Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Arts in History



Major Advisor

Lisa Brady, Ph.D.


This thesis conducts an environmental analysis of narratives written or dictated by fugitive American slaves in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It re-examines previously studied information from a different perspective—one that incorporates people’s interaction with their surrounding natural environments, both cultivated and uncultivated—which reveals new information and leads to some new potential conclusions. Specifically, this reanalysis of the slave narratives shows that the rural enslaved population of the antebellum South had an intimate and cooperative relationship with the natural world, one that enabled them to develop critical skills that maximized their chances of successfully escaping slavery permanently. Further, the southern plantation owners had increasingly removed themselves from the land and had a much more remote relationship with the natural world, a factor that made it more difficult for them to control their slave labor and to find fugitives once they had escaped.

This analysis, based on the primary source slave narratives and on information previously compiled and analyzed by slavery and environmental historians, shows that such factors as the structure of the southern plantation, the strictures of the institution of slavery itself, and the day-to-day lifestyles of the rural enslaved people, combined to provide slaves with the opportunity to develop skills that would help them successfully escape. Consequently, in addition to clearly revealing how rural field slaves were able to survive in the uncultivated environment after leaving a plantation or farm, this analysis also leads to a reasonable conclusion that more slaves may have escaped slavery and the South prior to the Civil War than is currently generally accepted by historians.