African Americans who took part in the colonization schemes to Africa and Haiti were hardly ever fugitive slaves. They were free blacks or manumitted slaves, freed to embark for Liberia, or they were those who had cast their lots with the British and gone first to Canada. From Canada, African Americans embarked to Sierra Leone in the 1790s and to Haiti in the 1820s. Canada and Mexico were more likely to be the desired cross-border destinations for fugitives. Canada, especially, received many. It has been estimated that 20,000 African Americans reached Canada, primarily western Ontario, in the decade before the Civil War.
When the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour [sic] in America was established in the Hall of Congress near Christmas, 1816, it was looked upon with suspicion by most free blacks. The fear that African colonization might become federal policy sent free blacks in search of white allies and encouraged blacks to hold the conventions at which they began to organize nationally and to denounce colonization. Most free blacks rejected the colony in Liberia which had been established by the American Colonization Society by 1821.
Still, there were African Americans who were attracted to Liberia as a place where they could establish their own government, develop trade and commerce, and send missionaries. In the first decade of its existence, Liberia received about three thousand African Americans. In that decade, the 1820s, the emigrants were predominantly free and traveling in family groups. After the early 1830s, more of the emigrants to Liberia were manumitted slaves, still in family groups, but often freed to be sent to Liberia. By the time of the Civil War, over 13,000 African Americans had emigrated to Liberia. In 1847, Liberia became a republic. It operated under a constitution which both modeled the American constitution and mocked it for its treatment of black Americans.
Unlike other emigration from the United States, Liberia brought up strong emotions both among those who defended it and those who attacked it. In David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens that strongly opposed African colonization, he called Liberia:
. . . a plan got up, by a gang of slaveholders to select the free people of colour [sic] from among the slaves, that our more miserable brethren may be better secured in ignorance and wretchedness, to work their farms and dig their mines, and thus go on enriching the Christians with their blood and groans.
Bishop Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church contended, “This land which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country, and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds and the gospel is free.”
Lott Cary, a slave who had earned enough money to buy his liberty and had then taken his family to Liberia, wrote from Liberia in response to such arguments. Referring to Bishop Allen’s pronouncement from Philadelphia, Cary asks the following:
What is the condition of the people of color in that city? O! I don’t allude to the Reverend Richard Allen . . . or any of those one of a thousand upon whom fortune has smild [sic]—But to that numerous hosts of chimney sweepers—wood sawyers and cart drawers who stand in the streets from morning until evening and durst not return to their homes, lest they find Grim death waiting for them with all the horrors of Starvation and the resistless influence of the Frigid Zone. I would ask every candid thinking man how this class of people can be worsted by emegrating [sic] to the West Indias [sic], or to the western coast of Africa.
Fugitives from slavery who left the territorial boundaries of the United States for Canada or Mexico often did so from port cities or towns and houses along international borders. While the western territories of the mid-nineteenth-century United States had fewer dramatic escapes and much less of an Underground Railroad presence, the escapes from slavery in such territories as Kansas and Texas had major diplomatic implications for the nation. The questions of slavery in the territories and slavery in the Mexican province of Texas divided the nation.
Before 1836, the Mexican border with the United States was Louisiana, Arkansas territory, and the Native American lands of Oklahoma. As one of Spain’s New World colonies, slavery was legally protected in Mexico. Still, there was little slavery in the under-populated province of Texas until, at almost the same time that Mexicans rose in revolt against Spanish domination (1819), American slaveholders moved into Texas and began to carve out plantations with slave labor. The newly independent Mexicans wanted Texas to be settled, but they did not want U.S. slavery to be a permanent part of their new nation. The Mexican legislature agreed in 1827 that, after the adoption of its constitution, no one would be born a slave on Mexican soil. American efforts to get around this by registering their slaves as indentured servants ultimately failed. This tension over slavery was a primary cause for American Texans to seek independence from Mexico and to establish the Republic of Texas (1836–1848).
Benjamin Lundy, the antislavery agent who managed to visit so many slave-based societies in the United States, traveled in Texas between 1830 and 1835 and concluded that Texas independence was
. . . a settled design, among the slaveholders of the country (with land speculators and slave traders), to wrest the large and valuable territory of Texas from the Mexican Republic, in order to re-establish the SYSTEM of SLAVERY; to open a vast and profitable SLAVE-MARKET therein; and, ultimately, to annex it to the United States.
Although the chief cotton-growing and slaveholding section of the Republic of Texas was in East Texas, some slaves brought into the region from Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, or Tennessee still managed to leave Texas bondage for Mexican freedom. From the 1830s through the Civil War, Texans complained of slave escapes and of the existence of communities of slaves and Native Americans just across the border in Mexico. The editor of the San Antonio Ledger complained in 1852 that the area across the Rio Grande “has long been regarded by the Texas slave as his El Dorado for accumulation, his utopia for political rights, and his Paradise for happiness.”
In the three decades between 1836 and 1865, as many as five thousand slaves may have crossed the southwestern U.S. border. In addition, a small but steady number of bondsmen attempted escape on vessels using the Gulf of Mexico. Some runaways sought out an accommodating Native American tribe or lived for long periods in a swamp or thicket, emerging only to acquire supplies. Occasionally, runaways headed not to Mexico but to their former homes. They wanted to return to their families.
