The number of fugitives who made it to safety can only be
estimated. In 1850 and 1860, United States census takers asked each
slave owner in the South how many of his or her slaves had run away during the
previous year and remained at large. They reported 1,011 in 1850 and 803 in
1860. But many owners did not wish to admit that their "property" had
become successful fugitives, and so the census reports were almost surely far
below the actual numbers. The records of northern anti-slavery
societies as well as newspaper notices of runaways in the Southern states
suggest that probably several thousand people made it to freedom each year
during the antebellum era. While this figure is low compared with the
total number--3.2 million in 1850 and 4 million in 1860--over time it
amounted to a significant migration.
The journey of runaways to towns and cities in the South gave momentum
to African-American urbanization during the antebellum period, a phenomenon
that accelerated after the Civil War.
The migration of the
maroons to remote areas caused great fear among slave owners
and represented a continuing problem in maintaining control over their human
property. Indeed, existence of these outlying groups served as a counterpoint
to the proslavery ideology that promoted the institution as benign and
The western movement of runaways led white Kansans to recognize the
permanence of African-American settlement in their state in 1862.
Lawrence abolitionist Richard Cordley acknowledged their presence when he
declared, "The Negroes are not coming. They are here. They will
stay here. They are to be our neighbors, whatever we may think about
it, whatever we may do about it." Supported by the mostly white Kansas
Emancipation League, the refugees founded Freedman's Church in Lawrence on
September 28, 1862, creating the first of the many African-American community
institutions that existed throughout Kansas by the end of the Civil War.
In the North and Canada, runaways became symbols of the evils of
slavery. Their increasing presence - as important and often charismatic figures
in the abolition movement - played a major role in energizing the struggle
against slavery. The fugitives would come to symbolize the inherent
contradiction in the national creed: America as a land of liberty and equality,
and America as a land of slavery and oppression.