I received an email recently from a reader wanting to know if former slaves were ever hired to go after runaway slaves? The short answer to that is yes. There were bounty hunters, also known as "slave catchers," who were Black just like there were Black slave owners.
Historians agree that Black bounty hunters did exist. Also, there were freemen, former slaves, who actually worked together with other bounty hunters to catch runaway slaves. Bounty hunters were not always White. They were White, Mexican, and some were Blacks. Some Black slaves were also used as "trackers" and slave catchers by their owners. As surprising as it sounds, there were instances when slaves were used by their owners to assist in the capture of runaways.
As with the Whites and Mexicans who hunted people for a living, most Black bounty hunters found it very profitable. From the letters that I've gotten on this subject, it seems there is this myth that freed African slaves would never hunt other African slaves -- profitable or not. Some believe that slaves saw it as "morally wrong" to hunt fugitive slaves.
These same people who write and tell me this seem to forget that African slaves were provided to European and Muslim slave traders for hundreds of years before our nation ever existed by other Africans. Africans did not see it "morally wrong" to round up and sell their own people to Muslim slave traders for hundreds of years before selling them to European slave traders for a couple of hundred years. Morals did not stop Blacks from making a profit off of selling their own people. So really, why should any of us assume that somehow morals played a part in stopping Blacks from profiting off of the return of runaway slaves?
We somehow neglect to see history as to how it really took place. For hundreds of years before African kings and chiefs captured and sold slaves to the Portuguese, French, and British, they were capturing and selling their own people to Muslims. The legacy of Africans profiting off of the selling of their own people may have been "disgraceful" -- but it was also extremely profitable for African Blacks who saw the lives of their own people as a commodity to make them wealthy.
Today, we have people attempting to re-write what took place by saying such things as the following: "August marked 400 years since the first documented enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. In 1619, a ship reached the Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia, carrying some 20 and odd Negroes who were kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola."
The problem with that is that's all a lie. First, the United States did not exist in 1619. The United States was not formed, it did not exist, for another 157 years after what took place in Jamestown, Virginia. We forget that Virginia was a British Colony in 1619. No, not part of the United States.
Second, the Spanish brought the first documented African slaves to North America when they shipped African slaves to what is today South Carolina and Florida in the early 1500s. Florida was a Spanish Colony that had a huge slave trade going on there for almost 100 years before 1619. We also forget that the Spanish, Portuguese, and French took African slaves to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South American countries such as Brazil and Peru in the 1500s.
Third, the 20 African slaves that landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 were not kidnapped by the British. They were among more than 300 Africans who were rounded up by African chiefs in what is today Angola -- and then sold to Portuguese merchants for transport to Brazil. A British raider ship stole them from that Portuguese ship while at sea.
Lastly, the 20 "African slaves" who arrived at Jamestown were not "slaves" and were in fact considered "Indentured Servants" the same as the Irish and German "Indentured Servants" in Jamestown at the time. The fact is, in 1619, slavery was not codified by law. Slavery did not yet exist in Virginia at the time. It is a fact that most Africans in the British Colonies were held under contracts of limited "indentured servitude." They were released after a contracted period ended. The exception was those indentured for life. And by the way, there were also Whites who were "indentured for life."
The status of "Indentured Servants," Black or otherwise, in the British Colonies changed with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. Those series of laws effectively stripped away legal rights and legalized slavery. What's ironic is that the first legally acknowledged slave owner in the American British Colonies was a Black man who got rich on owning Black slaves. He profited heavily from owning slaves. His name was Anthony Johnson.
It is a sort of shame that Americans mistakenly focus on England and the British Colonies as though they were the start of Europeans in North America. The British Colony of Virginia was founded in 1607. We somehow ignore, or simply don't realize that the French and Spanish established Colonies in North America almost 100 years before the British did.
As for Parris Island, South Carolina, history tells us that the French had troops there in 1562. Of course, St. Augustine, Florida, was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565. In fact, St. Augustine became the center of the Spanish slave trade in North America long before Britain established its first settlement of Jamestown in North America in 1607. Sadly, we tend to ignore the colonization of the Americas by other European nations. Sadly, schools don't teach about what took place in North America prior to the British arriving.
It's the same as with the history of Black freemen, freed Black slaves, who hunted runaway Black slaves. We don't teach how the lives of Black slaves did not matter to them -- especially when there was big money to be made catching them and returning them to their owners. Just as there was huge profitability to be made in selling Africans in Africa, or owning African slaves as freedman Anthony Johnson and other Black slave owners found out, catching them and returning them to their White, Black, and Native American slave owners made Black bounty hunters, also known as "slave catchers," a lot of money.
As one historian put it, "You could buy a farm for $400 and feed your family and live a good enough life. All you'd have to do was go out and capture one or two runaway slaves and you were set."
Let's keep in mind that many of the Northern states outlawed slavery either before or right after the Revolutionary War. Many provided refuge for escaped Black slaves. Many slaves who reached those states believed they were safe. Of course, Southern slave owners pressured Congress to help them retrieve fugitive slaves and indentured servants. In 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law.
The first Fugitive Slave Law left it up to the slave owners to hire slave catchers to capture and return runaway slaves and indentured servants. Slave owners hired both freed Blacks and White bounty hunters. Many of the freed Black slaves were extremely useful in retrieving runaway slaves. The reason for that had to do with the "Underground Railroad." Let's remember that at the same time, there were freed Blacks and anti-slavery Whites organizing a system to help slaves escape their bondage. That system became known as the "Underground Railroad."
During that time, President Thomas Jefferson was successful in stopping the importation of African slaves into the United States. The law forbidding the importation of African slaves into the United States took effect on January 1st, 1808. With the passing of that law, slaves already in bondage here became expensive commodities. Subsequently, slave owners put even larger bounties on the heads of escaped slaves. Among the bounty hunters who chased them down were other former Black slaves.
The irony of the Underground Railroad is that even though it involved safe-houses, escape routes, and guides called "conductors" to help escaped slaves reach refuge in the Northern states, there were a few freed Black slave bounty hunters who themselves used the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom. They knew the secret routes, the houses where slaves were hidden, and they knew where to ferret out runaways. Those Black bounty hunters were extremely good at hunting fugitive slaves, and are said to have profited greatly by catching and returning escaped slaves because they knew where to look for them. It was all about making a lot of money.