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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Five (continued)
Dogs, War, and Ghosts


Unlike John Collins’ hapless slave mother, who braved panthers, poisonous snakes and other “savage beasts of prey” in the lines that opened this chapter, most fugitive slaves crossing into Pennsylvania were able to avoid life-threatening encounters with dangerous wild animals. Freedom seekers from states further south documented the most threatening experiences, generally with wolves. Many of the slavery narratives that proliferated in the middle of the nineteenth century, often sold to raise money for abolitionist causes, included ominous references to the distant howling of wolves. Some fugitives recorded frightening close encounters and, after a desperate appeal to God, providential escapes. At least one popular narrative included a desperate battle against a pack of the fearsome beasts. The Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, published in New York in 1850, included a spectacular battle of man against beast that must have thrilled Victorian readers.

After escaping from a Louisiana cotton plantation with his wife, Malinda, and small daughter, Bibb and his family took refuge for the night on a small island in the Red River. The weary refugees promptly fell asleep, but all was not well. Bibb wrote:

About the dead hour of the night I was aroused by the awful howling of a gang of blood-thirsty wolves, which had found us out and surrounded us as their prey, there in the dark wilderness many miles from any house or settlement. My dear little child was so dreadfully alarmed that she screamed loudly with fear—my wife trembling like a leaf on a tree, at the thought of being devoured there in the wilderness by ferocious wolves. The wolves kept howling, and were near enough for us to see their glaring eyes, and hear their chattering teeth. I then thought that the hour of death for us was at hand.

Bibb recalled looking at his terrified family, knowing that they were counting on him for protection, but realizing, with horror, that he could offer little in the way of defense against such a fierce and determined foe. As the wolves increased in numbers and circled ever closer, he prayed. At the same time, thoughts of his family’s life in bondage flashed through his mind in lightning succession. He thought of his master’s “hand-cuffs, of his whips, of his chains, of his stocks, of his thumb-screws, of his slave driver and overseer, and of his religion; I also thought of his opposition to prayer meetings, and of his five hundred lashes promised me for attending a prayer meeting. I thought of God, I thought of the devil, I thought of hell; and I thought of heaven.” And with that, Henry Bibb and his family made their stand against the circling wolves. He picked up a Bowie knife, stolen from his master, and his wife stood with a club in one hand while she held firmly to their daughter with the other. Waving the large knife and shouting at the top of his lungs, he rushed at the wolves, determined to die protecting his family. The sudden battle cry and attack, coupled with his wife’s shouts and their daughter’s terrified screams startled the wolves. Bibb saw them scatter and retreat in confusion, and after a short while, they skulked away to find easier prey.24

Such stuff makes for heart stopping stories. As anti-slavery literature goes, the book was very successful because of such vivid and horrifying imagery, and Bibb’s published narrative included woodcut illustrations of the scene to heighten that appeal. The imagery of hungry wolves surrounding a small family in the wilderness, far from help, tapped certain deep subconscious fears in readers. Despite its use by the abolitionist press for emotional weight, the experiences of Henry Bibb and his family that night were real. But wolves were not the only dangerous animal that fleeing fugitives had to face. There was a far more common and equally dangerous one that shows up in most fugitive slave narratives: tracking dogs.

Dogs have played a valuable role on American farms for centuries. Among other duties, they work as guards against predatory animals that threatened livestock, as sentinels to warn of the approach of strangers, to flush, track or retrieve game on the hunt, and as companions. They were frequently used to control farm animals, and occasionally their tracking abilities were used to hunt down, but not harm, wayward livestock.

Farm workers, including slaves, often forged a close relationship with those dogs that aided them in their daily chores, and were frequently in charge of caring for, and even training, these animals. In some instances, that relationship proved to be an advantage. In addition to finding lost cattle or sheep, farm dogs were also used to track runaway slaves, particularly if the trail was still fresh. Runaway slaves universally feared the sound of approaching dogs, as they knew they could not outrun them or easily throw them off the scent. In most cases, the tracking animals ultimately cornered or trapped their prey. Some dogs would also attack, if the slaveholder did not immediately catch up to them and call them off. It was at this point that slaves who had been charged with feeding or caring for the dogs found their advantage, as the animals would not attack them as they would a stranger. This sometimes bought enough time for escape.

