Author Archives: Matthew Pinsker

Colorizing Historic Illustrations from Still’s Underground Railroad (1872)

By Forbes

At the House Divided Project , we are starting to colorize the dozens of richly engraved illustrations by John Osler and other artists which first appeared in William Still’s Underground Road (1872).  Most of these scenes depict dramatic Underground Railroad escapes documented in the antebellum records of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.  Over the years, we’ve experimented with several other colorizing projects, including most notably for the Dickinson & Slavery initiative.  This current effort with Still’s famous illustrations is designed to support our work with the National Park Service Network to Freedom.


Henry “Box” Brown (1849), colorized by Forbes (House Divided Project)

When in the process of colorizing, sometimes you will encounter historic illustrations which were not created to look fully realistic and which require a different approach to colorizing than with historic photographs.  One way to colorize such images is to use brighter colors and less subtle tint differences; more like a cartoon or graphic novel than an attempt at realism.  This post contains directions concerning how best to complete this process.

Cambridge MD (1857), colorized by Gabe Pinsker (House Divided Project)

How to Colorize Using the Editing Software ‘GIMP’

  1. Open GIMP on your computer, then click the word “File” in that window’s upper left corner.  Select “Open”, and then select the file you wish to colorize.
  2. In the same line of options from which you selected “File”, look for “Layer”.  Click on that word, and then select “New Layer…” from the drop-down menu.
  3. When you click “New Layer…”, a window should open, and the lowest option on the window should be labeled “Fill with”.  Select “Transparency”.  Make sure that the “Opacity” option is at 100, and then click “OK”.
  4. Select the Paintbrush tool out of the grid of possible tools in the upper left corner of the screen.  A small window should pop up, titled “Tool Options”.  (If this window does not show up, see step 4a.)  In that window, there will be a section titled “Mode” which should be clickable.  Open its drop-down menu, scroll to “Hard light”, and select that option.(4a. To access “Tool Options” (if it does not pop up automatically when you begin to use the Paintbrush), click on “Windows” in the menu bar at the top of the page.  Hover your mouse over “Dockable Dialogues”, and you should see “Tool Options” at the top of the drop-down menu that appears.  Click “Tool Options”.  A window in which you can adjust opacity levels, brush size, and other metrics as you please should open.)
  5. Now you can begin colorization!  Below the paintbrush icon in the corner of the screen, there will be two squares: one black and one white.  Click on the square to the left and on top of the other.  This allows you to select a specific color using various scales, and then use that color on your illustration.
  6. After you pick a color, click and drag on top of the illustration, and color should appear and follow underneath your mouse.  It should not remove the picture’s details from view; it will just color over them.  If the brushstrokes are too opaque or unable to be seen, that can be fixed in the “Tool Options” window.
  7. If a color you have chosen does not show up optimally, it is possible to edit.  In the same line of options as “File” and “Layer” is a “Color” option.  Click on that to open a drop-down menu, and then select “Hue Saturation”.  Once you click that option, a window with several scales inside of it should show up.  “Hue”, “Lightness”, and “Saturation” can be changed to modify the color of your selection.

Fugitive Slave Laws


There were only two federal fugitive slave laws in American history –1793 and 1850– but they were both enormously controversial.  Each one derived from what is now known as the Fugitive Slave Clause of the original 1787 U.S. constitution (Article IV, Section 2).  However, that clause proved to be too vague and uncertain for easy enforcement, especially after Northern states began abolishing slavery within their own boundaries.  Over the years between 1788 and 1861, these states imposed obstacles against federal enforcement of the fugitive code on their “free soil,” usually dubbed “personal liberty” statutes.  Ultimately, these state laws compelled the Supreme Court to rule on the conflict in a series of landmark cases (especially 1842 and 1859).  Yet even with all of that national debate over runaway slaves, the actual operations of the federal system on fugitive recapture and rendition was notably sporadic.  Black resistance proved fierce.  Even in northern states where color prejudice was strong and abolitionist sentiment was weak, there seemed to be greater white sympathy for the plight of freedom seekers and a significant wellspring of northern state rights sentiment that made enforcing the federal code quite difficult.  Thus, it was also true that for slave states such as Missouri, their own “slave stealing” statutes often proved more important to the return of runaways and the prosecution of those “Underground Railroad” operatives who assisted them than any federal code.  Yet obviously that meant that if any individuals or groups of freedom seekers could actually succeed in crossing into free soil, there chances of liberation were strong.  Southern complaints about this reality escalated throughout the 1850s and proved to be a central component of the movement toward secession in 1860-61.

