Punitive Landscape: Geographies of Escape and Concealment

featured image: Thomas Waterman Wood (1823–1903), artist. Painting. Sunday Morning.. 1877. Artstor, library-artstor-org.libproxy.uncg.edu/asset/IBWA_DB_10313296710

12 minute read

            The existence of enslaved freedom seekers during the antebellum era was in and of itself a moral critique of the institution of slavery in the United States. Enslaved people fled bondage for a number of reasons: to escape violent exploitation, to find family members who’d been sold off, to avoid sale, or to protest barbaric working conditions through absenting themselves. Thousands of black people forced into bondage cast off the shackles of enslavement and made it to freedom during the antebellum period sparking debates about the presence of enslaved fugitives in states and territories as the nation expanded.

As early as 1820, the unfolding sectional crisis began arguably with the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri into the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. More clashes and concessions over the expansion of slavery  would follow eventually resulting in full fledge war. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 took the plight of the enslaved runaway to the halls of Congress: the law required the United States government to actively assist slaveholders in recapturing freedom seekers. Under the United States Constitution, slaveholders had the right to reclaim enslaved people who ran away to free states.

Ann Clarke was one of the thousands of fugitives fleeing bondage from Kansas Territory in 1857. As an enslaved woman Clarke’s range of mobility was limited—often enslaved women labored as domestic servants in settler households or as farm hands or both. Because enslaved people were property in the eyes of the law, they could not move without permission from enslavers. Clarke’s journey across Kansas Territory in search of freedom would be dangerous, but nonetheless a gamble well worth the risk.

This essay assesses relevant sources in the account of Ann Clarke’s escape from slavery with a view to examining how the political landscape of the Kansas Territory impeded or facilitated her escape. In identifying the zones of containment, concealment, and wayfinding this paper will illuminate how enslaved freedom seekers and their abolitionist allies circumvented the punitive landscape of Kansas Territory. Examining the region in this way reveals the matrix of risk associated with enslaved fugitivity along the Great Plains. It will be argued that for enslaved people fleeing bondage on the plains, that in Ann Clarke’s case, landscape did not provide enough natural vegetation cover to allow opportunities for lone refuge and reconnaissance. This meant that reliance on abolitionist allies was key in the early process for a successful escape. In contrast to some southeastern United States locales where hinterland areas as well as urban centers were abundant, the Lecompton area did not offer natural sites where enslaved freedom seekers could conceal themselves.

Though escaping slavery was arduous in any location, places where there were wilderness areas with sufficient vegetation cover and access to water were useful as reconnaissance sites. The enslaved person could subsist for some time without the aid of an ally. In some places, because of the extended family networks of enslaved people dispersed within one region there were opportunities for aid when wilderness food sources were scant. In the northeast section of  Kansas Territory where the enslaved population itself was not high, and the kinship networks more far-flung. enslaved fugitives had to rely on abolitionist networks very early on in their journeys. For enslaved people escaping locales that were flat and treeless, concealment was difficult. The reappropriation of wilderness spaces for concealment simply were out of reach. When coupled with the existence of slave-hunting bands with thorough knowledge of the landscape, the success of an escape attempt dwindled substantially. While in flight enslaved people had to watch out for slave hunters as well as wild animals by moving cautiously through the wilderness. Enslaved people had to know when to be still, when to watch, listen and feel. Their movements meant advancement in distance, but also noise which could cause alarm to nearby birds and other animals. The efforts to move through punitive landscapes in search of freedom were courageous, but deadly.  Ann Clarke’s escape from slavery in Lecompton, Kansas demonstrates the importance of enslaved freedom seekers’ allying with abolitionist allies very early on to successfully make their flight out of bondage on to freedom.

The Escape

            Ann Clarke made her escape from Lecompton after being recaptured by a band of slave hunters during her initial attempt. According to John Armstrong’s memoir, Clarke was brought back to Lecompton and some women were supposed to watch her until Clarke’s slaveholder came to pay the reward for finding her. The band of slave hunters had begun drinking and were in a “frolic” as Ann was guarded. At the first moment the women watching her were distracted, Anne got away and hid in a brushy nearby ravine. Clarke found the thickest part of the ravine and hid there. The band of men had come very close to where she was hiding, but miraculously did not discover her. By daybreak, Clarke followed the ravine southeast until she came out onto the top of a hill on the edge of the prairie. She was unsure where she was. Clarke spotted a man coming along the road and observed that he was holding a book. The book, in her mind, symbolized a “free-state man” and she approached him hoping that he was an ally. It was a safe bet as the man turned out to be worthy of her trust: Dr. Barker of Douglas County, Kansas. Barker knew George Clarke, Anne’s enslaver, yet despite this he agreed to help her get to freedom. From there Clarke was directed to walk further south where he would meet her at his house. Dr. Barker kept Ann at his house for two days and then concealed her on his wagon with several comforters and transported her to Lawrence where the person in Lawrence then brought Clarke to John Armstrong in Topeka at the home of Mrs. Scales. Clarke remained there for six weeks concealed in a sugar hogshead by night. By day Clarke did chores in the house. Armstrong acquired a closed carriage to transport Clarke stopping in Rochester and then Holton. They came up through Civil Bend, Iowa to meet a Dr. Blanchard. From there Clarke went to Chicago where she stayed in touch with Armstrong through letters. Ann Clarke’s daughter was held in bondage in Missouri and Clarke offered Armstrong $500.00 to get her and bring her to Chicago to reunite their family. [1]

