Notable Escaped Slaves
The War of 1812 had very different effects on Southern Maryland slaves and their owners. British overtures, and the state of turmoil imposed by the war, presented opportunities for many slaves to escape onto the invading British ships. These actions cost their owners thousands of dollars in valuable “property.” The conditions surrounding the slaves’ escapes often belied the paternal relationships that many owners felt they had with their slaves. Many escaped slaves helped the British to loot and burn their former owner’s property.
18 year old Calvert County resident Frisby Harris was one such slave. Frisby Harris was born into slavery on the plantation of William Harris, above Parker’s Creek overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. William Harris loaned Frisby to Dr. John Beall at some point during the war, and it was from Beall’s property that Frisby made his escape on July 16, 1814. He helped the British loot tobacco and furniture from Beall and burn the manor house while Beall was away serving as an officer in the militia. Frisby joined the British as a soldier and later helped them to burn the Calvert County courthouse and jail in Prince Frederick. At the time of his escape, Frisby Harris was valued at five hundred dollars and posed a significant financial loss for William Harris. According to the treaties signed at the end of the war, William Harris’ estate received compensation from Britain in the amount of $280 in 1828. There was no record of Frisby Harris after the end of the war, but it is probable that he ended up in Nova Scotia or Tangier Island, Maryland with many of the other escaped slaves.
Another slave to escape during the war was Lucy Hall. Hall escaped from George Loker’s plantation in St. Inigoes, St. Mary’s County. In 1813, the slave assessments recorded George Loker as having ten slaves, eight of whom escaped during the war. On the morning of February 19th or 20th, 1815 soldiers from the British frigate Havannah threatened to burn George Loker’s home if he did not release his slaves. The Treaty of Ghent which ended the war was signed in December of 1814, slow communications delayed this information from reaching the British fleet in America and the document still had to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, so the war technically continued. Lucy Hall and Loker’s other slaves, including Hall’s family, boarded the Havannah and set sail for Nova Scotia. Loker pursued the ship along with fellow slave owners who had lost slaves, but Captain Hamilton stated that he would only release the slaves if they themselves wished to return to their masters. They refused. Later, in accord with the Treaty of Ghent, Loker was awarded $280 per slave from Britain in 1827. Lucy Hall and her family settled in Nova Scotia where she had a son, William Hall, who would go on to become an officer in the British Royal Navy and the first black person, first Canadian sailor, and first Nova Scotian to win the Victorian Cross.
James Bowie (1794-1855) was a domestic slave at Sotterley plantation during the War of 1812. He was listed as one of the most valuable slaves on the plantation by John Plater. In 1814, Bowie was among the slaves who escaped to the British lines during the raid on Sotterley and later returned to the plantation bearing arms as a member of the First Company of the Colonial Marines. The Colonial Marines were former slaves serving in the British army.
Plater felt that “it is improper, sir, to take slaves; and to put arms in their hands is more so.” However, the British justified this as a necessary war measure because slaves were valuable assets to the American war effort.
Following the war, Bowie was settled in Trinidad as part of a British resettlement program for ex-slaves. He passed away on November 9, 1855.
Bowie and the other runaway slaves are the focus of a living history piece called “The Choice” which will be performed at Sotterley several times in celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This event focuses on the lives of the slaves at Sotterley, as well as the difficulty slaves faced in choosing to run away and gain their freedom at the risk of leaving behind their families and loved ones. For more information, please visit Sotterley’s website.
The War of 1812 provided an opportunity for freedom to many of the slaves living in Southern Maryland, but it also led to economic hardship for many of the area’s farmers who relied on their slaves as a means of labor and capital. The stories of these slaves and masters provide a unique and interesting view of how the war affected the residents of Southern Maryland.
Maryland state archives. (2010, December 06). Retrieved from http://www.mdslavery.net/html/casestudies/warcountycs.html