Runaway Slaves To Mexico and the Road to the Civil War

“The Coffle Gang” (Schomburg Center)

In May 2020, the New York Times published a story about the discovery of three skulls unearthed from a grave in Mexico City in 1992. Researchers confirmed their suspicions about the origins of the individuals: all three men were Africans, and likely arrived in Mexico through the transatlantic slave trade. Archaeologist Lourdes Márquez Morfín noted that the gunshot fragments found in one skeleton and the evidence of bone fractures, malnourishment, and disease in others indicated that the men likely experienced the traumas of enslavement during Spanish colonial rule in Mexico. This article served as a stark reminder that although the narrative of racial and chattel slavery predominately centers on the United States, the insidious tentacles of the institution had a hemispheric, and indeed, a global reach.

In South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, historian Alice L. Baumgartner presents a convincing case that Mexico shaped the freedom dreams of enslaved people in states like Texas and Louisiana while invoking nightmares of emancipation and slave revolt in the minds of white Southern enslavers. Baumgartner argues that the flight of self-liberated people who escaped to Mexico—a country that secured its independence from Spain in 1821—in addition to Mexico’s antislavery laws and the support of local Mexican people on the ground, influenced U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relations and inflamed the sectional crisis that eventually led to the American Civil War. To depict Mexico as a country who wore “the mantle of righteousness” on the slavery issue, Baumgartner shrewdly upends the chronology of Mexican abolition (118). Among historians, the commonly accepted year of Mexican abolition is 1829. Baumgartner, however, identifies 1837, only after the Texas Revolution, as the date of Mexican abolition. It was only after the loss of Tejas that Mexico could permanently abolish slavery and avoid compromises on the issue, like the exemption issued by President Guerrero in December 1829 to Anglo enslavers in Tejas, only three months after slavery was presumably abolished in Mexico.

The in-depth consideration of enslaved flight to Mexico contained in South to Freedom allows us to see the Civil War, an event commonly portrayed as “one of the most distinctively ‘American’ events in US history,” as “in part ignited by the enslaved people who escaped to the south and the laws by which they claimed their freedom in Mexico” (4). Debates over the expansion of slavery widened the rift between the North and South, fissures that were exacerbated by the enslaved people who sought freedom in Mexico and the “ordinary Mexicans” who used legal and physical force to protect Black freedom-seekers. Although Baumgartner acknowledges that the total number of escapees to Mexico was decidedly smaller than those who found freedom in Canada (Baumgartner estimates three to five thousand self-liberated persons went to Mexico, as opposed to the tens of thousands who left for Canada), each enslaved person who fled to Mexico made a crack in the supposedly impenetrable wall of U.S. slavery.

The Underground Railroad is a subject that even people who know little of the history of slavery in the United States cling to in an effort to find triumphal moments in the coercive and violent history of chattel slavery. Focus on the white abolitionists who allied with enslaved and free Black people minimizes the other subtle and more prevalent tactics enslaved people used to resist. One of the major contributions of the book’s twelve fast-paced, readable, and painstakingly researched chapters is Baumgartner’s reconceptualization of this subject. Baumgartner unequivocally states that “there was no official Underground Railroad to Mexico, only the occasional ally, no network, only a set of discrete, unconnected nodes,” and that most self-liberated people “escaped from the United States by their own ingenuity” (2). More broadly, Baumgartner’s accounts of how enslaved people escaped primarily on their own to Mexico, whether by sneaking on a ship, stealing horses, or simply walking south, adds to the latest work of historians like Eric Foner and Mekala Audain who emphasize the individual acts of resistance and the networks that Black people created among themselves to escape enslavement.

Baumgartner does a wonderful job of explaining how Mexico, despite its political instability (forty-nine presidents in just over thirty years as opposed to the U.S.’s ten) and numerous economic collapses, “gained moral power through the rejection of slavery” (8). In current textbooks and popular discourse in the United States, Mexico is consistently depicted as a country that the United States dominated during the antebellum period. In contrast, Baumgartner demonstrates how Mexico used legal and informal means to combat the expansionist, pro-slavery aims of its neighbor to the north. Mexican leaders passed acts that severely limited the introduction of chattel slavery into the province of Tejas, such as the state legislature of 1832 curtailing the length of “indentured contracts” that Anglo settlers had used as a subterfuge to introduce enslaved people, from ninety-nine years to ten (91). The Constitution of 1857 enshrined the “freedom principle” of guaranteeing all citizens equal rights before the law and other mandates like banning the extradition of fugitive slaves (216). Baumgartner also highlights several examples of Mexican citizens who used physical force and appealed to local authorities to protect enslaved people from white kidnappers from the Southern states because, she argues, these Mexican citizens held a commitment to antislavery principles and formerly enslaved people had truly become members of the community.

