Two documents that demonstrate some of the ways enslaved women resisted slavery in the antebellum period.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

Interview with Mary Gaffney

George Rawick, “Interview with Mary Gaffney,” prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-38, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972).

Record of Fugitives

Sydney Howard Gay, Record of Fugitives, 1855. Sydney Howard Gay Papers. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Document Text


May 14th. A party of four arrived from Philadelphia. It was headed by Captain Harriett Tubman, the subordinates being Benjamin Jackson and Jasper Coleman who belonged to Henry Wright of Dorchester County Maryland; William. A. Connoway, Laban Hudson, master; and Henry Hopkins, John Houston, master, of the same neighborhood. They are all young men, of an aggregate market value probably of $6000. On May 14th a group of four people arrived from Philadelphia. They were led by Captain Harriet Tubman. The people with her were Benjamin Jackson, Jasper Coleman, William A. Connoway, and Henry Hopkins. They are all young men. The author of this piece estimates that their value to enslavers would be about $6,000.
Harriett Tubman seven years ago was the slave of Edward Brodhurst of Bucktown, Maryland. Her master dying, the estate to be settled, and two of her sisters having been sold into a ‘chain-gang,’ she determined to run away. She did so, and made her way to Canada. In a few months, however, she concluded to return. She went back, and sought concealment in the house of a friend who had first advised her escape. She made her arrival known to her friends, and her purpose, which was “to lead them out of Egypt.” She had four brothers, & two sisters and their children then slaves, to her old mistress. She could only accomplish the release of one child, who was seven years old, and whom she hired a man to carry. She took this to Canada. After again earning money at service, the following year she returned a second time for this child’s mother. This woman, from a dread of being sold, had run away from her mistress, and for eighteen months had been in concealment, occasionally with a friend, once anchored off in a boat, in the river, for a day or two, but nearly the whole time in the woods. Harriett got messages to her, and hired a man, the necessary arrangements being made, to take her in a boat from Cambridge to Baltimore. There Harriett joined her, and they were obliged to remain there for several weeks, during the sister’s confinement and recovery. When the child was 5 weeks old, she induced a free colored man to take her to Philadelphia, as his brother’s wife, who was known to be free, a friendly white man, who did not know that she was not the brother’s wife, having given the necessary bonds. Harriett went on the day before, and took the sister and child to Canada to the child she had rescued before. There the husband and father, who was free, soon after joined them. Seven years ago Harriet Tubman was enslaved by Edward Brodhurst in Bucktown, Maryland. When Edward Brodhurst died she self-emancipated and went to Canada. She returned a few months later and hid at the house of her friend. She let her friends know that she was back and that she wanted to help other people free themselves. She had family members who were enslaved and helped one of the children escape to Canada. She worked to earn money in Canada and then returned. The child’s mother, her sister, had run away from her enslaver and had been hiding for 18 months. Harriet sent messages to her and helped her get to Baltimore. Harriet joined her in Baltimore and then took her and her new child to Canada to reunite them with the child she had helped escape before. The child’s father was free soon joined them.
The spring following she returned a third time. Her four brothers had been fugitives all winter, in the woods, to escape the dreaded ‘chain gang.’ The three eldest, however, had ‘come in’ at the solicitation of a lumber-man, to whom their services were important, and who had hired them before, and who had agreed to hire them again for one year, thus securing them from being sold before the next Christmas. The youngest, however, was not included in this and remained in the woods, though badly frost-bitten. Harriett, from her own place of concealment, entered into communication with him, and brought him off. She returned a third time the following spring to help one of her brothers who had been hiding in the woods to avoid being forced into a “chain gang”. Her three other brothers who had also been fugitives had been hired by a lumber-man so they were secure from being sold until the end of their employment. The fourth brother was not. Harriet helped him get away.
At ‘Camp-Meeting time,’ the following summer, she again went back, and went, as before, into concealment. She had interviews with the three brothers, but they all refused to leave the man who had been so kind to them, and at his own risk of loss, by hiring their time put off the day of sale. To leave him then would have been a loss to him of the wages of their unexpired service. She did not, however, came away empty-handed, but brought off a young man in the neighborhood, who hearing of her proposed to escape with her. At Christmas she returned again for her brothers. Their term of service with the lumberman had expired. At Christmas they were to have been sold. On Christmas Eve 1854 she and they left for Canada, where they soon after arrived safely. She returned again the next summer and hid herself. She interviewed the three brothers who remained but they did not want to leave their employer who had helped them before. Harriet helped another young man in the neighborhood escape. She returned again for her brothers at Christmas when their employment was about to end and they would have been sold again. They all made it safely to Canada together.
There still remained behind one sister and her two children, and the old father of the family, who, however, being free, can leave when he pleases, but will not so long as any of his children remain in bondage in Maryland. Harriett’s errand, at this time, was to bring off her sister and the two children. She found it, however, impracticable. But the attempt is only postponed, not abandoned. Still her mission this time is not without good fruit. The mother of the young man whom she took away, on a former visit, when she was unsuccessful in getting her brothers, informed the four young men who were with her today, that she had come back. They made the necessary arrangements and a fortnight ago, on Saturday, the five started, Harriett leading the company. They travelled by night, and on foot to Newcastle, Delaware. On the way or there, they learned that the hue and cry was after them. Along the Railway, at all the stations, and at road-side taverns bills were posted, describing the four men, and offering a reward of $1200 for their capture. But for Harriett they would, without doubt, have been taken. She led them safely to Newcastle. There she took them to the house of a colored woman, and for one week they lay concealed there in a potato-hole. Braving detection for herself, she went backward and forward between New Castle and Wilmington, on the cars to get friends to carry her company further. The risk was manifestly too great, they had to remain quiet. When she had no longer 20 cents to pay her passage she walked, and at last a friend consented to go for them. They were sent to Wilmington, at night, and then into Pennsylvania, at last here. Harriet still had one sister and her two children who remained enslaved in Maryland. Harriet tried to help them escape, but was not able to do so. The author notes that she is going to try again. Although she was unable to help her sister this trip, the mother of the young man who she helped escape on a previous visit told her about the four men who she arrived with at the time this document was written. They made the arrangements they needed to and then they travelled by night on foot to Newcastle, Delaware. They learned on the way that people were after them. There were notices posted at railroad stations and roadside taverns describing the four escaped men and offering $1,200 for them to be captured. Without Harriet, they probably would not have been successful in getting away. She led them to Newcastle to the house of a Black woman who hid them all for a week. Harriet went ahead to try to get friends to help the four men continue on their journey. The risk was very high. Harriet finally found a friend to help them when she only had 20 cents left to pay for her journey. The group went to Wilmington and then Pennsylvania.
Harriett is, by profession, a cook, and when at service earns from $15 to $16 per month. She has lived in New York and Philadelphia and would have remained in one or the other place now, only that feeling bound to get her sister and her children next Camp Meeting Time, and thinking it may cost a good deal, she wishes to be with her brothers to secure their pecuniary aid when the time comes for her to start again. Harriet works as a cook and earns $15 to $16 dollars per month. She has lived in New York and Philadelphia and would have stayed in one of those two cities now, but she wants to get her sister and her sister’s child and help them escape. She thinks it might cost a lot of money so she wants to go to her brothers first so that they can help her get the money needed for her to go back and help her sister.
Sent them all to Syracuse (and food) The author sent them on to Syracuse and gave them food.

