sort of stampede, &c. — Judd’s Margaret, p. 120.

After him I went, and after me they came, and perhaps there wasn’t the awfullest stampede down three pair of stairs that ever occurred in Michigan! — Field, Western Tales.

The cause that led to the recent alarm [in Paris] was the stampede among the directors of that wonderful institution, the Credit Mobilier.—N. Y. Journal of Commerce. Oct. 12, 1857.

From information which has reached us, there would seem to have been a considerable stampede of slaves from the border valley counties of Virginia during the late Easter holidays. — (Balt.) Sun, April 9, 1858.” (pp. 652-3)

1892 || From Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892)

“In all my forty years of thought and labor to promote the freedom and welfare of my race, I never found myself more widely and painfully at variance with leading colored men of the country than when I opposed the effort to set in motion a wholesale exodus of colored people of the South to the northern states [during Reconstruction];  and yet I never took a position in which I felt myself better fortified by reason and necessity….Thousands of these poor people, traveling only so far as they had money to bear their expenses, were dropped in the extremest destitution on the levees of St. Louis, and their tales of woe were such as to move a heart much less sensitive to human suffering than mine. But while I felt for these poor deluded people, and did what I could to put a stop to their ill-advised and ill-arranged stampede, I also did what I could to assist such of them as were within my reach, who were on their way to this land of promise.” (p. 524)

Steven Lubet – Fugitive Justice (2010)

Joshua Glover headshot

Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave from St. Louis, was rescued from Federal custody in 1854. (House Divided Project)

On March 10, 1854, a group of slave catchers burst into a rural Wisconsin home and seized a fugitive slave. Their captive, a man named Joshua Glover, had escaped from St. Louis, Missouri two years prior. Detained overnight in a Milwaukee prison, local abolitionists sounded the alarm and by morning Glover had a sizable crowd of supporters anxiously monitoring his fate. As the hours wore on, the crowd decided to take justice into their own hands, launching an all-out assault on the prison door with “planks, axes, &c.” Plowing through, they placed Glover in a carriage and whisked him away to safety. [1]

Yet the case was far from over. Accused of aiding Glover’s escape, Wisconsin abolitionist Sherman Booth was put on trial for violating the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a case that ultimately worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. While Chief Justice Roger Taney upheld Booth’s conviction, it was clear that there were significant chinks in the law’s armor, especially when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional, a “crowning, if fleeting achievement” for abolitionists. [2]

Sherman Booth headshot

Wisconsin abolitionist Sherman Booth was tried for his alleged involvement in Glover’s escape. (House Divided Project)

Glover’s escape and Booth’s subsequent trials are among the many cases profiled by legal historian Steven Lubet in his book, Fugitive Justice (2010). Lubet’s book focuses in on three prominent cases involving the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; the trial following the Christiana Riot in September 1851, the rendition of Anthony Burns in 1854, and finally the Oberlin Rescue of 1858, to show the evolution of abolitionist legal tactics during the 1850s. Over the course of the decade, Northern lawyers moved from pointed, technical arguments to moral appeals to a higher law. This tidal shift in legal resistance, Lubet argues, reflected changing attitudes among the Northern public towards slavery. By the late 1850s, abolitionist lawyers were willing to openly challenge the morality of the Fugitive Slave Law as well as slavery itself, an indication, Lubet tells us, of the Northern public’s growing anti-slavery impulse. In doing so, Lubet challenges the principal argument of Stanley Campbell’s book, The Slave Catchers (1970), which held that the Fugitive Slave Law was faithfully and effectively enforced. Through these cases and they way they were adjudicated, Lubet chronicles the mounting public discord against the law. [3]

Gunfire Christiana

On September 11, 1851, African-Americans opened fire on Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch and his posse, in what is known as the Christiana Riot. (House Divided Project)

The first trial Lubet profiles came in the aftermath of the Christiana Riot in September 1851. The violent encounter actually stemmed from a group escape of four fugitives from the Maryland plantation of slaveholder Edward Gorsuch. Four of Gorsuch’s slaves, Noah Davis, Noah Buley and George and Joshua Hammond, had run away together in November 1849. This could be considered a slave stampede, though Lubet does not use the term. He does, however, speculate on their motives for escape, positing that the bondsmen had been stealing grain from Gorsuch, and perhaps ran away for fear that their theft had been discovered. [4]

Castner Hanway old

Castner Hanway, the key defendant in the Christiana trial, shown here later in life. (House Divided Project)

