Steamboats: Vehicles of Industry and Resistance

By Philip O’Neill


In the Antebellum Deep South, unlike the more northern slave states, the Underground Railroad, was not present due to the lack of abolitionist sentiment and extensive distance from free states. Instead, the steamboat industry, which connected the deep south to the world economy, transformed southern rivers into highways for runaways. Steamboats provided avenues for the “Escape both physical and imaginary … Some slaves escaped by hiding on boats and traveling to free states or Canada, and some slaves, hired to work on the boats, wandered off the ship while in port and faded into the crowd and on to freedom. Whether escaping the tedium of agricultural work or the bonds of slavery, the steamboat embodied new possibilities.” The physical escape, a form of what is called “Grand Maroonage,” will be the main topic of this article. That said, the mental escape is important because of the sense of individuality and autonomy felt by enslaved workers on board steamboats, and therefore, it is a major historical example of “Petit Maroonage.”  To better understand the qualities, degrees, and forms of enslaved resistance and “Maroonage,” the next paragraph details the nomenclature used to make distinctions about runaway resistance. 

Runaway resistance by enslaved peoples from the Antebellum South is broken down into two categories: Petit and Grand Maroonage. These sub-categories of resistance provide perspectives that enable us to understand the significance of runaway resistance to the enslaved. Firstly, Petit Maroonage references the form of runaway resistance that was temporary, for example: escaping to swamps to escape work, an overseer, or slaveholder, or to visit relatives or friends on nearby plantations. Closer to Freedom author, Stephanie Camp, offers perspective on a particular type of Petit Maroonage: slave gatherings, and parties. “Deep in woods, away from slaveholders’ eyes, they held secret parties where they danced, performed music, drank alcohol, and courted. … Enslaved partygoers had a common commitment to delight in their bodies, …, and to express their creativity.” In this quotation, Camp emphasizes the significance of a temporary respite from plantation life: recapturing independence and human dignity for a short time and preserving a vibrant culture and community. Secondly, Grand Maroonage refers to permanently escaping from slaveholding states into freedom. Grand Maroonage is significant because it represents the permeation of abolitionist ideas into the Antebellum South and the inevitability of the Cotton Kingdom’s demise. As such, Petit and Grand Maroonage are important because they emphasize the falsity of the paternalistic claims in the Antebellum South and provide perspectival evidence into the lives of enslaved people.

Court Cases

The following court cases illustrate the importance of steamboat infrastructure to runaway enslaved peoples and identify potential local infrastructures of enslaved individuals that facilitated the runaway process, aiming to push back on the idea of a paternalistic relationship between enslaved persons and their slaveholders. 

This photo illustrates the prominence of steamboats in Antebellum Louisiana, and the disorganization and busyness of ports that would have allowed enslaved individuals chances at boarding steamboats.

Williamson vs. Norton

  • Background:
    • An enslaved person boarded a steamboat in New Orleans to escape slavery under the pretense of being a white person. The enslaved person was apprehended by the steamboat captain, arrested, and returned to the slaveholder. This suit was brought forth by the slaveholder against the steamboat captain to amend damages caused by the potential negligence of the captain.
  • Ruling:
    • Steamboat captain was not liable for any damages because the runaway enslaved person was incapable of being recognized as “of African descent.” Additionally, the apprehension and further proceedings of the captain prove that there was no intent to free the slave.
  • Significance:
    • This case emphasizes the blurred lines of what constituted an enslaved person in the Antebellum South by showing how it was not just about color but instead about some perceived behavioral differences that allowed for, in this case, a seemingly white runaway slave to be apprehended. Additionally, this case discusses the amendments of “damages” caused by allowing a runaway on the steamboat. Moreover, these “damages” consisted of loss of labor, legal fees, transportation fees, and fear of the dissemination of information from former runaway to other enslaved peoples about the possibilities of escaping through the steamboat industry. 
  • Damages:
    • Possibilities of Escaping through steamboat industry

“The second night while I was in jail, two slaves came to the dungeon grates about the dead hour of night and called me to the grates to have some conversation about Canada, and the facilities for getting there.”

Daret vs. Gray

  • Background:
    • Enslaved persons—Father, Mother, and two children—obtained forged papers “purported to be executed before two prominent notaries in the city” and tickets to board a steamboat in New Orleans to escape to freedom. However, through public notices given out by the slaveholder, the family were apprehended. This suit was brought forth by the slaveholder against the steamboat captain to amend damages caused by the potential negligence of the captain.
  • Ruling:
    • The steamboat captain is not liable for significant “damages,” but was held to a violation of the Act of 1816 (further explanation under Laws subsection).
  • Significance:
    • This case illuminates the tools, abilities, and networks of enslaved people capable of forging authentic identification papers, obtaining money for steamboat tickets, and planning this clandestine affair without the knowing of the slaveholder. Furthermore, this case shows how these tools, abilities, and networks were designed to assist enslaved people in their route to freedom. It should be noted that since this was a premeditated escape, this signifies the complete absence of paternalistic relationships—relationships in which the enslaved person sees their owner as a benevolent master that sacrificed for their slaves.

