Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom. Icons used in advertisements for runaway slaves by the Planter's Advocate (P.G. Co., ca. 1850s)
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  • SMALL TOWNS and hamlets  interspersed among vast stretches of corn and wheat fields dominated Frederick County's Antebellum landscape.  Along its southern border, the Potomac River, and after 1828 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, came from the southeast.  Moving westward, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Catoctin Mountains, and generally foreboding terrain reflected the topography of the rest of Maryland.  Yet, by land and water, Marylanders and other Americans trekked from points east during the early-1800s.  African Americans were among them, including those free-born, those who had been manumitted, and even those still enslaved.  Those still enslaved moved as chattel property with their owners.  Others, though enslaved, moved without their owner's knowledge or consent.

    This study has considered several locally-oriented, weekly Maryland-based newspapers, and two dailies, the Baltimore Sun, and Washington, D.C.'s Daily National Intelligencer.  Our study has produced a yield of greater than four-thousand runaway advertisements and notices of comitial from the various presses for the period 1830-1860.  Only fifty-nine ads (1.4%) concerned slaves of Frederick County owners, and of those, more than half (31) came from three available years of a Frederick County newspaper, The Frederick Herald.

    Frederick County's runaway slaves were not being sought in Baltimore City, and according to extant jail dockets they were not being caught there either.  In the Baltimore City Jail Docket for suspected runaways, of 749 blacks identified as slaves of a specific owner between 1827 and 1850, only eighteen (two percent) were identified with Frederick County owners.   Likely this means that Frederick County fugitives fled beyond the state, and owners sought them outside of Maryland through advertisement and other measures.

    As with Baltimore County, and all Maryland counties sharing a border with the State of Pennsylvania, the study of Frederick County must consider both blacks fleeing the county itself, and Frederick County as the final obstacle before the Mason and Dixon Line.  Advertisements placed in Frederick County newspapers represent the latter variety nearly as much as the former.  Of the nearly eighty advertisements placed in the Frederick Herald between 1831 and 1834 for fugitives at-large or apprehended and detained by sheriffs, sixty-four percent made reference to Frederick County as the origin of flight or residence.  However, the majority of the remaining notices placed in the Herald concerned non-Marylanders primarily from Washington, D.C., and Virginia.  Only twelve percent of notices in the Herald came from other Maryland counties.  This suggests that both fugitives from beyond the county, and those who pursued them understood the opportunities for flight presented by Frederick County. 

    Baltimore County realized a similar immigration of non-county fugitives.  Many of them were as likely to remain in Baltimore City, at least in the short term, as they were to move on to Pennsylvania.  However, in terms of an alternative to out-of-state flight, Frederick City does not seem to have offered the same prospects to blacks on the run as did Baltimore City. While both were bustling centers of commerce and activity, Baltimore operated on a much larger scale in terms of actual numbers of people. Baltimore also had a much larger community of free and enslaved blacks, which may have been the crucial difference. Throughout the Antebellum Era, the majority of Frederick County's black population - enslaved, as well as free, resided outside of Frederick City in the southeast districts bordering Montgomery County, the districts bordering the Potomac River/C & O Canal and also Frederick District.  By 1860, these six districts - Petersville (No. 12), Jefferson (No. 16), Buckeyestown (No. 1), Urbana (No. 7), New Market (No. 9), and Frederick District (No. 2) - held sixty-four percent of the county's enslaved blacks and fifty-nine percent of all blacks, enslaved or free.  Blacks of all castes do not appear to have settled into the Frederick City community in any great numbers, and pursuers of fugitives, even those from other Frederick County locales, do not seem to have sought them there.  Frederick City likely served as a vital hub, a way station for information, respite, resources, but not a permanent stop, as was often the case with Baltimore City.

    Frederick County may have represented, a fork in the Southern Underground Railroad.  Fugitives traveling on foot over the roads from Montgomery County, Maryland, Washington, D.C. or, crossing the Potomac river from Virginia, likely sought different destinations based upon the direction of their steps through Frederick County.  Staying close to the Potomac River, and the C&O Canal, traveling northwesterly into Western Maryland, and ultimately Western Pennsylvania, fugitives faced formidable terrain.  Yet they likely benefited from the presence of the county's largest slave communities.  Moving due north, through the center of the county, those who reached Frederick City came into a world of urban, free blacks, and potentially, a system for moving fugitives out of the state.  This same thesis applies to those moving in a northeast direction, through a gamut of small towns and hamlets: Urbana, New Market, Unionville, Johnsville.  William Still of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, documents the successful flight of sixteen Frederick County fugitives during the 1850s.  Of the thirteen whose district of origin was recorded, eight fled a slaveholder from an eastern district of the county, the other five from Frederick City, at the county's center. 

    It is also instructive that relatively few Frederick County slave owners seeking runaways placed advertisements in the Baltimore Sun, Daily National Intelligencer, or other major dailies of the period brought under consideration by this study.   This suggests a northward, interstate travel agenda, rather than the sporadic, city-oriented travel vectors of the southern counties. This would have taken Frederick County fugitives, and their pursuers, into Pennsylvania and beyond.

