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Slave Resistance in the American North

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Overview

African Americans in the North resisted the institution of slavery through a variety of means, heavily dependent upon individuals’ gender, location, proximity to the American Revolution, religion, opportunity to interact with other African Americans, occupation, level of education, and age.[1] Preserved through various newspaper accounts, court records, legal records, church records, slave narratives, and a myriad of other documentation, slave resistance in the North was a common facet of Northern colonial life amidst the dynamic of family slavery, in both rural and urban areas. Many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have studied slavery in the North, coming to a variety of conclusions regarding slave resistance; reflecting the social and political movements such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement, contemporary to their analyses.

There are infinite possibilities when it comes to explaining the patterns of slave rebelliousness in the American North, and there are “almost as many interpretations as there are historians who have investigated this question.”[2] Despite the variation in conclusions drawn throughout the past two centuries of literature, the primary source documentation used by these sources provides evidence of a definitive thesis, that slaves in the American North were agents of their own autonomy, acting out of resistance often, in an attempt to affect their own circumstances and attain liberty through creative and courageous use of the resources at their disposal. Historians such as Graham Russell Hodges, Shane White, and Dana Mayo-Bobee echo such sentiments in their analysis of Northern slavery, and offer authoritative accounts of the gender, political ideology, environment, occupations, and circumstances within which Northern slaves rebelled.


[1] Vincent Rosivoch, “Agricultural Slavery in the Northern Colonies and in Classical Athens: Some Comparisons.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol.35, No.5, (July 1993) p. 551. Using the precedent set by historian Vincent Rosivoch, the American “North” is defined herein as consisting of the colonial territories throughout the expanse of present day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

[2] Douglas Egerton, “Slaves to the Marketplace: Economic Liberty and Black Rebelliousness in the Atlantic World.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol.26, (Winter 2006). p.619.

Documentation and Resources

Newspapers, court cases, and other public documents have allowed historians to reconstruct the lives of slaves in the colonial American North. Nearly fifteen-hundred advertisements for slave sales throughout two Boston news papers, The Boston News Letter, and the Boston Gazette, were published between 1704 and 1781.[1] When the Boston News Letter published its first slave-for-sale notice in 1704, slavery had already existed in Massachusetts for over sixty years.[2] Although slaves didn’t usually explicitly state and leave records of their reasons for choosing a specific moment to run away or pose legal resistance to their enslavement, one can extract much about their lives and experiences using the existing documentation of their rebellion.[3] In a variety of documents ranging from advertisements searching for people looking to sell their male or female “healthy slaves” under twenty-five years of age,[4] to advertisements offering rewards of shillings, pounds, dollars, and other means of reward such as pistols[5] for the return of escaped slaves, much information can be deducted about the abuse carried out towards slaves, the cultural lives slaves lived, and the various means of resistance they employed in their rebellion.

Unlike the slave dealer, who in advertising, “employed all the subterfuge of high pressure salesmanship in order to dispose of his wares,” the owner of runaway slaves gave as honest and precise a description of his slave as possible, on the premise that the more detailed of a description he or she provided, the greater the possibility of recovering his or her fugitive property. Thus, advertisements for runaway slaves are a repository of invaluable information which, when collected, analyzed, and synthesized, provides an otherwise unobtainable “picture of the slave personality.”[6]


[1] Robert Desrochers, “Slave-For-Sale advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.59, No.3, (July 2002),, p. 624.

[2] Desrochers, p.641.

[3]Dinah Mayo-Bobee, “Servile Discontents: Slavery and Resistance in Colonial New Hampshire, 1645-1785. Slavery and Abolition. Vol.30, No.3, (September 2009), P. 340.

[4] “Slaves,” The Boston Evening Post, Boston. (July 3, 1773).

[5] Gabrielle Stelle. The American Weekly Mercury, Shrewsbury New Jersey, (August 1, 1723).

[6] Lorenzo Greene. “The New England Negro as Seen in Advertisements for Runaway Slaves,” The Journal of Negro History. Vol.29, No.2, (April 1944), p. 127.

Background Information

Slavery existed in the Northern colonies from the early days of settlement, as in other American colonies. Although important to the society and economy, slavery did not come to dominate the economy as it did in the southern colonies. While slavery saturated American society, slave labor did not supply a major portion of the Northern economy’s labor demands, nor did slavery “play an extensive role in the operation of commerce” according to historian Aileen Agnew.[1] Often labeled as “Family Slavery”[2] because of the physical proximity and psychological bonds between masters and slaves families in the North, slavery was introduced into New England about 1638, when Captain William Pierce brought a cargo “of salt, cotton, tobacco, and negroes” into Boston Harbor. According to the writings of historian Lorenzo Greene, the total number of slaves at any given time never exceeded the “approximate figure of 16,034 reached on the eve of the American Revolution” because of economic and geographic factors which limited slavery’s profitability in the Northern colonies.[3] Northern slaves helped with “small scale subsistence agriculture” instead of the large scale plantation labor employed by southern colonies.[4] The social dimension of this sort of slavery in the Northern colonies was one in which agricultural slaves performed principally the same kind of labor as free men, lessening the social distance between freedom and slavery; Northern slaves did not replace, but instead merely supplemented, their owners’ labor.[5]

In the North, patriarchal values were reinforced by religion, such as was exhibited among Quaker slave-owners. Although Quakers adhered to patriarchal roles within their own families, they denied the male authority of patriarchy to their male slaves. Living and working in close proximity to their slaves, the majority of Quakers balked at granting to enslaved men the means to achieve self sufficiency, let alone the authority to become master of their own independent households.[6]

Slavery among the Puritans assumed a patriarchal hierarchy, patterned by the Puritans to resemble that of the ancient Hebrews. Slaves were considered to be submissive to their masters’ family. Often, New England slaves worked side by side with their owners, sleeping in the same house and eating at the same table with their master’s family. As a result of this family dichotomy the New England slave, “generally speaking, never knew the extreme type of slavery to which the blacks of the West Indies and of the antebellum South were subjected. Although Negroes were relatively well-treated in New England, hundreds of them ran away from their masters.”[7] In such an assessment however, scholars such as Lorenzo Greene ignore the psychological, sexual, and physical abuse committed by slave-owners and their families unto their slaves in Northern slaveholding society, because it does not fit into their stereotypical depictions of the dangerous environment for slaves of the plantation south.

Male slaves held a variety of specialized skilled jobs in the Northern colonies, serving as coopers, tailors, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, distillers, shoemakers, bakers, tanners, chimney sweeps, soap makers, potters, chocolate makers, ferriers, potters, ship carpenters, sailors, sawyers, caulkers, and masons, among other skilled labor positions, as evidenced through slave descriptions in slave-for-sale advertisements.[8] In their attempts to retrieve fugitive slaves, owners revealed in runaway slave notices that slaves often served as cooks, chambermaids, field hands, artisans, manufacturers, lumberjacks, maritime workers, and farm hands as well.[9] For example, a slave named Bolton described as having teeth blackened by tobacco, had been employed as a chimney sweep when ran away from James Mills of New York City in September 1749, according to a runaway slave advertisement published in the New York Gazette.[10]

Slavery would seem to be the epitome of domination by an omnipotent master over a submissive, subservient dependent. However, slavery was not a one-way street in which owners influenced their slaves; slaves in the North heavily influenced the lives of their masters as well. Historian Gad Heuman asks how such control by the slaves within a system that so regulated slaves’ daily lives was possible, and concludes that slavery was not just a matter of masters dominating slaves; it was also a case of significant impact of slave rebellion on their masters.[11] In rural counties like Ulster New York, in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in New Jersey, the culture of local blacks was likely Afro-Dutch, as many slaves worked for Dutch farmers in areas where as many as thirty to sixty percent of white households owned slaves. On the farms of rural New York, where saves such as Sojourner Truth lived and worked, one or two slaves commonly lived with a Dutch family. According to historian Nell Painter, such slaves remained too isolated and scattered to forge any but the most tentative separate culture. However, Painter ignores the persistence of West African musical rhythms, dialects, religious beliefs, spiritual practices, and other such traditions among slaves, distinctively different from the cultural practices their Dutch American masters had unsuccessfully attempted to assimilate their slaves into.[12] Slaves in the North resisted the cultural impositions of slavery, and used their cultural heritage as a means of their resistance when other options for liberation were unavailable; in effect preventing physical slavery from becoming complete psychological bondage.


[1] Aileen B. Agnew, “Living in a Material World: African Americans and Economic Identity in Colonial Albany,” In Armstead, Myra B. Young ed., Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley. N.Y.: State University of Albany Press, 2003. p.42.

[2] W. D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth Century New England, M.A.: Amherst, 1988. Chapter 3.

[3] Lorenzo Greene. “The New England Negro as Seen in Advertisements for Runaway Slaves,” The Journal of Negro History. Vol.29, No.2, (April 1944), p. 126.

[4] Rosivoch, p. 553.

[5] Rosivoch, p. 554.

[6] Kristen Block, “Cultivating Inner and Outer Plantations: Property, Industry, and Slavery in Early Quaker Migration to the New World.” Early American Studies, (Fall 2010), p. 550.

[7] Greene, p.126.

[8] Robert Desrochers, “Slave-For-Sale advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.59, No.3, (July 2002), p. 631.

[9] Dinah Mayo-Bobee. “Servile Discontents: Slavery and Resistance in Colonial New Hampshire, 1645-1785. Slavery and Abolition. Vol.30, No.3, (September 2009), p. 342.

[10] James Mills. The New York Gazette, New York City, (September 25, 1749)

[11] Gad Heuman, “America and the Americas: The Response of Slaves” History Today. (April 1984). p.31.

[12] Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. N.Y.: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996. Pp.6-7.

Means of Resistance

In urban areas such as New York City, in which African Americans often had the ability to hire themselves out and thus hold a position in which they could access the public markets, slaves not only obtained goods for their masters; they frequently bought and sold on their own behalf as well, using such items as garden produce, wildlife, fish, limber, and pigs for barter. The production of such items itself embodied a “subversion of the slave system that viewed blacks as passive, will-less dependents.” Thus, even in a state of bondage, slaves secured an identity for themselves as independent participants in economic markets. As evidenced through an analysis of an 18th century merchant’s ledger books, slaves in places like Albany New York created a distinctive consumer identity for themselves, reflecting the constraints of limited incomes, African-derived values, and social relations within the black community. African American slaves in colonial Albany constructed economic and social identities for themselves by making the most of a limited access to the urban North’s busy commercial economy. [1]

The relationship between whites and blacks in New York City was never one of complete subservience. Unlike most blacks in the South, New York blacks were not sheltered from the full impact of white culture by the existence of a plantation community, due to their positions in a variety of trades and communication with other slaves and free blacks on a regular basis. In doing so, slaves in New York City and other urban areas fostered a distinctive culture in which West African heritage was preserved and permeated every aspect of slave life.[2] Many scholars who have studied New York slaves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have assumed that blacks were culturally assimilated quickly within the dominant European-American culture. However, an examination of the linguistic and cultural “style” of black New Yorkers reveals that there was a significant difference in culture between slaveholders and slaves, despite their close living arrangements and working quarters. A sense of cultural distinctiveness that both reinforced continuities with their African past and demonstrated a creative adaptation to the often hostile world of the rapidly changing metropolis was readily apparent in the urban North.[3]

The commercial economy of cities such as Albany and New York City provided slaves with a means of self-expression through economic activity, as slaves were endowed through bartering of the fruits of their own labor, with the ability to obtain goods that constituted desires, as opposed to just the necessities.[4] For most slaves, the work performed under their owner’s direction and in their work as hired help, did not provide many means of self expression. However, when work on slaves’ own time produced what Aileen Agnew states was “admittance to the world of consumer goods,” that work became linked to their own identity as producers and consumers of goods. Enslaved blacks chose specific kinds of work to perform during their ‘free’ time, to produce acceptable items for exchange; in doing so resisting the institution of slavery through their exercising control over a part of their labor.[5] On October 3rd 1746, December 24th 1746, April 2nd 1747, May 23rd 1747, and August 17th 1747, Deerfield Massachusetts merchant Elijah Williams kept entries in his account books in which he included amount of goods or cash slaves paid for the goods they purchased on their own account, such as one man labeled in Williams accounts as “Ishmael, Negro,” having purchased stockings, rum, gloves, and a handkerchief, paid for “by wage” in the equivalent of ₤15.02.[6]

Slaves throughout urban areas of the American North rebelled against the institution of slavery, not merely because their urban setting presented those who lived and labored in close proximity to one another with unique opportunities to organize, or because city environments diminished legal controls over them, but also because it gave slaves a better understanding of cash power through participation in the marketplace on their own behalf.[7] The correlation between urbanization and black rebelliousness has long been recognized, as introducing cash into the labor relationship of slave societies that was designed to be “nonmarket” created a means of economic resistance. Recent scholars of the slaves’ internal economy such as Douglas Egerton suggest that masters turned a blind eye to slave marketeering or hiring out, because it made running their estates less costly. As stated by Egerton, “certainly, men who cared more about their own profit margin than the broader security of white society as a whole, saw little harm in letting their slaves buy or sell wares on the open market.”[8] By participating in an independent market economy that the slaves themselves controlled, the markets served to loosen, “both physically and psychologically,” the bonds of servitude.[9]

Using the leverage which allowed slaves to negotiate for greater freedoms from masters through their ability to regulate their own efficiency, slaves hired themselves out to local employers and cultivated garden plots to acquire cash and goods to barter for the purchase of their freedom and the freedom of loved ones. If owners proved uncooperative, slaves often reciprocated in their job performance, by reporting fake illnesses, slowing their pace of work, damaging tools, or by running away. Thus, slaves established identities for themselves as independent economic actors, even despite their attempted economic debasement by slave society. Slave efforts to secure their freedom through these means intensified once state gradual emancipation laws were in place, such as in New York after 1799. Slaves often leveraged their identities as “economic agents,” through increasingly aggressive activity towards economic and resulting legal freedom.[10] Slaves struggled with their owners regarding the types and amount of work they performed on a daily basis, and exerted some influence in determining who they would serve and the terms of their own labor. “In the wake of the revolution and the bitter struggle over slavery in New York after the war, slaves grew increasingly assertive and insistent in their demands,” ultimately exploiting their own labor to negotiate for their own freedom.[11]

The impact of such autonomy was extensive. In working for others and themselves in different settings, increasingly self-confident slaves grew more assertive in their negotiations with masters and mistresses, demanding greater compromises from their owners. Such freedom constituted virtual emancipation for some slaves, as slaves who worked for themselves labored to make this virtual freedom real by purchasing their freedom outright.[12] Slowing the pace of labor, feigning illness, performing shoddy work, stealing property, and sabotaging tools were just some of the many economic weapons slaves wielded on a daily basis to resist their enslavement through using their own behavior as a means of frightening owners into compliance, or making labor unprofitable to their masters.[13] “Slaves understood that the most effective and practical resistance could not be traced to its perpetrator.” Such resistance was often supported by the system of ethics and morality slaves developed to cope with the injustice and dehumanization of slavery. Slaves argued that nearly everything slaveholders held in their possession was purchased with the slaves’ stolen labor, and slaves often believed that any deception or theft from their master was therefore justified. Lying to and tricking masters was standard practice, since taking something from the master was not stealing, but as slaves reasoned simply redistributing the master’s property, since they themselves were considered to be property.[14] When such methods for negotiation failed, running away served as another costly weapon for slaves to inflict upon uncooperative masters. Through running away, fugitives undermined the master’s authority, “rendering slaveholding more onerous and costly to their owners.”[15]

