During the time of slavery in the Danish West Indies enslaved Africans regularly attempted to escape. At times, they succeeded. Danish West Indian authorities issued laws, such as the slave code of 1733, to sanction and punish such behavior. Slave owners used island newspapers to notify the community that an enslaved person had runaway. Fugitive slaves challenged the very nature of the Danish West Indian slave society. Through their acts, men, women and, more rarely, children demonstrated their determination to be free. The frequency of runaways demonstrated that Danish colonial authorities and slave owners failed to exercise a tight control of the enslaved.
In this activity students will examine multiple primary sources to try and follow the potential escape of a runaway slave named Sarah on St. Croix. They will look at a 1777 runaway notice in a newspaper, a 1799 map of St. Croix, a painting from 1815 of Christiansted, and a St. Croix land tax register from 1778. They will use these various primary sources to learn how to make educated historical guesses. They will consider what happened to Sarah.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This activity includes the analysis of four primary sources, and may be most appropriate for 11th and 12th grade. This activity requires multiple class sessions to complete, looking at one or two primary sources a day, in sequence.
This primary source activity includes the topic of slavery. Viewed as a sensitive topic for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topic, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter. Additionally, there are terms used in some of the primary sources in this activity that describe race and people that are not acceptable to use today. These terms should be discussed prior to looking at the primary source with students.
The idea of this activity is to engage in a discussion and to help students learn how researchers use multiple primary sources to rebuild past stories and to generate educated historical guesses and theories. It is not about finding the correct answers necessarily, as that is not always possible when pieces of the story are missing. Help students to examine the primary sources one by one in the order presented. Help them to generate questions and guesses, and to articulate their ideas.
The teacher can first share the background information found in the About section related to this activity, and take time to define any new words and concepts as needed as they progress through the activity.
Load each primary source on the smart board for the class to examine and analyze. If a smart board is not available, load the primary sources on computers.
The teacher may want to read Chapter 7, pp. 124-126 in Neville A. T. Hall: Slave Society in the Danish West Indies. St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. Edited by B. W. Higman, University of the West Indies Press 1992.
Analyze the Primary Source
Questions from primary source analysis worksheets for written document, artwork and map were included directly in the classroom discussion section of this activity. However a teacher can edit the activity and have students complete the worksheets independently or work as a class directly from the worksheets. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
This activity includes four primary sources.
Start with the front page of the The Royal Danish American Gazette.
As in other American and Caribbean slave societies, slave owners placed runaway notices in local newspapers offering a reward to the person who could bring the fugitive slave back. The newspaper included in this activity has several runaway notices on the front page, including a mother with children. The class can read through the runaway notices, and also read the other notices and announcements of the day to gain insight into daily life at the time. Allow students time to ask questions based on what they are looking at, and to discuss what they think about these runaway notices. After this initial discussion, bring the focus to the runaway notice located in the 2nd column of the front page for an enslaved woman named Sarah from Nathan Durant’s plantation on St. Croix. It is Sarah’s story that you will follow in this activity.
Analyze the first primary source:
What is it?
Who wrote it?
Who read/received it?
What year is it from?
Where is it from?
What was happening at the time in history this newspaper was created?
What did you find out from the newspaper that you might not learn anywhere else?
What other documents or historical evidence are you going to use to help you understand the event and person?
From the runaway notice about Sarah, what information do students learn about her? Why do students think Sarah has runaway? What might her desires be that have motivated her to take great risk to escape? Since the runaway notices were printed in the newspaper, what is the implied role of the community in looking out for runaways?
Next, examine and analyze the 1794 map of St. Croix.
Load the map unto a smart board and use the zoom features to closely examine the map. (The map is a large file, and depending on internet speed may take several seconds to load.) Have students analyze the map using the following questions:
What is the title?
What place is shown?
Who made it?
When is it from?
Why was it created? List evidence from the map or your knowledge about map making that led you to your conclusion?
How does this map compare to a current map of the same place?
