Navigation – Plan du site
Emancipation

Abolitionists, Smugglers and Scapegoats: Assistance Networks for Fugitive Slaves in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1836-1861

Thomas Mareite

Résumé

This article analyses the nature of assistance networks for slave refugees absconding from Texas to the Mexican border between 1836 and 1861. It argues that, by contrast with the more densely organized Underground Railroad that connected the US South to the northern states and Canada, structures of assistance remained fairly loosely organized and inconsistent in the Texas-Mexican borderlands, in great part due to the almost complete absence of an established and influential abolitionist network in its midst. A wide variety of actors facilitated slaves’ escape attempts to the Rio Grande/Bravo, for multiple reasons. In this expanding slavery frontier, ideological grounds to support fugitive slaves largely coexisted with economic incentives, self-interest and socio-economic proximity. Convinced abolitionists, low-skilled Mexican workers, German settlers, smugglers and frontier bandits shaped weak, unstable and ambiguous assistance networks in which the boundaries between protection, violence and exploitation often overlapped.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 Mexico abolished slavery definitively in 1829 (except in Texas) and gradually developed a free-soil (...)
  • 2 The terms « slave refugees », « fugitives » and « runaways » will be used interchangeably for the s (...)
  • 3 Proposed by historian Dale W. Tomich, the expression « second slavery » refers to a revival of slav (...)
  • 4 On the development of « second slavery » and Texas’ plantation system, consult in particular: Rando (...)
  • 5 The Western Texan (San Antonio), 15 April 1852; The Texas Monument (LaGrange), 21 April 1852; The I (...)

1During the last two decades of US slavery, enslaved African Americans from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi increasingly looked upon the boundary between the US Southwest and Mexico (where slavery had officially ceased to exist in the late 1820s) as a line between servitude and freedom. Between the independence of Texas (from Mexico) and its constitution as a thriving slaveholding republic (1836) and the outbreak of the US Civil War (1861), slaves absconded in growing numbers across the national border to what they saw as a promised land of freedom1. When escaping overland to the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, most fugitive slaves primarily relied on their own skills. Although they usually fled alone or in small groups across the Rio Grande/Bravo, seeking assistance to facilitate their flight was an essential concern for most of them as familiarity with space and people decreased with time and distance2. Support could be material, through food, water, clothes, and shelter. Assistance also took the form of immaterial benefits such as geographical information, intelligence regarding local patrols, as well as purely psychological input such as entertainment. Such help was partly provided by the community of bondspeople that had been scattered throughout the US Southwest by the geographical expansion of the plantation economy, « second slavery »3, and its related intra- and inter-regional slave trade4. Relatives, in particular, were frequent accomplices of runaways, as in the case of the Gordon brothers (Albert, Isaac and Henry) who absconded together during the 1850s. Albert, the elder, described as a « strong, healthy man » by the Western Texan, initially escaped alone to the Mexican borderlands around 1852. Arrested in San Antonio, he absconded from the county jail along with other prisoners after they « made a hole in the wall » and « let themselves down by the aid of blankets ». Once in Mexico, the man joined the mascogos (the denomination Mexican authorities gave to the Black Seminoles who settled in Coahuila in 1850) in their free settlement. Apparently pleased with his new life across the border, the refugee decided two years later to return to Texas to entice Isaac and Henry away. Albert was arrested again, but managed to abscond once more, and the three brothers succeeded in escaping again to Coahuila some months later5.

2Yet fugitive slaves did not solely rely on fellow enslaved African Americans (and the few free blacks residing on the Texas frontier) for assistance. This article therefore focuses on support provided by non-black people to escaped slaves during their flight from the US Southwest to the Mexican border between 1836 and 1861. Drawing mostly on southwestern press, which is read against the grain, it contends that the relative absence of formal abolitionist networks in the Texas-Mexico borderlands created space for a wide range of actors to facilitate enslaved people’s escape attempts, forging loose, situational and uncertain networks of support. Although tentative and based on inevitably fragmentary evidence, this article suggests that attitudes to slavery did not always correspond with actors’ behaviour towards fugitive slaves, which instead was tempered by case-specific context.

  • 6 Data for this map was (primarily) extracted from the following online and archive collections: Texa (...)

Figure 1: Approximate routes of escape for slave refugees in the Texas-Mexico borderlands and through the Gulf of Mexico, c.1836-1861 (© Thomas Mareite)6

An Underground Railroad to Mexico?

  • 7 The « Underground Railroad » was a clandestine network of support to slaves escaping from the US So (...)
  • 8 The Morning Star (Houston), 14 September 1841; Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston), 15 September (...)
  • 9 Civilian and Gazette. Weekly (Galveston), 21 December 1858. The Butterfield Overland Mail Route was (...)
  • 10 Glen Sample Ely. The Texas frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861, Norman, Universit (...)
  • 11 Dallas Herald (Dallas), 9 November 1859.
  • 12 Ibid. 31 July 1858.
  • 13 Joseph E. Chance. José Maria de Jesus Carvajal. The Life and Times of a Mexican Revolutionary, San (...)
  • 14 On issues of extradition and diplomatic consequences of slave flight between the US and Mexico, see (...)