Site of Bondage: Lecompton, Kansas Territory

            Lecompton is the place where slaveholder George Clarke held Ann in bondage. Founded in 1854, Lecompton was platted on the south bank of the Kansas River on a bluff. Its name comes from a town father, Samuel D. Lecompte who was the chief justice of the territorial supreme court. Lecompton was a bastion of proslavery sentiment and the official capital of Kansas Territory from 1855 to 1861.[2]

A convention was held in 1857, the same year that Ann Clarke escaped, where delegates drafted the Lecompton Constitution. “The proslavery Kansas territorial government enacted legislation saying any person who spoke, wrote or printed materials for the purpose of assisting escaped slaves would be found guilty of a felony and sentenced to death. Additionally, those who helped slaves escape their masters would be committing grand larceny and face death or imprisonment with hard labor.”[3]

This document designated Kansas as a slave territory,  but was later rejected when the growing antislavery contingent within the territorial legislature gained control and struck down much of the proslavery laws in the Lecompton Constitution. The capital then moved to Topeka, Kansas and in 1861 Kansas was admitted into the union as a free state.[4]

In many ways Ann Clarke’s escape and the associated opposing factions with one side trying to keep her enslaved and another victoriously assisting in her flight to freedom represented the contested political realities of Kansas Territory.

Figure 1 Map of Eastern Kansas Zoomed in[5]

The map above contains the traces of Kansas Territory’s political conflict which shaped Ann Clarke’s struggle for freedom. This “township” map was published in 1856 and represents a specific genre of mapmaking designed to show land surveys with the intent of promoting lands sales for prospective settlers. Such maps were financed by commercial firms. The existence of these firms reflected the unfolding expansion of the American frontier.

But “Map of Eastern Kansas” locates more than townships. It shows a number of important locales that represent the mapmaker’s interpretation of Kansas Territory from the point of view of a free-state advocate. One illustration depicts the ruins of Lawrence’s Eldridge Hotel, a refuge for free-state denizens.  Another curious location referenced is labeled “Shannon’s Posse, December 10, 1855,” and it refers to Wilson Shannon’s attempts to intervene in the Wakarusa War, one of the first skirmishes between the proslavery and free-state factions. Shannon was second territorial governor of Kansas and supported proslavery settlement.[6]     

Whitman, E. (1856). Map Of Eastern Kansas. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~2305~190068:Map-Of-Eastern-Kansas-?title=Search+Results%3A+List_No+equal+to+%273069.001%27

Figure 2 Map of Eastern Kansas Full Extent

During the 1850’s settlement in eastern Kansas was marked by armed conflict and intense rivalry emerged between free state and proslavery groups. The violence lasted from1854-1861 earning the territory the well-known appellation of “Bleeding Kansas.” A large portion of proslavery settlers came from Missouri, a slave state, while settlers from the New England Emigrant Aid Company promoted free-state settlement.[7]


            In pointing out the modes undertaken and sites of concealment for Ann Clarke’s escape we refer to a myriad of locations and methods. It began with the brushy ravine that was dense enough to shield her from the band of slave hunters, then to a brief and tenuous two day stay at the home of Dr. Barker who was a neighbor to Ann’s enslaver George Clarke. An abolitionist ally driving a covered wagon got her to Lawrence, then to Topeka to the Scales household. The six weeks stay at the Scales house was where she completed domestic duties by day and hid in a sugar hogshead by night. Finally, a long journey in another covered wagon driven by abolitionist John Armstrong transported her to freedom in Chicago, Illinois.