Some Northern slaves struggled to expand their freedom through legal avenues available to them. In 1635, black slaves who had been hired out in New Netherland petitioned for higher wages in what became one of the first organized job actions by workers in North America. Challenging the still undefined status of slaves in New Netherland, the slaves who had been receiving little payment for their labor organized, meeting at their employer’s headquarters to demand an increase in wages to be paid the same as whites. The company granted their request.[16] When such collective action was unsuccessful, bondsmen and women regularly used the courts, petitioning for their relief, bringing suit, and testifying before the law.[17]

Many masters hired out slaves; however the benefits of hiring came at the cost “a subtle erosion of masters’ control over mobile and more autonomous slaves,” who converted the social capital they gained through the job into dynamic new understandings of their status, the value of their labor, and the resulting possibilities for their freedom. In 1761, an enslaved Bostonian named Cesar, who had been frequently seen in some of the neighboring towns at his work, avoided being caught as a runaway by telling people he was there for work, having been hired out by his master. The rebellious actions of daring bondsmen like Cesar brought many slave-owners closer to the realization that hired hands fit their unpredictable labor needs more efficiently than enslaved ones.[18] John Sparks, a Pennsylvania slave-owner, posted an advertisement offering a $40 reward for the capture of his two runaway slaves, twenty year old men named Tom and Jack. Tom and Jack ran away in February of 1795, and it was assumed by Sparks that his slaves were headed for Philadelphia, where they had previously hired themselves out.[19] In a runaway slave advertisement published in the American Weekly Mercury in Burlington Vermont in 1729, slave-owner Thomas Hunlock warns that his slave named “Mulatto John” had escaped from prison, was said to pretend he’s a “house carpenter by trade” when on the run.[20]

Though their economic power used as a means of autonomy, slaves asserted their economic leverage though negotiations with masters and employers. Most colonial ironmasters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey owned slaves during the eighteenth century, and many still did even into the early nineteenth century. Most ironmasters by the early nineteenth century relied on mixed labor forces of white free workers, hired slaves, and slaves they personally owned. Ironmaster David Ross of New Jersey complained of the rising cost of hiring other master’s slaves. Ross was concerned that hiring other master’s slaves often entailed annual negotiations between master, slave, and employer; in which slaves could exert considerable influence over their legal superiors through their ability to negotiate pay and work pace. Ross’s concerns are evidence of slaves exerting a level of control over their own productivity with a level of influence equal and even superior to that of their white legal superiors.[21]

Slaves did not surrender to the physical and psychological imposition of slavery. Through resistance, slaves refused to be dehumanized by cruel treatment. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, slaves “created and sustained life in the form of families, churches, and associations of all kinds.” These organizations, although often clandestine and fugitive, fragile, and unrecognized by the larger society, became the basis of new linguistic, aesthetic, and philosophical expressions through folk story, music, dance, and food. Both secular and spiritual in their focuses, slave organizations produced leaders and ideas that “redirected the ridicule back at its source, transforming weakness into strength and denying the dispiriting message of inferiority” through slaves’ creativity in resisting the social and economic impositions impressed upon them through the institution of slavery.[22] Fugitive slaves, who had already resisted slavery through fleeing their oppressors, also cooperated with members of societies formed by non-slaves, such as the Massachusetts Society of abolitionists.[23]

Whereas white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts were able to use the press through publications such as the Liberator to resist slavery, the vast majority of usually illiterate slaves resorted to other means of resistance.[24] There is an “inextricable link” in the African American tradition between literacy and freedom. According to Henry Louis Gates, “the slave who learned to read and write was the first to run away… in literacy lay true freedom for the black slave.” African American slave narrators sought to indict both those who enslaved them, and the metaphysical system employed by slaveholding society to justify enslavement. Former slaves such as Sojourner Truth did so using the most enduring weapon at their disposal, the printing press. Each slave author, in writing about his or her personal life experiences, simultaneously wrote on behalf of the millions of silent slaves still held captive under the institution of slavery. [25]

Some slaveholders, such as David Ross, the aforementioned New Jersey ironmaster, encouraged their slaves to marry, a policy meant to promote family stability thus reduce the number of runaways.[26] Although some masters might allow a save to purchase an enslaved spouse, most slaves could not raise the necessary funds even with the added income from hiring themselves out, or selling produce grown in their “free” time. Slave-owners frequently rejected the costs of adding another slave to their households, and couples were forced to live apart; or escape to live together in freedom.[27] Jupiter and Venus, slaves who ran away from their Dover New Hampshire masters in 1741, were believed to have run away with one another. In view of their ages and the infrequency of male and female runaway duos, Jupiter and Venus may have fled to live a marital life in freedom among the free African Americans in the colony. Jupiter, aged thirty-five, and Venus, aged between thirty-five and forty, chose to pursue personal opportunities and experiences they could not pursue in slavery.[28]

Slaves repeatedly demonstrated a preference for the troubles and unpredictability of freedom offered, over the dehumanizing stability of slavery. Neither threats of punishment, nor fear of recapture were enough to discourage slaves from fleeing. For example, Nero, an Exeter slave who ran away from Jonathan Norris in May 1741, left with extra clothing and cash in the form of three guineas and two moidores stolen from his master’s household. With the money, purchasing passage out of America, paying for refuge, migrating to Canada, or hiding in cities like New York City with black populations large enough to provide inconspicuous mobility were possible.[29] By 1747, runaway slaves were welcomed aboard merchant vessels as cheap labor, as runaway slaves often paid for their passage through working on board. Many runaway slaves in Northern coastal areas found asylum on board ships docked in nearby ports, welcomed by captains eager to find the cheap work supplied by the desperate fugitives. For example, Portsmouth New Hampshire and other such towns hosted bustling seaports, making it easy for slaves in such areas to stowaway on departing vessels before they could be captured. John Zabriskie’s Hackensack New Jersey slave named Robin, ran away from Zabriskie in July of 1747. Zabriskie published a runaway slave advertisement in the New York Gazette, to offer a reward for those who would return Robin “to the work house,” as well as to “forewarn masters of all vessels to take him on board” and return him.[30] In October of 1749, George Marple reported the running away of his Spanish-mulatto slave named George, a twenty six year old “shoemaker by trade” from Goshen Neck New Jersey, who had been “privateering” in New York City. Marple warns that the slave “may endeavor to get on board some vessel; for which reason all masters are forewarned taking him on board at their peril.”[31]

Runaway slave advertisements in Northern Newspapers spanning the eighteenth century show that roughly one third of the runaways reported, had physical defects of some kind. These defects included moles, scars, brands, deformities, impaired vision, and loss of limb. While of great value in effecting the prompt identification and apprehension of the fugitive slaves, these defects also show that some of the slaves had suffered harsh punishments at the hands of their masters. For example, two slaves had been branded on the forehead with the letter B” according to the Boston Weekly Post Boy, August 14, 1749.[32] A slave named Quash, with a missing “fore-tooth” ran away in May of 1730, according to the runaway slave advertisement published in the New York Gazette by his master Cornelius DePeyster.[33]

