Sotterley’s river of freedom
Escaped slaves had major impact in War of 1812
Below the manor house, on the long sloping field that ends at the river, is a one-room cabin with a steeply sloped roof. It's the last standing slave quarters on the southern Maryland plantation known as Sotterley.
From inside this cabin, enslaved people had two symbolic views.
They could look through their doorway and see the manor house, a commanding presence on the crest of the hill. Or they could look from their window and see the river, a route to freedom.
This contrast was never more meaningful than during the summer of 1814. In just a few short months, 48 men, women and children escaped slavery at Sotterley by heading for the river — and the promise of refuge aboard British ships of war.
It was a flight made possible by the War of 1812, The United States' second war with Britain.
"In April 1814, British Admiral Cochrane issued a proclamation that offered freedom and land in a British colony to anyone who escaped to a British warship," said historian Alan Taylor of University of California, Davis.
Taylor is the author of "The Internal Enemy," a forthcoming book on escapes from slavery during the War of 1812.
In the Chesapeake region, river access was key. "They all escaped from property along the rivers. Not the interior," Taylor said. "The greatest number of escapes is associated with the places where British warships spent most of their time: Virginia's Northern Neck, the southern shore of the Potomac and the southern counties of Maryland."
Such escapes changed life for thousands of people, both enslaved and free. The official count of escaped people, based on American damage claims, is 2,400 people, but Taylor's research into British records suggests the total may reach or exceed 3,000.
The largest number of escapes was from the vast Corotoman plantation along Virginia's Rappahannock River. The second was at Sotterley.
Details about the Sotterley escapes are just coming to light, as the bicentennial of the war has triggered new interest in related sites and events. The Maryland State Archives' Flight to Freedom Project has been researching the stories associated with several Maryland counties, and Sotterley Plantation, now operating as a public historic site, is eagerly adding the discoveries to its programs.
"On June 14, after a skirmish on St. Leonard's Creek, the British raided Sotterley," said Sotterley's education director Jeanne Pirtle. "They confronted the owner, and about four adult male slaves left with them."
By fall, 44 more people had followed. They included skilled and domestic workers — men, women and children.
"A couple of families left together," Pirtle said. "Grace Munroe was a cook here. Her husband was Lewis, and they had four or five children. They all left with the British and ended up with a parcel of land in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by 1815."
Until the summer of 1814, young men were mostly likely to attempt escapes and they usually traveled alone. People with spouses and children were more reluctant to leave. When the British offered freedom to everyone, the game changed. Taylor said that many families left together or were reunited in the process.
These family ties, and the drive to stay together, might have never been recorded without the War of 1812.
"One thing war does is generate lots of documentation, like a flash of lightning that reveals the nature of slavery and slave family life in ways that we otherwise cannot see," Taylor said.
Along the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, a few enslaved men stole a canoe. They crossed the river to Maryland and stole a ferry boat, and then returned to collect 17 others, including women and children, before going downriver to a British ship.
"That's especially revealing," Taylor said. "It's not just a few men trying to get away. That's the pre-war pattern. During the war, young men may have pioneered the escapes but they came back to get more people out."
The loss of enslaved labor crippled many farms and plantations, and it provided the British with local guides and pilots for their raids. The assistance of former slaves helped the British drive their raids farther inland and suppress resistance before making their attack on Washington.
But the British offer of freedom was not entirely a calculated tactic of war. Originally, British naval officers were instructed to discourage such escapes. Then, in 1813, several hundred enslaved people pressed themselves on the British for help.
"They had orders to turn people away and they couldn't do it," Taylor said. "Only after they make that call do they realize that receiving these people is also in Britain's military interest."
Taylor points to an episode from 1815 that shows mixed motives at work. A British party confronted a plantation owner in St. Mary's County, MD, just after the war had officially ended. Among the party was a former slave whose wife and children were still on the plantation.
"They are doing this primarily to help the man out," Taylor said. The plantation owner protested and argued that the war was over, but the British took the enslaved family with them. When the American filed a complaint, the naval captain wrote a letter to his commander, refusing to return the family on the grounds that they would be treated cruelly.
"Instead, the captain and others on his ship were willing to dig into their own pockets and pay for them," Taylor said.
Most of the people who escaped were taken to the British base on Tangier Island. The British offered to enlist the men, but didn't require it. Those who enlisted were in a special unit known as the Corps of Colonial Marines.
"There was a great deal of enthusiasm among young black men to achieve respect and to be given a uniform and to be trained in firearms
and employed against their former masters," Taylor said.
The British also gave the former slaves their own land in Nova Scotia and Trinidad.
Life in Nova Scotia was hard, on low-quality farmland near Halifax, where occupations were mostly geared toward the port. Many, but not all, remained poor. One man wrote a letter to his former master to boast of his success.
"They were given the choice to go back to Maryland and Virginia in the 1820s, and they all said 'no, we'd rather be poor in Nova Scotia than slaves in Maryland and Virginia,'" Taylor said.
In Trinidad, they received better land and settled together in groups, with each company of former marines founding its own village. Their modern descendants, known as Merikans, take pride in their heritage.
The loss of so much enslaved labor brought lasting damage to the Chesapeake economy. Agriculture in southern Maryland and Virginia included some large plantations, but most were smaller farms with five or six enslaved people to support them. The escape of a few could collapse the entire operation, especially when nearly every farmer was in debt and paid his debt by exchanging enslaved people or their labor.
Sotterley was one of the larger plantations, with 64 slaves before the escapes and 16 after. The loss increased its financial troubles, and the Plater family sold Sotterley in 1826, after five generations of ownership.
Now, Pirtle is wondering how the story might continue. Research on slavery at Sotterley is still under way, and new information about those who escaped to freedom arrives regularly.
"It's really exciting. We're hoping that at some point, the research will get so far that we'll have descendants finding us. We have to make the right connections. But we would welcome that."
Sotterley Plantation is located at 44300 Sotterley Lane, Hollywood, MD 20636.
Self—guided grounds tours are available year-round 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Guided tours of the plantation house are available 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday May 1 through Oct. 31. The plantation house is closed on major holidays and Dec. 24 through Jan. 3.
Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors; and $5 for ages 6—12. Ages 5 and younger are free.
For information, call 301-373-2280 or visit www.sotterley.org.
Upcoming Events at Sotterley Plantation
- Slavery, Resistance & Freedom: 1 p.m. & 3 p.m. Feb. 9. (Snow date: Feb. 16) Ages 13+ Hear the voices and visit the places where African Americans lived and labored. Only 20 people per tour. Call for details.
- Spring Break at Sotterley: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 25—29. Family-friendly house tours, audio grounds tours and interactive presentations.
- The Choice: Risking Your Life for Freedom: 10 a.m., 11 a.m., & noon May 25. Admission is charged. Reservations are required.
To make a reservation, or for information, call 301-373-2280.
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