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  • Field Hands, Cowboys, and Runaways:Enslaved People on Horseback in Texas's Planter-Herder Economy, 1835–1865
  • Kyle Ainsworth (bio)

The excitement was palpable in the small central Texas town of Brenham on the evening of August 16, 1859. Earlier that day three well-armed runaway enslaved people had attempted to "force their way through town" on horseback. The townspeople had reacted swiftly: "A rush was made for their horses, and two of them were immediately hooded and secured." The third, "a large and muscular fellow, charged through the crowd with revolver in hand. Seeing that he was about to escape, a shout was raised to shoot him, when he was closely pursued by John Harden, who was on horseback, armed with a double barrelled gun. They were going at full speed, and when H. got within about fifteen yards of the negro, he fired one barrel of his gun, but it not appearing to affect the negro, he attempted to fire the other barrel, but it hung fire. In a few minutes, he overtook the negro and struck him with the gun, breaking it off at the breech. The negro went ahead until he was again overtaken by Harden, who dealt him a severe blow on the head, that felled him to the ground."1

While the drama of that day might have been exceptional, seeing enslaved people on horseback in Texas was not. There were many reasons in Texas's slave society for bondpeople to be intimately familiar with horses and mules—as cowboys on farms, plantations, and ranching operations; as hands clearing and plowing fields; as teamsters or wagoners moving supplies, cotton, or other agricultural products; and as [End Page 557] livery and stable attendants.2 Enslavers actively encouraged their bond-people to learn these skills. Mounted enslaved people were not uncommon in most parts of antebellum or Civil War-era Texas. Rather, they were part and parcel of the region's antebellum livestock industry and of its distinctive planter-herder economy.

In the three decades from the Texas Revolution through the Civil War, a fugitive enslaved person in Texas was three times more likely to steal a horse or mule than were runaway enslaved people in Arkansas, ten times more likely than fugitives in neighboring Louisiana and about sixteen times more likely than those absconding in Mississippi.3 These are extraordinary differences from geographically adjacent areas.

This article, in addition to drawing on newspaper stories, archival documents, and ex-slave narratives, utilizes the Texas Runaway Slave Project (TRSP) to analyze the significance of runaway enslaved people's disproportionate use of horses and mules in the Lone Star State. The project database, managed by the author, compiles the available information from newspapers, court records, and archival collections on every known fugitive enslaved person in Texas.4 The article first demonstrates that beginning in the [End Page 558] 1850s, Texas agricultural operations had far more horses and mules per enslaved person than was true elsewhere in the Deep South. Certain parts of Texas also featured a planter-herder economy that combined cash or subsistence crop cultivation and cattle herding, exposing enslaved people there to specialized work as cowboys. The TRSP database shows that although the planter-herder counties provided the largest concentration of mounted fugitives, Texas bondpeople in other agricultural districts also often used stolen mounts in their escape attempts. The everyday ubiquity of horses and mules and the riding proficiency of enslaved people led to a notable degree of mobility among Texas bondpeople. In their escape attempts, mounted enslaved people took advantage of another distinction of Texas's slave society—its proximity to Mexico, which had outlawed slavery. As the database shows, runaways thought to be looking toward Mexico and facing the long, daunting trek across South Texas or West Texas tended to rely on stolen horses and mules (though not all mounted runaways sought freedom beyond the Mexican border). In sum, the figure of the mounted enslaved person within this state's distinctive geography and agricultural composition adds a layer of complexity to existing work on bondpeople's quotidian life, their mobility, and their efforts to escape the system of bondage.

Despite extensive research...


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pp. 557-600
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