The Daring Escape of Ellen Craft

History has recorded many daring escapes of slaves from the pre-Civil War South. But none was more daring than that of Ellen Craft and her husband William.

Born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia, Ellen’s father was actually her first enslaver, Col. James Smith. Ellen was so light-skinned she was frequently mistaken for one of his white offspring.

When she married William in 1846, they were concerned about starting a family under slavery, so they hatched a daring escape plan. Since she could pass as white, she could pose as her husband’s owner. To avoid the slave patrols, they would travel openly during the day. But since it was unusual for a white woman to travel alone with a Black man, Ellen would have to pose as a young invalid white man. Why invalid? Because by law neither could be taught to read or write, and she would need an excuse not to sign any documents. Thus forearmed, they set out for the North on December 21, 1848.

As one might expect, their journey was fraught with danger, from recognizing a close friend of their master to rejecting an offer to sell William.

But it worked! They made their way to Philadelphia, then settled in Boston, at the time an abolitionist hotbed.

But they weren’t quite safe yet. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal for residents of free states to harbor or aid fugitive slaves. Further, federal officials could seize suspected escapees and send them back without due process. They ultimately moved to London, England, where they became leaders of the antislavery movement. William even wrote a book describing their journey, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. After nearly two decades in England and having five children, they returned to the Savannah, Georgia area, where they opened a school to educate newly freed Black students.

Running a Thousand Miles For Freedom by William and Ellen Craft is still in print, and can be found at

Taken from “This Woman Escaped Slavery by Hiding in Plain Sight — Disguised as a White Man,” a National Geographic Subscriber Exclusive by Tucker C. Toole (

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