Fugitives had to avoid slave patrols and Texas Rangers, but could often expect assistance from the small Mexican communities in Southwest Texas. After they crossed the Rio Grande border, they found settlements of fugitive slaves, free blacks and Indians among whom they might live. The Mexican government believed that runaways weakened slavery. They thought that these border communities helped to prevent further U.S. expansion into Mexico. Therefore they refused to agree to a treaty for the extradition of slaves.
The circumstances under which Africans lived with Native Americans varied greatly over time and place. Ex-slave Henry Bibb expressed a common, but not universal, sentiment when he said he believed the Native American form of slavery to be less harsh.
And I found this difference between negro [sic] slavery among the Indians, and the same thing among the white slaveholders of the South. The Indians allow their slaves enough to eat and wear. They have no overseers to whip nor drive them. If a slave offends his master, he sometimes, in the heat of passion, undertakes to chastise him; but it is as often the case as otherwise, that the slave gets the better of the fight and even flogs his master; for which there is no law to punish him; but when the fight is over that is the last of it. So far as religious instruction is concerned, they have it on terms of equality, the bond and the free; they have neither slave laws nor negro [sic] pews. Neither do they separate husbands and wives, nor parents and children. All things considered, if I must be a slave, I had by far, rather be a slave to an Indian, than to a white man, from the experience I have had with both.
The apparently natural limits to the “Cotton Kingdom,” assistance from indigenous Mexicans and Native Americans, the proximity of seagoing vessels, and the relative ease with which slaves might slip into Mexico made some observers hopeful that slavery might not maintain its grip on Texas. Frederick Law Olmsted noted that the long border with Mexico “will go far to prevent this from becoming a great enslaved planting country.” Nevertheless, Texas, which had declared itself a slaveholding republic in 1836, continued to import slaves and to identify with the interests of the slaveholding South through secession and the Civil War.
The hard-traveling Benjamin Lundy, an antislavery Quaker who began as a colonizer and became an abolitionist, visited Canada to observe conditions for free blacks and fugitives from slavery. He wrote:
During the latter part of 1829, and the first part of 1830, a colony of several thousand coloured [sic] people, mostly from Ohio, was established in Upper Canada, the immediate occasion being the enforcement, in Ohio, of an old law, which was intended to restrain the settlement of emancipated slaves in that State. It appears . . . that this event excited a strong feeling in Canada, at that time, and the House of Assembly of that Province passed resolutions expressive of its aversion to the settlement, and requested the Governor to apply to the British Parliament, for the future prohibition of such emigration. The application proved unsuccessful, and Canada remained open to coloured [sic] settlers.
1. Why did free blacks begin searching for white allies when the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour in America was established?
a. They feared that the society would attempt to spread slavery.
b. They wanted to disband a group that was pro-colonization.
c. They did not want colonization to become a federal policy.
d. They disliked the society because it was anti-abolitionist.
2. Why were African Americans interested in places like Liberia?
a. African Americans had no interest in emigrating to countries like Liberia.
b. In Liberia, they could live in freedom and establish their own government.
c. They hoped to free the colony that had been founded in Liberia.
d. African Americans knew that Liberia was a wealthy country due to commerce.
3 .Why did Lott Cary write specifically about the chimneysweepers, wood sawyers, and cart drawers?
a. He did not care about Reverend Richard Allen’s arguments.
b. Cary wanted to call out to those people who would benefit most by not emigrating.
c. He thought that laborers would better understand his message.
d. Cary was responding to those who had said that America was now their home and they did not want to leave.
4. How did Americans attempt to get around the Mexican legislature, which stated that no slave would be born on Mexican soil?
a. They attempted to register their slaves as indentured servants.
b. They declared their independence and then established a slave state.
c. They moved out of Texas to avoid the issue completely.
d. They asked for aid from the United States government.
5. Why was the area across the Rio Grande considered an “El Dorado” by the Texas slaves?
a. The slaves were able to gather there in great numbers.
b. This was the place where slaves could find ships to take them home.
c. Across the border in Mexico the slaves had civil rights and liberties.
d. This area was well known for its prosperity and commerce.
6. According to Henry Bibb, how did Native American slave masters treat their slaves?
a. unfairly, often abusing them
b. roughly, often ignoring their basic needs for food and clothing
c. often better than white slave masters
d. sometimes worse than white slave masters
7. Why, in 1830, did the Canadian governor ask the British Parliament not to allow future arrivals of African Americans into Canada from the United States?
a. The governor was not on good terms with many people who had recently come to Canada.
b. The people of Canada did not want emancipated slaves to settle in their country.
c. Canada wanted to enforce Ohio’s laws that restrained slaves.
d. Canada wished to stop the development of its unoccupied territories.
8. The presence of African Americans became a huge political problem for the United States. Canada and Mexico were destinations for runaway and freed slaves. If you had been a runaway slave during the 19th century and could have chosen to go to either Canada or Mexico, which border would you have crossed and why? Use the text to help you decide.