Some slaves fled via the sea to resist the plight of slavery, despite the dangers of punishment if captured. Will, a slave who fled from his Portsmouth master in 1749, likely used the sea as his means of escape. In his 1747 escape from Portsmouth, Will had already lost “one of his little fingers” according to his master Nathan Mendum’s notice of his slave’s escape. Likewise, Cato, another Portsmouth slave, had already lost his right thumb and one of his “fore-teeth” by the time of his escape in 1751. Physical violence was a conventional means of asserting dominance and meting out punishment, however slaves in dangerous occupations were often injured. Nevertheless, along with distinctive scars, missing digits served as identifying marks if a slave ran away, and Northern slave-holders certainly abused their slaves; using violence as a means of punishment, intimidation, and identification. Frequent descriptions of seriously scarred slaves in runaway slave advertisements highlight the ineffectiveness of colonial laws against cruelty and disfigurement exerted towards slaves. Although newly arriving slaves from Africa often bore self-inflicted scarification that denoted tribal relationships or nationality, since most of Northern slaves were young creoles from the West Indies or native to the colony, it is highly unlikely that such marks were self-inflicted. Slaves sometimes lost appendages or were cut and scarred in their work, however many were beaten or maimed as punishments for running away or committing some other crime in resistance to enslavement.[34] Such punishments included letter branding, whippings, and even burnings at the stake. Two slaves with “R N” branded on their shoulders, one of which was “remarkably scarified over the forehead” were reported missing by their New York City master Jason Vaugn in August of 1730.[35] A runaway slave calling himself “PoPaw,” who claimed not to speak English, with teeth filed sharp, and “will not tell his master’s name,” came to John Leonard’s New Jersey home for “want of sustenance.” Leonards posted a notice in the New Jersey American Weekly Mercury, offering to return the slave to his master if a master claims him and offers a reward and compensation.[36] Whether PoPaw’s filed teeth were filed of his own volition as a means of defense, or by his master as a form of punishment, cannot be ascertained from the brief advertisement, however such mutilation is further evidence of the trauma of Northern enslavement which so many such as PoPaw fled in resistance.

Whether slaves headed toward the sea, Canada, cities, or fugitive communities, their objective was to escape the unpredictable and violent treatment of Northern slavery for liberation from enslavement through slaves’ own mental agility, determination, and physical dexterity.[37] Communities formed by runaway slaves are an important example of the slaves’ attempts to create physical alternatives to the existing slave-holding society. Such communities were societies at war with their white masters, embodying the very essence of Northern slave rebellion.[38] Although some slaves were well treated, cruelty toward slaves was frequent enough to generate anti-abuse laws, and to encourage slaves to run away or to resort to violent retaliation. When slaves fled from their masters, they were usually alone. However, many were able to establish relationships and communication networks that allowed them to make plans with other slaves before running away, because of their having formed connections with other slaves and free blacks in their work as hired help.[39]

Slaves could also resist enslavement through the maintenance of family relationships not allowed by their masters. Runaway slaves sometimes expected to return to their masters’ households, fleeing temporarily to visit family members despite the possible consequences of physical violence and other harsh treatment. However, many slaves chose not to subject themselves to such continuous punishment and ran away permanently from their master’s authority. Slaves who planned to stay away permanently often took extra clothes, firearms, and other goods procured from their masters’ households. Hunting game for food, or for protection from dangers on the frontier, were plausible reasons to secure weapons when running away. Firearms were also used to dissuade potential captors and bounty hunters. Prince, a slave of New York City master John Thorn, ran away in 1744 taking with him “a short gun mounted with brass” according to the December 17, 1744 New York Evening Post.[40] In John Batter’s escape from his Durham New Hampshire master in August 1750, Batter escaped taking with him only a gun and ammunition.[41] Taking with him no clothing or supplies, it is likely that Batter had escaped with the help of others who had aided in the planning of his escape. Purchasing one’s freedom was costly, and even the most diligent free blacks could rarely accumulate enough to buy the freedom of a loved one. Even two centuries before the Underground Railroad, black New Netherlanders harbored runaway slaves and aided in their escape from bondage.[42]

Some slaves ran away, some rebelled, and some established separate communities of their own after running away. Others turned to their African heritage, manifested through such aspects of their lives as preserved pieces of their pre-slavery culture including West African religious traditions and songs, to maintain a sense of independence; even within the framework of Northern American slavery. In all of these activities, “slaves denied the white man’s denigration of blacks and reinforced more positive images of themselves than white society was prepared to allow.” Throughout the American North, slaves resisted the imposition of European culture, or incorporated it within their own traditional African practices. In the process, they retained considerable amounts of their African Heritage. Funeral rites were among the most visible of these African retentions in the New World. In West Africa and among slaves of American slaveholding society, the spirit of the deceased was often interrogated to determine the cause of death, and bearers of the corpse would point to the offending party, if the deceased had been poisoned or died because of witchcraft.[43]

Slave-owners often believed in mixing African ethnic groups among the slaves they purchased to undermined resistance. However, the persistence of West African cultural beliefs throughout many ethnic groups of slaves made such selection of slaves futile in preventing resistance. The presence of such cultural bridges as belief in conjurer’s ability to wield supernatural and magical forces bridged slaves from different areas and backgrounds.[44] In the Northern colonies, the power of conjure was honored by African American slave rebels of differing origins in similar fashion. They believed in the ability of conjuring spiritualists to determine the outcome events such as resistance movements, through esoteric supernatural means.[45]

Conjurers among slaves were perceived by other slaves to be integral to the success of slave revolts, such as the 1712 New York City slave rebellion; the most severe slave disturbance up to that time throughout the British American colonies. Although it only involved twenty eight known insurgents, this relatively small band killed ten whites, wounded twelve others, and created an incomparable panic throughout the Northern colonies. Peter the Doctor, an African conjurer, played an integral role in the rebellion when by rubbing an allegedly magical powder onto the clothing of the slaves to make them invulnerable. Consequently emboldened, the slave rebels armed with swords, knives, and guns, set fire to a building in downtown New York City; waiting to ambush approaching whites seeking to put out the fire.[46] Such confidence in witchcraft and sorcery was common among slaves in the North, who believed in three distinctive types of conjuring; Aduru, or benevolent medicine such as was used for the benefit of the slaves in the New York City rebellion, malevolent medicine called Adubone used for evil purposes, and Aduto, used to poison evildoers. The powders used by Peter the Doctor in New York City would be categorized as Aduru because they were created for the positive outcome of protecting rebellious slaves from evil agents and increasing the likelihood of success in such revolutionary movements.[47]

Unique folk culture among Africans in the North gave slaves a sense of identity which in turn strengthened their bonds in resistance to slavery. Folk tales and songs were an important part of slave culture in the North, which was often independent of whites. Folk tales and songs could help slaves develop strategies for survival providing them with metaphorical victories over their white master. Folk tales could also be instructive, and were often used as teaching devices designed to enable slaves to survive in the slave system.[48] Similarly to folk tales, slave songs had a variety of uses. Spirituals, for example, were hopeful and encouraging in tone, identifying Africans as God’s chosen people. Slave songs could also mock whites or even contain revolutionary ideas, further encouraging slave resistance to a system of race-based economic hierarchy.[49] “However debased slavery was, slaves resisted it at home, in their communal life with other slaves, and in their societies.” [50] The slaves’ retention of West African religion, culture, and songs are evidence of the slaves’ independence within an oppressive system, thus through various means of resistance slaves prevented legal slavery from becoming spiritual slavery. Whereas slavery in the American North has commonly been characterized as one in which slaves hold submissive positions beneath their captors, Northern slaves participated in resistance which shows that instead, the role of the supposed powerless was instead effective in affecting and even controlling the lives of themselves and their masters.

