The slave patrols (1704-1865) in the American South were armed bands of three to six white men on horseback who rode through the night looking for runaway slaves and other blacks up to no good.
- Manpower: three to six white men
- Weapons: guns, whips
- Transport: horses
- Range: a beat about ten miles wide (16km)
- Hours of operation: mainly at night
- Stop blacks and ask for their pass
- Catch runaways
- Enforce curfew
- Break up gatherings of blacks
- Disarm blacks
- Search homes for guns and books, both signs of a possible uprising
- Keep blacks in line through terror
If they stopped you and you could not produce a pass from your master, they could kill you, whip you or physicially screw you up. And even if you did have a pass and were doing nothing wrong, they might still choose to beat you up.
The point was not so much to find and return runaways as some kind of public service to slave owners, but to keep blacks in line to prevent slave uprisings. The government paid slave owners for any property damage the patrols caused, like dead slaves.
Slave catchers were separate from the slave patrol. They caught runaways slaves for a living. They are the ones with the bloodhounds. They generally got $50 a slave, $5 more if whipped. This was back when a white day labourer made $1 a day and healthy slaves of working age were worth between $500 and $1500 (400 to 1200 crowns).
The practice started in South Carolina in 1704. It became much more serious after the Stono Rebellion of 1739. In time it spread to all the slave states of the South. All white men of military age had to serve in the slave patrols, whether they owned slaves or not. It was a civic duty. It helped to bind white men together across class lines and to pit poor whites violently against blacks in the service of slavery.
The Union Army from the North outlawed slave patrols after the Civil War, but they soon sprang up outside the law as vigilante groups, the best known being the Ku Klux Klan. Even though there was no longer a threat of a slave uprising, whites, if anything, feared blacks even more.
The Klan was modelled directly on the slave patrols. So much so that some blacks who lived back then thought the Klan was founded before the Civil War. The Klan was not backed by law but the law turned a blind eye to it.
The Klan’s duties were largely the same (curfews, disarming blacks, spreading terror, etc) with these additions:
- cross burning
- raping black women
- burning down black schools
- burning down black churches
- making blacks too afraid to vote
Modern American policing grows in part out of the slave patrols. For example, the terms “patrol” and “beat” come from them. So does the idea of the stakeout. The current police practices of racial profiling and police brutality against blacks and Latinos do not seem like a far cry from the old slave patrols.
– Abagond, 2012.
Sources: Mainly “Slave Patrols” (2001) by Sally E. Hadden.