Slave catcher

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Fugitive slave advertisement

Fugitive slave catchers were people who returned escaped slaves to their owners in the United States before slavery was abolished during the American Civil War.

Types of slave catchers

Law Enforcement

Beginning in colonial times, the southern states created provisions for local governments to create special police and military-like patrols to hunt down fugitive slaves. These patrols had the authority to search anywhere they wished for fugitive slaves, and were in high demand to oversee territory around slaveowners' property in order to curtail slaves from running away in the first place. In some instances, these patrols had the authority of killing runaway slaves, such as in 1814 when a standoff in Goose Creek, South Carolina left two fugitives dead. However, these patrols were typically ineffective, as it was impossible for them to keep a close eye on the territory they patrolled all the time, and many slaveowners and white citizens viewed the patrol members to be incompetent.[1]


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.[2]

However, hiring people to catch slaves tended to only be 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 made a slave catcher's job substantially more difficult, as 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.[2]

Fugitive slave laws

White abolitionists from the North 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 has remained illegal since 1833.

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.[3] With this law, slave catchers were reportedly able to gain warrants to apprehend those identified as fugitive slaves.[4]

Northern responses

With the North becoming increasingly opposed to the idea of fugitive slave catchers they adopted "anti-southern" views. 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, but the new laws in the North did not make it impossible to catch fugitive slaves but it became so difficult, expensive and time-consuming that the fugitive slave catchers and the owners stopped trying.[5]

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 1850's saw a significant rise in violent conflicts between abolitionists and law enforcement, with large groups forming to counter activities that threatened fugitive slaves.[3][6]

See also


  1. ^ Franklin, John Hope; Schweninger, Loren (1999). Runaway Slaves. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 150–156. ISBN 978-0195084511.
  2. ^ a b Franklin, John Hope; Schweninger, Loren (1999). Runaway Slaves. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 156–161. ISBN 978-0195084511.
  3. ^ a b Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom. pp. 126–150. ISBN 978-0393352191.
  4. ^ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Slavery and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States. Merrihew and Thompson.
  5. ^ John Hope Franklin; Loren Schweninger (20 July 2000). Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-508451-1.
  6. ^ Campbell, Stanley. The Slave Catchers. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 80–95. ISBN 978-0807811412.

Further reading

  • 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