Ellen and William Craft

Famous Escaped Slaves

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: A Brief Synopsis

Ellen and William Craft were slaves, famous for their daring escape to the North in 1848. Ellen Craft was disguised as a bespectacled, bandaged man and William posed as her dutiful slave; a daring charade which fooled everyone during the four day trip from Georgia to Pennsylvania. They then travelled England speaking out against slavery before moving back to South Carolina and founding a free agricultural school for African Americans in the early 1870's.

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: Date of Birth and Parents

Ellen and William Craft were married slaves owned by separate masters. Though treated kindly in comparison to other slaves, they feared to have children in the event they were separated and sold. Ellen Craft was born to Colonel James Smith and his slave, Maria. As Ellen Craft was said to be passable as white, she was often mistaken as one of her master's legitimate children.  At eleven she was given as a wedding gift to her half sister, who was said to have shielded her from the uglier side of slavery. At the age of sixteen, William Craft and his family were sold in order to settle his owner's gambling debts. In his memoirs, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in 1860, William Craft writes that his sister, last seen in tears when purchased by a planter, had been located in Mississippi and that he was trying to save enough money to purchase her freedom.

Escaped slaves, Ellen and William Craft
Ellen and William Craft, the famous escaped slaves (public domain)

The Famous Slave/ Abolitionist Ellen and William Craft: The Disguise

Using Ellen's fair skin to their advantage, Ellen and William Craft believed that they could escape if Ellen posed as cotton planter and William her slave. Unfortunately at the time wealthy women did not travel without a suitable chaperone; instead, in order to successfully avoid suspicion, Ellen Craft needed to dress as a man.  It was illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, and so Ellen Craft also thought to put her arm in a sling; this obscured the fact that she was illiterate and provided a credible excuse as to why she could not sign at hotels and custom houses. A bandage was also tied in place at her head, over her cheeks and under her chin to hide her smooth skin  and lack of a beard. Hand-sewn trousers that Ellen had made, matched with green spectacles and a top hat purchased secretly by William completed the disguise.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE FAMOUS SLAVES ELLEN AND WILLIAM CRAFT

Name: Ellen and William Craft
Born: Ellen in 1826, William in 1824, Georgia
Died
: Ellen in 1891, William in 1900, Charleston
Slave Status: Escaped
Trade: William was a skilled carpenter, Ellen was a seamstress
Famed for...: Escaping slavery in the disguise of a cotton planter and slave, under the pretense that they were on their way to Philadelphia for medical treatment
Children: Charles, Brougham, William, Ellen and Alfred
Did you know?: Ellen was inducted in to Georgia's Women of Achievement in 1996

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: The Escape

After being seated on the train to Savannah, the cabinet maker of whom William Craft was apprenticed, had asked the ticket officer questions and then proceeded to search the carriages. He did not pay any mind to the bandaged Ellen and his investigations were cut short when the bell sounded the train's intent to depart. The danger of being caught was still far from over; as Ellen turned back from the window, she recognised the man seated beside her as her master's friend.

Pretending to be hard of hearing, she avoided engaging in conversation for eight hours. Ellen and William Craft boarded the steamboat from Savannah to Charleston without issue; Ellen's disguise was not called in to question even when having breakfast with the captain. However, on trying to get from Charleston to Philadelphia, they encountered a potential problem in a stubborn officer who refused to sign the steamer record on their behalf. Fortunately the captain was passing by within earshot and instead vouched for them, signing the name as Mr Johnson and slave. Though Ellen and William Craft were again stopped in Baltimore, the final major stop before Philadelphia, the officers took pity upon Ellen's apparent health problems and allowed them to board without supplying evidence of William's ownership.

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: Freedom

On Christmas day, they set foot on free soil in Philadelphia and took advantage of their new found freedom by attending their first reading lesson. Told by friends and abolitionists to go to Boston, Ellen and William Craft took their advice and settled for the next two years by making money as a carpenter and seamstress. Unfortunately their freedom in the North was not to last.

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: England

Due to the Fugitive State Act, 1850; bounty hunters arived looking for the escaped slaves, intending to forcibly take Ellen and William Craft back to their respective masters. No longer safe, Ellen and William Craft made the decision to sail from Canada to Liverpool, England. From 1857 to 1867, Ellen and William Craft resided at 12 Cambridge Grove, London; giving anti-slavery lectures with William Wells Brown and speaking out against the treatment of slaves, often moving their audience to tears. The couple also pent two years at Ockham school, founded by Lord Byron's widow; during this time, Ellen and William Craft continued learning to read and write and taught manual labour and handicrafts respectively. 

The Famous Slaves Ellen and William Craft: Africa and Later Life

In 1862 William Craft travelled to Africa to source other methods of obtaining cotton and he attempted to convince the ruler of Dahomey to abolish human sacrifice and slavery. William made a second trip in 1865-1867 to assist in furthering the education of African boys. It was in 1865 that Maria, Ellen's mother, was purchased and brought to London through the effort of their friends. Three years later the family moved to Boston before settling in Georgia in 1870; however, their plantation was set alight by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite criticism and their money struggles, Ellen and William Craft built a free agricultural school for black people which lasted several years before living with their daughter in Charleston.

Sources:

  1. William Craft - Running 1000 Miles for Freedom
  2. Notable American Women 1607-1950: a Biographical Dictionary, Volume 1, 1971
  3. New Georgia Encyclopedia
  4. The University of North Carolina
  5. The Museum of London
  6. Smithsonian.com

The Biography of Famous Slave/ Abolitionist Ellen and William Craft

  • The Biography of Ellen and William Craft, for Education and Learning
  • The Daring Escape of Ellen and William Craft

 

 

  • Quick Facts About Ellen and William Craft
  • Ellen and William Craft's Efforts to Assist Former Slaves

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