Bloodhound puppies. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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How Hounds Scented Souths: Recounting Race, Ruin, and Resilience

In 1853, Solomon Northup published his autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, which detailed his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement in the U.S. South. Born a free man in New York, his commentary stemmed from his unique position of having lived under different social relations in the Northern and Southern states. In particular, he noticed the stark divergence between the domesticated canines in the North and the deep South. He wrote that the dogs in his area of Louisiana that were used “for hunting slaves are a kind of blood-hound, but a far more savage breed than is found in the Northern States. They will attack a negro, at their master’s bidding, and cling to him as the common bull-dog will cling to a four footed animal.”[1] Though asserting they were a “kind of blood-hound,” Northup did not specify a breed. Nevertheless, he well understood their especially violent training to attack and subdue enslaved people as if they were prey.

Northup’s experience spanned the 1840s, a decade in which “slave hunting” was a widespread business throughout the U.S. South. Generations of specially trained canines had been bred, sold, and traded throughout the slave states for the express purpose of subjugating Black populations who dared resist the system. Those who dared to escape the plantation faced the wrath of white Southerners mediated through nonhuman animals deployed to solidify racist exploitation.

As this essay shows, Northup’s reference to interspecies slave hunting was certainly not unique to that era or the U.S. South. Targeting enslaved freedom seekers pervaded the nineteenth century. As refugees from slavery comprised their primary targets, Black communities throughout the Americas called them “Negro Dogs” or similar terms.[2] Formerly enslaved people referenced these animals throughout their oral histories, recollecting and spreading stories of how freedom seekers evaded the pursuing bloodhounds. Confrontations against runaways often occurred beyond the confines of plantations, where dog violence commonly extended the plantocracy’s power. This practice was often a business that included advertisements and bargaining among white populations throughout the Americas and was key to actualizing racial hierarchies and preserving chattel slavery.

* * *

Tracking, subduing, and eliminating humans with dogs was not an innovation of antebellum white southerners. This practice appeared at times in the distant past, and in the not so distant past of notorious Spanish conquests in which large mastiffs attacked Indigenous communities throughout the Caribbean and South America. Despite their occasional admonitions against Spain, British, French, and Portuguese empires mirrored these tactics throughout their respective colonies in the Americas.

As slavery expanded in the U.S. South, these canines were trained to follow the “slave hunter,” who used interspecies techniques to incarcerate, confine, and brutalize Black resisters. Reports from the 1820s and 1830s note dog attacks, including a runaway who was severely wounded by hounds in Georgia, though he was able to fatally stab one with a sword.[3] However, specific breeds for human hunting expanded most pronouncedly in the late 1830s during the Second Seminole War in Florida.[4]

The first recorded importation of the “Cuban bloodhound”—a breed famed for harassing Black resisters in Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—indicated they were welcomed into the United States by military personnel and enslavers during this conflict. The U.S. Army purchased three for $151.72 each, expecting they could quickly subdue the “Black Seminole” rebellion.[5] Despite reputations for “tracking and pursuing negroes” throughout the Caribbean, they received mixed reviews in fighting the Seminoles.[6] Criticism centered on their inability to efficiently track in swamps, a habitat that Black resisters preferred to confound the hounds’ scenting abilities.[7] Some observers even speculated that the Seminoles smelled differently than the enslaved. Nevertheless, none of the reports doubted the bloodhound’s ferocity.

Though these bloodhounds underwhelmed in Florida swampland, they soon spread widely and interbred with local breeds. Lineages from the Cuban bloodhound were widely popular as a marker of quality. Southern trackers believed the descendants of the Cuban bloodhound would wield the same physical and sensory powers by “these terrible dogs,” as the enslaved “feared them more than the lash or musket.”[8] Fierce bloodhounds also reputedly from Cuba appeared in the Mississippi Valley at least by 1841, perhaps imported separately from their Florida counterparts.[9]

* * *

The spread of the Cuban bloodhound and the subsequent rise of slave hunting in the U.S. South shaped perceptions of slavery’s brutality throughout the Atlantic. European empires regularly engaged in warfare among themselves. However, their deliberate proliferation of these canines across borders demonstrated a cross-imperial commitment to uphold racialized slavery that transcended imperial rivalries.

