Slave catcher

Slave catchers were people who returned escaped slaves to their owners in the United States before slavery was abolished at the end of the American Civil War.

Slave catcher in Brazil, 1823

Types of slave catchersEdit

Law enforcementEdit

Colonial times saw the emergence of local law enforcement squads. In the North, these were the watchmen, who were paid small fees by private citizens to police the streets and maintain order in their areas. The first groups in the South were slave patrols, which were made up of both slave owners and non-slave owners, and were also paid by private citizens. However, the parcels of land in the South were much larger, and therefore much harder to patrol. Groups that focused on slave hunting were most prevalent in the South, as the majority of slave owners resided there. Contrary to popular belief, slave patrols were not composed solely of men. Women who owned slaves also took part, but no case of free blacks hunting slaves was recorded in the United States[1]:2[2]:123[3] Nearly any prospecting individual could set out to be a slave hunter, but few were able to find much success.[4]

These Southern law enforcement groups were created out of a need to maintain order among slaves and slave owners, rather than to protect the interests of the common, non-slaveholding people. Many Southern slave owners were considered irresponsible if their charges were allowed to escape, and it was a fear that more escapes would upend the system if not met with retribution. It was believed to be in the general interest of all slaveholders to maintain discipline so that slaves did not have the chance to start an uprising.[1]:6

The very first slave patrollers began their work in the Caribbean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[1]:7 They were primarily English and Spanish colonists who volunteered in order to keep a handle on the growing numbers of slaves. They were not terribly successful, as their territories were large and difficult to police. Consequently, many slaves were able to escape to the North, where abolitionists and local governments sheltered them.[5]

Many states allowed local law enforcement to enlist the help of federal marshals, U.S. commissioners, and other local citizens. This spread to more states with the ratification of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all citizens and local law enforcement to aid in the capture of runaway slaves. This meant that Northerners and abolitionists were forced to comply with slave hunters, although they often found ways to evade the policy. Up until this point, many states did their best to thwart slave catchers by passing decrees such as Massachusetts’ personal liberty statute of 1842, which barred slave catchers from seeking the aid of state officials. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 nullified these formal efforts, and abolitionists were forced to resort to small acts of defiance instead. In many areas it could actually be dangerous to be a part of a slave-catching group, due to the hostility of the locals.[6]

Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave hunters could easily obtain an Order of Removal, which approved the return of a runaway slave. However, these orders were often met with resistance from Northern abolitionists, who tried to intervene by blocking entry to the room where a fugitive was being held.[7] Local government tried to shut this practice down by offering law enforcement agents a greater reward for returning a slave to the South than they could get from abolitionists who were willing to pay police to look the other way.

During the Civil War, these law enforcement groups met with great difficulty, primarily because most of the white men were off fighting in the war. With the men gone, the duty to keep slaves in line fell on the women, who also had households to run. Lack of punishment and a greater likelihood of successful escape caused more and more slaves to run away. With slave patrols stretched so thin, many slaves were able to escape, and were often aided by enemy invaders. Many of the slaves joined Union ranks, the United States Colored Troops, taking up arms against their former owners.[1]:167


Advertisement of a reward for recapture of a fugitive slave

In the Southern states, any person could capture an escaped slave and turn them over to law enforcement to receive compensation, and slaveowners could also put out advertisements promising a reward for anyone who captured their slaves. Slaveowners also hired people who made a living catching fugitive slaves. Since these slave catchers charged by the day and mile, many of them would travel long distances to hunt for fugitives. Slave catchers often used tracking dogs to sniff out their targets; these were called "negro dogs," and, though they could be of multiple breeds, they were typically bloodhounds.[8]

However, hiring people to catch slaves was most effective if the slave catcher was in close proximity, as if they were not, they would have less of a chance of staying on the escaped slave's trail. Slaves reaching the Northern states, which did not recognize slavery as valid, made a slave catcher's job substantially more difficult; even if they did find the fugitive they were likely to face resistance from anti-slavery citizens. If a slave managed to escape this far, slave owners typically sent an agent more closely connected to them, or put out notices about the escaped slave.[8]

Fugitive slave lawsEdit

White abolitionists and anyone else aiding in freeing or hiding of slaves were punished for their efforts. One account of drastic fugitive slave catching was approximately 200 U.S. Marines escorting one fugitive slave back into the custody of his owner.[citation needed] As laws even in the North punished both the people who helped slaves escape as well as the fugitive slaves, many fled to Canada where slavery had been abolished in 1834.

By the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave catchers' jobs were made easier by the mandating of government officials to locate and prosecute runaway slaves, giving slave catchers more freedom to act under the law.[9] With this law, slave catchers were reportedly able to gain warrants to apprehend those identified as fugitive slaves.[10]

Northern responsesEdit

The North became increasingly opposed to the idea of fugitive slave catchers. Several Northern states passed new personal liberty laws in defiance of the South's efforts to have slaves captured and returned. Slave-catching was allowed in the North and the new laws in the North did not make it impossible to catch fugitive slaves. However, it became so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming that the fugitive slave catchers and the owners stopped trying.[11]

The Fugitive Slave Act strengthened abolitionist response against slave catchers, with abolitionist groups including the Free Soil Party advocating for the use of firearms to stop slave catchers and kidnappers, comparing it to the American Revolution. The 1850s saw a significant rise in violent conflicts between abolitionists and law enforcement, with large groups forming to counter activities that threatened fugitive slaves.[9][12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Hadden, Sally E. (2001). Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard Historical Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 340. ISBN 9780674012349.
  2. ^ The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims.New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society. ISBN 978-0469387676
  3. ^ Jackson, Kellie Carter (2019). Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 60-61 ISBN 978-0469387676.
  4. ^ Lubet, Steven (2010). Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 234. ISBN 978-0674047044.
  5. ^ Lubet, Steven (2010). Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 1. ISBN 978-0674047044.
  6. ^ Lubet, Steven (2010). Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 133. ISBN 978-0674047044.
  7. ^ Lubet, Steven (2010). Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 2. ISBN 978-0674047044.
  8. ^ a b Franklin, John Hope; Schweninger, Loren (1999). Runaway Slaves. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 156-161. ISBN 978-0195084511.
  9. ^ a b Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom. pp. 126–150. ISBN 978-0393352191.
  10. ^ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Slavery and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States. Merrihew and Thompson.
  11. ^ John Hope Franklin; Loren Schweninger (20 July 2000). Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-508451-1.
  12. ^ Campbell, Stanley (1970). The Slave Catchers. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 80–95. ISBN 978-0807811412.

Further readingEdit

  • Murrin, Johnson & McPherson, Gerstle Rosenburg; Liberty, Equality, Power; A History of The American People: Volume 1: to 1877 (4th edition) Thomas/ Wadsworth 2006 ISBN 0006437885