3 Major Ways Enslaved People Showed Resistance to a Life in Bondage

A number of enslaved people actively fought against a life in bondage

Full color drawing of Nat Turner and other slaves in a forested area.
American slave leader Nat Turner and his companions in a wooded area.

Stock Montage / Contributor / Getty Images

Enslaved people in the United States used a number of measures to show resistance to a life in bondage. These methods arose after the first group arrived in North America in 1619. The enslavement of African people created an economic system that persisted until 1865 when the 13th Amendment abolished the practice.

But before it was abolished, enslaved people had three available methods to resist a life in bondage:

  • They could rebel against enslavers
  • They could run away
  • They could perform small, daily acts of resistance, such as slowing down work

Rebellions

The Stono Rebellion in 1739, Gabriel Prosser's conspiracy in 1800, Denmark Vesey's plot in 1822, and Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 are the most prominent revolts by enslaved people in American history. But only the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner's Rebellion achieved any success. White Southerners managed to derail the other planned rebellions before any attack could take place.

Many enslavers in the United States became anxious in the wake of the successful revolt by enslaved people in Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti), which brought independence to the colony in 1804 after years of conflict with French, Spanish, and British military expeditions.

Enslaved people in the American colonies (later the United States), knew that mounting a rebellion was extremely difficult. White people greatly outnumbered them. And even in states like South Carolina, where the white population reached only 47% in 1820, enslaved people could not take them on if they were armed with guns.

Bringing Africans to the United States to be sold into bondage ended in 1808. Enslavers had to rely on a natural increase in the population of enslaved people to increase their labor force. This meant "breeding" enslaved people, and many of them feared that their children, siblings, and other relatives would suffer the consequences if they rebelled.

Freedom Seekers

Running away was another form of resistance. Most freedom seekers only managed to escape for a short time. They might hide in a nearby forest or visit a relative or spouse on another plantation. They did so to escape a harsh punishment that had been threatened, to obtain relief from a heavy workload, or just to escape life in bondage.

Others were able to run away and escape permanently. Some escaped and hid, forming Maroon communities in nearby forests and swamps. When northern states began to abolish enslavement after the Revolutionary War, the North came to symbolize freedom for many enslaved people, who spread the word that following the North Star could lead to freedom.

Sometimes, these instructions were even spread musically, hidden in the words of spirituals. For instance, the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" made reference to the Big Dipper and the North Star and was likely used to guide freedom seekers north to Canada.

The Risks of Fleeing

Running away was difficult. Freedom seekers had to leave family members behind and risk harsh punishment or even death if caught. Many only triumphed after multiple attempts.

More freedom seekers escaped from the upper South than from the lower South, as they were nearer to the North and thus nearer to freedom. It was a bit easier for young men because they were more likely to be sold away from their families, including their children.

Young men were also sometimes "hired out" to other plantations or sent on errands, so they could more easily come up with a cover story for being on their own.

A network of sympathetic individuals who helped freedom seekers to escape to the north emerged by the 19th century. This network earned the name the "Underground Railroad" in the 1830s. Harriet Tubman is the best known "conductor" of the Underground Railroad. She rescued about 70 freedom seekers, family, and friends during 13 trips to Maryland, and gave instructions to about 70 others, after she reached freedom in 1849. 

But most freedom seekers were on their own, especially while they were still in the South. They would often choose holidays or days off to give them extra lead time before being missed in the fields or at work.

Many fled on foot, coming up with ways to throw off dogs in pursuit, such as using pepper to disguise their scents. Some stole horses or even stowed away on ships to escape from bondage.

Historians are unsure of how many freedom seekers permanently escaped. An estimated 100,000 fled to freedom over the course of the 19th century, according to James A. Banks in March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans.

Ordinary Acts of Resistance

The most common form of resistance was day-to-day resistance or small acts of rebellion. This form of resistance included sabotage, such as breaking tools or setting fire to buildings. Striking out at an enslaver's property was a way to strike at the man himself, albeit indirectly.

Other methods of day-to-day resistance were feigning illness, playing dumb, or slowing down work. Both men and women faked being ill to gain relief from their harsh working conditions. Women may have been able to feign illness more easily, as they were expected to provide their owners with children. At least some enslavers would have wanted to protect their childbearing capacity.

Some enslaved people could also play on their enslavers' prejudices by appearing to not understand instructions. When possible, they could also decrease their pace of work.

Women more often worked in the household and could sometimes use their position to undermine their enslavers. Historian Deborah Gray White tells of the case of an enslaved woman who was executed in 1755 in Charleston, South Carolina, for poisoning her enslaver.

White also argues that women may have resisted against a special burden: bearing children to provide enslavers with more hands. She speculates that women may have used birth control or abortion to keep their children out of bondage. While this cannot be known for certain, White points out that many enslavers were convinced that women had ways of preventing pregnancy.

Throughout the history of enslavement in America, Africans and African Americans resisted whenever possible. The odds against them succeeding in a rebellion or in escaping permanently were so overwhelming that most enslaved people resisted the only way they could—through individual actions.

But enslaved people also resisted the system of bondage through the formation of a distinctive culture and through their religious beliefs, which kept hope alive in the face of such severe persecution.

Additional References

  • Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, 1st edition, Oxford University Press, August 15, 2009, Oxford, U.K.
  • Franklin, John Hope. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Loren Schweninger, Oxford University Press, 2000, Oxford, U.K.
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, Updated edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, Oxford, U.K.
  • White, Deborah Gray. Let My People Go: 1804-1860 (The Young Oxford History of African Americans), 1st edition, Oxford University Press, 1996, Oxford, U.K.
View Article Sources
  1. Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung. "Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States." Population Division Working Paper 56, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002.

  2. Larson, Kate Clifford. "Harriet Tubman Myths and Facts." Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero

  3. Banks, James A. and Cherry A. March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans, 2nd edition, Fearon Publishers,1974, Belmont, Calif.