In early summer 1804, James Boyd left John Weidman’s iron forge in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Boyd had been gone for two weeks before Weidman decided to place an advertisement in the local paper, offering forty dollars to anyone who could help capture his “negro man, named JIM (alias James Boyd;).” It seems two weeks was time enough to convince Weidman that Boyd was not coming back.
James Boyd was a skilled worker and a snappy dresser. He could play the violin; understood at least three different industries, iron, farming, and sailing; and, reading against Weidman’s advertisement, appears to have been a congenial drinking companion. He wore an “old beaver hat,” fashionable but secondhand, and kept his face clean-shaven. The fact that Weidman did not include Boyd’s age suggests that he either purchased him from a previous owner or was keeping him in bondage illegally. He would have included it had he known it, and he would have known it had he registered Boyd’s date of birth at the county courthouse as required by Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law.
Weidman worried that Boyd might successfully pass as a free man, suggesting that the man possessed the knowledge to navigate the Pennsylvania countryside and negotiate with white employers. In a world where black men were still assumed to be slaves, this was no small feat. Although state law compelled slaveholders to register those they kept in bondage, a requirement which in theory supposed all black Pennsylvanians free unless someone could prove otherwise, the 1793 federal fugitive slave law cast doubt on the legal status of all unfamiliar black people in white communities. Other northern states were even more hostile. In 1821, the New Jersey Supreme Court went so far as to rule that all black men were “prima facie slaves” before the law and were to be “dealt with as such.”
The advertisement that Weidman took out against Boyd is unique for the amount of information it offers about work. James Boyd “had been employed to drive team and stock coals, at the forge, and understands all kind of farming work.” These tasks would have included grooming horses, repairing wagons, felling trees, chopping logs, manning fires, and lifting iron—in addition to everything that constituted “farming work.” Boyd’s skillset rendered his movements predictable in Weidman’s eyes. With three years’ experience aboard a ship and even more as a teamster, Boyd seemed likely either to head to a port city or to seek an amenable iron works “to hire as a carte[r],” hauling iron between refineries as well as to market.
John Weidman’s ownership of James Boyd’s mobility is part of what made the enslaved man so valuable in Pennsylvania at the turn of the nineteenth century. When Boyd seized that mobility for himself, he became a kind of migrant worker. He may not have lived in one country and worked in another, but his legal status as a fugitive from slavery compelled him to travel dangerous routes in order to find precarious employment. And the life of a fugitive slave was certainly precarious. As Weidman’s advertisement made clear—“All captains or masters of vessels are forbid from employing or carrying off the said negro”—it would have been risky to the point of foolishness for Boyd to remain in any one place for too long.
The Trump administration’s immigration policies have invited numerous comparisons to nineteenth-century regulations of enslaved persons. Journalists have criticized the reinvigorated weaponization of family separation and described similarities between sanctuary cities and antebellum northern towns that refused to cooperate with fugitive slave renditions. These comparisons will continue so long as the state retains the power to circumscribe a person’s mobility and employment opportunities through the policing of their legal status.
Examining how the difficulties experienced by contemporary migrant workers resemble those faced by enslaved men and women in the antebellum United States reminds us that no single era has a monopoly on cruelty. Inverting the comparison, however—asking not how migrant workers resemble the enslaved but rather how the enslaved resembled migrant workers—can teach us something about the past.
Thinking about enslaved men and women as migrants—as individuals whose labor, mobility, and legal status were all intertwined—invites us to shift our analysis away from the cotton plantation. More pressingly, if forces us to confront forms of compulsion other than the whip. The decision to walk off the plantation or out of the household was rarely made lightly. Material questions—From where will I get my next meal? Who will risk employing me if I succeed?—weighed heavily.
Enslaved domestic workers often accompanied their owners on lengthy trips, laboring as nurses, cooks, and body servants. The practice was so common that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice used it as an example for why the state could not strengthen its free soil laws in 1821, reasoning that barring southerners and their slaves from the popular vacation destinations of York and Bedford Springs would amount to a “denial of the rights of hospitality.” This hospitality was not intended for the fugitive migrant worker, but rather the slaveholding sojourner.