Depicts steamboats in Antebellum context

McMaster vs. Beckwith

  • Background:
    • An enslaved person, bought as a runaway, was often hired out and did jobs for the slaveholder. A steamboat captain, assumingly acting under the premise that this enslaved person was for hire, hired him on board his steamboat in New Orleans and journeyed to Kentucky, where the enslaved person escaped. This suit is being brought forth by the slaveholder against the steamboat captain to repay for a lost enslaved person due to the negligence of the steamboat captain.
  • Ruling:
    • The court ruled that the slaveholder is compensated only the value he paid for a runaway enslaved person if they escaped the owner under the negligence of a steamboat captain. 
  • Significance:
    • Steamboats were ships with large engines and enhanced mechanics during the height of their prominence in the 19th century, which required that they be tended to by skilled tradespeople. This case gives insight into the possibilities that steamboats brought to enslaved people, specifically enslaved tradespeople, in terms of potentially reaching their freedom, jobs with incomes that could be used to buy their freedom or earn reprieve from plantation life. In essence, the steamboat provided a hired enslaved tradesperson many opportunities to acquire freedom, whether that be physical or mental freedom. 

The Story of Henry Bibb

Portrait of Henry Bibb


Henry Bibb, an enslaved person, was the son of James Bibb, a white man, and an enslaved woman named Mildred Jackson. As a young man, he was hired out as a laborer to other plantations, the first of which was to a Mr. Vires, where he received horrible treatment, “She (Mrs. Vires) was every day flogging me, boxing, pulling my ears, and scolding, so that I dreaded to enter the room where she was. This first started me to running away from them.” Following this, he ran away back to his owner, where he started working for his owners wife, whom he describes, “what I would call a tyrant.” Furthermore, after being hired out again, he describes his condition as “giving me a longing desire to be free,” freedom the steamboat industry would eventually facilitate.

Steamboat Grand Maroonage Attempt #1: 

“I then stept boldly on the deck of this splendid swift-running Steamer, bound for the city of Cincinnati. This being the first voyage that I had ever taken of board of a Steamboat, I was filled with dear and excitement, knowing that I was surrounded by the vilest enemies of God and man, liable to be seized and bound, by any white man, and taken back into captivity.” On this first attempt, Bibb successfully escaped enslavement to Detroit, Michigan, where he immediately purchased supplies needed for his trip back down south to rescue his family from slavery. However, in his efforts to emancipate his family, he was tricked by “false” abolitionists or “land pirates” and brought back to the slaveholder that previously owned him.


In Henry Bibb’s first, of many successful Grand Maroonage attempts, he provides perspective on a runaway enslaved person’s journey to freedom aboard a steamboat. Additionally, Bibb provides details about fugitive slave bounty hunters and their active presence in free states. This detail provides the modern reader with an interesting perspective; runaway enslaved individuals faced the threat of being forcibly returned to enslavement even when they were in a free state. Moreover, as Bibb describes it, there were many active members in this trade trying to profit from the opportunities that steamboats offered enslaved individuals. As a modern reader and an individual familiar with American History, we tend to draw rigid lines that define the boundaries of where abolitionist and pro-slavery sentiment existed during the 19th Century, and Bibb’s experience provides depth to our potentially superficial understanding of racial disparity in states that bordered pro-slavery states. 

Steamboat Grand Maroonage Attempt #2: 

“One morning about 2 o’clock, I took leave of my little family and started for Canada. This was almost like tearing off the limbs from my body. When we were about to separate, Malinda clasped my hand exclaiming, ‘oh my soul! My heart is almost broken at the thought of this of this dangerous separation. This may be the last time we shall ever see each other’s faces in this life, which will destroy all my future prospects of life and happiness forever.’ … We separated with the understanding that she was to wait until the excitement was all over; after which she was to meet me at a certain place in the State of Ohio; which would not be longer than two months from that time. I succeeded that night in getting a steamboat conveyance back to Cincinnati, or within ten miles of the city. I was apprehensive that there were slave hunters in Cincinnati, watching the arrival of every boat up the river, expecting to catch me; and the boat landing to take in wood ten miles below the city, I got off and walked into Cincinnati, to avoid detection. … I heard that the two young men who had betrayed me for three hundred dollars had returned and were watching for me. … After I had waited three months for the arrival of Malinda, and she came not, it caused me to be one of the most unhappy fugitives that ever left the south. I had waited eight or nine months without hearing from my family. I felt it to be my duty, as a husband and father, to make one more effort. I felt as if I could not give them up to be sacrificed on the ‘bloody altar of slavery’. I felt as if love, duty, humanity and justice, required that I should go back, putting my trust in the God of Liberty for success.”

Following this, Bibb returned to the plantation where his family was enslaved to emancipate them once again. However, Bibb was apprehended after being betrayed by an enslaved girl and another slave, writing, “I felt confident that I had been betrayed by a slave, and all my flattering prospects of rescuing my family were gone forever, and the grim monster of slavery with all its horrors was staring me in the face.” After being imprisoned, tortured, and scorned, Bibb was bought by a slave marketeer. to be sold in New Orleans.

Map of the rivers that extend from Louisiana through the rest of the United States

Eventually, after saying that he was not literate, Bibb was able to procure his sale—twelve hundred for him, one thousand for Malinda and Frances— and he and his family were “sold up the river” to a farm 50 miles north of New Orleans on the Red River. There, after enduring 18 hour days and brutal torture, Henry made several more escape attempts, the last of which separated him from his family forever.” Following Bibb’s sale in Louisiana, he continued his escape attempts through the steamboat industry without any lasting success. Later, following these escape attempts, Bibb’s owner sold him, alone, at a fraction of the paid price, to a Native American in Oklahoma.


Bibb’s account of his second attempt at permanent escape encapsulates the spectrum of emotions in a way that only Bibb, or any other runaway, can present. This account details the emotional, mental, and physical sacrifices that were made in pursuit of liberty; these pursuits and sacrifices directly resulted in the permanent separation of Bibb from his family, a practice common in the Antebellum South.

Steamboat Maroonage Attempt #3: 

Bibb describes the long land journey he made on foot and horseback to Jefferson City, Missouri. In Jefferson City, he begins his final and absolute attempt at escape. “But I finally thought I might possibly pass myself off as a body servant to the passengers going from the hotel down (to the steamboat). So, I went to a store and bought myself a large trunk and took it to the hotel. Soon, a boat came in which was bound to St. Louis, and the passengers started down to get on board. I took up my large trunk and started along after them as if I was their servant. … The passengers went up into the cabin and I followed them with the trunk. I suppose this made the captain think that I was their slave.”

During Bibb’s time on the boat, he made acquaintances with several Irish people on board, who helped him acquire a ticket. After disembarking this steamboat, he arrived in St. Louis, where he “went on board to make some inquiry about the far &c. and found the steward to be a colored man with whom I was acquainted. He lived in Cincinnati and had rendered me some assistance in making my escape to Canada … and he also very kindly aided me then in getting back into a land of freedom. The swift running steamer started that afternoon on her voyage, which soon wafted my body beyond the tyrannical limits of chattel slavery.”


In Bibb’s final permanent escape, the reader gets a glimpse into the suave and nonchalant creativity that runaway slaves employed to secure their chances of escape. Additionally, this final successful Grand Maroonage attempt, and the many he had done prior, illustrate the possibility of permanent escape from slavery, as well as the constant perseverance of one individual’s pursuit for liberty.

An average steamboat from the Antebellum Period

“The circumstances in which I was then placed, gave me a longing desire to be free. It kindled a fire of liberty within my breast which has never yet been quenched. This seemed to be a part of my nature; it was first revealed to me by the inevitable laws of nature’s God. … No one can imagine my feelings in my reflecting moments, but he who has himself been a slave.” 

Henry Bibb, The Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb

Further Reading: The New Orleans Daily Creole

This newspaper article from the New Orleans Daily Creole, published in 1856, contains city ordinances that prohibit slaves from boarding a steamboat without explicit permission or orders from their master, or verification by the captain. Additionally, this newspaper mentions rewards for the apprehension of slaves that are caught boarding illegally.

This newspaper article confirms the presence of fugitive runaways in the Deep South, specifically the port of New Orleans, and the legal steps that local municipalities were taking to prevent runaways from escaping.

See sections 9, 11, 12, 18, and 22 specifically.


This analysis of court cases, the biography of Henry Bibb, and newspaper articles, with an acute focus on the steamboat industry, allows us to grasp the emotions, tensions, and prejudices present in the Louisiana Antebellum Period. Further, and more broadly, this analysis sheds light on the American Dream of all enslaved people, to rise above the inhumane, cruel shackles of slavery and achieve the birthright of every human being, liberty. 

“Every revolution of the mighty steam-engine seemed to bring me nearer and nearer to the ‘promised land.’”

Henry Bibb, The Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb



  • “Advertisement.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 25 Dec. 1856, p. 1. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.
  • Caselaw Access Project-Harvard Law School.
  • Dahlia El-Shafei, Kate Mason, and Kathryn O’Dwyer (New Orleans, “Henry Bibb and the Slave Pens of New Orleans“.
  • Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb.

%d bloggers like this: