Wilmington, Abolition and the Underground Railroad

Most Americans are familiar with the term “underground railroad” and understand it to be the extensive network of planned escape routes with secret stations and coded messages along the way that assisted black slaves in the American South in escaping to freedom and a better life in the North and in Canada. The same is believed about North Carolina regarding slaves longing to escape northward, and awaiting a signal that might help them to find liberty in the

“Free States.” But how true is this romantic image of high drama, and how much is the stuff of legend? While there is no question that many antebellum slaves might have departed their plantations with the intention of discarding slavery, there is little if any hard evidence that there was an active “underground railroad” in existence in the Cape Fear region either before or during the War Between the States.

For many years Wilbur Seibert’s 1898 “The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom” was a staple for researchers, though it was written many years after the War and depended greatly on the memoirs of white abolitionists who put themselves at the center of slave escapes northward. Another book about this legend is William Still’s “The Underground Railroad” (1872) which was written by an African-American in Philadelphia, though he relied upon stories and what is best termed hearsay to illuminate his book. His approach differed from Seibert’s as he made the slaves the initiators of the quest for freedom and minimized the white abolitionists claims of great accomplishment.

An “Underground Railroad” In Wilmington?
A port city like Wilmington might seem to offer an easier way for a slave to find passage elsewhere—as slaves who lived along the coast were given much freedom to move freely and pilot boats on the rivers and sounds. It was very possible that slaves could have been attracted to a passing ship and thoughts of a better life, but this was also dangerous since the runaway slave could be easily impressed into slavery as a deck hand, or sold and re-enslaved in Cuba or the West Indies by the crew eager for profit. More often, slaves would leave a plantation and live among others in the many swamp communities of Negroes and Maroons along the coast and in impenetrable forests. This had been common since the 1760’s and many times white militia was sent to destroy these refuges that harbored runaways. A Connecticut visitor to the South wrote in 1818 that traveling without a pistol was dangerous given “the great number of runaway Negroes” that would hide in the camps by day and plunder neighboring plantations by night. One of these camps holding about 80 runaway slaves was said to be located in northern Onslow County, about 50 miles above Wilmington in the early 1820’s.

It should be remembered that the plantation was not a walled prison and slaves could easily walk away, though unsure of a better life awaiting them elsewhere. If they ventured northward, they could easily find a living environment less hospitable than the one they left as Northerners were commonly unfriendly toward free blacks and ostracized them. In the case of William Riley who came to Niagara (Canada) in 1802, his daughter related that “My father…was a slave. No he did not run away. He came with his master all the way from Fredericksburg, Virginia, driving the carriage with six horses” and staying at Niagara Falls. Riley met a gentleman from Niagara and walked across the Niagara Gorge to what he envisioned as freedom, but what were usually poverty and a bleak future. More on the reality of Canada below.

While slaves running away from their owners is not known to be widespread in the Cape Fear region preceding the War Between the States, one of the few mentioned is Abraham Galloway from Brunswick County. Galloway is claimed to have left his owner in 1857 and traveled to Philadelphia, then to Canada and finally settling in Ohio and becoming an abolitionist, (Strength Through Struggle, Bill Reaves). At that time, Ohio was a dangerous place to proclaim oneself an abolitionist after Elijah Lovejoy was murdered there in 1837 for simply printing abolitionist literature. Galloway did not linger long in Philadelphia, a city described by Frederick Douglas as “a city in which prejudice against color is…rampant.” During the War Between the States, recruiting blacks in Philadelphia for Northern military service had to be done clandestinely and gathering places held in secret so as not to alarm white citizens, and those black soldiers could not be armed until they left the city.
During the War Between the States, 2 Wilmington-area slaves did turn themselves over to Northern officers on a blockading ship on June 14, 1862. Both Peter Smith and Jack Rutledge of Smithville (now Southport) were taken aboard and put to work on the USS Victoria.