            For black people living in Kansas Territory, they were assumed to be enslaved. The Lecompton Constitution of 1857 stipulated that “free negroes shall not be permitted to live in this State under any circumstances.”[8] This hostility to the presence of black people in Kansas Territory illuminates the hypervisible nature they possessed when seen by white proslavery onlookers. Concealment would require the help of abolitionist allies who had access to safehouses and covered wagons to shield enslaved fugitives from view. The agential capacity for enslaved freedom seekers in Kansas Territory was severely limited by the lack of mobility permitted to slaves in proslavery locales like Lecompton as well as by the very hypervisibility of their bodies in these places. John Armstrong describes one particularly harrowing moment while transporting Ann along the Jim Lane road where the wagon got stuck in a creek. The women were temporarily exposed as he struggled to dislodge the wagon from the muck. The difficulty for wagons to safely cross a creek reflects how the shape of the land in Kansas Territory also affected the successful passage of enslaved freedom seekers and their abolitionist allies.

An Endless Succession of (Free-soil) Rolls: Along the Kansas Territory Prairies

Hale, Edward Everett. Kanzas and Nebraska : The History, Geographical and Physical Characteristics, and Political Position of Those Territories, an Account of the Emigrant Aid Companies, and Directions to Emigrants. Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive. Part 2: Slave Trade in the Atlantic World.. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1854. 3

I should never have undertaken this work, however, but from a wish to assist in the great enterprise of settling Kanzas at once—an enterprise which appears to me to open a nobler field for effort from any public understanding which has called upon our energies for many years.”[9]

The above map and quote come from Edward Hale’s book, “Kanzas and Nebraska : The History, Geographical and Physical Characteristics, and Political Position of Those Territories, an Account of the Emigrant Aid Companies, and Directions to Emigrants.” As evidenced by the impassioned manner in explaining the motivation for writing, Hale’s tone reflects a solid intention to entice newcomers to Kansas Territory. The Emigrant Aid Company sponsored the book and was heavily invested in supplying as many free-state settlers to Kansas as possible.

The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed territories to determine whether an area would become slave or free and free soil advocates were determined that the best way to ensure that Kansas would be designated free would be to fill it with inhabitants with free-state sensibilities.

Eli Thayer of Massachusetts devised a plan to promote antislavery sentiment in Kansas. Thirty days before the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, Thayer and other New England businessmen of note incorporated the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.[10]

The New England Emigrant Aid Company’s aspirations were driven by profit as well as political principles. It created an opportunity for low-cost transportation for emigrants as well as the building of mills, and temporary shelter for settlers when they reached Kansas Territory.[11] The company ran a newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, for the purpose of promoting wholesome behavior and morals which they hoped to spread throughout the territory.[12]  The New England Emigrant Aid Company helped to found the cities of Lawrence, Manhattan, and Osawatomie.[13]

            One becomes well acquainted with the Kansas landscape through Hale’s prodigious effort at description.

Hale informs:

          “The prairie seems to be an endless succession of rolls, with a smooth, green surface, dotted all over with most beautiful flowers. The soil is of the most rich and fertile character with no waste land. The feelings that come over a person as he first views this immense ocean of land, are indescribable. As far as the eye can reach, he sees nothing but a beautiful green carpet, save here and there perhaps a cluster of trees; he hears nothing but the feathered songsters of the air, and feels nothing but a solemn awe in view of this infinite display of creative power.”[14]

Hale crafts a sublime scene for the reader here. The “endless succession of rolls” and “smooth, green surface” does not provide much vegetation cover for an enslaved freedom seeker on the run. In fact, the hilly elevation would diminish the fugitive’s energy expenditures as the need to climb again and again would be exhausting. Ann Clarke’s experience in the brushy ravine was her saving grace. Had the grounds been only an flat and vast “ocean of green” there would have been nowhere for her to conceal herself.

Assailed at all Sides: Free State Emigrants Meet Violence and Rebuke

            As enslaved freedom seekers sought to imagine pathways out of bondage for themselves, New England free-state emigrants were met with violence and hostility. Because of the contested political ideologies of Kansas Territory settlers, New England emigrants would find out early on that their new home was a powder keg of unrest.

 “Our company has been assailed at all sides. High officials of the National Government had denounced our organization. The President [Franklin Pierce] himself had lent his voice to the abuse of the Company, and to a repetition of the stale and oft-refuted slanders against it. A Committee of the Senate of the United States, either from intentional misrepresentation, or at least with unpardonable ignorance of its plan and purposes, had devoted the larger part of an elaborate report to a violent philippic against this Company, accusing us of being ‘the cause of all the troubles in Kanzas.’ There were not wanting those even in our own community who looked coldly upon us, as guilty of ‘unwarrantable interferences’ in the affairs of Kanzas.[15]

The author is describing an extremely hostile reception to the free-state emigrants to Kansas territories that suggest that the prejudices against them extended all the way to the halls of Congress. It is important to note this dimension of political instability that existed from the outset. The Lecompton Constitution of 1857 made clear that free black people were not permitted in Kansas Territory because of the antebellum period-specific prejudice toward African Americans, and the hostility to free state emigrants on their arrival in 1855 shows that the only allies that the enslaved might fame were hated almost as much they were.

