THE GEOGRAPHIC AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF THE UNITED STATES territory of Florida provided unusual modes of escape for bondpeople in the antebellum era. Many slaves fled and joined the Seminole Indians there, while other runaways grouped into autonomous or semiautonomous maroon communities in the territory's outback. Still other enslaved people sought freedom through less well known and poorly documented ventures, such as those fugitives who risked their lives sailing to the British-controlled Bahama Islands. This dangerous passage forced fugitives to face not only the unpredictable waters between the mainland and nearby islands but unscrupulous slave catchers as well. For those former slaves who successfully cleared these hurdles, Anglo-American entanglements over slavery and the slave trade presented still further challenges to securing permanent freedom in the islands.
This article examines one such escape via this water route to the black-majority Bahamas. The story sheds light on the shifting contours of a little-known but disruptive foreign policy dispute between the United States and Britain, and it also examines a "saltwater railroad" escape route from the American Southeast to the nearby Bahamas that may not have been exceptional. Although the topic has been largely ignored in specialized studies of the antebellum South, such mainland and Bahamas scholars as Larry Eugene Rivers, Rosalyn Howard, Gall Saunders, Whittington B. Johnson, and Howard Johnson have recently created new interest in the phenomenon of slave escapes across the water to the city of Nassau and the so-called Out Islands of the British Bahamas. Even so, few studies have thoroughly explored this subject or offered credible statistics on the number of American slave escapes along this route over time and the possible national and international significance of these types of self-liberating events. By building on this case study of seven fugitives who fled from St. Augustine, Florida, to Nassau in the early 1840s, historians can potentially expand scholarly understanding of a southern saltwater railroad that may have operated with some degree of success over time but whose precise numbers remain submerged in the historical record. (1)
Readers perusing the St. Augustine Florida Herald and Southern Democrat on July 31, 1843, encountered an article with the headline "Negroes Absconded":
On Tuesday morning last, our city was thrown into a state of
unusual excitement by the announcement that the negroes composing
the crew of the U.S. Transport Sch. Walter M, had absconded the
night previous. It was ascertained that they had taken the
schooners boat, compass, and spy glass, a quantity of bread, pork,
and water. In the afternoon the Walter M's boat was found near
Fishe's Island about 2 miles south of the city, and towards night a
large whale boat belonging to the pilots which had been hauled up
and repaired, was missing. It appeared, beyond a doubt that the
runaways had stolen the boat and put to sea for a long voyage, and
it is presumed with the intention of making some of the Bahama
Islands. ... Besides the crew, three other negroes have gone with
them. Among them the notorious Andrew who made some noise in the
beginning of our Indian troubles. Two of the negroes belonged to W.
Williams, Esq, one to Gen. Hernandez, one to Jacob Mickler, one to
Miss Ashe, one to Col. Gue, and one to Col J. M. Fontane of this
city. With one or two exceptions, they were thought to be most
faithful negroes and stood high in the estimation of their owners.
In a slave-based economy like that of East Florida, the loss of such "faithful" labor to a foreign territory was, as the editor of the St. Augustine News noted, an affront "to the interests of the Southern States" that would not be taken lightly. Officials in East Florida quickly offered a $350 reward and "reasonable expenses" to any slave catchers in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina who would pursue the maritime runaways. …