Video Resources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources


Jireh Platt UGRR Diary, 1848-1859

Jireh Platt Diary

Excerpted by Rev. H.D. Platt in “Some Facts About the Underground Railroad in Ill.” Typescript March 20, 1896, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio Memory


platt headshot

Abolitionist Jireh Platt. (Photo has been lightened, original at Kansas Memory)

The following excerpt comes from the diary of an abolitionist living in Mendon, Illinois during the 1840s and 1850s.  Jireh Platt (1798-1870) was a farmer and Congregationalist deacon, born in Connecticut, and who spent many years in western Illinois helping enslaved families escape from Missouri.  Rev. Henry Dutton Platt (1823-1903) inherited many of his father’s papers, including a diary that described Underground Railroad operations around Mendon.  Rev. Platt shared excerpts from this diary along with some of his own recollection in a typescript he sent to pioneering UGRR scholar Wilbur H. Siebert in 1896.  Siebert then included a few of the passages in his groundbreaking work, The Underground Railroad From Slavery To Freedom (1898) on p. 9.  The full scope of the diary excerpts provided by Platt’s son in 1896 are reprinted below and include a passage we can now identify (“December 5 year not given”) as being related to the 1853 Palmyra Stampede.  The passages in italics come from Henry D. Platt (the son).  Those in regular font come from the original Jireh Platt diary.

I make now a few quotations from a sort of diary and farm record of my father’s, which came into my hands at his death.  There was a “blue book,” which had vastly more in it, and some very exciting records.

May 19, 1848.  Hannah Coger arrived on the U.G. Railroad, the last $100.00 for freedom she was to pay to Thomas Anderson Palmyra, Missouri –the track is kept bright it being the 3rd time occupied since the 1st of April.

November 17, ’48.  John Buckner arrived in a car –had been acquainted with Thornton and others that have traveled this way.  Had been sold to a trade, and was to start South Next Monday morning.  He had spent most of the time for a week in sawing off his chain with an old casa-knife. [Here follows a cut of the knife]

 [no date, but between September 5 and September 14, 1849]  It is rumored that John escaped, not long since from the [steamer] Kate Kearniey.

December 5 [year not given] within a month past, there has been a great stir, advertising, telegraphing, and hunting property from Missouri.  Oh, what a spectacle!  Eleven pieces of property, walking in Indian file, armed and equipped facing the North Star!  $3000.00 offered for their apprehension, after they were safe in Canada!  The hunters say they must have gone from Mendon to Jacksonville on a new track.

July 1, 1854 – Henry Edwards took passage on the U.G. Railroad, for fear of being sent South, report says.  From St. Louis, and within a few weeks past, William crossed the Mississippi river in a dugout padding with a shingle-board after having been shot at.  Also one other, who had been taken to Pike County Jail, and the sheriff commanded them to let him go.  He had a bullet hole through his left arm.

November 9, ’54.   Negro hoax stories have been very high in the market for a week past.

November 2, ’57.  Freedom progressing.  Within a few weeks 10 tickets have been disposed of at the U.R. Depot and among the passengers were Harrison, slave of the Free State Governor of Missouri, Caroline, Bonaparte and Stephen.  I was informed last fall by neighbor Metcalf, that one of his old Kentucky friends had lost 5.

October 1859.  U.G.R.R. Conductor reported the passage of 5 who were considered very valuable pieces of Ebony, all designated by names such as John Brooks, Daniel Brooks, Mason Bushrod, Silvester Lucket and Hanson Ganes.  Have understood also that three others were ticketed about mid-summer.

This is the last record of the sort in the book.  These are among the least thrilling of many which I know occurred.

These passages from Jireh Platt’s diary and from Rev. H.D. Platt’s 1896 recollection shared with Siebert also appear with additional context and photographs in Ruth Deters, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House (2008), see especially pp. 205-7.



