Did the enslaved try to flee from bondage?

From the earliest days of slavery, many of those enslaved were determined to seek freedom in any way possible.  Virginia’s first newspaper – the Virginia Gazette – began publishing in 1736 and often included advertisements for the return of run-away slaves in what is now Arlington.

Jumping a trading ship headed north (Fig. 1) was one way those enslaved tried to flee. Absconding into Washington (Fig. 2) was another. And some fled and joined French forces fighting with colonists during the Revolutionary War (Fig. 3). Some obtained cheap “forged papers” (Fig. 4) to facilitate their freedom.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. Edward Burke of Arlington House fled to New York on a trading vessel. Daily National Intelligencer, July 10, 1839.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. Bazil Hall of Hall’s Hill sought Jenny, who escaped to DC. Six years later, Jenny killed Hall’s wife, Elizabeth. Daily National Intelligencer, September 21, 1852.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3. George sought freedom by joining French troops heading north. Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, September 1, 1782.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4. Betsy and Kidder ran from Arlington House using forged papers to facilitate their journey. Daily National Intelligencer, July 19, 1831.

Fleeing bondage was difficult and dangerous, and it took great courage.  Some absconded despite speaking little or no English (Fig. 3). Most had nothing but the clothes on their backs. The majority were in their late teens and 20s when they ran although a few were older men and women (Fig. 5). The path to freedom meant leaving one’s family, the life they had always known, and risk of injury.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5: A distraught Ally “lurked” near Arlington House where she had formerly been enslaved. No doubt, her loved ones remained there. Ally was an “older” run away, “between 30 and 40 years of age.” National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, July 17, 1809.

What might it have felt like to be held in bondage?

The life of an enslaved person was difficult, and for the many separated from loved ones, very traumatic.  It could also be physically painful – the descriptions in runaway slave ads often identify the runaway as having specific disfigurations such as scars or missing fingers, (Fig. 6), some of which may have been inflicted by enslavers as punishments.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6. Orville, the enslaved of B.W. Hunter, had a “scar on his forehead.” Alexandria Gazette, September 3, 1857.

A life of bondage was also brutal in even the most basic way – rarely were the enslaved referred to as anything but their first names.  And public records, like the US Census and other records of the time, usually didn’t even list a name but only tallied the age and gender of the individual enslaved (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Fig. 7: Enslaved were listed by age and gender under the names of their enslavers. Whether they were mulatto “M” or black “B” was also documented. US Federal Census, Slave Schedule, 1850. Ancestry.com

Despite the conditions, people prevailed over their bondage through intelligence and determination. Some became skilled craftsmen, like carpenters or cooks.  Among those, some were permitted to keep a portion of wages paid when they were “rented out” to others or sold goods or services in their spare time; saving such payments allowed a limited number to buy their freedom or those of their loved ones.

Courage, cunning, and determination were hallmarks of those thousands who attempted to emancipate themselves, including those who tried more than once.  Fleeing north with no map to guide them. Sneaking onto and hiding on a merchant ship destined for a free state. Creating documents that could pass as papers attesting to them as freed slaves.

Wherever people were held in bondage, people dreamed of freedom – and many found a way to secure it.

Where did the enslaved live and when were they held in bondage?

Most of those enslaved in what is today Arlington County lived and worked on the estates of three families: the Custis, Mason, and Alexander families. Custis property included what is now Arlington National Cemetery and beyond. The Mason property included Theodore Roosevelt Island and went almost as far as present-day Chain Bridge. National Airport now sits on what was the Alexander lands, which stretched into present day Alexandria and were also temporarily owned by the Custis family.

But there were smaller enslavers, too, who maintained farms of varying sizes.  For example, Robert Cruit owned five enslaved people on his midsized farm, which was located where Lyon Village is now (Fig. 8). 

Fig. 8

Fig. 8: The blue rectangle marks the location of the Cruit farm. The farmhouse still stands at 1614 N. Highland Street. “Map of the Environs of Washington, 1862-1865,” Library of Congress.

James Birch’s Tavern at Balls Crossroads was another type of enslaver and work (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9

Fig. 9: In addition to plantation owners and farmers, small businessmen and women such as James Burch, who ran an inn or tavern, also used enslaved labor. Daily National Intelligencer, September 9, 1820.

What conditions drove the enslaved to seek freedom?

Details about the treatment of those enslaved on Arlington estates and farms is difficult to find, but a picture can be gleaned from various sources, including advertisements in colonial newspapers.

Very often, (Fig. 10) the enslaved absconded from their enslavers, not only in the pursuit of liberty, but to find or return to their loved ones – friends and family from whom enslavers had separated them, often for financial gain. Ads for runaway slaves often mentioned this motive, showing their enslaver’s awareness of their bondspeople’s love for their families.

Fig. 10

Fig. 10: Sarah and Rebecca, sisters, left the Sommers’ domicile to find their mother, Maria Simpson, in DC. Daily National Intelligencer, July 7, 1841.

There were no good masters. Most enslaved were provided food and shelter and usually minimal clothing, but they worked how, where, and as long as their enslavers desired. They were also sold or rented out like other farm assets. Enslavers who were short of money split up families, selling mothers or fathers, and sometimes children, as though they were no different than a horse or furniture (Fig. 11). They also earned income from renting out some of those they enslaved who had skills such as driving, sewing, or cooking (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11

Fig. 11: A prominent citizen, Wesley Carlin, sold two young girls along with furniture and farm gear. Alexandria Gazette, January 31, 1849.

Fig. 12

Fig. 12: Hiring out the enslaved was very common in Arlington. In this advertisement, W.D. Wallach sought out two such hires. Alexandria Gazette, December 18, 1851.

Where did the enslaved flee?

Many enslaved people fled to the District of Columbia (DC), as enslavers well knew.  From 1800 to 1846, Arlington was part of DC. Despite crossing the Potomac, they did not enter a new jurisdiction. Some took flight there to rejoin loved ones and some to lose themselves in a city. 

But in the decades after the American Revolution, as Northern states began abolishing slavery, the North became the destination of many, and fewer runaways stayed in the DC area.  Enslaved people fled there in whatever way possible – often by foot, many times chased by slave hunters, and some by stowing away on merchant ships.

What were enslavers’ attitudes towards them?

Clearly, many enslavers viewed those they held in bondage as commodities to be bought, used, and, if desired, sold. Between 1790 and 1860, more than one million slaves were sold South, mostly from Virginia. From Alexandria, the home of Franklin & Armfield, a business which bought enslaved and sold them in Natchez and New Orleans at great profit, long lines of shackled people were forced to walk hundreds of miles to their next enslavers. So many walked the route across Virginia – along what is now Little River Turnpike then down through the mountains – that local people sometimes complained about the traffic jams caused by long lines of shackled people (Fig. 13 and 14).

Fig. 13

Fig. 13: Print of the infamous Franklin and Armfield slave prison in Alexandria City at 1315 Duke Street. A coffle line of shackled “chattel” is shown being led past the site, 1836. Library of Congress.

Fig. 14

Fig. 14: Frankling & Armfield, a slave trading firm operated in Alexandria City from 1828 to 1836 selling thousands into slavery further into the South. Alexandria Gazette, September 30, 1834.

As commodities, the flight of an enslaved person was expensive for the owners, who offered rewards and often expenses to whomever found and returned the individuals. Payment could be considerable: a house servant and dairy maid fled the Arlington estate of the Custis family and the equivalent of roughly $4,700 in today’s dollars – plus expenses – was offered to the person who could “secure them in any jail” until they could be returned (Fig. 4)

Runaways caught in other localities were jailed in those jurisdictions. Law enforcement officers informed enslavers through newspaper ads about the imprisonment of their chattel. If left unclaimed, the captives were generally auctioned to the highest bidder and the funds used for the jurisdiction (Fig. 15).

Fig. 15

Fig. 15: Keeper of the Jail for DC, C. Tippett, warned he would sell the fleeing Rosanna “as directed by law.” National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, June 19, 1809.

The possibility that some enslavers may have felt conflicted about possessing other human beings is reflected in the fact that some, usually upon their death, manumitted – or freed – them from bondage (Fig. 16). Sometimes their heirs freed them and some even provided money to help those they formerly enslaved resettle elsewhere (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16

Fig. 16: In his 1854 will, Bazil Williams manumitted all of his enslaved. Virginia Wills and Probate Records, Ancestry.com.

Among those freeing their enslaved, some were supporters of the African Colonization Movement, which asserted black and white people couldn’t live together. Bazil Williams was one such supporter. In his will (Fig. 17) he provided each freed individual with $20 to use either to resettle in Liberia or the western US territories. Census records from 1860-1900 show, however, that many of his ex-slaves moved to Washington, DC with their families.

Fig. 17

Fig. 17: Bazil Williams knew the law directed ex-enslaved to leave Arlington within a year of being freed. Williams provided money in his will to facilitate their resettlement. Many freed Virginians, including Williams, ignored the law and remained in the area.

George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of George and Martha Washington, and his wife Mary, also supported the movement and helped free a few of those held at Arlington House so they could resettle in Liberia.

Custis manumitted some enslaved people during his lifetime, and at least one received land on which to begin a new life. That woman was Maria Syphax, (Fig. 18) the daughter of Custis and an enslaved woman named Arianna Carter. Maria, freed in 1825, was shortly thereafter given 17 acres at the edge of the Custis estate. The Syphax family has lived in Arlington continuously since that time and has been active in various ways in public and private positions.

Fig. 18

Fig. 18: Maria Syphax,1870. Daguerreotype, National Park Service