Sydney Howard Gay, Record of Fugitives, 1855. Sydney Howard Gay Papers. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.


The antebellum period was marked by increasing rebellion of enslaved men and women. Some took part in full-scale rebellions like the one led by Nat Turner in 1831. Some took their freedom by escaping along the Underground Railroad. These radical actions could end in severe punishment, or even death.

Not every enslaved person was comfortable risking their life, but that does not mean they accepted their enslavement. Many enslaved people found other ways to frustrate slave owners and assert their autonomy without risking deadly punishment. Every act of resistance sent the same message: the system of slavery must be abolished.

About the Resources

These two documents demonstrate some of the ways enslaved women resisted slavery in the antebellum period. In the first document, ex-slave Mary Gaffney recounts how she chewed cotton root to keep herself from bearing any children while she was enslaved. By doing this, Mary robbed her owner of the profits he expected to make from her children. Since he had no way of knowing she was deliberately preventing pregnancies, he could not punish her.

The second document recounts the daring exploits of Harriet Tubman during her many trips to free family and friends from enslavement in Maryland. An abolitionist named Sydney Howard Gay recorded her account in 1856. Sydney operated an Underground Railroad safe house in New York City. He interviewed every runaway he met. In her interview, Harriet mentions helping many women run away. This challenges the common idea that enslaved women rarely ran away for fear of endangering their children. Each of the women Harriet helped made arrangements for themselves and their children. One spent months hiding in the woods while pregnant.

To learn more about the incredible life of Harriet Tubman, read her life story.


  • aggregate: Total.
  • antebellum: Before the American Civil War.
  • bills: Posters.
  • bonds: Paperwork.
  • cars: Streetcar or train.
  • concealment: Hiding.
  • confinement: Pregnancy.
  • consented: Agreed.
  • estate: Property owned by a person.
  • frost-bitten: Injured by extreme cold.
  • hue and cry: Neighborhood patrol.
  • impracticable: Impossible to carry out.
  • induced: Convinced.
  • manifestly: Obviously.
  • Maser: Slave owner.
  • obliged: Forced.
  • pecuniary: Monetary.
  • potato-hole: A hole dug in the floor of a home to keep food cool.
  • securing: Protecting.
  • service: Work.
  • solicitation: Invitation.
  • subordinates: People Harriet was guiding to freedom.
  • Underground Railroad: A network of safe houses that helped enslaved people travel to freedom.

Discussion Questions

  • What do these acts of resistance have in common?
  • What do these accounts reveal about the lives of enslaved and runaway women?
  • Why is it important to learn about the ways enslaved women resisted slavery?

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