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How Did Slaves Resist Slavery?

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site of Stono Rebellion, near Charleston, SC.
Henry de Saussure Copeland hdes.copeland/ Flickr CC

The first slaves arrived in North America in 1619, eventually leading to an economic system that persisted until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. How did slaves resist slavery? African and African-American slaves had three available methods to resist slavery: they could rebel against slaveholders, they could run away, or they could perform small, daily acts of resistance, such as slowing down work.

Slave Rebellions

The Stono Rebellion in 1739, Gabriel Prossey's conspiracy in 1800, Denmark Vesey's plot in 1822 and Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 are the most prominent slave revolts in American history. But only the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner's Rebellion achieved any success; white Southerners managed to derail the other planned rebellions before any attack could take place.

Many slave owners in the United States became anxious in the wake of the successful slave revolt in Santo Domingo, which turned that small island into an independent black republic by the beginning of 1804. But, the reality for slaves in the American colonies, and later the United States, was that it was extremely difficult to mount a rebellion. Whites greatly outnumbered slaves; even in states like South Carolina, the white population of which was only 47 percent by 1810, slaves were never so numerous as to be able to overcome the guns of the white populace.

As the international slave trade came to an end in the United States in 1808, slave owners had to rely on a natural increase in the population of slaves to increase their labor force. This meant slaves had family members, which made many loath to risk retribution against their spouses, children, siblings and parents by rebelling.

Runaway Slaves

Running away was another form of resistance. Slaves who ran away most often did so for a short period of time. These runaway slaves might hide in a nearby forest or visit a relative or spouse on another plantation. They did so to escape a harsh punishment that had been threatened, to obtain relief from a heavy workload, or just to escape the drudgery of everyday life under slavery.

Others were able to run away and escape slavery permanently. When northern states began to abolish slavery after the Revolutionary War, the North came to symbolize freedom to many slaves, who spread the word that following the North Star could lead to freedom. Spirituals could contain hidden instructions. For instance, the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" made reference to the Big Dipper and the North Star and was likely used to guide slaves north to Canada.

Running away was difficult; slaves had to leave behind family members and risk harsh punishment or even death if caught. Many of the successful runaways were only successful after multiple attempts. More slaves escaped from the upper south than from the lower South, being nearer to the north and thus freedom. Young men had the easiest time of running away; they were more likely to be sold away from their families, including their children. Young men were also sometimes "hired out" to other plantations or sent on errands, so they could more easily come up with a cover story for being on their own.

A network of sympathetic individuals who helped slaves escape to the north emerged by the 19th century. This network earned the name the "Underground Railroad" in the 1830s. Harriet Tubman is the best known "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, helping over 200 other slaves escape after she herself reached freedom in 1849.

But most runaway slaves were on their own, especially while they were still in the South. Runaway slaves would often choose holidays or days off to give them extra lead time (before being missed in the fields or at work). Many fled on foot, coming up with ways to throw off dogs in pursuit, such as taking to water or using pepper to disguise their scent. Some stole horses or even stowed away on a ship to escape slavery in the South.

Historians are unsure of how many slaves permanently escaped throughout the existence of slavery in the American colonies, and later, the United States. An estimated 100,000 escaped to freedom over the course of the 19th century, according to James A. Banks in March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970).

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