In the winter of 1819, five slaves escaped on horseback from a cotton plantation in Texas and rode to freedom. One bore the branded letter “R” — for “runaway” — on each of his cheeks, punishment for an earlier, failed escape attempt.
The group traveled hundreds of miles, avoiding horse-eating alligators, hostile Native Americans and slave catchers along the way. Unlike most of their brethren that embarked on perilous journeys from plantations, however, they weren’t seeking freedom in the North. They were bound for Mexico, then a Spanish colony, which promised emancipation to the enslaved who crossed into their borders.
About two decades later, after achieving independence, Mexico abolished slavery entirely. Fugitives from the north continued to trickle into the country, where they could join military colonies or work as indentured servants.
It wasn’t always an ideal life — Mexico still allowed employers to use corporal punishment, for instance — but Blacks faced considerably less racial prejudice than in the free North. In Mexico they could hold office, marry locals and blend comfortably with society.
Several thousand escaped slaves took the southern road to freedom, a route little explored by historians. Revelatory research from Alice Baumgartner, a postdoctoral scholar and teaching fellow in history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, takes a closer look at these journeys and how Mexico’s antislavery policies shaped the abolitionist movement in America.
Baumgartner, a member of the USC Society of Fellows in the Humanities, headquartered at USC Dornsife, recently published her work in a new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (Basic Books, 2020).
The path to freedom — and war
Her book idea was sparked by an accidental discovery in archives in Northern Mexico. While researching violence along the United States-Mexico border, she stumbled across numerous instances of U.S. slaveholders shot or brought to court for trying to kidnap their fugitive slaves in Mexico. She was surprised to discover that Mexico had offered such substantial protections to escaped slaves.
Mexican court records detailing the trials of American slave owners who tried to recapture escaped slaves inspired Alice Baumgartner’s book. (Photo: Courtesy of Alice Baumgartner.)
“The book project became about answering three different questions: Why were enslaved people escaping to Mexico, what were they finding there and why were Mexican authorities protecting them?” says Baumgartner. “I also discovered something even more surprising; Mexico’s antislavery policies really had a huge effect on the coming of the Civil War in the United States.”
There were two main routes to freedom in Mexico. Some hid in ships embarking from New Orleans.
“We have evidence to suggest that Mexican ship captains helped enslaved people escape. There was one Mexican ship captain who was indicted in Louisiana courts for helping escaped slaves,” says Baumgartner.
The other route, taken by those like the five in 1819, was overland. Some passed through with the help of Mexican laborers who were in Texas looking for work and could provide directions. In other instances, escaped slaves returned to the north to help a family member cross over, making the perilous journey all over again.
Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1837 upset the balance of power between free and slave-holding states in the U.S., particularly after the United States conquered a third of Mexico’s territory during the Mexican-American War. Slavery had been abolished in this territory — what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Utah — and as these territories joined the Union as free states, it would make support for slave-holding a minority opinion.
“Everything that happens in that decade leading up to the Civil War is southern politicians trying to make sure that they’re not totally outnumbered by free state representatives in Congress,” says Baumgartner. Mexico’s choice to abolish the practice helped set in motion events that would lead to the bloodiest war on American soil.
History comes alive
Dusty archives helped Baumgartner first viscerally connect with history. As an undergraduate, she found the subject boring and full of dull date memorization. Then she was asked to do archival research for a class and began reading about vigilantes in the American West.
She came across the diary of one vigilante who recounted that, upon running out of bullets during a shoot-out, he ducked into a newspaper office and loaded his gun with letterpress blocks. His victim was found adorned with the imprints of the alphabet on his skin.
This vivid account caught her attention, and history became the focus of her undergraduate studies. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University, but she wasn’t sure she’d make it her career until she volunteered at a free medical clinic in Bolivia after college.
In the 1930s, Eastern Bolivia had suffered through the bloody Chaco War, a territorial dispute with Paraguay. Some 70,000 civilians were killed. Despite the passage of more than 75 years, her patients still told stories about the war.
“It was the first time I really realized that history was not just a subject of academic interest but something that is deeply relevant to people’s lives even when they have so many other more pressing concerns,” says Baumgartner. She went on to receive a master’s in history from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. in history from Yale.
She’s pleased that her new book offers relevance to those living today. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails from African Americans who live in the southwest, whose own family history involved Mexico. They had descendants who went to Mexico in search of greater opportunity, and it’s been really gratifying to hear from them.”
For many African Americans, tracing family history can be challenging — the federal census only began counting Black Americans in 1870. South to Freedom can help fill in these gaps and reanimate the rich history of these astonishingly resilient ancestors.