The author informs:

“In the sad winter of 1855 the settlers were obliged to defend themselves against marauders of every grade, there were almost without weapons with which do so. The destruction of our hotel, and of the house of our agent in Lawrence, showed to the country that the Emigrant Aid Company was the especial object of the indignation of the Government. The interest which we could not ourselves excite in our own plans was aroused by the quick jealousy of the Administration and its crusade against us…Bands of armed men had invaded the Territory for the avowed purpose of ‘wiping out’ every Free-State settlement. They had obtained entry into Lawrence by treachery and deceit, sacked the town, seized the printing-press, and destroyed our new Free-State Hotel by cannon and fire.”[16]

In the above account, it is revealed how free states emigrants to Kansas Territory had to evolve to their new social landscape. For them, the opportunity to settle the prairies was overshadowed by the political instability of the region. The heated confrontations wrought by the uncertainty of the Kansas-Nebraska Act pitted settler against settler and what ensued was the formation of a political identity bound up with investments in either Free Soiler reform or the slave power.

Enslaved freedom seekers had their own destiny’s to shape. It was crystal clear to Ann Clarke who she needed to align herself with in order to begin her journey to freedom. Her enslaver, George Clarke, had come from Missouri and it was there where she had a daughter still held in bondage. For Clarke, hiding in the brushy ravine while eluding her captors the book that a stranger carried signaled the arrival of a friend. She gambled wisely and would go on to freedom and through her added strivings in Chicago raised $500.00 to secure the freedom and safe passage of her daughter.

            Free-state abolitionists were radicalized by the hostile political terrain of Kansas Territory. The attacks on their person and property forced them to take on dimensions of a reform minded insurgency.

One year after proslavery mobs burned the free-state enclave of Lawrence, Kansas, radical abolitionist John Brown along with five of his sons, and three other comrades murdered five proslavery men along the banks of Pottawatomie Creek, near present-day Lane, Kansas.[17] Lecompton is about 60 miles north of Lane and it is no doubt that the news of the Pottawatomie massacre would galvanize Free Soilers in their plight to make Kansas a free state. For enslaved freedom seekers like Ann Clarke it drove home who she would need to aid her in her journey across a punitive landscape to freedom.

[1] John Armstrong. Reminiscences of Slave Days in Kansas, 1895, 1-3.https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/display.php?item_id=3475&f=k302227

[2] “Lecompton Capital of Kansas.” Accessed November 22, 2020. https://www.lecomptonkansas.com/.

[3] “Secret Network in Kansas Helped Blacks Escape Slavery,” September 18, 2015. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/sep/18/secret-network-in-kansas-helped-blacks-escape-slav/.

[4] Lecompton, Kansas. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Lecompton,_Kansas

[5] Whitman, E. (1856). Map Of Eastern Kansas. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~2305~190068:Map-Of-Eastern-Kansas-?title=Search+Results%3A+List_No+equal+to+%273069.001%27

[6] Kansas Historical Society. Wilson Shannon. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/wilson-shannon/17753

[7] Newberry Library.Eastern Kansas and Indian Lands, 1856. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://mappingmovement.newberry.org/selection/eastern-kansas-and-indian-lands-1856

[8] Kansas Memory. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/207409

[9] Hale, Edward Everett. Kanzas and Nebraska : The History, Geographical and Physical Characteristics, and Political Position of Those Territories, an Account of the Emigrant Aid Companies, and Directions to Emigrants. Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive. Part 2: Slave Trade in the Atlantic World.. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1854. 3

[10] “New England Emigrant Aid Company Sign,” Kansas Historical Society, accessed November 22, 2020, https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/new-england-emigrant-aid-company-sign/10231.1.

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

[13] Emigrant Aid Societies. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://kshs.org/kansapedia/emigrant-aid-societies/16697

[14] Hale, Edward Everett. Kanzas and Nebraska : The History, Geographical and Physical Characteristics, and Political Position of Those Territories, an Account of the Emigrant Aid Companies, and Directions to Emigrants. Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive. Part 2: Slave Trade in the Atlantic World.. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1854. 123.

[15] New England Emigrant Aid Company. History of the New-England Emigrant Aid Company : With a Report on Its Future Operations. Open Collections Program at Harvard University, Emigration and Immigration. Boston: Press of J. Wilson and Son, 1862 14-15.

[16] Ibid,14-15.

[17] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: the Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).38-40.

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