Music among slaves commonly reflected the slaves’ West African heritage, through rhythmic styles and dance forms. As is evidenced throughout such documents as runaway slave advertisements, slaves carried their West African heritage with them to their Northern colonial homes; resisting the cultural impositions of European American culture. Many slaves sang or played instruments in reflection of West African musical traditions, and runaway slave advertisements often mentioned slaves’ musical skill. Cato, a New Hampton New Hampshire slave of Jonathan Moulton in the autumn of 1775, fled from his master taking with him his fife. Moulton’s runaway slave notice in which he describes Cato, notes that Cato “plays well on a fife” and had taken one with him in his escape.[51] Many such runaway slave advertisements comment on their slaves’ propensity for singing or playing musical instruments. For example, a mulatto slave who played the violin and took it with him when he ran away, accompanied an Indian slave and an Indian-African slave, were believed to be traveling “together in a canow [sic] towards Connecticut or Rhode Island.”[52] Likewise, in October of 1734, Samuel Leonard of Perth Amboy New Jersey reported the escape of his half-black, half-Indian slave named Wan, who looked fully African, spoke “good English, and this county Indian,” and played the fiddle well.[53]

Late at night in many Northern cities such as New York City, hired out slaves known as the tubmen, performed the job of emptying the city’s privies; carrying the tubs down to the nearest dock and dumping the contents into the Hudson or the East rivers. Not only was the work difficult, repulsive, poorly paid, and nocturnal, but whites constantly complained about the way in which it was done.[54] Tubmen usually worked in pairs, resulting in what historian Shane White contends were “raucous duets cutting through the night air;” a person standing in Franklin Square could often hear a dozen or twenty of them at any given time during the night. The percussive throb of banging on the tubs like drums, and dancing feet stomping rhythmically into the dirt, permeated white city-dwellers’ aural space on all of the city streets.[55]

Names among slaves also served as a form of resistance against slavery. The given names of slaves as evidenced through runaway slave advertisements in Boston Newspapers spanning the eighteenth century appear to fall into four categories: classical, Hebrew, Christian, and African. Since the Puritans were mainly of English stock, anglicized Christian names as might be expected, predominated Massachusetts slave names recorded in runaway slave advertisements.[56] Rarely would masters grant to slaves a name of their choosing. Until the nineteenth century, masters usually named their slaves, even though the persistence of African names such as Cuffee and Quom remained popular. Masters used naming to foster the illusion of absolute power by subjugating a slave’s individuality by not allowing slave parents to name their own children; a rite in free society.[57] Some slaves, in their rebellion against their masters chose names for themselves that they answered to in place of their given name. For example, in New York, Joseph Blackwell’s slave Caesar chose ‘William’ as his name, instead of the diminutive ‘Will’ or ‘Billy,’ or the name Caesar given by his master.[58] In bondage, slaves were often named by their masters and frequently were given only a first name. Some masters amused themselves, using their classical knowledge of names such as Cato or Caesar, or indulging their sense of humor with names such as Romeo or Pleasant Queen Anne. Slaves’ reaction to such calculated humiliation surfaces in many runaway slave notices, which show that many masters expected their slaves to use alternative names when they fled.[59] Some advertisements even show that there was an unspoken acceptance by slave-owners of a dual system of nomenclature, with one name used by the master and the other by other slaves within the household and community. For example one New York runaway was a “man named Cato, but calls himself Curtis Johnson’ according to The Federalist New Jersey Gazette, July 8th 1799.[60] Similarly, some advertisements indicate that the wish to assume a surname was a source of tension between slaves and their masters. For example, New York slaveholder Theo Fowler knew his slave as Scip, however amongst other slaves Scip answered to the name Scipeo Bailey, according to the New York Daily Advertiser in 1793. [61] Surnames served as a sign of freedom, providing slaves with a source of dignity flowing from the sense of paternity otherwise denied to slaves due to their supposed servile status.

Despite master’s attempts to control their slaves however, slaves retained their own personalities and asserted a level of defiance and autonomy by taking a name other than that ascribed by their master. By forcing whites to sift through the galley of names and stereotypical personality traits that slave-holding society had created for them, slaves molded various control mechanisms and racial stereotypes to their advantage; establishing limits to a slaveholder’s power in their lives.[62] Many slaves, who were behaving in correspondence with stereotypical depictions of slaves such as “Sambo” personalities, were role playing. They were providing an image for their masters, which was unthreatening to their owners and may have resultantly reduced the amount of punishment directed towards the slaves and allowed the slave to do less work for their master.[63] Slaves attempted to live as much as possible on their own terms; “if their actions were less bombastic and heroic than romantic historians would like us to believe, they were nonetheless impressive in their assertion of their resourcefulness and dignity, and a strong sense of self and community.” In Genovese’s view, the best that the slaves could do was to live, not merely physically, but with as much psychological autonomy as was humanly possible.[64] While some slaves may have appeared to be adhering to the racial stereotypes ascribed to them by their masters through the allocation of certain names, they were instead using those names and identities as a weapon in their battle of resistance for psychological autonomy.

The cosmologies that African captives brought to the North in places such as New York’s Hudson Valley, formed the core of their identities. “These newly enslaved populations encountered alternative religious systems during the period of legal trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted in this country from the seventeenth century until 1807.” [65] By the end of this period, most overtly religious blacks in the region had assumed new religious identities as Christians, however this new identity formation was a synthesis resulting from the challenge between white missionary advances and African attempts to preserve their own baptism as a means of liberation from slavery; compounded by white slave owners’ unwillingness to proselytize because this prompted slave expectations of manumission. In reshaping the new religion many slaves eventually embraced, black Christians in the Hudson valley joined those evangelicals, pietists, and rituals proven most welcoming to African worship styles. Likewise, the African American converts established independent black churches as a critique of segregationist practices in white-dominated denominations. According to Hodges, religion was the clearest avenue to freedom and civil equality for slaves, because many were reluctant to enslave fellow Christians. Hodges contends that “the first blacks in New Netherland sought membership” in churches, and that because the rite of baptism held both social and legal consequences, clerical reports suggest that “blacks were eager to be baptized.”[66] Amongst slaves’ religious and social practices in the North, Sunday gatherings of slaves in places such as colonial New Amsterdam serve as direct evidence of the persistence of West African traditions manifested through spiritual dances and music.[67] Many slaves used religious celebrations as a means of cultural preservation, in which the “highly percussive style” of African music was played, and satirical role reversal performances such as the annual Pinkster Celebration Afro-Dutch rituals recorded by such accounts as a 1737 edition of the New York Weekly Journal), provided slaves with a means of resistance to the cultural imposition of slavery.[68]

While slave-owners perceived religion to be a powerful tool for acculturation, slaves in the American North harnessed colonial European religious ideologies for their own purposes of resistance.[69] Unlike in the south, where such theology enabled blacks to endure slavery precisely because theological doctrine promised eventual deliverance from this world’s suffering without the demands of resistance, Hodges contends that slaves in the North employed their beliefs as proof of equality and requisite liberty.[70] According to historian Nell Painter, it was Sojourner Truth’s religious faith that transformed her from Isabella, a domestic servant from Hurley New York, into Sojourner Truth; itinerant preacher and abolitionist.[71] In the land of bondage of the American North, Truth freed herself from slavery from her masters the Dumonts, of her own volition after her master failed to follow through with their promise that they would free Truth one year before emancipation was to become law. Truth was empowered by her religious faith in salvation and Jesus’ love, and was emboldened to escape by her belief that she was morally right in doing so. Her resisting her masters through running away was evidence of her taking her autonomy into her own hands to produce her liberty.[72]

Runaway slave notices provide evidence of black preachers, such as Andrew Saxton of New York City, and Simon Leonard and Mark Prevost of New Jersey. Concentrations of slaves in urban areas enabled and encouraged the growth of black churches, which formed the basis of an outgrowth of benevolent societies, as well as literary and political forums. An important reason for the increasing spread of independent black churches throughout the North according to Hodges, was the black ministry’s involvement in the struggle for emancipation, which drew the support of “few sympathetic whites.”[73] African Americans were attracted to Methodism because it encouraged the belief that slaves could “effect their own salvation and that they stood equal to others in this world as well as the next,” similar to west African beliefs in the after-death return to Africa to live as God’s chosen people.[74]

When running away was not an option, and other means or resistance were unavailable or unsuccessful, some slaves resorted to violent tactics to procure their liberation from enslavement. In 1755, a slave named Mark Codman of Somerville Massachusetts, with the help of two female slaves, poisoned his abusive master John Codman’s food and drink with arsenic to kill him. After a trial by jury, Mark Codman was hanged, tarred, and then suspended in a metal gibbet on the main road to town, where his body remained on display for more than twenty years.[75]

In the summer of 1748, authorities in colonial New Hampshire issued a warrant for the arrest and imprisonment of a slave named Peter Johnson, employed as a baker. Described as a “negro man” also known by his master by the name Primus, Johnson refused to serve as a slave of George Massey. Massey claimed Johnson was a “slave for life,” and thus has no right to refuse to work for him. Johnson was forced to choose between submitting to Massey, or remaining incarcerated until he could plead his case in court. He preferred imprisonment to slavery, and chose to proceed with his case. Johnson maintained that he had never been a slave, and was not obligated to submit to Massey or anyone else.[76] The jury found Johnson to be a free man, and “his struggle ended in triumph. Johnson had successfully resisted slavery. Even if he was not able to earn high wages as a baker or build a personal life free from the stigma of slavery and racial prejudice, for Johnson, freedom surpassed anything slavery could offer.” Most slaves never saw comparable victories in their lifetimes, but through running away, refusing to accept slave names, and resisting slavery in any way they could, the slaves of the American North founded a tradition of resistance that established a sense of agency and autonomy, helping slaves create their own communities in freedom.[77] By running away, adhering only to his own chosen name, and using the legal avenues available to him as a slave, Johnson exemplified slave resistance in the Northern colonies and provides historians with a case study in which the victim becomes the victor through their own agency. Running away for slaves was “a strike toward freedom and the promise of eventual equality.”[78]

Upon an analysis of eighteenth century newspaper announcements dating from 1715 to 1785, it becomes apparent that the average age of reported fugitive slaves was 28.6 years. Among these, the youngest recorded was fifteen year old Stephen Hall, who fled from his Portsmouth New Hampshire master in 1761; the oldest being the slave Seneca, who at forty-seven years of age fled from his Portsmouth New Hampshire master in 1776.[79] As shown through runaway slave advertisements, most slaves who ran away were young adult males. Unlike younger slaves, adults had more tools with which to resist slavery, such as physical strength, friendships and communication networks with free blacks and other slaves met through time hired out, and the court system. However, running away was only one alternative to slavery, and many slaves found other methods of rebellion. For example, Holland of Londonderry New Hampshire took an unconventional approach in 1777, vandalizing the town church by breaking its windows and smearing animal dung on the pews.[80] Similarly, a notice published in New Jersey’s American Weekly Mercury in 1729, stated that a runaway slave had been jailed for “stealing from several persons sundry sorts of goods.”[81]

Due to the success and frequency of runaways in the North, northern colonies used curfew laws to limit slaves visiting each other at night, in an attempt to prevent further runaways and other slave mischief.[82] As more slaves acted out in resistance to their plight of slavery, further colonial laws changed to reflect the growing white fear of slave rebellion. For example, In New York, punishments were to be “inflicted in such manner and with such circumstances as the aggravation and enormity of their crime shall merit” according to an act passed in 1708.[83] Although slaves were considered property in the eyes of the law, they were also human beings, capable of offenses against the public peace in resistance, undeterred by changing laws to hinder such actions.[84] Many slaves fled their masters in the night, under the cover of darkness despite curfew laws.


[1]Agnew, p.41.

[2] Shane White, “A Question of Style: Blacks In and Around New York City in the Late 18th Century.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 102, No. 403. (Jan.-Mar., 1989), pp.37-40.

[3] White, p.23.

[4] Agnew, p.45.

[5] Agnew, p.43.

[6] Elijah Williams, “Pages from Elijah Williams’ Account Book, Vol.II” Deerfield Massachusetts, (1746-1757).

[7]Egerton, p.618.

[8] Egerton, p.621.

[9] Egerton, p.624.

[10] Michael Groth, “Laboring for Freedom in Dutchess County,” In Armstead, Myra B. Young ed., Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley. N.Y.: State University of Albany Press, 2003. p.58.

[11] Groth, p.59.

[12] Groth, p.67.

[13] Groth, p.69.

[14] James Oliver Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2004. P.122.

[15] Groth, p.71.

[16] Christopher Moore. “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam.” In Berlin, Ira. Slavery in New York. N.Y.: The New Press, 2005. P.38.

[17] Moore, p.39.

[18] Desrochers, p. 658.

[19] John Sparks. “Forty Dollars Reward.” The Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia. (February 26, 1795).

[20] Thomas Hunlock. The American Weekly Mercury, Burlington Vermont, (October 16, 1729).

[21] John Bezis-Selfa,. ”A Tale of Two Ironworks: Slavery, Free Labor, Work, and Resistance in the Early Republic.” The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol.56, No, 4 (October 1999). Pp.678-680.

[22] Ira Berlin, “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice” The Journal of American History. Vol.90, No.4 (March 2004) p. 1264.

[23] Elaine Brooks, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The Journal of Negro History. Vol.30 No.3, (July 1945), p. 314.

[24] Brooks, p. 311.

[25] Henry Louis Gates,. The Classic Slave Narratives. N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1987. pp. ix-x.

[26]Bezis-Selfap.692.

[27] Mayo-Bobee, p. 343.

[28] Mayo-Bobee, p. 343.

[29] Mayo-Bobee, p. 343.

[30] John Zabriskie, The New York Gazette, Hackensack New Jersey, (July 3, 1747).

[31] George Marple, The New York Gazette, Goshen Neck New Jersey. (October 2, 1749).

[32] Greene, p. 135.

[33] Cornelius DePeyster, The New York Gazette, New York City. (May 18, 1730).

[34] Mayo-Bobee, p. 344.

[35] Jason Vaughn, The New York Gazette, New York City, (August 31, 1730).

[36] John Leonards. The American Weekly Mercury, South River Ridge, New Jersey. (July 17, 1726).

[37] Mayo-Bobee, pp. 345-346.

[38] Heuman, p. 34.

[39] Mayo-Bobee, P. 342.

[40] Jill Lepore, “The Tightening Vise: Slavery and Freedom in British New York.” In Berlin, Ira. Slavery in New York. N.Y.: The New Press, 2005. P.67.

[41] Mayo-Bobee, p. 346.

[42] Moore p.46.

[43] Heuman, p.32.

[44] Walter Rucker, “Conjure Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol.32, No.1, (September 2001). p.91.