3Some « conductors » (free individuals assisting slaves in their escape) do seem to have been active in the Texas-Mexico borderlands after 1836, although to a lesser extent than their counterparts of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) to the north7. Influential slaveowners and editors increasingly complained about the actions of real or imaginary abolitionists. Nacogdoches, in eastern Texas, was already « thrown into some alarm » in 1841 by « lurking scoundrels » supposed to be abolitionists8. By the end of the 1850s, the initial scare of abolitionists had turned into a real witch-hunt. In 1858, a resident of San Antonio abducted a slave close to the border, who had absconded from Anderson County to Chihuahua. The prisoner revealed that he had escaped through the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and « was assisted and fed at the stations all along the road by the employees of the line ». Once in El Paso, the runaway allegedly became a station keeper for the company in exchange for twenty dollars a month9. Likewise, during the spring of 1859, the Grayson County Court sentenced an employee of the company, New York-born George Humphreys, to exile in California for gambling with a slave and acting as what the Dallas Herald termed « an avowed abolitionist » 10. Similarly, a young white man named Granwell was jailed in 1859 with two slaves near Dallas. Labelled vaguely as a « negro-stealer » and abolitionist by the press, he had supposedly enticed slaves to follow him « upon the pretext of taking them to Mexico, and the promise of freeing them ». It turned out that just before this incident, another man had unsuccessfully offered the same slaves to flee with him to Santa Fe (New Mexico)11. Likewise, citizens of Williamson county wrote to the Austin Gazette complaining about « avowed abolitionists » in their jurisdiction supposedly responsible for a recent increase in flights, as six slaves had been « missing from their owner’s farms lately ». The related article « Freesoilers and Runaways » asserted that « we do not know who they are, or what connection they may have with running off negroes, but the loss of slaves is occurring in our upper counties »12. Correspondingly, German (and assimilated as such) free-thinkers and « forty-eighters » established for instance in San Antonio, Fredericksburg and New Braunsfels were seen with resentment by local slaveowners, as their liberal leanings contradicted the pro-slavery consensus and plausibly led some of them to assist fugitives13. Grounded and ungrounded accusations in the press against abolitionists became increasingly frequent by the eve of the US Civil War. They translated how anxious slaveowners came to feel about runaways and any sign of opposition to institutionalized slavery at all, especially given that Mexican authorities repeatedly refused to conclude any agreement with US governments on the extradition of fugitive slaves14.

  • 15 See footnote 4.

4However, when compared to the UGRR, little evidence exists of similarly (semi)-organized networks of assistance for slave refugees in the Texas-Mexico borderlands. Support networks for flight in the US Southwest were especially precarious, when compared to (relatively) more stable northern routes for escape. As underlined by Randolph Campbell, an overwhelming consensus reigned over slavery among slaveholders and non-slaveholders in the US Southwest. Moreover, presumed abolitionists and transgressors of the code of loyalty to southern identity (which included respect for slavery) were harshly punished both by the law, as well as by vigilantism and mob violence. Finally, the community of free blacks in Texas after 1836 never counted more than a few hundred people. By contrast with other regions of the US South where temporary and permanent concealment within groups of urban free African Americans was fairly available for slave refugees, fugitive slaves in the Texas-Mexico borderlands could not rely on such an option, and no abolitionist committee existed on the other side of the border to receive them. All these factors meant that networks of support for slave refugees were weak, contingent and constantly evolving15. These observations prompt the question of whether the metaphor of underground railroad traditionally used by the historiography on fugitive slaves in 19th-century North America is relevant in this particular case. In the specific context of the Texas-Mexico borderlands, assistance came as much from mobile people in frequent contact with slave refugees, or interested financially in such action, as from ideologically committed individuals striking against institutionalized slavery. To an even greater extent than for the UGRR, social proximity and opportunity were conducive to support in the borderlands, apart from anti-slavery ideals.

  • 16 Especially newly arrived Mexicans, by contrast with Tejanos settled in Texas before 1836.
  • 17 Charles W. Webber. Tales of the Southern Border, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincourt, 1887, p. 48-49 and (...)

5The overlap of ideological and socioeconomic reasons for assisting escaped slaves applied particularly to the Mexican population of the US Southwest. As slave flight across the Rio Grande/Bravo increased after 1836 (and rose even more dramatically during the 1850s), low-skilled Mexican workers in Texas often assisted fugitives16. Soon after his arrival in Texas during the spring of 1839, journalist Charles W. Webber noticed that « the Mexican population of Texas had always exhibited a warm sympathy for them, and never failed to assist them in getting off by every means in their power ». Webber recalled in particular the story of a Mexican blacksmith convicted for having assisted a slave in his escape from San Antonio’s city jail out of « human sympathy for the boy ». The craftsman confessed that he had « advised him to the utmost as to the manner of his escape, and guided and accompanied him in his flight to the thicket »17.

  • 18 Texas State Times (Austin), 14 October 1854.
  • 19 The Indianola Bulletin (Indianola), 6 September 1853. The image of Mexican labourers absconding wit (...)
  • 20 Nichols. « The line of liberty », p.713-733; Raúl Ramos, Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicit (...)

6The word « Mexican », in most runaway slave advertisements, press articles and jail notices, did not necessarily imply legal nationality, but rather referred to a perceived ethnicity (by Anglo-Americans), usually without distinction between Mexican Texans (Tejanos) and Mexican nationals. Non-qualified labourers from Mexico were especially targeted by slaveowners and editors for spreading « false notions of freedom », according to residents of Austin in October 185418. Columnists often recommended expelling Mexican peons with the alleged motive that, according to an editor from Indianola, they « have no domicile, but hang around the plantations, taking the likeliest negro girls for wives », before stealing horses and running to Mexico19. Legally free, peons nonetheless shared with African American slaves a similar socioeconomic condition as marginalized manual workers, which prompted mutual sympathy. Such physical and socio-economic proximity proved to be a decisive motive for empathy and assistance. In the cotton, sugarcane and tobacco plantations of the US Southwest, both groups laboured alongside, developing personal ties. Besides, mobility was an essential component of peons’ lives, as indebted workers in Mexico usually crossed the border. Peons from Mexico were especially useful in transmitting social, geographical and linguistic skills and knowledge, while tales of runaway peons crossing borders inspired would-be escapees. Mexicans also acted as intermediaries to get provisions and information, and as guides along the way20.

  • 21 Texas State Times (Austin), 8 September 1855.
  • 22 See for instance: New Orleans Delta (New Orleans, La.), 25 September 1849 
  • 23 Texas State Gazette (Austin), 9 September 1854. 
  • 24 The South-Western (Shreveport, La.), 7 November 1855.
  • 25 The Red-Lander (San Augustine), 7 July 1842.

7The symbiosis between both groups seemed so clear to slaveowners that the Texas State Times asserted that Mexicans and slaves maintained a deeply-rooted « fellow-feeling » and pessimistically stressed that « no precautionary movements, no committees of vigilance, will ever prevent negroes from running away or Mexicans from helping them off21 ». In a few instances, runaways passed themselves off as Mexicans while others were reported as looking like Mexicans, which, in the eyes of slaveowners, only strengthened the incriminatory link between the two groups22. At Seguin, a public meeting organized in August 1854 denounced Mexican peons as « fugitives from justice », « highway robbers, horse and cattle thieves, and idle vagabonds », and according to the attendees, « they scruple at nothing, and a few dollars from a negro, is sufficient to secure their services23 ». Pro-slavery journalist John S. Ford wrote that « sometimes [slaves] come in bands of ten or twelve, escorted and guarded by a Mexican, who has guided them above the settlements and through the upper prairies of Texas24 ». The slaveowners’ exasperation gradually increased. Several Texas towns and counties passed measures discriminating and/or expelling Mexican labourers from their jurisdictions. Violence against Mexicans spread, including extrajudicial punishments. For instance, in 1842, a peon « attempting to run away with a negro girl » from Texana was captured near Lavaca and swiftly « hung in a tree », while near San Felipe, a Mexican was whipped and had his ears cut off by a planter who accused him of enticing his slaves « to run away with him to Mexico25 ».

  • 26 Frederick L. Olmsted. A Journey through Texas: or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, New Y (...)
  • 27 The Texas Ranger (Washington, Tex.), 3 February 1855. By contrast, the Colorado Citizen (Columbus, (...)

8To a lesser extent, German immigrants faced resentment from local slaveowners. The new settlers’ frequently liberal views on slavery as well as the scarcity of German slaveholders in Texas put them at odds with local pro-slavery culture. Journalist and antislavery advocate Frederick L. Olmsted in his Journey through Texas (1857) recalled that a poor German immigrant « happening to find a half-starved fugitive, when looking after his cattle, melted in compassion ». Once back to his place, the man « bound up his wounds, clothed him, gave him food and whisky, and set him rejoicing on his way again26 ». Olmsted’s comments were indicative of a larger trend. Some fugitives were for instance arrested in February 1855 « in a German settlement near Texana27 ».

The usual suspects

  • 28 Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston), 22 December 1841; Charleston Mercury (Charleston, S.C.), 18 (...)

9Nonetheless, though at times based on objective facts, accusations against Mexicans or Germans were also indicative of slaveholders’ rising frustration (for which they were easy scapegoats) in the context of an increasing loss of their workforce into Mexico. Slaveowners arguably exaggerated the extent to which escaped slaves received assistance and frequently accused (without evidence) perceived defaulters from the pro-slavery consensus. In a patronizing denial of slaves’ will and capacity to abscond by themselves, the finger-pointing at Mexicans or Germans contributed to downplay the intrinsic violence of slavery while assuming that only external interference by foreign troublemakers could corrupt slaves’ minds. The chronic scapegoating of Mexicans and Germans as alleged accomplices actually reflected rising concerns among the Anglo-American community about the loyalty of new immigrants to white supremacy, patriarchal honour, southern identity, of which pro-slavery was the main expression. On similar grounds, religious communities and evangelical movements (especially Methodists and Mormons) spreading into Texas in the wake of the Second Great Awakening were occasionally accused of anti-slavery subversion and assistance to fugitives28.