Nearly two years later, Gorsuch and a posse traveled to Christiana, in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, expecting to easily seize the fugitives. However, similar to other slave stampedes, the encounter quickly turned violent and took on a revolutionary meaning. Gorsuch’s four fugitives, joined by other local African-Americans, armed themselves and fought back, killing Gorsuch in the fray. Yet the ensuing trial (which is Lubet’s primary focus) did not revolve around who had shot Gorsuch, but rather Castner Hanway, a local miller who had rode to the scene of the conflict shortly before the first blood had been spilt. Among more than 30 others charged with treason for failing to “aid and assist” in recapturing the fugitives, Hanway was the first defendant placed on trial. His chief defense lawyer, Lancaster Congressman and noted abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, made a tight, unprovocative argument for Hanway’s innocence. The strategy worked, and Hanway was acquitted, though his victory was not a repudiation of the law, writes Lubet, but rather a technical argument for the innocence of a specific individual, aided by the shaky credibility of one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. [5]

Anthony Burns engraving

To considerable fanfare and outrage, fugitive slave Anthony Burns was remanded to slavery from Boston in 1854. (House Divided Project)

Lubet highlights two more cases, though both revolved around individual fugitives rather than group escapes. The first is the rendition of Anthony Burns in 1854, a fugitive slave who was seized in the streets of Boston. In a departure from Stevens’s technical defense, Burns’s defense lawyers argued that U.S. Commissioner Edward G. Loring had “ample room” to “interpret” the law, and rule in Burns’s favor. However, their efforts fell on deaf ears, and Loring declared that Burns was a fugitive and remanded him to slavery. [6]

The next landmark case involved a Kentucky slave, John Price, who had escaped to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856. He was captured by a slave catcher in 1858, only to be rescued by angry Oberlin residents. Although Price reached safety in Canada, a grand jury subsequently indicted 37 men for violating the Fugitive Slave Law, including 25 students, faculty and alumni of the prominently anti-slavery Oberlin College. In a contrast to both the Christiana and Anthony Burns cases, defense lawyers for the Oberlin activists would present what Lubet calls “the first forthright invocation of higher law in a U.S. Courtroom.” Only two defendants were actually brought to trial, and while both were convicted, their sentences were relatively light, especially that of Charles Langston, a black Oberlin graduate who boldly used his sentencing hearing to give vent to the higher law argument. The judge, Hiram Willson, practically “apologized” to Langston for enforcing the unpopular law, sentencing him to just 20 days in prison and a fine of $100. Lubet terms it “one small victory for the higher law,” asserting that although only partially successful in the courtroom, the higher law argument “helped to create an unbridgeable gap between the free states and the slave power.” [7]

Sabine office building

Syracuse abolitionists stormed the second-story office of U.S. Commissioner Joseph Sabine in the first attempt to free Jerry, a Missouri fugitive. (House Divided Project)

Fugitive Justice makes a few references to Missouri escapes, including a brief allusion to John Brown’s December 1858 “raid” into western Missouri that helped free 11 slaves. Lubet discusses in considerably more detail the cases of St. Louis fugitive Joshua Glover and an even more famous Missouri runaway, William McHenry, commonly known as “Jerry.” He had escaped from Missouri and made his way to the abolitionist stronghold of Syracuse, New York. There, Jerry seemed to adjust well to freedom, working as a cooper. However, in October 1851 a slave catcher and U.S. marshals seized Jerry and brought him before U.S. Commissioner Joseph Sabine. Syracuse’s abolitionist populace was outraged, and stormed Sabine’s office, and later a jail, in order to free Jerry. While Jerry reached safety in Canada, indictments came down for 26 Syracuse men, resulting in just one conviction. Instead of treason, those involved in the “Jerry Rescue” were only charged with interfering with the law and assault. Lubet speculates that Federal officials were not eager to embark upon another difficult and time-consuming treason case in the “heartland of abolitionism,” where they were unlikely to prevail. [8]

The term slave stampede does not appear in Lubet’s book, nor does the concept of mass escapes. Fugitive Justice primarily covers legal cases that unfolded in Northern courtrooms, documenting the fallout from escapes, rather than the escape effort itself. Still, Lubet offers important insight into how fugitive slaves and their abolitionist allies constructed and evolved their legal defense strategies to align with changing public opinion in the North.


[1]  Milwaukee Sentinel, quoted in, “Great Excitement–Arrest of a Fugitive Slave,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, March 24, 1854; Steven Lubet, Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 305-307.

[2] Lubet, 305-307.

[3] Lubet, 2-3, 5-6.

[4] Lubet, 55.

[5] Lubet, 57-64, 77, 91-131.

[6] Lubet, 190, 221-223.

[7] Lubet, 3, 6, 159, 232-239, 245-247, 250-254, 294-298, 327.

[8] Lubet, 86-90, 254, 305-307, 316.