Ellen Craft

How Ellen Craft and Her Husband William Escaped Slavery and Became Abolitionists

Ellen Craft
Ellen Craft. Fotosearch/Getty Images

Known for: escaped from enslavement to become an active abolitionist and educator, wrote with her husband a book about their escape

Dates: 1824 - 1900

About Ellen Craft

Ellen Craft’s mother was an enslaved woman of African descent and some European ancestry, Maria, in Clinton, Georgia.  Her father was the enslaver of her mother, Major James Smith.  Smith’s wife did not like Ellen’s presence, as she resembled Major Smith’s family.

  When Ellen was eleven years old, she was sent to Macon, Georgia, with a daughter of the Smith’s, as a wedding gift to the daughter.

In Macon, Ellen met William Craft, an enslaved man and craftsman. They wanted to marry, but Ellen did not want to bear any children as long as they would also be enslaved at birth, and could be separated as she was from her mother.  Ellen wanted to defer marriage until they escaped, but she and William could not find a workable plan, given how far they would have to travel on foot through states where they could be found out.  When the “owners” of the two gave permission for them to marry in 1846, they did so.

Escape Plan

In December of 1848, they came up with a plan.  William later said it was his plan, and Ellen said it was hers.  Each said, in their story, that the other resisted the plan at first.  Both stories agree: the plan was for Ellen to disguise herself as a white male slaveowner, traveling with William, as her slave.

 They recognized that a white woman would be far less likely to be traveling alone with a black man.   They would take traditional transportation, including boats and trains, and thus make their way more safely and quickly than by foot.  To begin their journey, they had passes to visit friends on another family’s land, a distance away, so it would be some time before their escape was noticed.

This ruse would be difficult, as Ellen had never learned to write – they both had learned the rudiments of the alphabet, but not more.  Their solution was to have her right arm in a cast, to excuse her from signing hotel registers. She dressed in men’s clothing which she had secretly sewn herself, and she cut her hair short in a men’s hair style. She wore shaded glasses and bandages on her head, pretending to be sickly to account for her small size and weaker condition than an elite white man would likely be in.

The Journey North

They left on December 21, 1848.  They took trains, ferries and steamers as they crossed from Georgia into South Carolina to North Carolina and Virginia, then into Baltimore, on a five day trip.  They arrived in Philadelphia on December 25.  The trip almost ended before it began when, on their first train, she found herself sitting next to a white man who had been at her enslaver’s home for dinner just the day before. She pretended that she could not hear him when he asked her a question, fearing that he could recognize her voice, and she spoke curtly when she could no longer ignore his loud questioning.  In Baltimore, Ellen met the danger posed by being challenged for papers for William by challenging the official strongly.

In Philadelphia, their contacts put them in touch with Quakers and freed black men and women. They spent three weeks in the home of a white Quaker family, Ellen suspicious of their intentions.  The Ivens family began to teach Ellen and William to read and write, including writing their own names.

Life in Boston

After their brief stay with the Ivens family, Ellen and William Craft went to Boston, where they were in touch with the circle of abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker.  They began speaking in abolitionist meetings for a fee to help sustain themselves, and Ellen applied her seamstress skills.

Fugitive Slave Act

In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, they could not remain in Boston.  The family that had enslaved them in Georgia sent catchers to the north with papers for their arrest and return, and under the new law there would be little question.

  President Millard Fillmore insisted that if the Crafts were not turned over, he would send the United States Army to enforce the law.  Abolitionists hid the Crafts and protected them, then helped them to get out of the city via Portland, Maine, to Nova Scotia and from there to England.

English Years

In England they were promoted by abolitionists as proof against the prejudice of inferior mental abilities in those from Africa.  William was the main spokesperson, but Ellen also sometimes spoke. They also continued to study, and the widow of the poet Byron found a place for them to teach in a rural trade school that she had founded.

The first child of the Crafts was born in England in 1852.  Four more children followed, for a total of four sons and one daughter (also named Ellen).

Moving to London in 1852, the couple published their story as Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, joining a genre of slave narratives that were used to help promote the end of slavery.  After the American Civil War broke out, they worked to convince the British not to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy.  Near the end of the war, Ellen’s mother came to London, with the help of British abolitionists.  William made two trips to Africa during this time in England, establishing a school in Dahomey.  Ellen especially supported a society for aid to freedmen in Africa and the Caribbean.

Georgia

In 1868, after the war had ended, Ellen and William Craft and two of their children moved back to the United States, purchasing some land near Savannah, Georgia, and opening a school for black youth.

  To this school they dedicated years of their life.  In 1871 they bought a plantation, hiring tenant farmers to produce crops which they sold around Savannah.  Ellen managed the plantation during William’s frequent absences.

William ran for the state legislature in 1874, and was active in state and national Republican politics.  He also traveled north to fundraise for their school and to raise consciousness about conditions in the South.  They eventually abandoned the school amid rumors that they were taking advantage of the funding of people from the North.

Around 1890, Ellen went to live with her daughter, whose husband, William Demos Crum, would later be a minister to Liberia.  Ellen Craft died in 1897, and was buried on their plantation.  William, living in Charleston, died in 1900.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Ellen Craft." ThoughtCo, Jun. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/ellen-craft-biography-4068382. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, June 5). Ellen Craft. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ellen-craft-biography-4068382 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Ellen Craft." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ellen-craft-biography-4068382 (accessed November 24, 2017).