Enslaved people in Arkansas resisted dehumanization, demands on their labor, and limits on their activity in a variety of ways, ranging from indirect (often referred to as “passive”) to direct, even violent. Many factors—such as gender, age, location, and personality—determined slaves’ resistance strategies. Enslaved people also met with varying levels of circumscription within the system of slavery, causing them to push back against that regime in very different ways.
While there is not enough evidence to determine for certain exactly how resistance strategies may have varied between slaves on Arkansas’s smaller holdings and those who resided on the state’s large plantations, it is reasonable to assume that the size of the slave-holding had some effect on resistance. For example, farm size could determine slaves’ proximity to the master, and whether bondspeople would have to deal with an overseer. People enslaved on large plantations may have had to work under a more regimented labor system, but the higher number of people there may have made it easier to slip off unnoticed. Further, slaves on a smaller farm might have had more chances to endear themselves to the master or mistress to their own advantage but might also have found it more difficult to get out from under whites’ scrutiny. This means that a domestic worker on a yeoman farm outside of Fort Smith (Sebastian County), for example, would have faced different opportunities and challenges than a field hand on a riverside cotton plantation in Chicot County.
Bondspeople in Arkansas made their most common gains by employing tactics that made their lives under slavery bearable without taking the risk of challenging the institution outright. They slowed the pace of work, faked or exaggerated illnesses, and pretended not to understand instructions. They also slipped food from pantries and smokehouses and kept up clandestine news networks between farms and plantations, through which they carried valuable intelligence. Slaves eavesdropped on whites’ conversations to gain knowledge about what was happening in their neighborhood and shared information across a wide-reaching web. Although these types of indirect resistance to slavery did not overthrow the power of masters as a group, such activity did assist slaves in coping with and surviving the regime.
A major strategy of indirect or passive resistance lay in slaves’ ability to play whites off each other, like the slaves owned by William and Nancy Rose of Chicot County did in the mid-1840s. As the Roses’ marriage fell apart, Mary, a domestic servant, took advantage of the rift to get in the good graces of William and blatantly disregard the demands of her mistress, who eventually moved out, leaving Mary as the head of the house. Slaves engaged in a type of negotiation with masters and other whites that was neither formal nor outright but lay at the center of their everyday struggles. While neither side sat at the table with a list of demands in such negotiations, each side laid out what they were willing to concede through their interactions with each other. This is not to say that masters and slaves understood these interactions in the same way, however. For example, allowances within the system (which might include evening time off, Saturday visitation to other farms, or Christmas celebrations) that whites considered to be special privileges, many slaves came to view as rights.
Running away is probably the most well-known and widely celebrated form of slave resistance. Enslaved people resisted whites’ demands on their labor in a direct way when they removed themselves from the farm or plantation for days, weeks, or perhaps for good. Short-term flight, referred to by historians as “truancy,” was a much more common and successful strategy than permanent flight. It was simply more feasible for slaves to “steal out” for a few days of respite than to complete a difficult and dangerous journey to the northern states, especially after the passage of a tougher federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. While there is no evidence to suggest that a sophisticated organized network to assist runaway slaves reached into Arkansas, the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers served as highways for runaways lucky enough to be able to use them to their advantage. Perhaps Arkansas’s most famous escapee was Nelson Hackett, who escaped from his owner in July 1841 and made his way to Canada; his later recapture on Canadian territory provoked outrage and a change in the nation’s extradition laws.
Even more direct than running, some people resisted their enslavement with violence. The threat of violence toward the enslaved upheld the system of slavery. Some slaves tested whites’ willingness to follow through with that threat. Often, these physical challenges to white authority took place in the heat of moment, when enslaved people resisted being whipped or refused to stand by and watch the whipping of a loved one. Runaway slaves violently resisted capture. However, not all violent resistance was the result of spontaneous anger, as some slaves executed premeditated attacks on whites. In 1849, a Benton County slave named Alph killed his master, James Anderson, while the two were traveling to Fort Smith. Anderson intended to sell Alph upon arrival, so it seems that Alph bided his time until the right moment to strike and save himself. He knocked Anderson in the head, cut his throat, left the body on the side of the road outside Van Buren (Crawford County), and fled back north to his wife. This type of resistance was dangerous, however. Whites eventually captured Alph in northwestern Arkansas and lynched him. Sometimes, slaves could get their way simply by threatening violence in order to protect themselves or loved ones.
Slaves also used whites’ legal code against them. That is, sometimes slaves who felt that they should lawfully be freed were able to fight for that position in court. A freedom suit could come about when a person or group who understood their master to have freed them (such as in a will) brought a case against the heirs or executors who did not uphold that provision. While some of the other direct forms of slave resistance, such as flight or violence, were often undertaken by men, sources show that freedom suits were often employed by women on behalf of themselves and their children. This was often because the plaintiff had children with the deceased slaveholder and sought to secure their freedom. Often they were unsuccessful. In 1846–1847, Aramynta and her children from Pulaski County fought for the freedom promised them at the death of Cynthia Robinson. A bond had been submitted to prevent the newly freed family from becoming “a charge upon the county.” William E. Woodruff, the executor of Robinson’s estate, had filed to dismiss this petition, but the probate court decreed in favor of Aramynta and her children, concluding that they were free. The circuit court found that it was not the jurisdiction of the probate court to issue such a decree of freedom, and later the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed. Aramynta and her children were then probably sold. While slaves bringing freedom suits had to have the cooperation or patronage of at least some whites in order to successfully pursue their cases, the records do not clearly indicate how much power plaintiffs had in these dealings.
While the ultimate form of slave resistance—concerted armed rebellion—never took place in antebellum Arkansas, many slaves’ resistance became bolder and more successful during the Civil War, resulting in a black army of freedom fighters. An untold number of slaves found that flight became a more promising option than ever before due to the upheaval of war. Some slaves still under the yoke of bondage over the course of the war became more recalcitrant in their everyday resistance because they knew freedom was on the horizon. Slaves who knew the Union army was near took more chances to visit about the neighborhood, more readily spoke their minds, and took advantage of whites’ dependence on them for running errands or sharing news. This was not true for all bondspeople, however, as whites’ wartime fears created greater restrictions on their comings and goings in many places. Probably the most notable act of resistance during the war came when slaves fled their masters to join the Union army—to begin their lives as free people and fight for the cause of freedom.
For additional information:
Bolton, S. Charles. Fugitives from Injustice: Freedom-Seeking Slaves in Arkansas, 1800–1860: Historic Resource Study. Washington DC: National Park Service, 2006. Online at https://archives.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/2450/682/Underground%20Railroad%20Arkansas.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed October 1, 2020).
———. Fugitivism: Escaping Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1820–1860. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019.
Hahn, Stephen. A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Belknap Press, 2005.
Jones, Kelly Houston. “Black and White on Slavery’s Frontier: The Slave Experience in Arkansas.” In Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas: New Perspectives, ed. John Kirk. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
———. “The Peculiar Institution on the Periphery: Slavery in Arkansas.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2014.
———. “‘A Rough, Saucy Set of Hands to Manage’: Slave Resistance in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Spring 2012): 1–23.
Lankford, George E. “Austin’s Secret: An Arkansas Slave at the Supreme Court.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74 (Spring 2015): 56–73.
Morgans, James Patrick. The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier: Escapes from Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and the Territories of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Indian Nations, 1840–1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.
Kelly Houston Jones
Austin Peay State University
Last Updated: 10/01/2020