  • 29 Olmsted. A Journey through Texas, op.cit., p.327-328; Kelley, Los Brazos de Dios, op.cit., pp.174-1 (...)
  • 30 San Antonio Ledger (San Antonio), 19 August 1852.

10Yet harbouring anti-slavery sentiments did not necessarily imply engaging in active support of fugitives. Sean M. Kelley noted for instance that Germans who held such views « rarely articulated them publicly », for fear of being prosecuted. Albeit underlining their general empathy towards fugitives, Frederick L. Olmsted also argued that « most of the Germans », considering the risks involved in assisting enslaved asylum-seekers, « would refuse to take in a negro whom they knew to be running awa29 ». Nonetheless, slaveholders often interpreted signs of disagreement with institutionalized slavery (or simply an origin) as evidence of assistance. In particular, runaway slave advertisements often suggested the collusion of Mexicans even when tangible grounds for outright accusations could not be found. When four slaves named Jim, Stephen, Alfred and Arthur absconded together from Fort Bend County in July 1852, their master Patrick Perry hastily suggested that, as « a Mexican by the name of Phillippi [was] also missing », the latter very likely bore responsibility for the flight, though he did not provide any proof to support his claim30.

  • 31 Reports of cases argued and decided in the Supreme Court of the state of Texas at Austin, 1855, Aus (...)
  • 32 Ernest Obadele Starks. Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States afte (...)
  • 33 Washington Texas Ranger and Lonestar (Washington, Tex.), 18 November 1854; James D. Nichols. « The (...)
  • 34 George W. Featherstonhaugh. Excursion through the Slave States, from Washington on the Potomac to t (...)

11Contrary to what such accusations suggest, support for fugitives in the borderlands did not necessarily stem from moral, religious or ideological convictions against slavery. Pragmatic considerations and monetary interests also prompted assistance, as illustrated by the escape of Miguel Arcienega and his slaves across the border in 1855. A tejano resident of San Antonio, Arcienega was indebted to a certain John Riddle. « Lots and parcels of land adjacent to San Antonio » along with « three negro slaves » were kept as securities that were to be reconveyed as soon as the sum was paid. To avoid an impending foreclosure, Arcienaga apparently encouraged the slaves to escape from their new master to join him across the Mexican border, and then sued Riddle. His intention certainly was not grounded in philanthropy, yet once in Mexico the three men became (in theory) free by law31. Similar financial motivations also account for Georgia-born John Short’s alleged assistance to slave refugees in Fayette County in the early 1840s. Short became notorious in his locality (despite being a veteran of the Texas Revolution) for apparently personally abetting slaves escaping to Mexico. The scheme was believed to be as follows. Short sold slaves who subsequently fled from their new owners and joined him again. The trick would later be repeated further south until reaching Mexico, where the slaves would be free. In the meantime, Short secured substantial benefits, which seemed to be his prime motivation, until he was eventually hanged in February 1847 for cattle theft and counterfeiting32. In the fall of 1854, similar accusations were made in Navarro County against two transient workers named Wells and Morgan, suspected of performing the very same trick to earn some money while conducting slaves down to Mexico. After Morgan’s « forced confession » at the hands of an angry mob, Wells’ body was found several days later, « thrown in a creek », with evidence that he had been tortured, mutilated and summarily executed33. As with abolitionists, the veracity of accusations against suspected slave smugglers like Short, Wells and Morgan, remains hard to establish, and some of these claims were entirely fabricated. Yet some contemporaries’ observations seem to suggest that such suspicion was not always ungrounded. In his Excursion through the Slave States, geographer and geologist George W. Featherstonhaugh for instance underscored that smuggling slaves (including to free states) through the borderlands was one of many « modes of getting a livelihood34 ».

  • 35 Race and Slavery Petitions Project (Digital Library on American Slavery) – Petition n°21585211; htt (...)
  • 36 New Orleans Daily Crescent (New Orleans, La.), 9 August 1854.
  • 37 Augustus Q. Warton. A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, Athe (...)
  • 38 The Gonzales Inquirer (Gonzales), 18 June 1853 ; The Western Texan (San Antonio), 18 November 1854; (...)