Enslaved men in particular tended to spend significant parts of their working lives in motion. They could be hired out as seasonal laborers, either in the city or in the countryside, and were generally responsible for transporting agricultural products. Susan O’Donovan, a historian whose scholarship examines slave mobility, noted in her keynote address at the 2018 Southern Labor Studies Association conference that enslaved teamsters “walked, trotted, floated, and rowed.” She pointed out that no goods made it from plantation to market without spending some time on a black man’s cart. “Who needs a stamp when you have a slave?” O’Donovan asked a rapt audience.
Black teamsters were a common fixture of the South Central Pennsylvania landscape. Men like Hercules, “Black Dick,” and “John Hunter’s Waggoner” all delivered valuable supplies—including wheat, oats, and timber—to the military barracks in Carlisle during the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Other teamsters appear in the barracks ledgers simply as “Negro.” “Black James,” whom Dickinson College benefactor John Holmes held in bondage, drove the two men to Baltimore and back on a fundraising trip in 1799. When John Hunter emancipated his wagoner in 1803, he placed an ad in the local paper cautioning his neighbors against conducting any business with Tom “on his late master’s account.” Hunter did not need to include more descriptive information because Tom, whose mobility had defined his enslavement, was well known in the community.
Historian Joseph P. Reidy has identified some of the privileges and drawbacks that accompanied the work that teamsters performed. While limited freedom of movement and the ability to engage in petty trade allowed these men to amass small savings and better positioned them to risk escape should they choose, it also took them away from their families and made them vulnerable to harassment by white patrolmen. For the enslaved community, every privilege had its price. What was the psychological toll of suffering enslavement while knowing every turn of a country road?
It was slavery’s mobility that made black families so valuable to white employers. Enslaved black mobility, however, posed a serious threat to an emerging capitalist social order rooted in white supremacy. John Montgomery, an aging lawyer and Dickinson College treasurer, threatened to prosecute any person who harbored or employed his “negro woman Patience.” A Maryland man made a similar threat that any Pennsylvanian who employed Peter Porter, a fugitive from slavery, did so “at their peril.” When John Posey made the journey from Georgetown to Chambersburg in 1818 in an “attempt to get employment as a free man,” his owner Lewis Smith offered $100 for his capture and return.
Smith fretted that Posey had “by some means procured a pass.” If Posey had managed to obtain a pass or forge freedom papers, it would have allowed him to find employment in spite of his legal status as a fugitive from slavery. More than two hundred years later, Pennsylvania farmers are grappling with similar concerns about the legal status of the workers they employ. Since apple farmers cannot find enough white Americans to pick their fruit, they are increasingly turning to “guest workers”—Latinx migrants with H-2A visas who can enter and exit the country legally as seasonal laborers. The demand for agricultural workers in the Cumberland Valley is substantial, and farmers have neither the resources nor desire to confirm that all the men they hire have their papers in order. However, this strategy of hiring precarious workers also keeps wages low and agriculture profitable. Consequently, Latinx migrant workers, who contribute significantly to South Central Pennsylvania orchard communities, continue to face racist stigma some two thousand miles north of the southern border. The most marginalized communities have always been blamed for depressing wages and taking “white” jobs.
There is a long history of white Americans exploiting the legal status of Black and Brown workers in order to exercise control over their labor and enhance their profits. The United States professes to believe that freedom of mobility is a cornerstone of liberal personhood; it should give us pause that employers continue to have the power to coerce undocumented workers.
As with so many other stories that are accessible mainly through runaway advertisements, it is not clear what happened to James Boyd. Perhaps he made it to Philadelphia and found work on the docks. Or maybe he did secure employment as a teamster in the iron industry. Whatever his occupational fate, there is at least reason to hope that Boyd succeeded in taking his freedom. Federal census workers had recorded two slaves living with John Weidman in 1800. When they returned ten years later, the marshals left that column blank. At the very least, Boyd was free from bondage at Union Forge.