Even though escape from bondage was a permanent feature of slave
societies, at certain times the migration of runaways rose precipitously.
During the colonial period, the number of fugitives remained small and those
who succeeded usually posed as free people in towns and cities. But
during and after the American Revolution, the flow of runaways increased as
the war disrupted the plantation system in the South and ushered in the gradual
abolition of slavery in the North.
During the war, thousands fled to the British lines. For instance, in 1775,
Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, offered enslaved men their freedom if they
bore arms for the British. Between five hundred and six hundred men immediately
responded to Dunmore's "proclamation." Too often, however, the British promise
of freedom was an empty one. At the end of the war, they sent a number of Black
Loyalists to the West Indies in chains.
The disruption caused by the war between the United States and Great
Britain in 1812 -1815 also sparked a migration of runaways. To break
the will of the South, British commanders occupied New Orleans with black
troops. Admiral Alexander Cochrane even recruited runaways to fight against the
Americans in Louisiana. In South Carolina and Georgia, black Sea
Islanders left their plantations when British troops appeared. Roswell King,
overseer on Pierce Butler's plantation on St. Simons Island,
witnessed such an exodus among his boss' s five hundred slaves. "I can
never git over the Baseness of your ungrateful Negroes," he wrote Butler,
telling him that 138 people had escaped.
Lastly, after the closing of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 and the
great expansion of the domestic slave trade from the Upper South to the lower
Mississippi River Valley, the migration increasingly turned to the northern
states and Canada. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, it symbolized
the oppressive nature of bondage in the Southern states and revealed the
inequalities faced by African Americans elsewhere in the United States.