Freedom Seekers

Drawing of People on a dirt road at night
People on a dirt road at nighttime

NPS/Richard Schlecht Illustrations

The term "Freedom Seeker" illustrates the African American decision to take control of their 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" and "runaway".

The stories of freedom seekers can be as devastating as Abraham Patterns, an enslaved laborer hired out by his enslaver to the Ridgely’s to work at the Northampton ironworks on March 18, 1774. According to the Northampton Furnace Journal, 1775-1778, Patterns complained that he was constantly “sicke” and could no longer work. His pleas were ignored so he sought his freedom but was soon captured. In despair, he “cut his throat” rather than continue to labor for the Ridgelys at Northampton. This act caused his enslaver 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.


Enslaved 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 ads printed in newspapers (Freedom Seekers). Between 1770 and 1820, there were at least thirty ads for freedom seekers 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 recently 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 list of clothing received by enslaved persons at Epsom farm 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 torture and 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 human traffickers and enslavers to pursue and recapture them. Some freedom seekers 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 enslavement. Large groups of freedom seekers 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 agricultural and domestic tasks, rather than in the industrial slavery of the Northampton Furnace, which had largely ceased operations by 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 human traffickers, and file affidavits and grants of power of attorney with Pennsylvania courts to return his enslaved people.

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


Harsher laws and more comprehensive efforts on the part of enslavers meant that free Blacks were often detained, questioned, and threatened with return to bondage if they could not document their free status. Mary Jones, for instance, formerly enslaved to Governor Ridgely with the 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.


Freedom Seekers


Learn More

  • African American man holding a wheelbarrow outside of the mansion
    Enslaved People

    Hampton was the second largest plantation in Maryland. Learn about the struggle, hardships, and lives of the enslaved.

  • Enslaved workers working on the plantation farm by the overseer's house and slave quarters.
    Slavery at Hampton

    From the colonial period through 1864, the Ridgelys enslaved over 500 people. Enslaved persons, from young children to the elderly

  • An artist's depiction of an overseer in the fields watching the enslaved. With a whip behind back.
    Forms of Control

    From physical to mental abuse for the youngest ages to the oldest. Learn about the harsh truths and forms of control.

  • Hampton Carriage House (built c. 1850, image c. 1897), location of religious services led by Eliza R
    Religion and the Enslaved

    African Americans hosted their own religious services in the woods at Hampton and attending religious meetings with neighboring groups of fr

  • Living Historian demonstrates the 19th century technique for harvesting corn.
    Free Black Laborers

    Free Black Laborers worked at Hampton for various reasons. A good amount did to eventually purchase their family members.

  • Indentured Servants at Hampton
    Indentured Servants

    Indentured servants made up a significant portion of the Hampton labor force at one time. Read about their stories on the plantation.

  • Drawing of people working on a dock
    Indentured Servants at Hampton

    Indentured servants were not willing laborers and the working conditions at Northampton Furnace was grueling.

  • Artist depiction of the iron making process.
    Working Conditions

    Accounts of the working conditions of the forced labor iron works.

  • Painting of Night scene of a battlefield with soldiers standing by cannons. Background are camps.
    Hampton During the Civil War

    The Ridgely's passed their lives without worry until it became apparent that a civil war was about to impact their lives.

  • c. 1897 image of a tenant farmer woman outside the Enslavement Quarters. NPS
    Study about the lives of the Enslaved

    Until now, the enslaved and their descendants remained under-researched. Read about our Ethnographic Overview and Assessment.

  • African American Woman, Nancy Davis, and little white girl Eliza Ridgely
    Learn about more
    People of Hampton

    Hundreds of people lived, worked, and were enslaved at Hampton coinciding America's development as a nation. Explore more of their stories.

Last updated: March 27, 2024

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