North Carolina fugitive Harry Grimes, in telling his story to William Still after reaching safety with the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia, told how his master had “set his dogs” on him as he ran into the woods. Grimes made good his escape, though, because of his relationship with the man’s dogs, recalling “but as I had been in the habit of making much of them, feeding them, &c., they would not follow me, and I kept on straight to the woods. My master and the overseer cotched [caught] the horses and tried to run me down, but as the dogs would not follow me they couldn't make nothing of it.” 25

In a similar manner, South Carolina slave John Andrew Jackson, writing of his escape, used his relationship with familiar dogs to get away. His master had set five farm dogs on him with the words “Suboy! Suboy! Catch him!” Jackson waited until the dogs came to him, then, as he told it “When the dogs came level with me, I clapped my hands also, and said, ‘Suboy! suboy! catch him!’ as if both my master and I were in chase of a fox or hare ahead of us, and, upon that, the dogs went before me and were soon out of sight, and so I got away.” 26

Some fugitives found other ways to confuse the tracking dogs, or to throw them off the trail. Flowing water, they knew, carried their scents away. Merely crossing a stream would not be effective, as hounds would track back and forth for many yards on either side of a stream to pick up a lost scent. Fugitives knew they had to travel in the middle of a flowing stream, the deeper and swifter the better, for as long as possible, to better their chances of throwing off pursuit. Slave Solomon Northup escaped from a Louisiana plantation, and in his 1853 narrative described the tactic:

Hope revived a little as I reached the water. If it were only deeper, they might loose the scent, and thus disconcerted, afford me the opportunity of evading them. Luckily, it grew deeper the farther I proceeded – now over my ankles – now half-way to my knees – now sinking a moment to my waist, and then emerging presently into more shallow places. The dogs had not gained upon me since I struck the water. Evidently they were confused. Now their savage intonations grew more and more distant, assuring me that I was leaving them. Finally I stopped to listen, but the long howl came booming on the air again, telling me I was not yet safe. From bog to bog, where I had stepped, they could still keep upon the track, though impeded by the water. At length, to my great joy, I came to a wide bayou, and plunging in, had soon stemmed its sluggish current to the other side. There, certainly, the dogs would be confounded – the current carrying down the stream all traces of that slight, mysterious scent, which enables the quick-smelling hound to follow in the track of the fugitive.

At least one fleeing slave used trickery of another kind to throw a pursuing dog off of his track. During his escape in the hills of Tennessee in 1845, Peter Smith awoke on one morning several days into his escape to find some men and a dog approaching. Smith ran, with a bullet flying by him as he dashed up the mountain. The dog would not be shaken off, and “pursued him very closely, for a short distance, on the side of the mountain.” Smith rolled a rock down the side of the mountain and the dog chased it, thinking it was his quarry. This allowed him enough time to get away and that particular dog did not bother him anymore, although he later had to cross a river three times in order to evade a persistent bloodhound. 27

Sometimes, being familiar with the dogs was not enough to survive. Jacob D. Green, a Maryland runaway, wrote of his experiences in 1839 as he traveled toward Chester, Pennsylvania. Not long after he passed through Wilmington, Delaware, he stopped to ask for help at a secluded farmhouse. Instead of help, he found trickery, as the women in the house attempted to delay him while one went to alert the men. He escaped and traveled a few more miles before stopping to rest in a thick wooded area and discovered another escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, named Geordie. Unfortunately, their reunion was interrupted by pursuers, who were probably put back on Green’s track by the farmers he had encountered earlier. Green was telling Geordie:

How unwise it was to remain so long in one place, when we were suddenly aroused by the well-known sounds of the hounds. In my fear and surprise I was attempting for a tree, but was unable to mount before they were upon me. In this emergency I called out the name of one of the dogs, who was more familiar with me than the others, called Fly, and hit my knee to attract her attention and it had the desired effect. She came fondling towards me, accompanied by another called Jovial. I pulled out my knife and cut the throat of Fly, upon which Jovial made an attempt to lay hold of me and I caught him by the throat, which caused me to lose my knife, but I held him fast by the windpipe, forcing my thumbs with as much force as possible, and anxiously wishing for my knife to be in hands. I made a powerful effort to fling him as far away as possible, and regained my knife; but when I had thrown him there he lay, throttled to death. Not so, Fly, who weltered in blood, and rolled about howling terribly, but not killed. The other two hounds caught Geordie, and killed him. After this terrible escape I went to a barn.28

In the desperate struggle, Green had found in necessary to fight the hounds, even after tricking one of them. Familiarity with farm dogs was not the only tool used by fugitive slaves to combat their pursuit. It was far more advantageous if they could be prevented from successfully catching the scent in the first place. Throwing them off by walking through swiftly flowing or deep water was one way. Another method was to disguise your scent with other, stronger scents. Just after he left the inhospitable farmhouse, Green stopped in the barnyard long enough to rub his feet in cow dung, to throw off the tracking dogs.29 Although this tactic may not have worked well for Jacob Green, as the hounds caught up with him and the unfortunate Geordie anyway, it was an often used trick. One spirited fugitive named Bill Paul, who was particularly adept at escapes, arrived in Philadelphia in 1855, where he shared much of his story and a few of his tricks with William Still. To foil dogs, Paul “always carried a liquid, which he had prepared, to prevent hounds from scenting him, which he said had never failed. As soon as the hounds came to the place where he had rubbed his legs and feet with said liquid, they could follow him no further, but howled and turned immediately.”30