There is little if any real evidence of an organized network of slave escape routes in North Carolina despite Quaker anti-slavery activity in central North Carolina, and the publications of editors like William Swaim of Greensboro who advocated the abolition of slavery in the late 1820’s. The form of abolition advocated then was not violent as the Northern abolitionists promoted, it was emancipation and repatriation to the African homeland in order to right the wrongs of British and New England slave-traders who brought them as slaves to these shores.  To this end Judge William Gaston, in his address to the Literary Societies in 1832, made his famous plea to the young men of North Carolina to “realize their duty of taking up that great problem and removing the burden of slavery which was depressing the influence, the development, and the best interests of the State.”

Moreover, the abolition of slavery “was being freely discussed in the State and was favored by many of our best and wisest men.” Unfortunately, this anti-slavery sentiment was brought to an unfortunate end by extreme northern abolitionists who encouraged slave uprisings which led to the 1831 Nat Turner brutal murder of 60 white men, women and children in Southampton County, Virginia. From that point on, Southerners lived in constant fear as abolitionists intensified their attacks on the slaveholding South and advanced no practical solution to slavery other than racial warfare. An irony exists here with the New Englanders who might have been sympathetic to the plight of the black slaves, being descended from the slave traders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island who grew wealthy selling slaves for labor on plantations. To underscore this irony, in his “Myths of American Slavery, author Walter D. Kennedy states: “during the life of the underground railroad (approximately forty years), it is estimated that about 75,000 slaves escaped…In just one year alone, the (New England) slave traders brought about 74,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas.” Would the slaves actually better their lives by fleeing to the people who enslaved them?

Emancipation Societies in the South:
The earliest American journals advocating emancipation and abolition were published, one by a Southern man and one on Tennessee soil. By 1824, the Tennessee Manumission Society had twenty branches and 700 members, and in 1825, William Swaim was publishing the Patriot in Greensborough, North Carolina, which contained much anti-slavery matter. By 1827, there were 130 Abolition Societies in the United States, of which 106 were in the then slave-holding States. Virginia had 8 of these societies, Tennessee had 25 with a membership of 1000, and North Carolina had 50 with a membership of 3000.

North Carolina’s Early Efforts to End Slavery:
The voluntary emancipation of slaves was well in underway in antebellum North Carolina as the State counted 30,000 free blacks out of a total black population of 361,000 in 1860, and this was the result of manumission (emancipation) by slaveholders through deed and will, as well as slaves who purchased freedom from their owners. The Federal census of 1850 showed 434,495 free blacks in the U.S., and growing to 484,070 by the 1860 census and the vast majority living in the South. Interestingly, though Harriet Tubman is credited with guiding 300 runaway slaves into Canada, her humanitarian efforts are dwarfed by the voluntary manumission and emancipation of slaves in the antebellum South which created a steadily increasing free-black population of over 250,000 below Mason and Dixon’s line by 1860. Tubman may be lionized as the “Black Moses,” but it was the slaveholders of the South who greatly increased the free-black population of the South by voluntarily freeing their slaves.

The anti-slavery efforts of North Carolinians began in earnest in the 1760’s at the height of British importation of African slaves here. North Carolinians gave evidence of displeasure concerning the British (and New England) slave trade in August 1774, when colonial representatives resolved in convention “that we will not import any slave or purchase any slaves or slaves after the first day of November next”, which was modeled upon Virginia’s anti-slave importation resolution of May 1769. In both cases, the Royal Governor refused to consider the ban on importing slaves and were simply following the dictates of the Crown.

The Revolution interrupted the slave trade into North Carolina, but in an effort to defeat the American independence movement Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s proclaimed that on November 7, 1775, that “all indentured servants, Negroes, or others…are free, that all able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesties Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty’s Crown and dignity.”

Almost immediately some three hundred blacks joined Dunmore’s forces and other bondsmen rushed toward Norfolk to fight for the British. With nearly two thousand men under his command, of whom half were black, Lord Dunmore posed a serious threat to the revolutionary movements in Virginia and North Carolina, and this was the origin of Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence regarding King George fomenting slave insurrection in the colonies. While not all blacks fought for the British, it is known that free blacks were more likely to join with the patriots, and freed slaves would fight against American independence. Abraham Lincoln would later copy Dunmore’s proclamation, and free blacks volunteered for Confederate service.

