Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Frederick Douglass (b. 1818 -  d. 1895)
MSA SC 5496-13800
Fled from slavery, Baltimore City, Maryland, 1838

Biography: 

    Frederick Augustus Bailey, later known as Frederick Douglass, was born in February 1818 in Talbot County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In his original narrative, Douglass laments about the frustations of living a life without ever knowing when it started. He believed that he was born about 1817, but a ledger for Captain Aaron Anthony, Douglass’ first master, lists Fredrick Augustus, son of Harriot, born February 1818.1 Frederick's mother was hired out by Anthony and only saw young Fredrick four or five times in his life.2 According to Douglass it was believed that his master Aaron Anthony was also his father.

    As a child, Douglass lived on the same plantation as his grandparents, Betsy and Isaac Bailey. The plantation was owned by Col. Lloyd, but Frederick was owned by the overseer Aaron Anthony. As a child on the Lloyd plantation Douglass was allowed to stay with his grandmother on the outskirts of the plantation. This experience, along with his age, sheltered Douglass from the everyday farm activity for an early part of his life.  When Frederick arrived at the age where he could go off to work in the fields he was removed from the plantation where his grandparents lived and worked. Douglass was taken twelve miles to a farm that was owned by Capt. Anthony.3 It was at that farm that he first met his siblings Perry, Sarah, and Eliza.4

    Around the age of seven, Douglass’ master transferred his labor to the hands of his son-in-law’s brother, Mr. Hugh Auld of Baltimore.5 The landscape of Douglass' life changed from a countryside to a city, and it is a change that he credits as a major influence on his life. Mrs. Auld took a liking to the young Douglass, and began to teach him to read, however, once Mr. Auld discovered the lessons, he ordered a halt to it at once.6  The short exposure to reading and writing sparked Douglass’ interest with language and he wanted to know more.

    Douglass would eventually quench his thirst for learning in his seven years of service under the Aulds. It should be noted that by being in a city like Baltimore, Douglass was granted a number of liberties, that helped in his pursuit that would not have been afforded to him at his old home on the Eastern Shore. Though his master Hugh forbid him to further the ability to read and write, Douglass used Baltimore’s environment as his classroom. In his narrative, he says that he learned from the white boys he met on the street, bargaining treats for a lesson in ABC’s. He would also go to the Durgin and Bailey’s ship yard and observe the writings on cargo to learn how to form letters.7

    In spite of his accomplishments in reading and writing, the cosmopolitan surroundings of Baltimore could not hide the realty that Douglass was still a slave for life. His life in Baltimore was twice interrupted by this harsh fact. Five years into his seven-year service with Hugh Auld, Douglass original master, Captain Anthony, died and Douglass had to return to Talbot County for assessment.5 (link inventory) Fortune shined on Douglass in the transaction, for as he watched others sold off, he was allowed to return to serve the Aulds. The second time Douglass returned to Talbot was in 1833, to again be appraised as the property of his newly deceased owner, Lucretia (daughter of Aaron Anthony). The death of Lucretia left Douglass in the possession of her husband Thomas Auld, brother of Hugh. Thomas Auld would not allow his newly acquired property to return to the life of the city, and he felt Douglass, around the age of 15, could be better used as a field hand.

    Douglass toiled for three years on the Eastern Shore in a position that he was not accustomed to living in the city. During this period, Douglass endured the wrath of a notorious slave breaker, laborious field work and being passed from farm to farm as hired-out labor. Douglass did not take too well to his new surroundings or responsibilities. In 1835, Douglass made his first attempt to escape bondage. On the farm of a Mr. Freeland, Douglass conspired with some of his fellow slaves to steal a paddleboat, make their way up the Chesapeake, and flee into the free land of the North. The plot however was discovered, though unexplained by the narrative, and the group was captured before making their escape. As a result, some of the slaves were sold south as punishment, but Douglass was allowed to return to Baltimore and the possession of Hugh Auld.

    Douglass returned to Baltimore as a young man around the age of eighteen determined to gain his independence. He was allowed to learn a trade as a caulker in the city shipyards, and used his newly acquired skills to hire himself out. Steadily, Douglass spent less and less time under his master Hugh Auld’s watchful eye. By 1838, Douglass again felt that he had enough of his life as a slave, and chose the day of September 3 as his personal day of emancipation. Anna Murray, a free black woman living in Baltimore, helped to assist Douglass in escaping. Douglass was able to procure the papers of a free black sailor who he knew from his employment in the shipyards, and used the papers as his pass to ride a train and a boat to freedom in the city of Philadelphia, and onward to New York.6 A week later Anna Murray joined Douglass in New York, where they were married by another fugitive slave from Maryland, the Rev. James W. C. Pennington.

    Frederick and Anna Douglass became the parents of five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie. Frederick first settled his family in Massachussets. It was here that Douglass began speaking out against the institution of slavery. He became a promenant figure in the anti-slavery community. Douglass later moved his family from Massachusetts to Rochester, New York. Although he was never recaptured by his owner, Thomas Auld sold Douglass to Hugh Auld in 1847. Sadly the Douglass's youngest child Annie died March 13, 1860.

    Frederick Douglass later moved his family to Washington, DC after a house fire in New York. The family purchased two row houses in the Northeast quadrant of the city in 1872. A few years later the Douglass's moved to Cedar Hill in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC. Douglass was an active member of the DC community, speaking at numerous events throughout the city. In Washington, Frederick Douglass became the first African American man to become Recorder of Deeds. Anna Murray Douglass died at Cedar Hill in 1882. Two years later Frederick Douglass married Helen Pitts of New York. Many were shocked about the news of his marriage to Helen Pitts who was a white woman. Frederick Douglass died in 1895 at Cedar Hill. His burial took place at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. In his will he left all of his estate to his widow Helen Pitts Douglass. The will was contested by Douglass' daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague.

    Although today, Frederick Douglass’ life is lauded for his work as a great orator, abolitionist, women’s advocate and his role in bringing the struggle of enslaved blacks to the forefront of nineteenth century America’s conscious, many people are unaware of Douglass’ journey. Save Harriet Tubman (also form the state of Maryland), Douglass is the most recognized and legendary African American figures of the Antebellum Era. Though he became famous on the national stage before the Civil War, by law, he was still a fugitive slave. One could certainly argue that whenever this runaway slave from Maryland took the lectern to plead for the emancipation of his enslaved brethren, he was also pleading for himself.


Footnotes -

1. Special Collections, Mary A. Dodge Collection, Ledger A, 1794-1826, MSA SC 564.


2. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by Himself. Boston, 3.

3. Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 31.

4. Ibid, 32

5. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD) MSA SM61, Hugh Auld, p.37, 1830, BC, MSA SM61-83, M66 (there is a sole mark under the 10-24 age range for male slaves under the Hugh Auld tabulation, this mark could certainly represent the presence of Douglass in the home).

5. Douglass, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, 28.

6.  ibid, 29.

7. Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 247-250.


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