Slave hunters in the U.S. South followed the techniques of their Cuban predecessors when breeding and training packs of dogs. And though specific tactics could vary in their levels of violence, the common feature of “training” for the slave hunting canine relied upon a human reinforcement of anti-Blackness. Typically, this meant a Black man was positioned as a target for the dog’s rage since puppyhood, as enslaved people were forced to beat the dog or withhold food from the animal for long stretches of time. Eventually, this process rendered the dogs and the enslaved as “implacable enemies,” and many contemporary observers believed that Southern bloodhounds instinctually attacked people of African descent with uniquely violent ferocity.[10]

Again, this unseemly enterprise was a veritable business. Responding to the market demands of slaveholders, individuals of any social class could enter the slave hunting profession and extract high payments for recapture if they could acquire a litter of puppies and successfully condition and cajole the animal. No set price existed for apprehending runaways. Rates fluctuated by time, effort, negotiation, and local market conditions. Some required per diems depending on the duration and distance of the excursion. Rates often depended upon the runaway’s condition at their return.[11]

In these domains, propertyless, nonslaveholding white men participated in bargaining over the value of enslaved people, enhancing their own masculinity, wealth, and whiteness.[12] Local officials who participated also benefited monetarily from the practice, further evincing systemic violence.[13] Advertisements circulated the physical characteristics of enslaved people, noting the scars they likely carried from previous dog attacks.[14] In one example, some runaways in North Carolina were identified in newspaper advertisements by their facial scars specifically from dog bites, which were likely acquired during past escapes.[15]

* * *

We must also understand how the enslaved resisted and obfuscated attempts to dehumanize them. They drew upon their spatial knowledge and relationships with the natural environment to contest the enhanced sensory skills of their nonhuman pursuers. Such techniques could vary on each plantation, and some communities even hoped to guard the knowledge from outsiders. In 1852, journalist L. A. Chamerovzow interviewed David Holmes, a formerly enslaved man born in Mecklenberg County, Virginia. In accordance with many similar testimonials, Holmes recalled that his knowledge of his environment aided him in successfully evading the bloodhounds. Such knowledge, however, was a “secret” that he surmised was not “known generally” and was especially guarded from the slave owners.[16] Chamerovzow took this reference seriously by omitting the name of the substance Holmes used to evade the bloodhound’s sensory power, explaining, “this must remain a[n] editorial secret. We will not betray it, for the benefit of the planters; but it is at the service of friends.” Indeed, it was known that the “runaways and their friends” possessed a secret that enabled them to “deceive even the keen scent” of the trained bloodhounds.[17]

A formerly enslaved man named Josiah noted his own community used a concoction of herbs, which when “put into their shoes, had the effect of destroying the scent, so that the dogs of the slave hunters could not follow them with the same certainty as they could those who were not provided with it.”[18] Josiah similarly did not publicize the specific communal knowledge that allowed him to contest the bloodhound’s sensory dominance. Such guarded traditions aided multiple enslaved people in escaping bondage, demonstrating how their oral transmissions covertly preserved an archive of resistance spanning across generations.

The natural environment provided a readily available repertoire for defensive actions. Like their Caribbean contemporaries, Africans and African Americans in the U.S. South studied concoctions of herbs and natural resources and orally transmitted knowledge of evasion across generations. Enslaved people in the United States surely benefited from the experiments of diasporic Africans who survived the early colonization of the Caribbean. Knowing they were captive to the brutalities of Atlantic chattel slavery, people of African descent throughout the western hemisphere studied their surroundings as a form of resistance and survival. For many, the peripheral zones beyond the plantation represented liberty. Both on and off the plantation, environmental knowledge was essential for surviving the humans and nonhumans who intended to harm them. Yearning for freedom, many escaped to the thick forests outside the confines of the plantation. Waterways and uncultivated land were especially useful, and their utility appears in the records of slave resistance by the mid-eighteenth century. Escaping dogs in Martinique, one runaway dove into a river and promptly obscured his scent and hid his face. He kept a part of his face exposed to breathe while he hid in the water and shrouded himself under a large palm frond.[19]

Maroon communities stretching from the mountains of Jamaica to Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp were also known to deploy such tactics to preserve their freedom, knowing that the presence of specially trained canines presented a looming threat to their discovery.[20] Swamps, rivers, caves, and rugged terrain were nearly impenetrable to many human populations, and, if the landscape was properly harnessed by the maroon community, also presented significant difficulties for nonhumans. Black people throughout the western hemisphere studied routes of escape and used an array of tools for evasion, and much of this knowledge was harnessed to obfuscate the canine’s sensory power and its superhuman stamina. No matter one’s distance from the slave hunters, the “bay” of the bloodhounds was a harrowing reminder to self-emancipators that their pursuers were never far behind and they continually worked to ensure the dogs lost their scent.

