A profile of fugitives both within the South and in the North and Canada
reveals that the great majority were young men in their teens and twenties.
They ran away in greater numbers because they had not yet married or, if they
had, had not yet begun a family. They were also more able to defy
authorities or their
overseers and owners if necessary. Once away from
the plantation or farm, they could better defend themselves and were willing to
Women were less likely to be fugitives because they had often begun to
raise families by their late teens and early twenties. With youngsters
to care for, it was difficult to contemplate either leaving them behind or
taking them along in an escape attempt. Nevertheless, many women
embarked on the migration to freedom.
Among the most notable was North Carolina native Linda Brent - later
known as Harriet Jacobs - who escaped in 1835 and hid in an attic for nearly
seven years before running to the north. She later became a reformer,
abolitionist, and educator and wrote her autobiography,
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself ,
in 1861. When she escaped, a wanted poster was displayed for miles around.
Sometimes entire families made it to freedom, like Harriet Shepard and
her five children, who, along with five other men and women, fled in an owner's
carriage. In a few instances, extended families of ten or more made it across
the Ohio River.
Besides tremendous courage, runaways displayed a great deal of
ingenuity and organizational skills. They had
to discretely gather food for the trip and, if possible, changes of clothes.
Most runaway advertisements described the clothing people were wearing when
they left, and as a consequence, many runaways modified their appearance, and
even disguised their gender. Those light-skinned enough to pass for white had
to behave and talk like white people. All had to provide believable
explanations when asked questions, and they became masters at deceit and secrecy.
Henry "Box" Brown of Virginia made one of the most unusual escapes from
slavery. After his owner sold his wife and
children to a North Carolina planter, Brown resolved to flee from bondage. With
the help of a friend, he folded his five-foot-eight-inch, two hundred pound
body into a specially constructed wooden box, two-feet-eight-inches deep and
two feet wide. His friend took the trunk-like box to the Adams Express Company
in Richmond and sent it off to a Philadelphia abolitionist. Twenty-seven hours
and 350 miles later, Brown arrived at his destination.
Most runaways chose one of the five major destinations that evolved
during the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War: towns and
cities in the South, remote areas near the plantations, the West, the North,
and Canada. A few fled to Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean.