Dangers of Running Away

Some of the dangers of running away include: 

  • Not knowing where to go
  • The master, slave catchers and dogs tracking the freedom seeker
  • Posters and newspaper articles about the escape
  • Poor clothing and nutrition
  • Not knowing who to trust

Below is a story about a slave who runs away and encounters all of these dangers. It is fiction but describes some of the obstacles that kept slaves from fleeing from their masters and finding freedom.

A Hard Decision to Make

My name is Sam. I don’t know how old I am, don’t know what month I was born. My mom was sold away from this place when I was very young so I don’t have many memories of her. I have a daughter and son. My wife died several years ago when my son was just 5 years old.  I am afraid the master is going to sell my son and daughter. My daughter Sarah is about 11 years old now and my son Will is 8. The master has been paying close attention to them, watching them work, and commenting about how tall they are getting. He had a man visiting several weeks ago who had a group of slaves chained to a rope. The slaves were mainly young. The man kept looking at my Sarah and Will. The master and he were talking for a long time and I think I saw the man give my master some money. What can I do but run away and take my precious children with me? Now that my wife is gone they are all that I have. I cannot bear the thought of them being taken away to a strange place where they don’t know people and given to a master who may beat them daily.

I’ve worked on this plantation my whole life helping my master bring in the tobacco crop season after season. It is hard work but that is not why I want to run away. I have to protect my children. I have not travelled but a few miles from this place my whole life. How am I going to make this trip without getting lost and caught? I know that I have to leave soon before the slave trader returns.  I know that I will have to travel at night and hope that I can find a cloudless night to start my journey because I am going to have to rely on the North Star to guide me. If I have to I can feel the trees because I know that the moss grows on the north side. I need to get to the big river up north that I have heard other slaves talk about – the great Ohio River. Some of them have seen it and it is mighty wide so I will have to figure out how to get across it.

I told Sarah and Will about my plans to escape and why we need to run soon.  They are afraid because they saw the master beat a slave who tried to run away. The slave did not make it very far because the master sent the overseer out with some bloodhound dogs to try to track the runaway. They caught up with him and trapped him in a tree. Once he was captured the master took a whip to his back. I try to calm my children’s fears but it is not easy because I am so afraid of the unknown also. But I know in my heart that this is the best thing for the three of us. We decide we are going to run away when the master goes to visit his brother day after tomorrow. He will spend the night because there is a birthday celebration going on.

Journey Through the Woods

When the selected night arrives we run to the woods. Everyone in the slave cabins is asleep. Our hearts are beating fast and we are sweating since we are afraid of being discovered. We do not make much noise until we get away from the slave cabins and then we run as fast as we can through the trees. It is hard because Sarah and Will do not have shoes and are barefoot. They stub their toes on stones but do not cry out for fear of being discovered. When daybreak starts we find a barn that is next to a house that looks deserted and we crawl into the hay loft and try to sleep as the sun rises in the sky. I stole some bread and saved some scraps of meat so we have a little food to sustain us. My children are quiet because they are so tired, scared and are in pain because of their sore feet. When they fall asleep I go out and look through the barn to see if I can find any protection for their feet. I go to the house. It is so quiet and when I look inside, it appears to be empty. I break in hoping that no one is upstairs, but there is only silence. I find some old rags in a pile by the fireplace and remember there is rope in the barn. I can cover my children’s feet.

When the sun sets and dark descends we start out again. It is raining and getting colder. We are all shivering because we do not have warm clothes - just a dress for Sarah and shirts and pants for Will and I. The master does not spend much on our clothing. The coverings I made for Sarah and Will to use on their feet keep their feet from getting cut on stones so we are thankful for that. But travelling this night is even harder than the first night we left.

Meeting Others on the Journey

We trek on and soon hear voices getting close. We dive for cover under a fallen tree and wait for the people to pass. It is a couple of slaves. Should I risk talking to them? Will they turn us in? I decide to ask them for help. They are very surprised when I cry out to them but immediately come to where we are hiding. I am sure it is a surprise to them to see the three of us especially my children shivering and afraid to look up. The two men told me they go fishing at night to get more food for their families because their master gives them very little to eat. They spend time when they can on the banks of the Ohio River trying to catch something to add to the family dinner table.

I tell them my story and they offer to help. I can tell they think I am foolish for running away and especially with my young children at my side, but they say they would not want to be separated from their family. They ask me to follow them and we arrive at the banks of the Ohio River. They point across the river to where there is a hill with a house at the top. The house has one lantern shining from a window. They tell me that is the beacon of freedom and I need to try to get there.  They quickly leave to get back home before their master thinks they have escaped.

The River

Sarah, Will and I are so close but so far away. I have to figure out how to get across the river. Not one of us can swim. We find a place to hide and watch to see if anyone else will come to the river. When morning comes a man comes down to the river not far from where we are hiding. He pulls out a boat that was hidden in the bushes. I am so upset that I did not think to go up and down the banks of the river looking for a boat but it was very dark last night and I probably would not have found it.

After a couple of hours the man paddles back to the place where the boat was hidden, pulls out a long string of fish that he caught and leaves. We wait until it is dusk and run to the boat. Sarah and Will get in it and I push it away from the bank and hop in. Sarah and I paddle as fast as we can but we are tired and hungry. When we get close to the banks on the Ohio side a voice calls out to us, “Do you seek freedom?” We are startled and afraid to answer him. Who can we trust? He could be a slave catcher sent by our master. We pretend not to hear him and try paddling away from the voice. As we do that we hear other voices joining him and realize that we are in danger.  Paddling into the middle of the river we drift away from the voices.

The Village

After it is totally silent and our boat has drifted far down the river we paddle to the Ohio shore again. We arrive in a heavily wooded area and looking around do not see anyone. We start walking hurriedly through the trees.  Suddenly we come upon a little village that is dark and quiet. We hide in the woods near the village hoping that we can find food and shelter. Sarah and Will have been so good but I know from the grumbling in their stomachs that they are very hungry. They have been walking slower and slower as the night passes. But we know that we have to be very careful because even though we are in the “free” state of Ohio, there are those who do not want to help freedom seekers like us. If they get their hands on us they may turn us over to slave catchers to get reward money.

When morning comes we wake up to the sound of wagons and horses moving through the village. We are so hungry and tired but afraid to trust anyone. Suddenly a man comes galloping up on horseback. He is shouting to some of the people of the village and telling them that a party of slave catchers are in the area trying to catch a man and two children who have run away. He says to the people that the slave catchers have printed out posters and nailed them to trees in the area with a description of the runaways and a reward for their capture and return to the owner.  He asks if anyone can give the runaways shelter if he can find them before the slave catchers. One of the older men steps up and says, “Find them quickly and I will hide them in the attic of my home. Tomorrow I will get my son-in-law to move them in a load of hay he is taking north.” The people all move off in different directions toward their homes and businesses.

Sarah, Will and I watch the older man go down a lane outside the village. When no one is looking we run through the woods toward the lane and follow him. We decide this is a man we can trust. When he reaches the door of a farmhouse, we step out of the woods and approach him. He is startled but when he sees the three of us a smile comes to his face. He says, “You have found us. I am going to hide you, feed you, and assist you on your journey to freedom.”

The slaves who took us to the banks of the Ohio River and that kind man were all part of the start of our successful journey on the Underground Railroad. There were many dangers, but Sarah, Will and I made it to Canada and a life as freed people.

After you read the story about Sam and his children talk about some of the dangers they faced as they escaped slavery.

Last updated: 2/15/2018

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