    Frederick County's topographical features, included the Potomac River, the Blue Ridge and Catoctin Mountain Ranges. These, and its developed infrastructure, especially the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, combined with its central location within the state and its proximity to Pennsylvania to make it attractive to fugitives.  Of all these features, the C&O Canal's emergence in the late-1820s most unnerved slave owners, especially those in Frederick County, for its potential impact.  Not only may it have offered fugitives a route to freedom, but by working on the canal, runaways, especially men, may have been able to finance their flight by working on the canal.  When Tom Jefferson ran from Prince George's County during the Christmas Season of 1829, his pursuers believed him to have headed for the Canal. A few months later, a slave named Bill also fled Prince George's County.  Bill's owners were certain that he would ultimately make for Pennsylvania but would first attempt to get employment on the canal to finance the rest of his journey.  A third fugitive from Prince George's County, Frank Shaw, remained at large for at least three years without leaving the state, probably supporting himself by working on the canal.  Work on the canal apparently afforded both two necessities for a fugitive; a livelihood and anonymity.  As people and goods thickened the canal traffic, owners of fugitives feared that their wayward property might go unnoticed amid the shuffle, and that men without respect for the law might employ their fugitives, despite its illegality, thereby easing the slave's escape.  The canal could also serve as a conduit whereby family members might assist each other or move together.  Such was the suspicion of those pursuing Jim Hagan from Southern Maryland.  Not only could Jim's skills as a carpenter and joiner be employed in canal labor, but Jim's brother lived in Frederick County.  Canal work gave free blacks income which might be put to the use of assisting kinfolk on the run, as was the case from George Soloman, a free black man whose wages from canal work were suspected to have facilitated his son's flight from Southern Maryland in 1830. 

    Even without a substantial number of runaway advertisements, the records tell of people running from slavery in Antebellum Frederick County, and of others willing to help those on the run.  Frederick County's fugitives and their accomplices held several considerable advantages.  In the fall of 1853, Perry Hilleary, also know as Perry Ridgely, an eighteen-year-old enslaved boy from Frederick County, fled the farm of Mr. Abraham H. Simmons.  His pursuers believed him to be headed for Baltimore City, and apparently had their suspicions corroborated by people who believed they had seen the boy in the city.   His direction of travel, was probably influenced by his familiarity with the city, and the possibility of shelter and/or assistance.  Such was the likely motive for Gassaway, another fugitive from Frederick County slavery.  According to the 1850 Census, Michael B. Carroll of the Nottingham District, Prince George's County, Maryland, held ninety human beings in chattel bondage.  Carroll died in 1853 and his slaves were ordered sold-off by the Orphan's Court.  On February 14, 1853, a public auction was held.  At least sixtey people, many of whom were families, were divided among the twenty-two successful bidders representing interests across the state, and likely throughout the South.  One of the late Carroll's slaves, Gassaway, was sold to a man named Bradley, who in turn sold him to Meredith Davis of Frederick County.  Within a year, Gassaway was gone from Davis's Gunpowder Mill's farm, and his owner believed him to be headed back to Prince George's County.  If that was his destination, it likely reflected the perspective held by blacks in Maryland's Southern Counties on the possibilities of flight.  Perhaps his familiarity with the region gave Gassaway confidence to attempt a reconnection with family, perhaps even seeking kin out to flee again at some future point.  Evidence shows that flight from Frederick County involved consideration on the part of the fleeing slave, and was not simply a matter of deciding to go. 

    While most fugitives are believed to have fled alone, records convincingly show that not all did.  Fred Fowler, for example, ran from W. L. Willis of New Market in May 1858.  He was believed to have run with John Shaw, property of William Hoffman, who also lived in Frederick County, between New Market and Frederick City.  Shortly before their disappearance, the twenty year old Fowler and twenty-four year old Shaw were seen together.  Sometimes, it seems, grand schemes of flight requiring preparation and forethought were concocted by a group of slaves.  This was true in Frederick County as it was elsewhere.  Such a design saw one Unionville farmer lose his whole enslaved labor force.  Thornton Poole held nine slaves in 1850, with most of these persons being members of a single family, the Aldridges - a mother (aged forty), and at least seven children (ranging in age from seven to twenty years old).  By the mid-1850s, Poole ran a store and a farm in Unionville, Liberty District, eastern Frederick County.  Of Liberty's 1,103 black residents, only 376 (34%) were enslaved.  At some point in 1856, two Aldridge brothers ran from Poole, followed shortly thereafter by their mother, and three siblings.  In the wake of this loss, Poole sold two slaves - the children and siblings of those who fled.  Following the sale, the remaining Aldridge siblings Basil (b. 1840), and Caroline (b. 1834), decided to run as well.  Basil ran first, in the company of Israel Todd, another Unionville slave belonging to a nearby plantation. Caroline followed shortly thereafter.  Basil and Caroline presumed that all but their brother and sister sold south had reached freedom.  They hoped to reunite with the entire Aldridge family in Canada.   Did the Aldridges and others recieve assistance from the growing, diverse free black population of Frederick County? We cannot be certain.  Yet, at least one resident of Frederick County per decade under consideration - David Bruce (1833), Lorenzo Penn (1843), and Charles Hall (1850) - was incarcerated at the Maryland Penitentiary for being an accomplice to fleeing slaves. 

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