Motivation for Escape

Peter and whipping.jpg

Scarred backside of a fugitive slave taken at a Union Army camp in either 1862 or 1863.  The man's name was either Gordon or Peter and he may have been enslaved in Louisiana.

The desire to live out of bondage persevered in American slaves.  However the decision to flee was a dilemma.  Kentucky slave Henry Blue declared, “. . . some poor, ignorant fellows may be satisfied with their condition as slaves, but, as a general thing, they are not satisfied with being slaves.”[1]  Enslavement meant lack of independence.  Living across the Ohio River meant violence, low wages, and the constant threat of being captured and sold back into bondage.  The blurred distinction between free and slave forced many African Americans to realize that freedom did not equal liberty.  John Malvin, a free African American who lived on both sides of the Ohio River declared, “I found every door closed against the colored man in a Free State, excepting the jails and penitentiaries, the doors of which were thrown wide open to receive him. . . From the treatment I received by the people generally, I found it little better than Virginia.”[2]


"Modern Medea," Margaret Garner with her slain child. From Harper's Weekly, May 18, 1867 by Thomas Noble.

While some slaves planned their escape for months, many fled spontaneously.   The impetuous decision to escape occurred after a discernible event.  The threat of sale and brutal punishment motivated slaves to escape.  Richard Daly of Trimble County, Kentucky, assisted over thirty slaves across the Ohio River to Madison, Indiana.  Escape did not enter his mind.  He did not believe freedom meant a better life.  The sale of his daughter to Louisville convinced Daly to escape.   In 1857, he fled Kentucky with his four children.[3]  Daly’s experience resonated with many slaves.  Fleeing often meant leaving loved ones.  Slaves who stayed bondage believed servitude fared better than liberty.  Joseph Sanford of Campbell County, Kentucky escaped from after severe mistreatment from the overseer.[4]  Sanford and his wife left with their four children and crossed into Canada.[5]

The sale of children or sexual abuse motivated female slaves to escape.  Many slave families lived with separate owners and women carried the burden of child rearing.  Once youth reached a working age, slave holders sold them.  Perhaps the most famous case of a female slave fleeing to protect her children is of Margaret Garner from Boone County, Kentucky.  Tired of the sexual abuse inflicted by owner and threat of selling her children, Garner escaped to Cincinnati.  In the winter of 1856 Garner crossed the frozen Ohio River and took refuge in the cabin of Elijah Kite.  Once discovered by federal marshals, Garner slit the throat of one child and attempted to kill the others.  After a trial, Garner’s owner sold her South.[6]




1 Matthew Salafia, "Searching for Slavery: Fugitive Slaves in the Ohio River Valley Borderland, 1830–1860," Ohio Valley History 8, no. 4 (2008), 45.

2 Ibid., 40

3 Ibid., 39

4 Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland, (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002).

5 Salafia, "Searching for Slavery," 45.

6 Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "'Margaret Garner': A Cincinnati Story," Massachusetts Review 32, no. 3 (1991)

Motivation for Escape