Petit Marronage


Renzo Weber

After the end of the War of 1812, the United States began to undergo a wealth of changes. In what could be characterized as a social revolution, almost every aspect of life was reviewed. One of the institutions most harshly scrutinized was that of slavery. A part of life in the south since its foundation, slavery began to reveal its dark side in the eighteenth century. As people began to look deeper, they began to see the maltreatment and poor conditions of those in bondage. Yet they also noticed that these slaves did not submit without resistance. Believed to have the minds of children, slaves did know their value in southern society, which had established a deep-rooted form of interdependency. Using the slaveholder’s over-dependency to their advantage, slaves began to slowly exert their rights. One way of doing so was known as petit marronage. This meant running away for short periods of time, to meet loved ones, and in hopes of altering their present relationship with their owners. Over time petit marronage, became an accepted aspect of slave life; it represented an acceptance of slavery, but allowed slaves voice their opinion and so helped maintain order in antebellum plantation life.

A. Causes

One of the greatest motivations for a slave to runaway was the impending bite of an overseer’s whip. (Parker 179) Slaves were whipped indiscriminately and often quite viscously. Most slave owners understood that even slaves had a threshold for pain, but acknowledged the need to maintaining order. Slaves understood this too, yet for some it remained a burden too great to bear. If a slave knew a whipping was forthcoming, he began to survey his options. More often than not, running away became the only choice. While away, the slave and his master were allowed time for their anger to subside. By keeping in touch with friends and family on the plantation, slaves could keep tabs regarding his master’s temperament. With this information a slave could plan a timely return, which could mean a more lenient punishment or maybe none at all. The lure of this possibility was powerful, especially in the eyes of a slave awaiting punishment.

Another tactic used by runaway slaves to avoid the whip was to employ the aid of another white man. A runaway slave would approach another slave owner and tell tales of ill treatment or abuse. They would then return to the slave’s plantation and both would plead for leniency (Genovese 656). One of the main results of this tactic was in the minds of the slaveholders. By turning to another slaveholder, the idea that slaves had the minds of children was reinforced. They would run away to other masters and complain of their treatment at home. For the sake of many slaves, it worked.

Nevertheless, slaves could not avoid every whipping. For many slaves this was an accepted fact of life, but for some it was unforgivable. With scars still fresh on their backs, these slaves would disappear into the woods. As one slaveholder commented about a recent runaway, "he had had enough, he would run away". (Blassingame 108) In this context, slaves used running away as a form of protest. Each runaway slave constituted lost labor, or even a work stoppage if the slave knew some type of trade. The less slaves an owner had the greater the effect of the exodus. Worst of all, if a slave did not return, it was the equivalent of lost property and lost profits. For this reason it behooved an owner to treat his slaves with some form of respect, and why petit marronage served such a great purpose for slaves.

Another cause for the temporary flights from the plantation was to protest or avoid work. (Parker 184) Historical data suggests that the increase in the number of runaway slaves in the spring and early fall meant that as labor increased so did dissent. (Parker 185) Although most slaves ran away alone, many who were hoping to protest or avoid work did so in large numbers. In what was the equivalent to a strike in a northern factory, a mass exodus of slaves would make plantation work grind to a halt. In this respect slaves exercised a form of freedom, even though most times it was short lived. Failures of these runaway groups were well known in the south, some maroons serving as a further support to the argument of the inferiority of slaves. Yet for those groups who returned, their demands were usually met. A plantation owner, happy to see the return of his investments, would grant concessions and slave life would take hold again.

The greatest reason for slaves to runaway for short periods of time was to visit loved ones (Parker 202 ). Marriage and relationships played a large role in plantation life and were actually encouraged by slave owners. This of course led to the advent of inter-plantation relationships. In which case, those unable to obtain a pass from their masters would simply run away. Living off smuggled rations, these escapes became quite frequent yet accepted. In one county there were only 282 fugitives on record who endeavored to be reunited with family members, but this is undoubtedly a conservative figure. (Parker175) Many times, these slaves choose not to return to their plantation. In one instance, the wife of a slave lived in the nearby woods of a plantation and mothered three children there. ( )

In this respect, short flights from the plantation provided an avenue for slaves to carry on a relationship. Wives would prepare feasts for their arriving husbands, and each meeting was considered a special occasion. In the antebellum south, slaves attempted to carry on a normal existence, while still under the restraints of their bondage. Petit marronage allowed them to do so.

Whatever the reason, runaway slaves were faced with a big decision when choosing to run away. Each master had a different reaction to those who returned. Over time, petit marronage became an aspect of slave life, but was only experienced by few. Yet it provided a temporary release of tension, and so was vital to maintaining order in antebellum plantation life.


In no way was running away an easy decision for a slave to make. Aside from leaving their families behind, runaways also faced great personal dangers. In a society where whites held so much power, only those adamant about freedom were willing take the risk. For the others, slave life was better than no life at all.

The fist obstacle in the path of a runaway slave was the psychological barrier of plunging into the unknown. (Blassingame 111) Running away meant leaving behind your home, family, and friends for something you only knew existed through stories. Slaves had little geographic knowledge, no money, and the belief that every white man was his enemy. (Blassingame 111) No one knew what awaited them in the north, or if it was even worth the trip. Therefore each slave had to do a lot of thinking before ever deciding to run away.

Once a slave decided to leave the plantation, their first goal was to seek refuge, usually in the woods. Nevertheless, the sounds of dogs usually followed suit. Those dogs were one of the slaveholder’s best deterrents. (Genovese 652) Known to attack viscously and incessantly, their simple sound put fear in the hearts of runaways. This was because it meant that not far behind lurked the overseer, gun in hand. This system apprehended many runaways, who returned to the plantation for their lashings.

Yet there were occasions that runaway slaves avoided capture. If a slave could reach a natural refuge, he could rest before setting off again. The Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina was one such refuge. This natural six-hundred-square mile area was considered a sight for repose for runaway slaves, and where white man dared not search ( ).

For a runaway slave, this lull did not last very long. As the white man became less of an immediate threat, hunger and the environment began to take their toll. Slaves generally did not know how to catch their own food, and so once out in the country had no way to fend for themselves. Fires to keep warm and cook only attracted attention, so slaves had to face the biting cold. Many runaways visited nearby plantations for offerings, yet this too had a risk of recapture. (Parker 202) Other slaves would tell, or a white man might simply stumble upon a runway’s hiding place. The further the slave was from the plantations the safer he was, but this meant the loss of a vital food supply. For this reason a runaway had a better chance on the move. The sooner a slave reached freedom, the sooner he could once again feel safe.



Henry Bibb's

Henry Bibb's

Runaway Slave

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