In the 1800s many enslaved people in the United States, especially those who lived in the Deep South, made valiant efforts to escape to freedom in the north. Many of the most well-known stories, like that of Harriet Tub- man and the people she helped ferry along the Underground Railroad, took place under the cover of darkness to avoid slave patrols and other local authorities, but Ellen Craft and her husband, William, took a different approach. Their daring escape took place in the broad light of day.
Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia. Her father, Col. James Smith, was a white man and her first enslaver. Her mother, Maria, an African American woman, was also owned by Smith. Ellen was fair-skinned and resembled Smith and the children of his marriage, so much so that people frequently mistook her for one of them.
Tradition says that it was this resemblance that led to Ellen’s owner giving her at age 11 to his daughter, Ellen’s half sister, as a wedding gift in 1837. Young Ellen went to live in Macon, Georgia, about 15 miles from where she was born. She worked as a maid there.
History did not record when and how Ellen met the man who became her husband, William Craft. He was born in rural Georgia in 1824. The same person enslaved his entire family, but cruelly separated them through the course of William’s childhood. In his memoir, William recalled: “My old master also sold a dear brother and a sister, in the same manner as he did my father and mother. The reason he assigned for disposing of my parents, as well as of several other aged slaves, was, that ‘they were getting old, and would soon become valueless in the market.’”
William himself was sold at age 16. He had been apprenticed to a cabinetmaker as a child, and his skills were so strong that his new owner hired him out as a carpenter to other slaveholders. William was paid for this work, and, despite his owner collecting most of his earnings, he was allowed to keep a small portion of his wages for himself. Though Ellen and William were considered property and still enslaved, they had privileges. Among them was obtaining passes from their owners, allowing them to leave their homes and travel to places around Macon.
The Crafts married in 1846 but were concerned about starting a family. Owing to the traumas of family separation in their youth, they wisely feared being separated from their own children. The only way they could build a family and a future together was to escape Georgia. At the time, the state held one of the largest populations of enslaved people in the country, so any plans to escape would need to be cautious and clever.
Knowing the difficulties of trying to escape during the night, the two had devised a plan to outsmart enslavers and slave patrols. They would travel by day to the northern states using Ellen’s fair skin to hide in plain sight. Ellen would pose as William’s owner, but the two quickly recognized that people would be skeptical of a white woman traveling alone with a Black man. They decided Ellen would pose as a young white man.
She began by cutting her hair short and dressing in men’s clothing. She donned a top hat and green spectacles to cover the fear in her eyes because she was anxious of someone catching them along the trip. Ellen also applied a poultice to her face to cover the fact that she lacked facial hair.
Neither William nor Ellen had learned to read or write as it was illegal in the state of Georgia to teach an enslaved person how. This led to them bandaging Ellen’s arm as well to prevent her from having to sign any of the registration papers for travel or lodging. If they were asked by anyone why they were traveling up north, their story was that they were going to see a special doctor, whereby the bandages would indicate injury or disease.
Trains, carriages, and boats
On December 21, 1848, Ellen and William began their journey. After first obtaining passes to leave their residences, they disguised themselves, made their way to the Macon train station, and departed for Savannah, Georgia. On the train, Ellen realized she was sitting next to a dear friend of her owner. Anxious and fearful, she relaxed after he spoke to her and said, “It is a very fine morning, sir.” Although she was relieved that her disguise was working, Ellen acted as if she was deaf for the remainder of the train ride to avoid conversing with him.
Once they arrived in Savannah, they found a carriage and quickly made their way to a steamboat departing for Charleston, South Carolina. There was no seating on the boat for enslaved people, so William found a spot near the funnel of the ship where he sat until morning. The next morning, the captain was thoroughly impressed at the young master’s “very attentive boy” and warned Ellen to beware of “cut-throat abolitionists” in the northern states who would entice William to run away.
Tales of freedom
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black authors published personal accounts of their lives as enslaved people and their escapes. Known popularly as slave narratives, these important works—penned by esteemed authors like the Crafts, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Jacobs—were an important part in exposing the horrors of slavery and ending the practice in the United States.
The trip was full of fraught encounters: A slave trader made Ellen an offer to buy William and to take him to the Deep South. A military officer scolded her for saying “thank you” to William. When the couple arrived in Charleston, they were able to stay at the best hotel in town. There, the clerks greeted the “invalid” with great care, giving them a nice room and good table in the dining hall.
From Charleston, they took another steamboat to Wilmington, North Carolina, and from there, a train to Richmond, Virginia. When they reached Baltimore, Maryland, on December 24, 1848, the couple was one stop away from freedom in Pennsylvania. The Crafts had learned of conductors prohibiting enslaved people from traveling to Philadelphia. A Baltimore conductor did halt them momentarily to validate that William “belonged” to Ellen. Another conductor, seeing Ellen’s bandages, intervened and allowed them to board the train. They were on their way. On Christmas Day, the Crafts made it to Philadelphia. Ellen cried out: “Thank God, William, we’re safe!”
Farther to freedom
Ellen and William stayed in Philadelphia for a short time. Less than a month after arriving the two moved to a free Black community in Boston, Massachusetts, a hotbed of abolitionist activity in the United States. Luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were among the leaders of the movement.
In Boston tales of their daring escape from Georgia earned them great respect. They quickly became loud voices in the abolitionist movement and traveled around New England to speak out about the horrors of slavery down south.
Ellen and William’s beginnings in Boston seemed promising. William returned to being a successful cabinetmaker, and Ellen worked as a seamstress. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made their lives uneasy. The law made it illegal for residents of free states, like Massachusetts, to harbor or aid, fugitive slaves. It also made it possible for federal officials to seize suspected escapees and send them back, without any trial.
Lucrative rewards were made for capturing suspected escaped enslaved people. The Crafts found themselves targets of bounty hunters from Macon, Georgia. Willis Hughes and John Knight attempted to capture the Crafts in Boston. An interracial group of Bostonians, called the Vigilance Committee, protected Ellen and William. They moved them to different safe houses around Boston (and even outside the city), to prevent them from being captured.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Massachusetts was a free state—slavery had been banned for more than 60 years—but passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 threatened its free Black citizens, like the Crafts. The law appeared to strengthen an existing clause in the U.S. Constitution that said enslaved people who escaped to a free state did not automatically become free; they could be seized and returned to slaveholders. The 1850 act stripped away northern states’ power over any of these cases and gave it to federal commissioners, who were paid $10 for every person they seized. Anyone who helped Black people avoid capture could be fined or imprisoned.
The act itself was a misguided effort to bolster slavery during a time when slaveholding states’ power was diminishing. The act had the opposite effect; it generated a massive backlash in the northern states, where citizens saw it as federal overreach and demanded stronger state protections for personal liberty. The abolition movement gained momentum, and the battle over slavery waged hotter than ever.
The Fugitive Slave Act’s threat of kidnapping made it impossible for the Crafts to stay in the United States. To protect themselves, Ellen and William moved to London, England, where they became leading voices in the antislavery movement there. William authored a book about their experiences, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. After spending nearly two decades in England and having five children, the Crafts returned to Georgia. They settled near Savannah, where they opened a farm school to educate newly freed Black students.