[45] Rucker. P.85.

[46] Rucker. P.86.

[47] Rucker. P.89.

[48] Heuman, p.32-33.

[49] Heuman, p.33.

[50] Heuman, p.35.

[51] Mayo-Bobee. P.350.

[52] Judith Vincent, The New York Gazette, Monmouth County, New Jersey. (June 24, 1734).

[53] Samuel Leonard, The American Weekly Mercury, Philadelphia. (October 24, 1734).

[54] Shane White, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. P.156.

[55] White, 2005, p.162.

[56] Greene, p. 129.

[57] Mayo-Bobee, p. 350.

[58] Joseph Blackwell, The New York Daily Advertiser, New York City, (May 26, 1801).

[59] White, p.28.

[60] White. p.28.

[61] White. p.29.

[62] Mayo-Bobee, p. 350.

[63] Heuman, p.35.

[64] Eugene D. Genovese, “American Slaves and their History,” New York Review of Books, (December 3, 1970), Pp.34-43. In: Paul Finkleman, ed., The Culture and Community of Slavery. N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1989. P. 112.

[65] Graham Russell Hodges,. “The Emergence of a New Black Religious Identity in New York City and Eastern New Jersey 1624-1807,” In Armstead, Myra B. Young ed., Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley. N.Y.: State University of Albany Press, 2003, pp. 13-14.

[66] Hodges,. pp. 13-14.

[67] Hodges, p. 15.

[68] Hodges, p.22.

[69] Hodges, p.17.

[70] Hodges, p.32.

[71] Painter, p.4.

[72] Painter. pp.22-24.

[73] Hodges, p. 31.

[74] Bezis-Selfa, p. 694.

[75] Francie Latour, “New England’s Hidden History: More Than We Like to Think, the North Was Built On Slavery.” The Boston Globe, (September 26, 2010).

[76] Mayo-Bobee, p.339.

[77] Mayo-Bobee, p.356.

[78] Mayo-Bobee, p.356.

[79] Mayo-Bobee, p. 341.

[80] Mayo-Bobee, p. 352.

[81] The American Weekly Mercury, Burlington New Jersey. (May 1, 1729).

[82] William Wiecek, “The Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.34, No.2, (April 1977), p.272.

[83] Wiecek. P. 274.

[84] Wiecek. P.273.

American Revolutionary Ideological Impact on Slave Rebellion

The American Revolution combined liberal, republican, and religious traditions to define freedom as autonomy, or the capacity for human agency; defined by historian Francois Furstenberg as individuals’ ability to act “in secular time and shape their circumstances.”[1] In formulating their resistance to British imperial policy, eighteenth century North Americans drew on a rich heritage of thought about freedom or liberty, a largely secular tradition of liberty descended from ancient Greek and Roman discourse, which was resurrected by Renaissance humanist thinkers, reshaped in the political struggles of seventeenth century England, and later filtered through eighteenth century enlightenment thought.[2] As colonial Americans fought for colonial liberty, their slaves were fighting a battle of resistance against slavery for their own individual autonomy. “Liberal, republican, protestant, and environmental theories thus converged in the late eighteenth century to locate an active autonomous ‘man’ at the center of history and society, reformulating the place of humans in the world.”[3] Freedom for revolutionary America thus meant more than national independence, the right of political self-determination, the absence of physical and political coercion, and ideology of human agency; the ability to alter one’s circumstances, to change one’s environment, reform one’s government, and to resist oppression such as the institution of slavery.[4] With the increasingly prominent ideology of revolution permeating American society, slaves in the North resisted slavery with increasing fervency.[5]

At the time of the American Revolution, one fifth of the American population was enslaved.[6] Between 1760 and 1770, the New Hampshire Gazette published more notices of runaway slaves than it ever had, and ever would. As the philosophies of the European Enlightenment permeated eighteenth century America, revolutionary ideals challenged the institution of slavery. Americans began to grapple with the contradictions of slaveholding in a society increasingly committed to natural rights and equality, and amidst a climate more receptive to emancipation, increasing numbers of Northern slaves took flight.[7]

When Northern American colonies stood up against Great Britain, Northern slaves seized the opportunity to earn their freedom by fighting for independence. Emancipation was the reward that many slaves were promised for their service, however many masters did not follow through with their promises of grateful manumission. For example, Bone, a bondman from Rochester, served in the Continental Army for several months before April 1777, when he realized that fighting in the War for Independence would not lead to his emancipation as expected. Bone ran away from his master Joseph Knight, who suspected that Bone had headed for the British troops to fight for the freedom Britain promised slaves. Realizing that independence for the colonies from British control did not necessarily guarantee emancipation of American slaves, many slaves who fought in the Revolutionary War felt that the British Lines were their only hope for eventual legal freedom. Some slaves took advantage of the revolutionary spirit of the times, and turned to New Hampshire’s legal system for assistance. In 1779, a group of Portsmouth slaves signed a petition addressed to the New Hampshire state government, imploring the legislature to abolish slavery in New Hampshire so that “the name of slave may not more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom.”[8] Slaves’ own “liberation heritage”[9] emboldened by the revolutionary ideology of the late eighteenth century, persisted and encouraged increasing resistance to slavery as slave owners and slavery supporters in the North denied the revolutionary idea that all men are created equal.[10]

The slave trade in Massachusetts “declined very little till the revolution,” according to Reverend John Eliot in a 1795 letter to Jeremy Belknap. By 1780, juries in Massachusetts were consistently voting in favor of slaves who sued for their freedom, and in 1797 slave trading was prohibited in Massachusetts by “an act of the court.”[11] In 1784, the Rhode Island General Assembly decreed a provision for “gradual abolition of slavery.”[12] The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment[13] to the United States Constitution in December 1865, abolished slavery in the United States after centuries of slave resistance and an eventual war over the territorial institution of slavery in America.[14] Although scholars have often ignored the long history of slavery in the North, the abolition of slavery was not official in New Hampshire until 1857, less than five years before the start of the Civil War. Therefore, even after the American War for Independence in which many slaves fought for the freedom of their colony and themselves, slaves continued to resist servitude by fleeing from their obstinate slaveholders and appealing to the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern states.[15] Some historians, such as John Bezis-Selfa, contend that “slaves might boast greater influence over their work, but they were ultimately unable to control their lives,” acknowledging the power of slaves to attempt resistance, but ultimately concluding that such resistance was futile.[16] However, the persistence of generations of slaves in effecting their eventual liberation from the plight of the “legally sanctioned injuries of race”[17] through creative forms of resistance, is apparent in the countless archival documents recording the impacts of such resistance in the lives of slaves and their masters.


[1] Francois Furstsenberg. “Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American Political Discourse.” The Journal of American History. Vol.89, No. 4, (March 2003). P.1296.

[2] Furstenberg. P. 1297.

[3] Furstenberg, p. 1300.

[4] Furstenberg, p. 1300.

[5] Furstenberg, p. 1317.

[6] Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” The Journal of American History. Vol.59, No.1. (June 1972), p.5.

[7] Mayo-Bobee, p. 348.

[8] Mayo-Bobee, p. 349.

[9] Robert Paquette, “Social History Update: Slave Resistance and Social History,” Journal Of Social History, Vol.24, No.3, (Spring 1991). P. 681.

[10] James Reddie, “Slavery,” Anthropological Review. Vol. 2, No.7. (November 1864), p. 280.

[11] Bernard Rosenthall. “Puritan Conscience and New England Slavery” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 46, No.1. (March 1973), p.70.

[12] Rosenthall. P.79.

[13] Ira Berlin, “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice” The Journal of American History. Vol.90, No.4 (March 2004), p. 1251.

