Johnson County, 1840s: John, the fugitive slave

Posted by 1877 on 2015/08/30

The following is from a forth-coming history of Missouri slave resistance.

30-year-old John was a runaway slave from Kentucky living in the woods of Johnson County, Missouri. For as many as five or six years John lived free in the wilderness. During that time, he successfully hid and outsmarted his former master, E. L. McLane. The slave owner repeatedly came all the way from Kentucky to try and find him.

John’s wife was owned by a Johnson County slave owner named Wiley Horn. Horn owned at least eight other slaves which may have been additional friends and family of John’s, possibly even children of his. John lived in the woods near Lexington at the very least to be near his wife. On May 8, 1845, John killed Horn after Horn punished John’s wife. John snuck up on Horn while he was fishing and shot him once in the stomach and once in the head.

Within a couple weeks, John was arrested and taken to the Johnson County jail in Georgetown. In the struggle during his arrest, one of John’s arms was broken.

Shortly after arriving at the jail (and despite one arm being broken and the other shackled to his feet), John managed to pry a bar from the door. He was almost done destroying his cell’s lock when discovered by the jailor and stopped.

After this escape attempt, John was transferred to Independence and placed in the jail’s dungeon. Despite being under 24-hour surveillance by two armed guards, his arm still broken, and with even more restrictive shackles on him, on the night of August 20, John broke jail and ran away.

According to a letter from Sheriff John Price of Johnson County to Missouri Governor John Edwards, after John’s escape from Independence he was spotted again lurking around Johnson County. He even returned to Wiley Horn’s property—being noticed and shot at, but not injured or caught.

In the letter, Price described John as “a likely negro almost 5 feet 10 inches high. Keen acting, well made, light limbed, about 30 years old and has little of the negro in his countenance except his color which is a dark coffee or mulatto. And his hair is short and kincky. He has old whip marks on his back. Knife scars about the collorbone. And lite ball or buckshot-wound on the left arm and calf of the leg. He left the jail well ironed and poorly clad.”

Price also informed the governor that John had been jailed once or twice in Kentucky and escaped both times as well. On September 9, Governor Edwards issued an official notice about John and offered a $100 reward for his capture.

John’s fate past this point is unknown. I assume if John had lived in the area without detection for five or six years, and successfully escaped jail two or three times, he had the ability to remain free. Given the governor’s notice, if John was caught again, it seems likely his capture would have been well-known. None of the stories I’ve found about John mention him being caught.

Let’s hope John lived out the next fifteen years of slavery living in the woods, raiding plantations and helping other slaves!

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