12The boundaries between assistance and exploitation often proved to be ambiguous, as support of fugitives could stem from the prospect of economic gain. Instances of « slave stealing » also frequently occurred. When soliciting external help, slave refugees always ran the risk of being fooled by individuals promising protection and support yet turning out to be frontier outlaws planning to re-enslave or sell them in a remote territory. In the vicinity of Austin, John and Benjamin Perry Grumbles were convicted of slave-stealing in December 1852. An inquiry ascertained their intention to settle « beyond the limits of the state » and to exploit a fourteen-year-old girl « to their own use », after keeping her « in secrecy » for about ten months35. Similarly, the New Orleans Daily Crescent reported in August 1854 the arrest of a man between Lockhurt and San Marcos « traveling not exactly in company with a negro, but just behind him ». The smuggler confessed to the local police being « one of a party of ten or fifteen men, engaged in carrying negroes from Texas to Mexico ». According to him, for a two-hundred-dollar sale to hacendados (large landowners) in Mexico, fugitives were to be converted into indebted workers across the border until they could pay the sum back to their new owner36. Smuggling slaves across the border seem to have been a widespread practice in the US Southwest. Already in the early 1830s in the Mississippi delta region, the famous bandit John Murrell together with his brother enticed away an « old negro man and his wife and three sons » from the Choctaw nation with « many fine stories ». Among these lies (the smugglers actually planned to sell the family near New Orleans), the two men had promised freedom in Mexican Texas to the fugitives in exchange for a year of their work once settled across the Sabine River37. In the summer of 1853, a presumed « extensive gang of negro thieves, operating on the Nueces and Rio Grande » made the headlines. Other « gangs of desesperados », such as the one led by a certain Kuykendall near Galveston, were accused of falsely promising to set slaves free in Mexico, instead selling them elsewhere. As underscored by James D. Nichols, a « domesticating » agenda usually underlay such rumours. Stories of ruthless bandits were counter-narratives to freedom, intended to deter would-be fugitives from attempting to escape38.

  • 39 The expression is originally from: George T. Díaz. Border Contraband. A History of Smuggling across (...)
  • 40 The Planter (Columbia), 31 May 1844.
  • 41 « Petition to Samuel A. Maverick and members of Bexar delegation », 20 December 1851, Austin, Texas (...)
  • 42 Telegraph and Texas Register, 6 March 1844 ;  George W. White, Williamson S. Oldham, A Digest of th (...)

13Nonetheless, slave refugees were not merely the passive victims of slave-stealers, as they frequently manipulated the « moral economy of smuggling39 » to their own advantage as well, adapting their escape strategy to the peculiar social landscape of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. Guides and intermediaries were contracted through bribes, and smuggling slave refugees for financial benefit (just as was the opposite practice of « slave-catching ») seem to have been a common activity. For instance, about ten slaves near Brazoria were accused in May 1844 of having engaged two men (Jesse Blades and Robert Redding) to escort them to Mexico, with each of them offering one hundred dollars to their guides40. Similarly, in the town of San Antonio, a Mexican was accused in 1851 of having accepted a bribe from a fugitive slave to provide information about the route leading to Mexico41. As the latter case illustrates, material and monetary incentives could turn otherwise neutral actors into good Samaritans. Yet, these very same incentives could also swell the ranks of arresters and mercenaries eager to receive a reward for capturing fugitive slaves42.

Conclusion

  • 43 Belton Independent (Belton), 19 June 1858, 26 June 1858 and 2 October 1858, Matagorda Gazette (Mata (...)

14In the summer of 1858, newspapers in Texas extensively narrated the story of « Jack Thompson » (as he called himself), a slave who had absconded from Coryell County. The man was well provisioned in money, arms, ammunitions and « all other requisite appendages », including a map, a compass and a watch. As it turned out eventually, the fugitive « had on a wig which disguised him so that he was not at first recognized by any one ». According to a witness, this « ingenious contrivance » allowed Thompson to pass himself off as a free « Spaniard » travelling westward to New Mexico to visit his brother « Don Cuchillo Negro ». Near the Pecos River, the runaway joined a group of gold-hunters, pretending that his provisions had run out. Although Jack « ate supper with the gold-hunters and conversed familiarly on all the subjects that were introduced », the men soon became suspicious and challenged Jack’s identity as a free man, who finally confessed to be a runaway. Near the town of Cora, as he was conducted back by the gold-hunters to his master, Jack Thompson escaped again to the border and disappeared from the historical record43.

  • 44 Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron. « From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the People (...)

15As this last example reveals, escaping to the Mexican border often proved to be a complex and deceiving game of illusions for both enslaved asylum-seekers and their arresters. Mercenaries, mobile Mexican peons, convinced abolitionists and « conductors » thus all co-existed in the Texas-Mexico borderlands. The coalescence of such varied individuals into precarious and loose networks of assistance depended on an alignment of their diverse interests, which in turn rendered the boundaries between assistance and exploitation uncertain and permeable. The literature on the UGRR to the northern states and Canada has increasingly depicted the latter as a fairly informal structure, yet arguably assistance along escape routes to Mexico was even more informal: almost no networks of assistance existed, or at best ad hoc ones that were established as slaves were fleeing. Consequently, these sporadic instances of assistance hardly qualify as an UGRR to the south. The multifaceted and fluid nature of assistance to fugitive slaves in the Texas-Mexico borderlands (even more than for the UGRR) partly accounts for the need felt by some southern slaveholders to search for scapegoats amongst the usual suspects of anti-slavery sympathies: Mexicans and Germans (among other minorities). Despite the consolidation of pro-slavery social, legal and political power in the US Southwest in general, and specifically Texas, the numbers of slaves seeking freedom in Mexico rose significantly between 1836-1861. As underlined by Nichols, such process illustrates the incompleteness of any transition from « borderlands » to « bordered lands » along the Rio Grande/Bravo following the US-Mexico war (1846-1848) and the persistent mobility of people at the margins of both expanding and conflicting nation-states. Yet slave refugees’ freedom in Mexico remained precarious, as the very porosity of national boundaries that eased their flight also empowered mercenaries crossing the border to abduct and re-enslave them in the US Southwest44.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Primary sources

Newspaper articles

Belton Independent (Belton), 19 June 1858, 26 June 1858, 2 October 1858.