Despite these important contributions, there are a few shortcomings in the book, especially when it comes to highlighting the voices, lives, and agency of enslaved people. There are flashes of this illumination, especially in chapter six, which covers the Texas Revolution, and tells the battle of the Alamo not through the white “heroes” of popular imagination, like William Barrett Travis, but through the eyes of Travis’ slave Joe. But this reader was left wanting more. What kind of places did enslaved people leave? And how did that affect the plans enslaved people made and the treks they undertook? A more detailed look at the geography and the possible obstacles of trekking across hundreds of miles would provide insight into enslaved people’s ingenuity and the sacrifices they made to secure lasting freedom. In fact, sometimes it seems that in emphasizing how Mexico fashioned itself into an antislavery republic, the agency of Black people is lost. For example, though Baumgartner highlights Mexico’s political instability, she fails to consider if enslaved people’s knowledge of that instability (witnessing the loss of almost half of Mexico’s territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, for example) shaped their perception of Mexico’s ability to offer them lasting protection. Could a country that failed first to defend its territory against Texas separatists and again against the United States offer meaningful protection for the enslaved?

In places, Baumgartner understates enslaved people’s ability to affect their own freedom and overstates Mexico’s role in providing the enslaved with the tools necessary for their freedom. Baumgartner writes “the experience that they gained fighting hostile Indians prepared them to take up arms against the kidnappers who sought to return them to the United States” (174). Besides the problematic language of “hostile Indians,” (unfortunately, not the only use of questionable language as Baumgartner also habitually refers to white enslavers by the painfully dated term “masters”) this conclusion also implies that Black people did not know how to protect themselves from kidnappers until Mexico gave them military opportunities. As the work of scholars like Kelly Carter Jackson have shown, Black people in America, whether free or enslaved, have always known how to defend themselves and often used force, sometimes violently, to gain freedom.

The final chapter contains another problematic section concerning gender and free labor after the Civil War . Baumgartner refers to the claim of Burrill Daniels, who demanded compensation before the U.S. Mexico Claims Commission for being enslaved by a Confederate named Joel Bryant, who brought him and his family to Mexico. Baumgartner states that the wife, Mariana, “found liberation in wages” because “she was paid for performing domestic chores, the same kind of work that the wives of white men continued to do across the United States without any form of compensation” (250). This statement ignores the complex experiences of Black women and their labor after the Civil War, highlighted in the work of scholars like Tera Hunter and Jacqueline Jones. Baumgartner’s book would benefit from a deeper, nuanced explanation that demonstrates the complexity of post-emancipation life and the challenges that formerly enslaved people faced, including in places like Mexico, where they could supposedly enjoy their freedom.

Overall, South to Freedom is a valuable contribution. It provides us with a fuller understanding of slave flight in this area and offers much needed insight on how enslaved peoples’ escape to Mexico shaped the multiple meanings of freedom for the enslaved. Most importantly, it suggests a revised narrative of the significance of the flight of enslaved people to Mexico in shaping the political events leading up to the Civil War. Where it could use improvement is in centering the lives of enslaved people. As Baumgartner poignantly writes in the Epilogue, “their work—our work—is not over.”

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Nakia D. Parker

Nakia D. Parker is a College of Social Science Dean’s Research Associate at Michigan State University. Parker is a historian of nineteenth-century U.S. slavery, African American, and American Indian history. She is currently working on her book manuscript, Trails of Tears and Freedom: Black Life in Indian Slave Country, 1830-1866 which examines the lives of enslaved and self-liberated individuals of African and Afro-Native descent in Choctaw and Chickasaw communities in nineteenth-century Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Follow her on twitter @nikkidelynn.