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Wrought iron leg shackles, late eighteenth century. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Wrought iron leg shackles, late eighteenth century. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

From the earliest years of the institution of slavery, individuals who were held in bondage tried every possible method to gain their freedom. A few slaves benefitted from the legal system: for example, a slave could be freed via a legal deed of manumission or, after their owner’s death, by the terms of the owner’s will. Some slaves managed to make arrangements to purchase their freedom from their owners, then worked and saved for many years to do so. Other slaves ran away in an attempt to claim their freedom.

For runaway slaves, freedom was usually short-lived. Most were captured and returned to their owners or, if their owners could not be identified, sold to new masters. To ensure that they could not escape again, captured runaways were held in jails until they could be returned to their owners—in shackles.

The shackles shown above are typical of those used on prisoners of all types, including runaway slaves, in Great Britain and America during the last half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century. They are made of wrought iron and were most likely made by a specialist shackles maker, or possibly by an experienced general blacksmith. Because of their length (31 inches overall), these shackles were probably used around the ankles, allowing a captured runaway to walk but not run. Like modern handcuffs, shackles had a lock so they could be removed from the prisoner when necessary.

These leg shackles are a vivid reminder of the measures that were used to keep enslaved men and women in bondage, and the lengths to which enslaved men and women went to gain their freedom. Runaway slaves risked recapture, imprisonment—even death—so they and their children could be free.

Source: This article was written by Martha B. Katz-Hyman, independent curator and specialist in African American material culture of eighteenth-century Tidewater Virginia.