Another slave who had a reputation for tricking the dogs was a man in Louisiana named Sam Wilson. Sam ran away frequently and spent months in the swamps before returning. Like Bill Paul, he rubbed his feet with a substance to throw off the dogs, but exactly what he used was the subject of conjecture among those who knew of his exploits. Louisiana slave Charlotte Brooks recalled her peers talking about Sam Wilson, remembering, “The colored people said Sam greased his feet with rabbit-grease, and that kept the dogs from him. Aunt Jane said to me that she did not know what Sam used, but it looked like Sam could go off and stay as long as he wanted when the white folks got after him.”

One special trick that was revealed by a successful escapee involved a certain degree of superstition. An Alabama slave, Isaac Jones, was interviewed in 1910 about his method of confounding the bloodhounds. Jones told the interviewer “One thing I’d do, I’d go to the graveyard and open a grave where the people been buried about a week. When I put some of that dirt in my shoes there weren’t a hound could run me.”31



"Negro Dogs"

If runaways had a rough time dealing with farm dogs on their trail, they had more of a problem when special “Negro Dogs” were employed by a pursuing slaveholder. Unlike the farm dogs that often interacted with the slaves daily, and could be tricked or befriended by a quick-thinking fugitive, Negro dogs were kept in a separate location away from the slaves, and only interacted with them in training sessions, or during the hunt. Unlike typical farm or hunting dogs, trained to retrieve game or track deer, these dogs required special training as to their quarry. This was reported in the abolitionist press as early as 1827:

Hunting Men. - It is stated in a Savannah paper, as if it were an affair of ordinary occurrence, that a runaway negro had been apprehended and sent to jail, though "he did not surrender until he was considerably maimed by the dogs that had been set upon him." It is a fact that dogs are trained in some of the southern states, to hunt run-away slaves, and are kept by negro-hunters who are employed to catch any poor wretch who may escape from a brutal master. These dogs will take the track of a negro as readily as hounds will that of a deer, and will pull down their prey if they come up with it. The slave pursued by them is generally compelled to take to a tree, where he is watched by the dogs, till their masters come up.

A northern visitor to Mississippi, writing a few years later, described the training process: “The dogs are trained to this service when young. A negro is directed to go into the woods and secure himself upon a tree. When sufficient time has elapsed for doing this, the hound is put upon his track. The blacks are compelled to worry them until they make them their implacable enemies; and it is common to meet with dogs which will take no notice of whites, though entire strangers, but will suffer no blacks beside the house servants to enter the yard.”32 Some owners fed their Negro dogs only corn mush before a hunt, then rewarded them with meat only after they had caught, and usually drawn considerable blood from, a runaway slave.

Solomon Northup, in his narrative, described the dogs that hunted him as a special breed kept for just such a purpose, “a kind of blood-hound, but a far more savage breed than is found in the Northern States.”33 It was a specialization made famous, or infamous, by abolitionists who helped publicize the practice.

Abolitionist William Wells Brown was born a slave in Kentucky, but eventually escaped. During his bondage, he was pursued and cornered by a pack of Negro dogs set upon his trail by his master. The experience terrified him, and he included details of the practice, drawn from his experiences, in his novel Clotel, published in England in 1853. Brown reproduced real advertisements from breeders of Negro dogs, in which they advertising their services in running down fugitive slaves. The following two ads are from his book: William Gambrel, in 1845, advertised in a Natchez newspaper that he had “bought the entire pack of Negro Dogs of the Hay and Allen stock,” and he offered his dogs to track runaways for three dollars per day, with a charge of fifteen dollars for each slave caught. James W. Hall, in 1847, offered similar services, charging five dollars per day, with a charge of twenty-five dollars if the slave is caught, and no daily charges. Clearly, it was a competitive business. An 1856 advertisement from Kentucky, placed by W. D. Gilbert, announced that he had a “splendid lot of well broke Negro Dogs, and will attend at any reasonable distance, to the catching of runaways, at the lowest possible rates.”34

The last advertisement, produced a decade after the first two, strikes a different tone from earlier ads that simply promoted services. Gilbert’s ad begins with the admonition “Look Out” and includes the request to “please post this up in a conspicuous place,” as if Gilbert wanted the ad to act as a warning to slaves rather than as an offer to slave holders. Beneath the warning to “look out” is a large hand with index finger pointing directly at the figure of a fugitive slave, leaving little doubt as to who the real intended audience was.