The end of the Revolution witnessed very strong anti-slavery sentiment and emancipation societies were becoming frequent in the South by 1800, with one-half the delegates to the American Abolition Conventions coming from the South between 1794 and 1809, after that date none came from beyond Tennessee and North Carolina.

It was in 1819, that Reverend William Meade organized a branch of the American Colonization Society in Raleigh, with Governor John Branch as President. By 1829, eleven branches of this Society existed in North Carolina, and they conveyed freed blacks to Liberia, Haiti, Indiana, Ohio and Philadelphia. The Quakers of North Carolina were involved in this project as well, thinking repatriation of black people as the best solution to the problem of slavery here. We know too that Eastern North Carolina sent many freed slaves to Liberia—in 1825, the former slaves of David Patterson of Orange County set sail, and Thomas Lassiter’s freed slaves from Halifax sailed in 1845. In 1827, the brig “Nautilus” left Norfolk with 164 free born blacks aboard from Wayne, Pasquotank and Perquimans Counties, with the Carolina Observer newspaper remarking that the “good wishes of this State attend them.”

The Underground Railroad: Legend, or Fact?
There are two well-researched books on the subject of the underground railroad legend and slavery in the North, which were published in 1961, both and serve as objective and scholarly investigations into the subjects.

Leon Litwack’s “North of Slavery,” uncovers the extreme antagonism toward the black man very common in the antebellum north;and in “The Liberty Line, The Legend of the Underground Railroad,” Larry Gara found little evidence of any well-organized or widespread underground railroad in the North. Both books ably demonstrate that the facts do not support the legend or a widespread escape network we have come to believe existed.

The legend of the underground railroad “is a melodrama,” claims author Larry Gara in The Liberty Line. “The villains are the slave catchers and their vicious bloodhounds; occasionally the master himself is depicted as the slave-hunter. The abolitionists…are idealists of fortitude and courage…possessing the traits of character which ennobled and dignified human nature.” Gara continues, “The villain too is a stereotype.

He is a mean Southerner, a term synonymous in the popular legend with the slaveholder or defender of the slave system. He too, is something other than human, in this case something less. The whole antebellum South was a dismal swamp of slavery—a cesspool of vice—and the inhabitants lacked ethical principles or the rudiments of human decency…God-fearing and righteous New Englanders on the one side and the wicked Southerners on the other.”

Where Did The Legend Originate?

Gara’s conclusion is that “the underground railroad was primarily the creation of postwar abolitionists” embellishing their anti-slavery credentials, possibly to obtain well-paying posts in the radical Republican administrations, or for sheer vanity. The author points out that after examining the traditional sources, it seemed obvious that “the legend was a mixture of fact and fiction” as it was grounded in the memoirs and reminiscences of descendants and friends of white abolitionists. To underscore this reasoning, Gara states that in 1991 an archeology graduate student at the University of Akron conducted an archeological search of 17 historic Ohio houses said to have been connected with the underground railroad. The student’s conclusion was that none of the homes he examined had tunnels or secret places of concealment. “If such constructions existed at all,” he wrote, “they must be extremely rare.” As Gara points out, “Most legends have many versions and the story of the underground railroad is not exception. Few people can provide details when asked about the institution (and) specific information is usually crowded out by vague generalizations. The underground railroad is accepted on faith as part of America’s heritage.”

Free Blacks in the North:
By 1800, some 36,505 northern blacks still remained in bondage, most of them in New York and New Jersey. By 1830, conditional emancipation had virtually eliminated slavery in former slave-trading States by legislative action, or selling slaves for labor in the South as Northerner Eli Whitney’s invention made cotton production more profitable. Interestingly, the New England slave trade was still flourishing by 1861 with the ship “Nightingale” of Boston commanded by Francis Bowen, being captured “off the African coast with 961 Negroes on board and expecting more.” Ironically, Captain John Newland Maffitt, a famous Confederate blockade runner was actively intercepting New England slave ships in the late 1850’s as a US Navy captain.