Civilian and Gazette. Weekly (Galveston), 21 December 1858.

Charleston Mercury (Charleston, S.C.), 18 April 1859.

Dallas Herald (Dallas), 9 November 1859, 31 July 1858.

Matagorda Gazette (Matagorda), 31 July 1858.

New Orleans Daily Crescent (New Orleans, La.), 9 August 1854.

New Orleans Delta (New Orleans, La.), 25 September 1849.

San Antonio Ledger (San Antonio), 19 August 1852.

Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston), 15 September 1841, 22 December 1841, 6 March 1844.

Texas State Gazette (Austin), 9 September 1854.

Texas State Times (Austin), 14 October 1854, 8 September 1855.

The Gonzales Inquirer (Gonzales), 18 June 1853.

The Indianola Bulletin (Indianola), 6 September 1853.

The Independent Press (Abbeville, C.H., S.C.), 13 October 1854.

The Morning Star (Houston), 14 September 1841.

The Planter (Columbia), 31 May 1844.

The Red-Lander (San Augustine), 7 July 1842.

The South-Western (Shreveport, La.), 7 November 1855.

The Texas Monument (LaGrange), 21 April 1852.

The Texas Ranger (Washington, Tex.), 3 February 1855.

The Western Texan (San Antonio), 15 April 1852, 18 November 1854.

Washington Texas Ranger and Lonestar (Washington, Tex.), 18 November 1854.

Other primary sources

Featherstonhaugh, George W. Excursion through the Slave States, from Washington on the Potomac to the frontier of Mexico, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1844.

Olmsted, Frederick L. A Journey through Texas: or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, New York, Dix. Edwards & Co., 1857.

« Petition to Samuel A. Maverick and members of Bexar delegation », 20 December 1851, Austin, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Box 100-357.

Race and Slavery Petitions Project (Digital Library on American Slavery) – Petition n°21585211, <https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/petitions/details.aspx?pid=12686>

Reports of cases argued and decided in the Supreme Court of the state of Texas at Austin, 1855, Austin, Texas Supreme Court, 1881, v.15.

The Texas Almanac for 1859.

Warton, Augustus Q. A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel (…), Re-pub. by G. White, Athens, Tennessee, 1835.

Webber, Charles W. Tales of the Southern Border, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincourt, 1887.

White, George W., Oldham, Williamson S. A Digest of the General Statute Laws of the State of Texas (…), Austin, J.Marshall & Co., 1859.

Secondary sources

Adelman, Jeremy, Aron, Stephen. « From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the People in Between in North American History », The American Historical Review, v.104, n°3, 1999, p. 814-841.

Blackett, Richard J.M. Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Campbell, Randolph. An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Cornell, Sarah E. « Citizens of nowhere: Fugitive slaves and free African Americans in Mexico, 1833-1857 », Journal of American History, 100:3, 2013, p. 351-374.

Chance, Joseph E. José Maria de Jesus Carvajal. The Life and Times of a Mexican Revolutionary, San Antonio, Trinity University Press, 2006.

De Leon, Arnoldo. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1983.

Díaz, George T. Border Contraband. A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2015.

Ely, Glen S. The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

Fornell, Earl Wesley. « The abduction of free negroes and slaves in Texas », The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, v.60, n°3, January 1957, p. 369-380.

Kelley, Sean M. « Mexico in his head: Slavery and the Texas-Mexican border, 1810-1860 », Journal of Social History, 37:3, 2004, p. 709-723.

Kelley, Sean M. Los Brazos de Dios: a plantation society in the Texas borderlands, 1821-1865, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Mock, Shirley Boteler. Dreaming with the Ancestors: Black Seminole Women in Texas and Mexico, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Montejano, David. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988.

Nichols, James D. « The Limits of Liberty: African Americans, Indians, and Peons in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1820-1860 », PhD Diss. at State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2012.

Nichols, James D. « The Line of Liberty: Runaway slaves and Fugitive peons in the Texas-Mexico borderlands », Western Historical Quarterly, v.44, n°4, 2013, p. 413-433.

Obadele Starks, Ernest. Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808, University of Arkansas Press, 2007.

Porter, Kenneth. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1996.

Schwartz Rosalie. Across the Rio to Freedom: US Negroes in Mexico, El Paso, Texas Western Press, 1975.

