In the conventional understanding of American history, enslaved people fled north to “free” states or to Canada. And many did—between 30,000 and 100,000 people. But others, probably no more than 3,000 or 5,000 people, went south to Mexico. Although a relatively small group, their collective story had strategic and political significance out of proportion to their numbers. Historian Alice L. Baumgartner details the reasons why in her deeply researched and eloquently argued South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War. Her book shows that “enslaved people who escaped to Mexico . . . contributed to the outbreak of a major sectional controversy over the future” of slavery in the U.S.
Baumgartner focuses on a complex series of events between Mexico and the U.S. in the early 19th century until 1867, often related to property rights and individual freedom, including the Texas Revolution, the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War. American slaveholders relentlessly pushed for the expansion of slavery through their elected officials, while Mexico gradually restricted and then abolished slavery in 1837. Complicating matters even more, the Mexican government had 49 presidents, including some dictators, between 1824 and 1857.
Many individuals on all sides are portrayed here, but the most compelling stories are those of enslaved people who, at considerable risk, escaped for what they hoped would be a better life in Mexico. Sadly, not all of them found improved conditions. They had few options for work or military service, but they did have the opportunity to choose.
Baumgartner’s fast-paced yet detailed exploration is consistently illuminating and offers a new way to understand the past. It is a must-read for anyone seeking a fuller awareness of our history.