[14] Charles Dew. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Virginia, University of Virginia Press. 2001. Dew argues that the cause of the Civil War was the secession commissioners’ economic interests in slavery that drove their states-rights argument as a causation of Civil War ideology.

[15] Mayo-Bobee, p. 355.

[16] Bezis-Selfa, P. 700.

[17] Thomas McCarthy, “Coming to Terms with Our Past, Part II: On the Morality and Politics of Reparations for Slavery.” Political Theory, Vol.32, No.6 (December 2004), p.757.

Gender in Slave Resistance

Of over one hundred runaway slave advertisements published in New Hampshire newspapers between 1718 and 1785, only seven dealt with female fugitive slaves. It is important to note, that slaveholders did not always report incidents of runaways, just as many did not report the true number of slaves in their possession for taxation and other legal purposes. Therefore, a precise enumeration of New Hampshire’s runaway slave population is not possible.[1] However, the small percentage of the reported incidents of slave escapes that involved female bondswomen indicates that a much smaller percentage of females than males used running away as a means of resistance.

Some masters hired out their female slaves, as female domestics were often leased to neighbors during the social season. However, gender and motherhood structured the lives of enslaved women just as it did free blacks, thus fewer women than men were leased away from their owners’ household.[2] When analyzed with regards to gender, it becomes rapidly apparent that runaway slaves were overwhelmingly male. Not only did male slaves generally outnumber the females, but women likely found successful escape more hazardous than the males due to their accompaniment by children. Moreover, working primarily as domestic servants, enslaved women fell under the close surveillance of the prudent puritan housewife, thus having fewer opportunities to escape than the men whose work frequently kept them outside and alone for long periods of the day.[3] Being in such close contact and under such close supervision from masters’ wives, bondwomen were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of white women. Living in fear of constant sexual harassment, it was with painful irony for bondswomen that those victimized by slave masters could find themselves the victims of the wrath of the master’s jealous wife. The mistress, socially forced to turn a blind eye to mixed race children among her slaves, often vented her anger on the female slaves to whom the children were born.[4]

Enslaved women in the North led lives more unpredictable and prone to disruption than male slaves due to childbearing capabilities, sexual abuse, and sexual choice. While the Northern economy valued slave labor, Northern colonies did not have an economic base that could support large slave populations. One master announced the sale of his female slave ‘for no fault, except her being a breeder,’ and slave traders in New Hampshire most commonly sold female slaves between the ages of nine and twenty one. Often, it was simply because a ‘capable negro girl’ had recently reached puberty that her master was eager to ‘exchange’ her for a ‘negro boy.”[5] Masters with mature bondswomen often lessened their operating costs and financial frustrations by selling a slave’s children. This was a New Hampshire bondswoman named Bess’s misfortune, when in 1698 her owners Robert and Rebecca Smart, sold her four year old daughter Isabella to a Portsmouth carpenter and his wife.[6]

Many bondswomen could not hope for legal emancipation until after their master’s death. In 1763, a bondswoman named Nanny’s Portsmouth master transferred her into the service of Sarah Langdon. Sarah held Nanny in such great regard; that she updated her will to stipulate that Nanny would be free upon Sarah’s death. Because loyalty and hard work were not always enough, some bondwomen did not want to outlive several masters for their freedom, and instead took matters into their own hands.[7] Some Massachusetts slaves, such as a Salem bondswoman in 1733 as recorded by the Boston Gazette, commit suicide with the belief that they would travel to their homeland in death, rather than be sold in the market as a slave.[8] “Suicide was an extreme form of slave resistance throughout the institution’s history, beginning when captured Africans threw themselves overboard to escape the horrors of the middle passage.” Some slaves jumped from windows, killed their children, and used such means of resistance as what they perceived to be their only escape from slavery.[9]

John Bell, a carpenter in New York City, reported the running away of a slave named Jenney, a fourteen or fifteen year old girl, and offered a reward for returning her to him.[10] Due to Jenney’s age, it is likely that she was the victim of sexual or other physical abuse by her master; however with no evidence of why Jenney fled, any such conclusion would be mere speculation. However, due to the time of her escape in mid December, it is likely that her escape followed either circumstances which proved more unbearable than the uncertainty of escape in the harsh climate of a New York winter, or that Jenney had somehow planned an escape in collaboration with someone who could aid her in her flight despite such collaborations being less common among fugitive bondswomen due to limited interactions between bondswomen and people outside their masters’ households. Serving most commonly as domestic servants with little experience outside their master’s households, female slaves in the North were rarely hired out, and had little exposure to urban markets in which they could participate to gain either the cash to purchase their freedom, or the opportunity to establish relationships and communication networks through which they might plan an eventual escape. While some bondswomen such as Sojourner Truth did run away, and had not had previous exposure to urban markets in which to form a communication network with other slaves and free blacks, or the opportunity to establish a consumer identity for themselves, such occasions were exceptionally rare occurrences.


[1] Mayo-Bobee, p.341.

[2] Douglas Egerton,. “Slaves to the Marketplace: Economic Liberty and Black Rebelliousness in the Atlantic World.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol.26, (Winter 2006). p.624.

[3] Greene, p. 132.

[4] Horton, p. 123.

[5] Mayo-Bobee, p. 346-347.

[6] Mayo-Bobee, P.347.

[7] Mayo-Bobee, p. 347.

[8] Robert Desrochers, “Slave-For-Sale advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.59, No.3, (July 2002), p. 647.

[9] Horton, p. 130.

[10] John Bell, The New York Gazette, New York City, (December 19, 1737).

Conclusion

Neither the plight of rebellious slaves, nor the pretensions of slaveholders are uncommon aspects of American history. However, our historical consciousness and familiarity with such aspects of slavery diminish severely when the discussion turns from the plantation south towards the American North.[1] Although slavery was an important part of Northern life before for generations before 1800, historian Nell Painter concludes that modern historical symbolism may have erased its stigma from the North.[2] Slavery, even in the North, was based upon the economic interest of the slave owner.[3] Slavery’s system of forced labor for one purchase price as opposed to regular wages could be highly profitable; however slave resistance had the power to interfere with the profitability of a slave to their master, through a variety of means.[4]

The seemingly infinite forms of slave resistance revealed by such documentation as runaway slave advertisements and other such records serve to underscore Northern slaves’ resourcefulness and ingenuity, amidst the complexity of the relationships they forged in the face of an intrinsically violent, exploitative, and dehumanizing institution.[5] As evidenced through documentation including runaway slave notices, legal case reports, deeds, petitions, letters, account books, and other such records, slaves exercise their creativity and courage in resistance to a system in which they were expected to concede to their master’s authority. Slaveholders’ control over slaves was tenuous at best, due to the many means of resistance employed by slaves in the North on a consistent basis. Rebelliousness was a matter of purpose. To achieve collective liberation, as opposed to participation in random efforts at economic independence that might slightly and slowly erode white control over them, large numbers of slaves conscious of the possibilities of freedom through their contacts within urban markets, had to make a conscious decision to rise and rebel against their masters for their freedom.


[1] Mayo-Bobee, p. 339.

[2] Painter, p.9.

[3] Howard Temperley, “Capitalism, Slavery, and Ideology,” Past and Present, Vol.75, (May 1977), p.105.

[4] Temperley, p.116.

[5] Mayo-Bobee, p.340.

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Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their library resources  in my research!
Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their library resources in my research!

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 11 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Most of our ideas about American slavery are shaped by way it was practiced in the southern plantation system. You've provided a good overview of what slavery was like in the colonial North, and I learned some things I didn't know before.