Ramos, Raúl. Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1860, Charlotte, University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Smardz Frost, Karolyn, Tucker, Veta S. A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Tomich, Dale W. Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and World Economy, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.

Torget, Andrew J. Seeds of Empire. Cotton, Slavery and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Watts, Marie W. La Grange, Charleston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Mexico abolished slavery definitively in 1829 (except in Texas) and gradually developed a free-soil territory for foreign slave refugees in the years thereafter. Mexican commitment to anti-slavery was further strengthened by the loss of its last slaveholding province, Texas, which became independent in 1836 and was annexed to the US in 1845. For the recent literature on fugitive slaves to Mexico, consult in particular: Sean M. Kelley. « Mexico in his head: Slavery and the Texas-Mexican border, 1810-1860 », Journal of Social History, 37:3, 2004, p.709-723; James D. Nichols. « The line of liberty: Runaway slaves and fugitive peons in the Texas-Mexico borderlands », Western Historical Quarterly, v.44, n°4, 2013, p.413-433; Sarah E. Cornell. « Citizens of nowhere: Fugitive slaves and free African Americans in Mexico, 1833-1857 », Journal of American History, 100:3, 2013, p.351-374.

2 The terms « slave refugees », « fugitives » and « runaways » will be used interchangeably for the sake of convenience. Nonetheless, while the last two words (traditionally used by the historiography on the subject) tend to emphasize the perspective of slaveholders, the use of the expression « slave refugees » seeks to avoid the judicial and criminal connotations closely associated with the former. It thereby attempts to reflect more closely the absconders’ self-perception as fleeing violence and injustice, rather than circumventing justice. The river officially separating northeastern Mexico from the US after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) is called the « Rio Grande » in US sources, and « Río Bravo » or « Río Bravo del Norte » in Mexican sources. The expression « Rio Grande/Bravo » is used to avoid privileging one perspective over the other.

3 Proposed by historian Dale W. Tomich, the expression « second slavery » refers to a revival of slavery in some parts of the American continent (such as Brazil, the US South and Cuba) during the first-half of the nineteenth-century generated by a dramatic expansion of cotton, tobacco and sugar production linked to highly integrated capitalist circuits and markets. Consult: Dale W. Tomich. Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and World Economy, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.

4 On the development of « second slavery » and Texas’ plantation system, consult in particular: Randolph Campbell. An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989; Sean M. Kelley. Los Brazos de Dios: a plantation society in the Texas borderlands, 1821-1865, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2010; Andrew J. Torget. Seeds of Empire. Cotton, Slavery and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

5 The Western Texan (San Antonio), 15 April 1852; The Texas Monument (LaGrange), 21 April 1852; The Independent Press (Abbeville, C.H., S.C.), 13 October 1854; The Matagorda Gazette (Matagorda), 31 July 1858; Kenneth Porter. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1996, p. 162; Shirley Boteler Mock. Dreaming with the Ancestors: Black Seminole Women in Texas and Mexico, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2010, p. 82. As in the case of the Gordon brothers, some slave refugees who had experienced freedom under Mexican law returned to the US Southwest (voluntarily or otherwise) and subsequently helped other slaves flee across the Rio Grande/Bravo in their company.

6 Data for this map was (primarily) extracted from the following online and archive collections: Texas Runaway Slave Project; The Portal to Texas History; Archivo General del Estado de Coahuila (collections « Siglo XIX » and « Colonias Militares de Oriente »); Archivo Histórico « Genaro Estrada », Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, Mexico City (collections « Legajos Encuadernados », « Comisión Pesquisidora del Norte » and « Archivo de la Embajada Mexicana en los Estados Unidos de América »). Original design of the map from: http://d-maps.com/carte.php?num_car=7675&lang=fr (accessed November 9, 2017).

7 The « Underground Railroad » was a clandestine network of support to slaves escaping from the US South to the northern free states and Canada. Within the abundant historiography on the subject, consult in particular: Richard J.M. Blackett. Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2013; Karolyn Smardz Frost, Veta S. Tucker. A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2016.

8 The Morning Star (Houston), 14 September 1841; Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston), 15 September 1841.

9 Civilian and Gazette. Weekly (Galveston), 21 December 1858. The Butterfield Overland Mail Route was founded in 1857 for the transport of both passengers and mail through the transcontinental route from Memphis/St. Louis to San Francisco.

10 Glen Sample Ely. The Texas frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2016, p.34-5.

11 Dallas Herald (Dallas), 9 November 1859.

12 Ibid. 31 July 1858.

13 Joseph E. Chance. José Maria de Jesus Carvajal. The Life and Times of a Mexican Revolutionary, San Antonio, Trinity University Press, 2006, p. 90.  

14 On issues of extradition and diplomatic consequences of slave flight between the US and Mexico, see in particular: Rosalie Schwartz. Across the Rio to Freedom: US Negroes in Mexico, El Paso, Texas Western Press, 1975.

15 See footnote 4.

16 Especially newly arrived Mexicans, by contrast with Tejanos settled in Texas before 1836.

17 Charles W. Webber. Tales of the Southern Border, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincourt, 1887, p. 48-49 and p. 56-57.

