The Story of Fanny: Escaping Bondage in New Orleans

There were times when enslaved people in New Orleans could no longer bear the intense burden that came with the day in and day out sufferings of a life spent in bondage. Escape became the last hope for some of these slaves despite of the dangers that they would surely face if caught. Fanny, an enslaved mother ran away on March 6th, 1844. Her owner posted an advertisement in the Daily Picayune on March 9th of that year to alert New Orleanians to her status. According to the advertisement, this is the site from which she fled.

Unfortunately, descriptions of the personalities and appearances are rarely included in any writing from the era. When they are, they most commonly appear in sales documents, which are hardly reliable sources of information, considering the biased perspectives and objectives of the active players, who often modified descriptions of the enslaved for bargaining purposes. While it’s important to consider the biased perspectives of the people who wrote the advertisement like Fanny’s, the objective of them was to accurately describe the missing person, so that they could be easily found. They also often include identifying factors such as disposition, skills, family members, or other details that don’t appear anywhere else in the historic record.

Fanny is described as “aged about 30 years; speaks English and French; has lost her front teeth; very dark skin.” It was common for enslaved persons to be bilingual, even 30 years after the Louisiana Purchase, which happened around the time Fanny was born. Readers also learn that Fanny had at least two children, a daughter, whom she took with her, described as, “a mulatto, aged 7” indicating that she may have had lighter skin.

According to the advertisement, Fanny had another daughter who lived elsewhere in New Orleans, at 183 Girod St., somewhere roughly in the block between St. Charles Ave. and Carondelet St., in the neighborhood now known as the CBD. Her owner apparently owned property at 18 Bienville Street ant 227 Rampart Street, or roughly 1000 Rampart Street today, where you are standing now. According to the 1840 Census, there was a J.A. Braud living in the CBD, who owned four slaves. One of them was a woman between 24 and 35, and another was a girl under the age of 10. While we cannot know for sure, it is plausible that these nameless checkmarks in the census record represent Fanny and her daughter. The census shows one person involved in commerce, presumably J.A. Braud.

We also learn that she was spotted, though the accuracy of this is questionable, at the St. Mary Market.The St. Mary Market was built in 1822 and remained in its original location on the neutral ground below Tchoupitoulas Street between North and South Diamond Streets, near the present day Convention Center, until 1858. Enslaved people were often not physically confined to their homes. There was too much work to do. Enslaved women would travel daily to local markets to pick up supplies, including groceries. They were allowed to travel amongst free people in the streets as long as they carried a permission slip, also called a pass. In New Orleans, eyes were everywhere.

Runaway slave ads often included reward prices, basically a bounty. Here the reward is listed at $10, or roughly $216 today. The ad appeared again in the Times Picayune on March 10th, two days later, so we know she was successful at staying away for a couple of days. Beyond that, the records stop telling us what happened to Fanny.

There are 3 Fannys listed in the 1870 census in New Orleans. One of them is even listed with no last name. One is listed with two daughters who could be the right age to be at least one of Fanny’s daughter based on the newspaper ad. Fanny was not an uncommon name, and we have no record of any Fanny that fits the correct age and racial profile between 1844 and 1870.

Walter Johnson writes, “when they ran away, slaves often traced a path backwards toward their past lives.” We can only hope that Fanny was able to reunite with her family and make a successful life on her own. Enslaved people who ran away faced the threat of torture, abuse, death, or imprisonment, but some of them found ways to forge passes, pass as free people, or created new families in the form of maroon communities on the outskirts of town.