In the absence of weapons and other materials for self-defense, runaways harnessed products from the earth to evade the bloodhounds and preserve their distance from the hunters. Favored items for “throwing off the scent” often included pungent vegetables like onions and garlic, alongside mixtures of cayenne pepper, to disrupt the animal’s scenting abilities.[21] Enslaved people also utilized waterways to both mask their scent and track their geographical position. At other moments, if such measures failed, runaways used both domestic and wild animals to assist in their escape, with one testimony claiming that a maroon community in Louisiana daringly led dogs toward a swamp full of alligators that promptly snatched the canines as they waded through the water.[22] If all else failed, the enslaved who fled were known to engage in physical combat, which could prove deadly for both the canine and the freedom seeker. Tactics of evasion were complex and varied, as enslaved people blended their ancestral traditions with their own localized knowledge to abscond from the plantation or aid runaways.

* * *

Beyond the horrid attacks or heroic responses, readers may take from this piece a recognition that the rise of slavery and racism in the Americas transcended species, empires, geographies, and terrains. Canine sensory capabilities terrorized Black agents, and these localized, micro struggles informed macro institutions and cultures. It is not coincidental that stories of evading canines appear in abolitionist narratives throughout the U.S. South and within the records of the broader South Atlantic. Interspecies violence linked the empires of the western hemisphere, as well as the resistance efforts of Black people separated by thousands of miles and multiple centuries. Sometimes, ingenuity of Black resisters prevailed despite the odds arrayed against them, and even when they did not succeed, their actions themselves were an insistence of their own humanity. Scholars must continue to centralize these nonhuman elements of Atlantic history and provide a way to contextualize a past that remains relevant to understanding present social conditions.


[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853), 136–37.

[2] Benjamin Drew, A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856), 349.

[3] New York Commercial Advertiser, June 8, 1827.

[4] “The Bloodhounds,” Portsmouth Journal, Feb. 29, 1840, 2.

[5] Theo F. Rodenbough, From Everglade to Canon with the Second Dragoons: An Authentic Account of Service in Florida, Mexico, Virginia, and Indian Country (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1875), 44.

[6] Rodenbough, From Everglade to Canon, 44.

[7] Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, The Reputed President of the Underground Railroad (Cincinnati: Robert, Clarke & Co., 1880), 254–55; Matthew J. Gallman, ed., Tour of Reconstruction: Travel Letters of 1875 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 111.

[8] “Bloodhounds,” Our Boys and Girls, Mar. 12, 1870, 169–71.

[9] Joseph Hazard to Isaac Hazard, Jan. 11, 1841, Isaac Peace Hazard Papers, Ms. 483 sg. 12, box 3, folder 1, Rhode Island Historical Society. Thanks to Seth Rockman for this source.

[10] James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: AntiSlavery Society, 1838), xv.

[11] John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 156.

[12] “Hunting Slaves with Bloodhounds,” in Friends of the Negro, Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), no. 59.

[13] William Parker, “The Freedman’s Story, Part 2,” The Atlantic Monthly 17 (Mar. 1866): 281.

[14] “Hunting Slaves with Bloodhounds,” Five Hundred Thousand, no. 59.

[15] “Fifty Dollars Reward,” Star and North Carolina Gazette, 3 Oct. 3, 1823, p. 3; “100 Dollars Reward,” Newbern Spectator and Literary Journal, Nov. 28, 1829, p. 3; “Ran Away,” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser, Feb. 4, 1805, p. 3; “Ranaway,” Greensborough Patriot, June 16, 1864, p. 2.

[16] L. A. Chamerovzow, “David Holmes,” in Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies, ed. John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 298.

[17] John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Now in England (London: The Editor, 1855), 213.

[18] Henry Bleby, Josiah: The Maimed Fugitive. A True Tale (London: William Nichols, 1873), 143–44.

[19] Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon, Voyage a la Martinique (Paris: J. B. Bauche, 1763), 63. A later book on Saint-Domingue seems to have completely borrowed this story and presented is as having occurred on Hispaniola: S. J. Ducoeurjoly, Manuel des habitans de Saint-Domingue, Tome Premier (Paris: Arthus-Bertrand, 1803), 28–29.

[20] Tyler D. Parry and Charlton W. Yingling, “Slave Hounds and Abolition in the Americas,” Past and Present 246 (1) (Feb. 2020): 69–108.

[21] A Runaway Slave, “Recollections of Slavery,” The Emancipator, Sept. 13, 1838. James Watkins, Narrative of the Life of James Watkins, Formerly a “Chattel” in Maryland, U.S. (Bolton: Kenyon and Abbatt, 1852), 21.

[22] William Tynes Cowan, The Slave in the Swamp: Disrupting the Plantation Narrative (New York: Routledge, 2005), 52.