18 Texas State Times (Austin), 14 October 1854.

19 The Indianola Bulletin (Indianola), 6 September 1853. The image of Mexican labourers absconding with enslaved women became a cliché of US Southwest press in the 1850s, usually meant to criminalize both « peons » and slaves through derogatory narratives.

20 Nichols. « The line of liberty », p.713-733; Raúl Ramos, Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1860, Charlotte, University of North Carolina Press, 2008; David Montejano. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988; Arnoldo De Leon. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1983.

21 Texas State Times (Austin), 8 September 1855.

22 See for instance: New Orleans Delta (New Orleans, La.), 25 September 1849 

23 Texas State Gazette (Austin), 9 September 1854. 

24 The South-Western (Shreveport, La.), 7 November 1855.

25 The Red-Lander (San Augustine), 7 July 1842.

26 Frederick L. Olmsted. A Journey through Texas: or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, New York, Dix. Edwards & Co., 1857, p.327-328.

27 The Texas Ranger (Washington, Tex.), 3 February 1855. By contrast, the Colorado Citizen (Columbus, Tex) praised the German population of Fredericksburg and its surroundings for their role in the arrest of twenty-three fugitive slaves (14 Aug. 1858).

28 Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston), 22 December 1841; Charleston Mercury (Charleston, S.C.), 18 April 1859.

29 Olmsted. A Journey through Texas, op.cit., p.327-328; Kelley, Los Brazos de Dios, op.cit., pp.174-177.  

30 San Antonio Ledger (San Antonio), 19 August 1852.

31 Reports of cases argued and decided in the Supreme Court of the state of Texas at Austin, 1855, Austin, Texas Supreme Court, 1881, v.15, p. 289-291 (Arcienaga v. Riddle 15 TX 331).

32 Ernest Obadele Starks. Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808, University of Arkansas Press, 2007, p. 127; Marie W. Watts. La Grange, Charleston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA, Arcadia Publishing, 2008 p. 97.

33 Washington Texas Ranger and Lonestar (Washington, Tex.), 18 November 1854; James D. Nichols. « The Limits of Liberty: African Americans, Indians, and Peons in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1820-1860 », PhD Diss. at State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2012, p. 55-56.

34 George W. Featherstonhaugh. Excursion through the Slave States, from Washington on the Potomac to the frontier of Mexico, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1844, p. 64.  

35 Race and Slavery Petitions Project (Digital Library on American Slavery) – Petition n°21585211; https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/petitions/details.aspx?pid=12686 (accessed January 2, 2017).

36 New Orleans Daily Crescent (New Orleans, La.), 9 August 1854.

37 Augustus Q. Warton. A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, Athens, Tennessee, G. White, 1835, pp. 32-33.

38 The Gonzales Inquirer (Gonzales), 18 June 1853 ; The Western Texan (San Antonio), 18 November 1854; Nichols, « The Limits of Liberty », op.cit., p.54; Earl Wesley Fornell, « The abduction of free negroes and slaves in Texas », The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, v.60, n°3, January 1957, p. 378-9.

39 The expression is originally from: George T. Díaz. Border Contraband. A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2015, p.13.

40 The Planter (Columbia), 31 May 1844.

41 « Petition to Samuel A. Maverick and members of Bexar delegation », 20 December 1851, Austin, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Box 100-357.  

42 Telegraph and Texas Register, 6 March 1844 ;  George W. White, Williamson S. Oldham, A Digest of the General Statute Laws of the State of Texas (…), Austin, J. Marshall & Co., 1859, p.408 ; The Texas Almanac for 1859, p.25 ; Olmsted, A Journey through Texas, op.cit., p. 323-327.  

43 Belton Independent (Belton), 19 June 1858, 26 June 1858 and 2 October 1858, Matagorda Gazette (Matagorda), 31 July 1858.

44 Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron. « From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the People in Between in North American History », The American Historical Review, v.104, n°3, 1999, p. 814-841; Nichols. « The line of Liberty », op.cit., p. 433.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Approximate routes of escape for slave refugees in the Texas-Mexico borderlands and through the Gulf of Mexico, c.1836-1861 (© Thomas Mareite)6
URL http://journals.openedition.org/mimmoc/docannexe/image/2731/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 52k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Thomas Mareite, « Abolitionists, Smugglers and Scapegoats: Assistance Networks for Fugitive Slaves in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1836-1861 », Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain [En ligne], 19 | 2018, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 2018, consulté le 14 novembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/mimmoc/2731 ; DOI : 10.4000/mimmoc.2731

Haut de page

Auteur

Thomas Mareite

Leiden University, Institute for HistoryThomas Mareite received his Bachelor’s Degree (2013) from Sciences Po Paris, where he graduated with a master’s degree in “Research in History” (2015). He is currently a PhD candidate (2015-2019) at Leiden University (Netherlands), where he conducts research on enslaved African Americans who escaped across the U.S.-Mexican border between 1800 and 1860.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain – Cahiers du MIMMOC est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Haut de page