The teacher can point out that the runaway notice said that Durant’s plantation was in the East End Quarter of St. Croix. Researchers have identified Nathan Durant’s plantation on a tax register, which you will look at later. It is likely, but not known for certain, that Sarah lived on that plantation. Durant’s plantation is no. 46 in East End Quarter. Use the 1794-map by Oxholm to locate Durant’s estate, no. 46 East End Quarter. On the 1794-map it is called Anna’s Hope (East End Quarter litr. A) on the Northshore of the island, to the right of Christiansted.
Ask students, where might Sarah have fled to? Use prompts such as, other plantations? What was the likelihood of passing unnoticed on another plantation? Would she try to go to Christiansted? Could she easily hide there amongst the hustle and bustle of the busy port town? The runaway notice forbids masters of vessels from taking her off the island. Might that be her goal, to get on a ship or boat and go to another island where she would be unknown? Have students use the map to examine the distance between estate no. 46 East End Quarter and Christiansted.
Next, load the artwork of Christiansted and analyze it with students.
Quickly scan the artwork, what do you notice first?
What type of artwork is it?
What do you see in the artwork (people, objects, activities)?
Who made this?
When was it created?
What is the message? List evidence from the artwork or your knowledge about the artwork that led to your conclusion.
What did you find out from this artwork that you might not learn anywhere else?
What other documents are you going to use to help you understand the scene depicted in the artwork?
Ask students to carefully examine the Beenfeldt’s painting of Christiansted. Zoom into the artwork and examine the details. Scan the painting and observe its details: do students on St. Croix recognize any of the buildings? Zoom into the people. Note the well-dressed Black women. They are wearing red and white cockade, which indicates their status as free. Notice the men having conversations, the horse drawn cart, soldiers, the laborers, the people carrying items on their heads, the child behind the horse, the barrels, the ships, and the flags on the ships. Ask students to describe the details on the painting, the people, and the activities that are going on. Have them create one sentence that summarizes the artwork.
Ask students to consider the question, what obstacles would Sarah have met if she escaped to and tried to hide in Christiansted? Could she hide in the street scene depicted in the painting? Would someone help her and risk the penalties of assisting a runaway? Throughout slavery punishments existed for harboring a runaway. For a free Black there was the possibility of losing freedom and being returned to enslavement, and for Whites being whipped or otherwise punished. What might the prospects be for a fugitive slave in 1777 in the Danish West Indies, and the Caribbean in general?
Next, view the Land tax register from 1778.
In this record series you will find a list recording Nathan Durant’s estate and the slaves he owned in 1778. The estate is in East End Quarter, Lit. A, no. 46.
Take some time to analyze the tax register. Notice its parts and the information presented.
What is it?
Describe it as if you were explaining to someone who could not see it themselves.
Who wrote it?
Who read/received it?
When is it from?
What information is presented?
What was happening at the time in history this document was created?
What did you find out from this document that you might not learn anywhere else?
The page of the tax register that you are examining describes the property belonging to Nathan Durant, the person that submitted the runaway slave notice about Sarah to the newspaper. Have students look at the tax register carefully. It includes names of the enslaved Africans that were on Durant’s plantation. Is Sarah listed? Sarah’s runaway notice in the newspaper was from September 10, 1777, the tax register is from January 30th, 1778. Sarah is not listed as being on Durant’s plantation in 1778, four months after she ran away. What happened to her? Can students formulate any theories? How can students research those theories? What types of records could they use?
The teacher can prompt possible primary sources for discussion.
A Census? Do students think Sarah would be in a census, why or why not?
A Police record? Was she caught, might it appear in a police record? Why or why not?
Newspapers? To see if the runaway notice continues to run and for how long it ran.
Look again at the tax register. Do any of the enslaved Africans have last names? Do we know Sarah’s last name? How does this complicate researching Sarah, and other enslaved people?
We don’t know what happened to Sarah, perhaps one day researchers will find a lead to help continue her story. We do know she was determined to be free in 1777 and ran away to pursue freedom. With the odds seemingly against her, why might she think that running away was possible?
Wrap Up: Did anything surprise you from the primary sources that you looked at and from the discussion? Why is it important for people to learn about the efforts of enslaved people to gain freedom by running away?