Antebellum free-blacks in New York could not vote without minimum property ownership, and black New York minister Samuel E. Cornish saw New York City as tainted with “an ever-present, ever-crushing Negro hate.”

Frederick Douglas saw Philadelphia in much the same way. As an example of free-blacks prospering in the South, in 1850 Buffalo free-blacks held $57,610 in property, while in New Orleans free-blacks held $2,354, 640.

It is important to note that freedom did not necessarily confer citizenship on free blacks in the North until the post-civil war era, and most Northern whites would maintain a careful distinction between granting blacks legal protection (which slaves also enjoyed in the South) and political and social equality. Despite the absence of slavery in the North, one observer remarked, “chains of a stronger kind still manacled their limbs from which no legislative act could free them; a mental and moral subordination and inferiority, to which tyrant custom has here subjected all the sons and daughters of Africa.” If a slave running away from a North Carolina plantation thought his life would be better in the North, he would find that not much would change except he or she had no one to care for them.

The State of Massachusetts wanted no blacks, free or otherwise within their borders after the elimination of bondage. The legislature voted “to expel all Negroes who were not citizens of one of the States.” Boston authorities sought to implement this measure in 1800 by ordering the immediate deportation of 240 Negroes in the State, most of them natives of Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, and the West Indies. This was the State which formed the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, though the reason was to allow white citizens to avoid service while counting black soldiers against the general State quota of troops.

The black man was not welcome in Ohio as an aroused populace forcibly thwarted an attempt to settle the 518 emancipated slaves of Virginia’s John Randolph. Defending that action, an Ohio congressman warned “the banks of the Ohio (River) would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves.” Ohio also provided a classic example of how anti-immigration legislation could be invoked to harass Negro residents. After 1829, when “the rapid increase of the Negro population alarmed Cincinnati…white mobs roamed through Cincinnati’s Negro quarters, spreading terror and destruction.” Subsequently, the Negro residents sent a delegation to Canada to explore emigration and returned with a cordial invitation from the governor of Upper Canada. An estimated 1100 to 2200 Negroes then departed from the city to settle in Canada.

Three States—Illinois, Indiana and Oregon—incorporated anti-immigration provisions into their constitutions. “The tendency, strong and irresistible, of the American mind,” an Indianan declared, “is finally to accomplish a separation of the two races.” In 1856, the Indiana State Supreme Court ruled “the policy of the State is…is to exclude any further ingress of Negroes, and to remove those already among us as speedily as possible.” By 1840, some 93% of the Northern free-black population lived in States, which completely or practically excluded them from the right to vote. Only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine (where most Negroes were deported) could blacks vote on an equal basis with whites.

After visiting New York in 1832, an English traveler assessed the Negroes position and concluded: “To be worth $250 (the requirement of financial worth for blacks to vote) is not a trifle for a man doomed to toil in he lowest stations; few Negroes are in consequence competent to vote. They are in fact little better than slaves, although called free.”

(Carl D. Arfwedson, The United States and Canada in 1832, 1833 and 1834. London, 1834).

Canada: Slaves and Free Blacks:
The legend of the underground railroad tells us that the terminus was in Canada where freedom could be realized for the escaped slave. This was the case since the Northern States, especially New York was not a hospitable environment for the black man, and the threat of capture and return to slavery would always hover over him. Also, life for the free black in Canada was little different than the free black in the North or South, and freed-black Nelson Moss said that he had suffered more from prejudice during three years in Pennsylvania than as a free-black in Virginia. The Canadians were not eager to allow unlimited numbers of ex-slaves in their country and an 1851 Toronto newspaper editorial wanted the government to impose “restrictive immigration measures to check the influx of Negroes” from the United States.

What was Canada’s own experience with African slavery?
The history of slavery in Canada began in 1682 when British sea captain David Kirke brought to New France a native of Madagascar, selling him quickly as Canada’s first slave (Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, Power & Butler, 1993). By 1760, it is estimated that 1100 black slaves lived in New France, mostly around Montreal and working as house servants or farm labor. In the treaties between France and England that ended warfare in 1760 and 1763, the victorious English guaranteed that African servitude would be protected in British North America. By 1784 there were over 4000 blacks in Canada with at least 1800 of them held in bondage. Additionally, many slaves were Indians, and many Indians held black slaves.