Although the breed most mentioned in this specialized employment is the bloodhound, other observers have noted that many different types of dogs were trained as Negro dogs. During his journeys through the American south, Frederick Law Olmsted took particular notice of slave life on the plantations. In A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, he described the Negro dogs as “blood-hounds, fox-hounds, bull-dogs, and curs,” and remarking that he once saw a chained pack of Negro dogs being taken into the field. They were “all of a breed, and in appearance between a Scotch stag-hound and a fox-hound.”

Olmsted described training practices nearly identical to those described earlier by William Wells Brown, and he provided further proof that these specialized dogs were not only regularly employed, but were also highly prized. Citing a news article from the Fayetteville Observer, Olmsted documented the prices paid for dogs trained to hunt runaway slaves: For a pack of ten dogs, J. L. Bryan of Moore County, North Carolina received $1,540, with the highest priced dog selling for $301, and no dog selling for less than seventy-five dollars.35

Of course, most of the encounters described above occurred prior to the fugitives’ entry into Pennsylvania, and usually within a few miles of their starting point. Slave hunters did not bring their dogs along when pursuing a slave into another county, let alone another state, and professional slave trackers did not operate with ferocious Negro dogs in Pennsylvania. This is not to say that fugitive slaves had no trouble with dogs after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line.

Fugitive slaves almost always preferred to travel unobserved, if possible, which is why they preferred moonless nights. On the night before he was cornered by dogs, Jacob Green was forced to keep to the woods “as the moon was so bright,” and he made little headway on his journey. The following night, the night of the attack, it was “dark, with a drizzling rain; being very fit for traveling.” 36

Cloudy, dark nights, therefore, were good because they provided better concealment. But this concealment could be immediately ruined by the barking of an alert watchdog. It was exactly that which betrayed four men, three of them brothers named Matterson, and Wesley Harris, all of whom had escaped from Harpers Ferry, Virginia several months before Christmas 1853. All four had gotten as far as Taneytown, Maryland in two days of traveling on foot—a distance of more than fifty miles. A black man in the town told them to keep out of sight, as the town was hostile toward escaping slaves, so they took refuge in the woods outside of town.

While hiding, a local farmer came by with his dog to chop wood. The dog soon detected the presence of the four freedom seekers and began barking at them. Thus alerted, the farmer approached the men and began questioning them. They concocted a story about being on the road to Gettysburg to visit relatives, but the farmer did not believe them, telling them he knew they were runaways. Instead of turning them in, however, he began imitating Quaker speech patterns, invited them to take shelter in his barn, fed them a good breakfast and told them to wait until he returned, at which time he would put them on the correct road to Gettysburg.

The farmer proved false, however, and returned to the barn with eight men, whom he directed straight to the hidden fugitives. A fierce struggle ensued and shots rang out. Several men fell with gunshot wounds, including Harris, whose wounds were so severe that it was feared he would not long survive. The three Matterson brothers were captured and taken to a jail at Westminster and Harris was left behind at a local inn.

Harris did not die, however. In fact, he was planning his escape even as he healed, with the help of the African American cook at the inn, and several other local people. Within a few weeks he made good his escape and was conducted by a black man to Gettysburg and eventually to Philadelphia, arriving at the offices of the Vigilance Committee, still suffering from the gunshot wounds, on 2 November 1853.37

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24. Henry Bibb, The Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: Henry Bibb, 1850).

25. Still, Underground Rail Road, 424.

26. John Andrew Jackson, The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1862).

27. Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (London: Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1853) 139; Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 246.

28. Jacob D. Green, Narrative of the Life of J.D. Green (Huddersfield, UK: Henry Fielding, 1864), 25.

29. Ibid.

30. Still, Underground Rail Road, 242.

31. Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1890), 22; Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 537.

32. Freedom’s Journal, 6 July 1827; James Williams, The Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), xv. The last source, although now largely discredited as a genuine slave narrative, still contains useful bits of information.

33. Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 136.

34. William Wells Brown, Clotel (London: Partridge & Oakey, 1853), 63; Handbill, Simpson County, Kentucky, 1856.

35. Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (New York: Dix and Edwards, 1856), 160-163.

36. Green, Life of J.D. Green, 24.

37. Still, Underground Rail Road, 48-51; Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, “Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, Agent William Still, 1852-1857,” ed. Peter P. Hinks, 22-28, Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, HSP, (accessed 4 January 2008).
The account of this group’s escape in Still’s book lists the town they reached as Terrytown, but Still’s original journal clearly says Tanneytown (Taneytown). The published account also omits the fact, documented in the journal, that an African American guide conducted Harris from Taneytown to Gettysburg.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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