- Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers by Matthew J. Clavin
In 1770, a man in his midtwenties ran away from enslavement in the British colony of North Carolina. He found refuge in an Indian town [End Page 218] before continuing on to Pensacola, the capital of another British colony, West Florida. On his way, he may have passed a man going the opposite direction who had been born in Angola and was running from Pensacola to Creek Indian country. These two men were hardly alone. As Matthew J. Clavin notes in his excellent new book, for more than a century, Pensacola was “both a launch and a landing for runaway slaves” (1).
While the antebellum Underground Railroad has commanded most of the historiography and almost all of the popular memory of escaping slavery, fugitives traveled North America’s paths and waterways long before there was an active abolition movement, and most did not head for the northern British colonies or states. The North was no safer than the South before the American Revolution. In the antebellum era, the majority of enslaved people lived in the Deep South, from which the free North was unreachable. If you ran away from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida, you would not seek freedom a thousand miles away. You would aim closer, and you would probably consider Pensacola, unless that was where you were running from.
Clavin builds on the pathbreaking work of historian Jane Landers (1999), who uncovered the history of runaways from the British Carolinas to Spanish St. Augustine, and the ongoing work of historians Linda Rupert and Simon Newman on fugitives crossing imperial borders throughout the Atlantic world. Clavin’s book proves that Pensacola deserves a prominent place in this history. Finding massive evidence in British, Spanish, and US archives and newspapers, Clavin demonstrates that thousands of men and a much smaller number of women passed through Pensacola as they chose “to walk, run, swim, and sail toward freedom, often with free people providing a variety of assistance” (145). From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, Pensacola and the other port cities of the Gulf Coast belonged to variously France, Spain, Britain, and the United States, while the vast inland belonged to multiple native nations. When slaves ran away, they picked destinations based on international politics and their own calculations of likely success. Fugitive slaves were internationalists, and Pensacola was a cosmopolitan place.
Startlingly well for a book whose central subject is people who not only for the most part did not write but who intentionally tried to avoid the people and institutions likely to record their existence, Aiming for Pensacola takes readers into the lives of individuals. In 1767, Harry and John, a [End Page 219] New York−born enslaved “mulatto” shoemaker and an English-born indentured servant, fled Pensacola together. Two Pensacola dockworkers named Harry and Abraham helped found “Negro Fort” north of the city and later became military leaders among the Seminoles. In the 1820s, a man fled his plantation on the US side of the Alabama River and made his living ferrying passengers from Spanish Florida to Alabama. Wearing a fur hat, blue coat, and Scotch plaid pants, Billy fled his forced march south from Maryland to the new cotton states and made his way to Pensacola. In 1850, a Pensacola blacksmith stowed away in a ship bound for New Hampshire. For most of these people, Clavin can tell us far less than we would like to know, but the stories are vivid and individual, and together they teach us not only about experiences of slavery and freedom but also the human diversity of people held in bondage.
Clavin also reveals the lack of unanimity of free people—white, native, and black—about the institution of slavery and the property rights of slaveholders. Just as not all slaves headed north, not all people who helped them were northern abolitionists, or working out of abolitionist motivations at all. A skilled runaway’s offer of useful service...