1917 ||   Speech by Ferry Luther Platt (grandson of Jireh, son of Luther Hart Platt) at family reunion, “The Platt-Cottrell Spirit,” Kirwin, KS Kansan, October 31, 1917 (

“…The old Mendon homestead was a station on the Underground Railroad and many are the incidents I have heard father [Luther Hart Platt] relate of experience with Missouri Slave Drivers. Once Grandfather had $1000 offered for his capture dead or alive, as a violator of the Fugitive Slave Law. A band of slave drivers had traced some refugees to his door and riding up before the house, they whetted their bowie knives on the rail fence demanding the surrender of the negroes, and swearing terrible vengeance if this demand was refused, but they did not try to enter, for it was common talk that Deacon Platt kept an ax hanging just inside each outside door to brain the man who attempted to force an entrance to this home, and no negro slave was thought valuable enough to risk the life of a white hunter.”

1917 ||    Neighbor Anna V. Baldwin writes to Ferry Luther Platt ca. 1916, excerpted in Kirwin, KS Kansan, November 07, 1917 (

“…I forgot to tell you that your Grandfather’s home was a station on the Underground Railroad. It had a place in the cellar where from 1 to 10 people could be hidden….”

1853 Palmyra Stampede –Newspaper Articles

The following newspaper articles provided key source material for the 1853 Palmyra Stampede narrative:


“Runaway Negroes,” Palmyra, MO Whig, November 3, 1853, reprinted in St. Louis, MO Democrat, November 7, 1853 (

MO Democrat 11-7-1853


“CLEAR THE TRACK!––THE TRAIN IS COMING!,” Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1859 ( Tribune article



 Quincy, IL Whig, November 21, 1853 (Quincy Newspaper Archive)patrol article


 “Marion Association,” Hannibal, MO Courier, January 12, 1854 (19th Century US Newspapers)

Hannibal Marion minutes




Slave Stampedes as Mobile Insurrections

This online research journal represents a joint effort by the National Park Service (NPS) Network to Freedom and the House Divided Project at Dickinson College to address the phenomenon of group escapes from slavery.  Our initial regional focus has been on the Missouri borderlands during the antebellum and wartime period. We are now also beginning a second phase looking at the Kentucky borderlands. Contemporaries almost always called these group escapes, “slave stampedes.”  Yet that term rarely appears in modern-day studies of the Underground Railroad or resistance to slavery.  Even the idea of large groups of freedom seekers moving defiantly together toward attempted self-liberation seems almost impossible for many teachers and students to accept.  Yet stampedes happened –sometimes quite frequently– and we need to try to understand what these revolutionary episodes meant to Americans in that era.

To begin this journey, we suggest watching this short 2-minute video interview with Dr. Deanda Johnson of the National Park Service Network to Freedom.  She offers a concise history of the term’s origins and explains how the reality of group attempts at liberation can complicate our understanding of the Underground Railroad.  Then you might want to read the attached 2019 essay by Professor Matthew Pinsker from Dickinson College.  His 23-page introductory survey of the topic also helps explains why the Missouri borderlands should rightly be considered at the front lines of the stampedes phenomenon and how both antebellum and wartime slave stampedes helped tip the balance toward the final destruction of slavery.

At this online research journal, we will continue to post examples of the historical material that we are turning up in our digital and archival searches about the phenomenon.  This is truly a team effort, involving faculty and students, with significant input from our outside academic experts. Eventually, our findings will form the basis of an online report with various multi-media maps and tools, and a freely accessible database designed to provide an array of resources for anyone who wants to learn more 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.


Our Classroom-Friendly Videos

Students interns on our project have been producing a series of short video documentaries, each 2 to 4 minutes in length, describing important slave stampedes from Missouri in ways designed to help support secondary and college-level history classrooms.  Take a look below or visit the House Divided Project YouTube channel.


One of the very first mass escape attempts from Missouri identified as a “slave stampede” by the national press.  This video describes the story of that failed attempt in 1849 and provides background on the origins of the term.


This video explores how eight enslaved young men, described in vivid detail by their runaway ads, lost their chance for freedom when they were tricked and betrayed by residents of Illinois.



A long-overlooked diary entry from an Illinois Underground Railroad operative provides the key for understanding this successful 1853 group escape of eleven enslaved people from Palmyra, Missouri.


This video details the mounting frustration among pro-slavery forces in Missouri when two separate large groups of enslaved African American families managed to escape from their bondage successfully in November 1854.


This documentary short profiles the role of Underground Railroad operative Mary Meachum in an attempt to free several enslaved people from St. Louis in the spring of 1855.  Meachum was arrested but prosecutors dropped the charges against her.  Today, people in the city annually commemorate her efforts (and the sacrifices of the captured enslaved families) at the Freedom Crossing site by the Mississippi River.


