Last updated: October 10, 2020
You cannot understand the history and legacy of American slavery without studying the depth of the resistance to it. Prior to 1619 and beyond, there were always examples of defiance, escape attempts, violent confrontations and even some mass insurrections. Yet too often the multi-layered and persistent assaults on the peculiar institution get reduced to a mere handful of topics. Students usually learn something about Northern abolitionists. They read excerpts from Frederick Douglass or encounter a few brave Underground Railroad figures like Harriet Tubman.
The divisive John Brown gets more ambivalent treatment, but his 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, remains one of the touchstones for the study of the coming Civil War. Still, these resistance stories –however important-- barely touch the surface of the larger narrative about the centuries-long, Black-led struggle against slavery.
By contrast, contemporaries were more aware of the multitudes of threats against the slavery. After Brown’s raid collapsed, editors at the New York Evening Post, reminded their readers that his effort was certainly not “the most daring insurrection that has taken place in the United States.” The Post observed that nothing Brown had attempted was as ambitious or as violent as Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Southampton, Virginia. But the editors also pointed toward other now-forgotten insurrection plots, such as an alleged multi-state conspiracy among enslaved ironworkers in Tennessee and elsewhere uncovered in the aftermath of the 1856 election. “Those outbreaks were spontaneous movements of the servile class,” claimed the editorial on October 24, 1859, “but this one was chiefly stimulated from the outside, by a few frenzied men.”
The Post was actually arguing that Brown’s raid would be better understood as a “Virginia stampede” rather than as a full-scale insurrection. In fact, several of the early telegraphic dispatches about Harpers Ferry labeled it as an attempted stampede. Some also called it a riot.
“Slave stampedes” was a commonly used term in the 1850s and 1860s that described mass or serial small group attempts to escape from slavery. Since such groups were often armed, the threat of slave stampedes was usually portrayed along a spectrum of resistance toward “servile insurrection.” During the anxious period in late 1856, the New York Times reported on slaveholders cancelling traditional travel passes during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, because so many feared Blacks would “attempt a general rising or a general stampede.”
The stampede was a metaphor born about the same time as the “underground railroad,” and from the same kind of origins –out of the rapid westward expansion of the American economy. There were thousands of articles during the antebellum and wartime period that described nearly two hundred separate attempted stampedes from across the Upper South, in states like Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. Both sides in the sectional crisis employed the term, usually as a way to convey the sheer power and revolutionary nature of the action. For pro-slavery newspapers, borderland stampedes represented perhaps the greatest real menace to the institution.
There was the “Doyle Conspiracy” in Kentucky during the summer of 1848 (the first widely identified stampede, though some newspapers also tried to define this as an attempted insurrection) involving perhaps 75 armed runaways from the Lexington area. Then there was the “Great Slave Stampede in Missouri,” out of Canton, in November 1849 involving upwards of fifty armed escapees. Both of those ambitious efforts failed, but plenty of others succeeded. In October 1853, eleven freedom seekers escaped together from Palmyra, Missouri. In November 1854, nearly three dozen freedom seekers from St. Louis liberated themselves as part of two separately reported stampedes. Local newspapers blasted the fugitive slave law as “powerless” in the face of such Black resistance. One Illinois newspaper proudly claimed that Missouri slaves were “running away … in battalions.”
Once freedom seekers escaped into the North, whether or their own or in stampedes, they still had to protect themselves from recapture. Contemporaries often labeled such free soil-based resistance as “rioting.” “Riots” were a frequent occurrence in nineteenth-century American life, especially in the fast-growing and turbulent cities. There was regular political, social, ethnic, and racial violence –all dubbed as various forms of rioting. When runaways needed to resist slavecatchers or local police officials, they often combined together with free Blacks in violent clashes usually described as riots. Sometimes Black-led “vigilance committees” would even storm courthouses to liberate captured freedom seekers. One scholar has documented upwards of eighty such rescue efforts during the 1850s alone. The most famous of which occurred at Christiana, Pennsylvania in September 1851. Free Black residents and their white neighbors in Lancaster County stood up to a federal fugitive slave catching posse, protecting four runaways from recapture and fatally wounding a Maryland slaveholder in the process. Federal officials then rounded up more than three dozen accused conspirators --in what remains the largest treason trial in American history-- and yet nobody got convicted. The “Christiana Riot” is now an obscure footnote, but future Lincoln assassin (and Maryland native) John Wilkes Booth was still publicly complaining about it during the Civil War, as one of his leading examples of Southern grievances against the North.
Insurrections, stampedes, riots, and various other forms of Black-led resistance to slavery need greater attention, because they help put America’s long history of struggle against racial oppression into context. They illustrate –if any such illustration is needed– that tyranny and inequality always breed resistance.
Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka Chair for Civil War History and director of the House Divided Project at Dickinson College. He is the principal investigator for a multi-year initiative spearheaded by the National Park Service Network to Freedom that is exploring, “Slave Stampedes on the Missouri Borderlands.” You can read more about this major new research effort and see its latest discoveries at: http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/stampedes
 “Brown’s Slave Stampede,” The Evening Post (New York, NY), October 19, 1859.
 New York Daily Times (New York, NY), December 29, 1856.
 “Slave Stampedes,” Liberator (Boston, MA), June 10, 1853.
Blackett, R.J.M. The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. Cambridge, UK / New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
LaRoche, Cheryl Janifer. The Geography of Resistance: Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.