About a thousand slaves permanently escaped slavery each year. Most runaways fled only a short distance. Slaves might hide in nearby swamps to escape punishment or sale. Many ran away to visit spouses or children. Groups of slaves sometimes ran away to protest overwork or cruel punishment. While masters often offered rewards for the return of runaways, sometimes they used ads to plead or bargain with a fugitive. Those fugitives who were trying to escape slavery did not necessarily flee northward. Many headed toward Florida or to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, where they established "maroon" colonies. Others hid with free blacks in southern cities.
For the most part, those fugitives who fled northward could not depend on an organized system of underground railroad stations to ferry them to freedom. Most runaways had to rely on their own wits. They had to borrow or forge passes, devise disguises, locate hiding places, or stow away on boats or trains. Nevertheless, some abolitionists like Levi Coffin (1798-1877), William Still (1821-1902), and Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) actively assisted fugitives. The following letter by a Rhode Island Quaker, Edward Lawton of Newport, describes the efforts to help a female slave escape her cruel owner, and asks Thomas Evans, a Philadelphia druggist, to help prevent the woman's recapture.
In the summer of 1822 or 23, a person by the name of Anthony Barklay, or Barclay came from the south to spend the summer here accompanied by his Family in which was included a black girl held by him as a slave. Although professing great suavity of manners and much apparent kindness the master & mistress of this girl treated her with great severity, so much so as to induce some of the friends of Freedom in this place to assist her in making her escape from such intolerable and cruel servitude. She has been pursued by her master with the most implacable determination and there is reason to fear that if he should succeed in recovering her that her persecutions would be redoubled. Thus far the exertions of her friends have been successful in withholding her from his grasp, but information has reached here that Barclay will be here soon (perhaps this day) that he is still determined to recover his slave, and it is also known that many persons who are not to be trued, nay many who are seeking to betray her are possessed of the leading circumstances of her present condition and only want his arrival to disclose them to him. She has been residing in the Family of Nathaniel Hathaway in New Bedford, whose wife was Anna Shoemaker of Philadelphia, who is on a visit among her connections there and has the girl with her. I am unacquainted with the persons mentioned but have the information from an undoubted source in New Bedford by a Letter received this morning. The object of this letter is obviously to obtain for this unfortunate, and I am informed, very deserving girl, the speedy and effectual protection which her case demands, and which will I presure be a sufficient apology for this hasty address from an entire stranger.