Have you ever heard of Dr. John Doy?  He was an ally of John Brown who also attempted to liberate enslaved families in 1859.  Like Brown, Doy was captured, but his family and friends succeeded in rescuing him from a Missouri prison.


This video highlights a successful stampede of more than ten freedom seekers from LaGrange, Missouri who eventually joined up in Chicago with about another twenty more runaways from three states, before they presumably escaped to Canada.  Yet all of this happened in November 1859, just weeks after John Brown’s failed raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.


This video tells the forgotten story behind the last attempt to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law in Chicago.  The result of the rendition of the Harris family in April 1861 was a so-called “stampede” of free black residents and former runaways in the city toward Canada.


In November 1862, a group of enslaved Missourians slipped behind Union lines to secure their freedom.  Their slaveholders tried to recapture them but ultimately, local German American immigrants and Union army officials rallied to protect their freedom.  This video provides helpful context in understanding wartime contraband, confiscation and emancipation policies as they evolved on the ground.

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)

Scholars Using Stampede Terminology

This post will be updated occasionally.

From Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (2012):

“As result, some blacks made their way down the Peninsula to the sheltering arms of Dunmore’s forces. Talk of Negro “stampede” led to increased patrols and other measures to prevent mass exodus of slaves. Masters told their slaves that the British were no friends of the black man and would only sell them to the West Indies, where they would endure much harsher conditions. Nevertheless, despite the increased vigilance of whites, within week of the proclamation approximately 300 blacks had evaded the patrols and made it behind British lines.” (11)

 “An indescribable panic ensued among the colored population,” the National Anti-Slavery Standard reported as Butler’s men abandoned Hampton. “The streets swarmed with the terrified people.” The Baltimore American correspondent explained that “a stampede of the colored population took place…. Nearly thousand contraband men, women, and children, must have come in during the last twenty-four hours.” (p. 58)  

NOTE:  Brasher’s source for above reference was Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 29, 1861; he also included the 1861 image from Harpers captioned “Stampede of Slaves,” (August 8, 1861).

From Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial (2010):

“As the war progressed and the Union army occupied larger and larger portions of the South, the trickle of runaways became a flood.  ‘Slave labor is disappearing so rapidly,’ a member of Maryland’s legislature complained early in 1862, ‘that our lands must go untilled.’  As the navy patrolled the southern coast to enforce the blockade, slaves came to the shore hoping to escape to their ships. Some succeeded in doing so.  When a small Union flotilla sailed up the Stono River in South Carolina in May 1862, the crew observed cavalry pursuing a ‘stampede of slaves’ fleeing to avoid relocation inland.  After opening fire on the Confederate forces and dispersing them, the naval commander took more than seventy slaves on board.” (p. 167)

From William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Volume II (2007):

“As usual in exposed border areas, fugitive slaves lit the first spark.  Especially in Dorchester County, whites experienced the most provocative border scenario: an ongoing series of gang runaways, allegedly provoked by a northern Liberty Line that extended inside the South.  On the Eastern Shore, freedom’s agitators supposedly included free blacks, who taught by their very presence that liberty need not be reserved for whites, and white strangers, who helped slaves flee toward liberty.  The Baltimore Sun reported two results of Dorchester County’s blur of slavery and freedom:

October 31, 1857.  “A Grand Stampede” of Dorchester slaves.  30 escaped, making 44 in two weeks, 15 belonging to one robbed capitalist.  He offers a $3100 reward.

July 31, 1858.  “SLAVE STAMPEDE –There was another slave stampede in Dorchester County, Md. last week.” Seven slaves worth $10,000+ absconded.

Such stampedes could impel owners to sell more slaves to safer Lower South areas.  With more slaves fleeing north, more owners selling slaves south, and more masters offering future freedom to keep slaves toiling, slaveowning capitalism looked to be spinning out of control –and out of Maryland.” (pp. 194-195)

From Brian Gabrial, The Press and Slavery in America (2016):

“Because the initial stories about the raid magnified the crisis and slave participation, they would be sure to raise alarm among the white population. The early headlines used words such as “Riot,”  “Insurrection,” “Stampede of Slaves,” and even “Negro Insurrection” to catch the readers’ attention. The October 17, 1859, Charleston Courier headline, for example, read “Insurrection in Virginia,” and an October 18 New Orleans Daily Picayune said, “Riot at Harper’s Ferry.” In Richmond an October 18 Enquirer headline announced “A Desperate Riot at Harper’s Ferry.” A National Intelligencer headline similarly was “Serious Disturbance at Harper’s Ferry.” In New York readers of the October 18 New York Times learned of “Servile Insurrection” with a “General Stampede of Slaves.” The next day the New York Times referred to Harper’s Ferry as “The Negro Insurrection.” (pp. 206n-207n)

NOTE:  Gabrial also cites:  “Brown’s Slave Stampede,” New York Evening Post, October 19, 1859.

From Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land (2004):

Chapter 7 is entitled, “Stampede of Slaves” (p. 130)

“Despite a harsh crackdown on the personal liberties of free and enslaved blacks, and even nonslaveholding whites, slaves in Dorchester County continued to run away in unprecedented numbers.  Soon national newspapers were running articles mocking Eastern Shore slaveowners, reporting that the “stampedes of slaves” from the area certainly didn’t support [US congressman James] Stewart’s view of their happiness.” (p. 149)

“For Eastern Shore whites, the drama of a “stampede of slaves” out of Dorchester County, as local and national newspapers were wont to describe it during the 1850s, was surpassed only by the Civil War itself.” (p. 151)

NOTE:  Sources include:  “Negro Stampede,” Elkton, MD Cecil Whig, October 31, 1857; “Slave Laws of Maryland,” Washington, DC National Era, March 24, 1859; “Political Intelligence,” Washington, DC National Era, June 30, 1859.

From Kristen T. Oertel, Harriet Tubman (2016):

“Slaveholders on the Eastern Shore sounded the alarm after twenty-eight slaves escaped in just one night from multiple plantations, including fifteen slaves from Samuel Pattison’s estate. One Maryland paper referred to the escapes as a ‘Negro Stampede,’ and local slave catchers mobilized to try and stop the exodus.  They blamed local free blacks for the problem, linking them to ‘”negro worshippers” of the North,’ and anyone in the region who was suspected of harboring runaways risked vigilante justice, like tarring and feathering, and even lynching.  But nothing seemed to stop the stream of runaways, so that by 1859, the national press reported that ‘stampedes of slaves’ had fled the Eastern Shore.” (p. 47)

NOTE:  Primary source quotations come from Kate Clifford Larson’s Tubman biography, Bound for the Promised Land (2004)

From Joseph P. Reidy, Illusions of Emancipation (2019):

“On July 25, Butler abruptly ordered the evacuation of Hampton. Following the federal debacle at Bull Run four days earlier, the War Department had requisitioned 4,000 of Butler’s men to help protect the capital, leaving him little choice but to pull back from Hampton. The departure of the soldiers prompted “a stampede of the colored population,” in the words of a correspondent for the New York Herald. The fear of a Confederate attack and the return to slavery “lent wings to the contrabands,” who grabbed what clothing, household furniture, and effects they could gather and set out over the “long and lonely road” to the wooden bridge that crossed Mill Creek to Old Point Comfort and the fort, their envisioned “haven.” “Never was such an exodus seen before in this country,” the reporter noted.” (p. 172)

NOTE:  Source was “Important from Fortress Monroe,” NewYork Herald, July 29, 1861, 1.


From Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals (2008):

“John B. Marchand ventured up the Stono River, ten miles south of Charleston. After steaming upriver for half a dozen miles in the Unadilla (the first of the ninety-day gunboats that Welles had authorized the year before), Marchand was returning toward the open sea when the sound of screams from the riverbank drew the attention of every man on board. Marchand saw “a stampede of slaves on the cotton and corn fields to the south of the river.” (p. 159)

NOTE:  Symond’s primary source was John B. Marchand, Charleston Blockade: The Journals of John B. Marchand, U.S. Navy, 1861-1862 (entry of May 21, 1862), edited by Craig L. Symonds (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1976), 176-77.

From Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom (2019):

“Hundreds of other refugees from Newport News, as well as from the recently evacuated town of Hampton, came to the same realization.  And with that began a new exodus to the fort that was quickly dubbed a ‘stampede’ by an artist for Harper’s Weekly (fig. 2).  In an illustration in the journal’s August 17 issue, men, women, and children can be seen running –literally– in the direction of the fort, clutching baskets of food and sacks of possessions.  The image conveys the urgency of their relocation to Fort Monroe, as well as the large numbers involved: a reported 2,000 arrived at the fort during this late July, early-August migration.” (p. 31)

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’s enslaved population 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.  


[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.