The British carried on an unofficial slave trade during the American Revolution as they captured black slaves from in New England and New York, and sold them on the Montreal slave market. Some Canadian military officers captured slaves in New York and continued to hold them in bondage on their own estates. The irony of this is demonstrated with the British policy of offering freedom to black slaves who would rise up against their owners in the American South in 1775 and flee to British lines.

The Slave Bill of 1793 in Canada did not free one slave, though it forbade the importation of slaves into the province. The children of slaves born after the date of the act would be free on their twenty-fifth birthday, and the children of these children would be born free. This was somewhat humanitarian, but the act made it difficult if not impossible to voluntarily free slaves.  An unforeseen result of the 1793 act occurred in 1805 after the Michigan Territory was incorporated into the United States.

After 1805, local laws against slavery were strictly enforced in Michigan and the territory immediately became a haven for enslaved Canadian blacks escaping across the border. So many slaves fled Canadian slave owners that they demanded that Lt. Governor Francis Gore intervene to stop the exodus.

The 1793 Act’s ban on importing slaves made American blacks free upon reaching Canadian territory, and this news traveled quickly after 1812. Faced with a swelling black population of runaway slaves in the Northern States, which threatened the white electorate, State legislatures began passing laws restricting the franchise of free blacks.

The life of free blacks and slaves in Canada was not comfortable, and in most cases the white social elite saw them as “pilferers, liars and thieves.” After the War of 1812, most Canadian slave-owners preferred to free their slaves rather than provide for them, especially in infirmity and old age. With the very small number of free blacks in white-dominated Canadian communities, the electorate was not threatened as the blacks seemed to avoid voting in blocs and thus avoided any residency or financial worth requirements that disenfranchised Northern US free-blacks who would bloc-vote and swing elections. Canadian schools were rigidly segregated with the Common School Act of 1850 setting this into law, and like churches in the American South, Canadian congregations had blacks among them, but in 1839 according to Mary Ann Guillian, black Baptists took over the chapel and created a segregated congregation.

The New York Herald devoted an eight-column article on January 5, 1860 to the issue of runaway slaves and “described the settlements of escaped “servants” in Ontario, Canada, a terminus of the underground railroad. Its conclusion was that “the fugitive slaves go into Canada as beggars and the mass of them commit larceny and lay in jail until they become lowered and debased, and ready for worse crimes”(Weisberger). There was occasion when runaway slaves were returned to the US, which was the case if they were wanted for criminal prosecution.

The low esteem black British soldiers were held in was demonstrated by the “Colored Corps” veterans who served in the military and received only half the land promised to white veterans. Blacks in Canada performed menial labor and many joined the Colored Corps simply for a regular income. Most of the black men in the Corps in 1839 were illiterate with 40 out of 48 men making marks for their signatures. At the census of 1871, nearly 30% of Canada’s black population was illiterate.

The legend of the underground railroad has become an American institution, and believed despite facts to the contrary. As has been stated, black slaves left their plantations for many reasons that include a desire to be free, whatever that meant to them, though the North offered little better than the life they led as slaves. Being a free black in the North seemed better than an enslaved black in the South—but to understand the legend that might have connected the two, it was necessary to review the context of the early 19th century as it related to the black man in both sections. The question remains; if antebellum emancipation was an ongoing occurrence in the South, as it had been in the North, why was a fraternal war fought to end the institution?  Was there not a better way to finally end African slavery in the United States?

The solution to African slavery in the United States could have been found in a peaceful and continuing emancipation process, and the steadily increasing number of free blacks in the South were a testament to this preferable process. Had the extreme abolitionists of the North not agitated and politicized what remained of this unfortunate institution in the South, one million American lives lost in war could have been saved. As was clearly demonstrated later in Brazil as that country accelerated the emancipation of slaves, the growing numbers of free blacks would eventually speed the demise of slavery in their midst.