Freedom Seekers

A view of the Hampton mansion in the distance with fog.
The Hampton mansion from a distance

NPS/Tim Ervin

The term "Freedom Seeker" illustrates the African American decision to take control of his or her destiny from the enslaver to one of their own choosing by leaving the site of enslavement. Other terms that have been used in the past are "fugitive slave" and "runaway slave".

Stories of enslaved freedom seekers can be devastating as with Abraham Pattern’s man, an enslaved laborer hired out by his slave master to the Northampton ironworks on March 18, 1774. According to the Northampton Furnace Journal, 1775-1778, the man complained that he was constantly “sicke” and could no longer work. His protests were ignored, and he ran away but was soon captured. In despair, he “cut his throat” rather than continue to labor at Northampton. This act caused his owner to retrieve him and remove him from the site. Such were the harsh conditions that some enslaved people would rather endure self-induced bodily injury than continue at the Northampton ironworks.

 
Advertisement of reward offered by Charles Ridgely for return of Bateman, an enslaved freedom seeker
Advertisement of reward offered by Charles Ridgely for return of Bateman, a freedom seeker, 1791.

NPS

Freedom seekers were not the only ones to decide to leave Hampton's ironworks. European white indentured servants escaped as well, as is evident in escape adds printed in newspapers (Runaways). Between 1770 and 1820, there were at least thirty ads for runaways from Hampton placed in local newspapers. A 1791 reward notice, handwritten by Charles Carnan Ridgely, advertised for the return of Bateman, a young enslaved man purchased from a Harford County farm. Bateman must have been captured and returned since he appears in later Hampton records. By the time of Governor Ridgely’s death in 1829, he was no longer working or living at the Northampton Furnace but was recorded at the Hampton home farm. Bateman was then 58 years old and too old to be freed by the governor’s will.

Another advertisement brings to light the story of a man named Hercules. Charles Ridgely Jr.’s Epsom list of clothing received by enslaved persons, demonstrates that Hercules and his wife were on the site during the period from 1811 to 1817. During that time, it seems likely that Hercules attempted an escape to freedom. On August 21, 1813, Charles Ridgely, Jr., ordered an iron collar and two shackles made for him by a blacksmith, at a cost of fifty cents. These were items of confinement, normally purchased to constrain the liberty of an enslaved person who had previously attempted escape. Ultimately, at age 41, Hercules was manumitted, or freed, in 1829 by the terms of Governor Ridgely’s will, one of the 74 adults who were freed immediately. However, following freedom, Hercules stayed on at Hampton as a low wage employee.

 
painting depicting Charles Carnan Ridgely and an overseer
Painting depicting Charles Carnan Ridgely and an overseer.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Freedom seekers often set out for Baltimore City where they might hope to be supported by a large free black community or for Pennsylvania, a free state with laws making it difficult for slave trackers and owners to pursue and recapture them. Some escapees did not even look for their own freedom but rather sought to return to family members on other plantations. Over 80 enslaved persons sought their freedom from Hampton over the century of slavery. Large groups of escapees were generally doomed to failure and most successful journeys to freedom were taken by young men traveling alone or in pairs. Some notable exceptions include the teenaged Rebecca Posey and housekeeper Lucy Jackson.

By the mid-nineteenth century, under John Ridgely’s tenure, enslaved persons were engaged in in agricultural and domestic tasks, rather than in the grueling industrial slavery of the Northampton Furnace, which had largely ceased operations in the 1830s. Fewer enslaved workers attempted escape during this period, as opportunities for potential free employment in Baltimore or Pennsylvania had also diminished. When enslaved persons did attempt escape, John Ridgely would advertise his or her escape in the press, hire slave catchers, and file affidavits and grants of power of attorney with Pennsylvania courts to return his slaves. Unlike his father, John Ridgely at times used the sale of an enslaved person to a southern plantation as a punishment or deterrent against flight.

 
Mary Jones’s certificate of freedom, 1860
Mary Jones’s certificate of freedom, 1860.

NPS

Harsher laws and more comprehensive efforts on the part of slaveowners meant that free blacks were often detained, questioned, and threatened with return to bondage if they could not document their statuses as free African Americans. Mary Jones, for instance, formerly enslaved to Governor Ridgely with the slave name of “Polly,” had to petition for her certificate of freedom as late as 1860, even though she had been freed for eleven years.

As the Civil War progressed, enslaved persons sought more opportunities to free themselves. A group of four young men (Henry Jackson, Bill Matthews, Charley Buckingham, and Josh Horner) all fled in early May 1861, immediately after the hostilities began. By early 1864, the number of enslaved individuals at Hampton had dropped from 61 to 49. Enslavement at Hampton was forced to end on November 1, 1864 with emancipation in Maryland, thus freedom was brought to those still enslaved on the site.

Last updated: July 1, 2021

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