Author Archives: Naji Thompson

Black Authors and Fictional Stampedes


Martin Delany. (House Divided Project)

Martin R. Delay’s Blake or the Huts of America (1859-1862) is often identified as the first black nationalist novel. It tells the story of Henry Blake as he escapes from slavery and tries to find his wife who had been sold away from him. However, Blake’s overarching goal was to unify the enslaved people and fight for freedom together. At first printed serially in a black owned newspaper, the chapters were later gathered and edited into a single work. Delany used the word stampede once in Chapter 30, “The Pursuit,” writing:

“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.” [1]

In this case, an incident that could be describe as a stampede reminds the community of a mass escape that had taken place a few months prior.  Delany’s usage, however, provides insight into how slave holders responded to stampedes. He wrote that the town’s “advisory committee was called into immediate council, and ways and means devised for the arrest of the recreant slaves recently left, and to prevent among them the recurrence of such things; a pursuit was at once commenced.” [2] Delany’s fictional account illustrates real white anxiety surrounding stampedes.


Frances E.W. Harper. (House Divided Project)

Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted by African American writer Francis E.W. Harper was published in 1892. The novel follows a mixed race family’s struggle with enslavement, freedom, and identity during the Civil War. The family “passed” as white. In the novel, Harper used the word ‘stampede’ three times. Each use was in relation to a single incident where a group of enslaved people plotted a mass escape to join the Union Army, camped nearby.

First, Harper wrote, “A few evenings before the stampede of Robert and his friends to the army, and as he sat alone in his room reading the latest news from the paper he had secreted.” [3] Here Harper did not use the term explicitly in connection with slaves, but Robert was an enslaved figure who was passing as white.  His friends were formerly enslaved people.

The next instance reads, “When [the Union Army] came, there was a stampede to its ranks of men ready to serve in any capacity, to labor in the tents, fight on the fields, or act as scouts” (Harper, 36). This was a reference to runaway slaves.  Harper added, “It was the strangest sight to see these black men rallying around the Stars and Stripes.” [4]

The final time that the term “stampede” appeared in the novel, it was when the character Iola announced that, “A number of colored men stampeded to the Union ranks, with a gentleman as a leader, whom I think is your brother.” [5]


[1] Martin R. Delany, Blake; or, The Huts of America (serial, 1859-1862; Boston: Beacon Press, 1970, reprint), Chapter 30, [WEB].

[2] Delany, Chapter 30.

[3] Frances E.W. Harper, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (Boston: James H. Earle, 1892), 32, [WEB].

[4] Harper, 36.

[5] Harper, 196.

Database Report- Chronicling America

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Naji Thompson over the course of a few weeks between December 2018 and February 2019
  • Key terms: stampede, slave + stampede
  • Results: 200+

Selected Images

Top Results

  • In 1849 the North-Carolinian ran an article titled “Slave Stampede.” On Nov. 6th or the night of Nov. 5 the 50 slaves stampeded from the Missouri side of the river shared with Illinois. It describes a stampede of around 50 slaves of “all ages and sexes.” They were overtaken, their leader was killed, and the rest were captured.
  • Anti-slavery Bugle reprinted an article from the Canton Reporter in Lewis County titled “The Great Slave Stampede in Missouri” on February 02, 1850. It tells the story of a slave stampede turned insurrection. It reads “A [sic] excitement prevails in Lewis county, in regard to the recent attempt of the negroes to run away and rise in insurrection; and as many negroes are in circulation in relation thereto, we deem it our duty to publish a true statement of the matter as it occurred.”
  • Weekly National intelligencer reprinted from the St. Louis News on May 7 commenting on the number of slave stampedes from western Missouri ending into Kansas. It also writes of organizations “enticing” enslaved people to leave Missouri and then send “them down to Indian country “to be sold to the “Cherokees and Choctaws.” The article also tells the story of 50 runways from Lafayette County. The group stole wagons, horses, and a carriage. Finally, it says in a three-week time span around 300 slaves have run away from Lafayette county.

General Notes

  • Many of the articles were not focused on actual stampedes but instead discussed slave holders’ anxiety surrounding potential stampedes. They offer insight to the rationalization of slavers, who blamed stampedes on abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. They claimed slaves were being “stolen” away.
  • In addition, a considerable number of articles centered around John Brown and the planned stampede that was supposed to accompany the failed Harper’s Ferry raid.
  • The use of advance search allowed for the considerable narrowing down of results by years and by words. One useful search method was “terms within five words of each other”. This allowed me to search for the words slave and stampede not only on the same page but also within close proximity to each other.

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 enslaved people as spies. One of these espionage agents, Archer Alexander, made his escape from St. Charles, Missouri to St. Louis before his former slaveholders, 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 slaveholder 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, enslaved 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 enslaved people 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 8 (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.

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger-Runaway Slaves

In 1825, a family of five ran away from their plantation in Christ Church Parish, South Carolina.  However, this family did not head North towards freedom. Instead they stayed in the woods near their home in hiding. For three years, they survived by trading at night with enslaved people still on the plantation and teaming up with other runaways to steal livestock and other goods.[1] When their parents were finally killed by a white mob, on a mission to end the “‘great evil’ of lying out,” the three children surrendered, returning into bondage with a fourth sibling who had been born while the family was in hiding. [2]

In Runaway Slaves (1999), John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger relate this remarkable story and others to help illustrate the complexities of running away from enslavement.  Relying on a vast array of evidence, the noted scholars challenge the typical narrative of the freedom seeker by emphasizing the importance of temporary escapes within the region, rather than permanent escapes to freedom in the North or Canada. [3]

Franklin and Schweninger don’t use the phrase “slave stampede” in their work, however. Yet by emphasizing the type of maroon communities like the one that temporarily shielded the family from Christ Church Parish South Carolina, these scholars offer important insights for this project.  In a more recent reference article, Schweninger writes, “Although their numbers fluctuated over time, pockets of outlying slaves, in the Caribbean known as Maroon communities, were always a part of the region’s landscape.” [4]  This is a point that both scholars also suggest in their original study, claiming in passing that maroon communities, or “pockets of outlying slaves,” found refuge in nearly every state across the American South.  They don’t specifically mention such pockets of resistance in Missouri, but it is a question worth pursuing:  did any slave stampedes find at least temporary freedom inside Missouri, rather than by crossing the borderland into free territories?

Onslow NC

Onslow County North Carolina 1857

Frankin and Schweninger describe outliers who ran away for extended periods of time, returning only when they had no other choice or even in some cases after striking deals with their slaveholders. However, other times groups of runaways and outliers joined together creating semi-permanent groups or settlements of escaped slaves. In February of 1825, a group of 16 runaways, formed an encampment in the woods of Charleston District, South Carolina. By staying close to nearby plantations, the settlement was able to trade with enslaved people for vital supplies. These groups, often armed, terrified local white populations. In 1821, a band of runaways joined free blacks and caused an insurrection in Onslow County, North Carolina.  White community members felt insecure about the safety of their lives, their families, and their belongings.  This powerful depiction of white anxiety from Runaway Slaves described the Atlantic Coast in the 1820s, but it also suggests useful ways to explore similar reactions in Missouri following any “outbreak” of antebellum stampedes along the Mississippi River.[5]

[1] John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 101.

[2] Franklin and Schweninger, 101.

[3] Philip D. Morgan, review of Runaway Slaves by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Indiana Magazine of History (1998): 155-56.

[4] Loren Schweninger, “Runaway Slaves and Maroon Communities,”, [WEB]

[5] Franklin and Schweninger, 86, 87, 90, 102.


Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan and Mass Escapes

In December 1858 while hiding out in the Kansas Territory, John Brown, a prominent abolitionist and leader of a free soil militia group, received an important request from Jim Daniels, an enslaved man in Missouri. Daniels was fearful after learning that his family was to be sold and asked for Brown’s help in freeing them.

John Brown

John Brown courtesy John Brown (abolitionist) wikipedia

Brown and his armed men soon traveled into Missouri, freed the five members of Daniel’s family and five more enslaved people from a neighboring plantation, while another group of men freed a woman from a nearby farm and killed her former slaveholder. Then the entire party headed back to Kansas together, hiding out for a month, where a baby was born and christened John Brown.

In January 1859, this group of eleven, and their newest addition, headed North towards Nebraska, and freedom, under the armed protection of Brown and his men. In 82 days, this veritable “slave stampede” crossed the Missouri River, worked their way east with help from the underground railroad network in Iowa, and travelled to Chicago by train. After traveling nearly 1,500 miles, on March 12, 1859, they arrived in Detroit, and crossed the Detroit River by ferry to Windsor, Canada. [1]

Fergus M. Bordewich’s work Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005) is filled with such tales of thrilling and improbable escapes to freedom. The book details the people, both black and white, behind the Underground Railroad, one of America’s most mystifying legends. Historians have hailed the work as a significant contribution to the literature.  Stanley Harrold, for one, writes that Bound for Canaan is “the first truly comprehensive treatment of the Underground Railroad in over a century, and by far the best.”[2]

Bordewich details dozens of stories of mass escapes even though he does not use the term “stampede” to describe any of them. Perhaps that is because several of the escapes he describes involved extended families. But others involved strangers, working together, almost in acts of collective insurrection. For instance, eighteen enslaved men stole a ship from the harbor of Northampton County, Virginia and sailed it to New York City [3].

garner article

News clipping of the “Margaret Garner Incident” courtesy of Cincinnati History Library and Archive.

The Garners, a family of eight fleeing slavery in Kentucky in 1856, are an important example of a family stampede. Their story ended in tragedy when they were recaptured in Cincinnati. Instead of seeing her children returned to slavery, Margaret Garner killed her young daughter. Abolitionists used the event to highlight the horrors of slavery [4].

Other intriguing references to group escapes are less detailed. Bordewich notes massive numbers of enslaved people making a run to Canada in the days leading up to the Civil War. He writes that in April 1861, the “Detroit Daily Advertiser reported that 300 fugitives had passed through…[Detroit] en route to Canada within the previous few days, 190 of them on April 8 alone,”[5]. Despite all of these references to large groups or extended families escaping together, Bordewich does not use the term “slave stampedes,” nor even “group” or “mass” escape. He doesn’t seem to consider this as a separate category of analysis.  In addition for the particular interests of this project, Bordewich’s research is national in scope, meaning references to Missouri are quite limited. Yet overall, Bound for Canaan allows for a greater understanding of the inner workings of the Underground Railroad and paints a detailed portrait of the people behind the scenes. Although, the words “slave stampede” are not actually used, it brings forth untold stories of groups of enslaved freedom coming together in ways that deserve careful attention from this project.



[1] Fergus M. Bordewich. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HaperCollins Publishers Inc, 2005), 419-20.  NOTE: Later editions of Bordewich’s book use a different subtitle:  The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.”

[2] Stanley Harrold, review of Bound for Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich, Civil War History 52 (Sept. 2006): 310-12.

[3] Bordewich, 272

[4] Bordewich, 401- 405

[5] Bordewich, 429