American Pit Bull - History in Slavery

Oct 24 '18 | By Kemet1luv

There’s rarely an in-between when it comes to the never ending debate of the Pit Bulls’ place in society. But how exactly did Pit Bulls go from being “America’s Dog”, the SAVAGE dog of the slave owner, and slave catcher at the turn of the 20th century to one of the most beloved K9's in Black American households in the past few decades?

The American Pit Bull is a purebred dog that finds its history rooted in the now extinct Old English Terriers, and the Old English Bulldogs, which were both bred together to produce a dog that combined gameness, strength, and athleticism. These dogs named Bulls and Terriers were bred in the British Isles, and arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth century, where they became the direct ancestors of the American Pit Bull. In the United Kingdom, Bull-and-terriers were used in blood sports such as bull baiting and bear baiting. Upon arrival in America, the American Pit Bull, highly intelligent, short haired dog, was the MOST OFTEN chosen to fill the role of companion dog for slave owners, and savage hunters of the ‘run-away’ slave catchers. 


Pit Bulls, a medium sized dog, also bred as Bull mastiffs, a larger version, were referred to by slave catchers as ‘Dog Men’,  were one of the most diabolical weapons used on enslaved Africans in America. Slave owners/Masters and catchers trained these beast to hunt bears and runaway slaves alike. Locate, alert, maul, and contain tactics were often used on our ancestors. Sadistic slave catchers would sometimes reward these savage killer dogs during a hunt, catchers would instruct the dog to attackt the abdomens of the runaway slaves, and eat his/her stomach flesh; this method of reward was particularly rewarding when attacking pregnant escaped slaves. 


During the 19th century the Southern states of America managed there Slave Empire with extreme brutality, the mere use of chattel slavery on the worlds African populations and indigenous people proved to be highly profitable, and equally polarizing. The enslaved people of the southern American states particularly were forced to negotiate with wild beast when trying to escape bondage. The wildlife that proliferated throughout much of the south, particularly in the swamps found throughout the region, meant that running away entailed more than simply avoiding catchers and vile masters.  Indeed, runaway enslaved people, often labeled ‘fugitives’ consistently noted the multiple dangers.  One in particular was Solomon Northup, a famous former slave, gave this account of his escape into a Louisianan swamp:

‘For thirty or forty miles it is without habitants, save wild beasts – the bear, the wild-cat, the tiger, and great slimy reptiles, that are crawling through it everywhere.  I staggered on, fearing every instant I should feel the dreadful sting of the moccasin, or be crushed within the jaws of some disturbed alligator.  The dread of them now almost equaled the fear of the pursuing hounds’ [Twelve Years a Slave, edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968), 103-104].’

Despite the many obstacles faced in his pursuit of freedom, the wild creatures still did not frighten him as much as the pursuing ‘hounds’. Interviews of many former slaves in the 1930s reiterate the fact that, despite the numerous threats from wild southern animals, it was the use of trained dogs, mainly the Pit Bull that most frightened them.

Former slaves claimed that masters, and professional slave catchers would use ‘savage dogs, trained to hunt and follow the track of the poor colored fugitive’ [William J. B Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave (1857), 48]. Further accounts from slave-owners suggest that the fears of the enslaved people, were not far off. According to Bennett H. Barrow diary, one slaveholder from Louisiana, frequently mentioned the importance of dogs in capturing runaways, as well as the terrible violence they could inflict: ‘hunting Ruffins Boy Henry, came across Williams runaway caught him dogs nearly et his legs off, near killing him’.  [Diary, Mss. 2978, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La, 440]. 

The Psychotic American slave owners/masters had such faith in using specially breed dogs to root out runaways, particularly the more dangerous groups or “maroons”, was recognized by other former slaves who stated that ‘masters would be afraid to go hunt them without dogs’ [George P. Rawick (ed) The American Slave, Vol. 9, (1972), 102].  Dogs played a significant role in the repressive machinery of bondage and they were admired by whites and dreaded by enslaved people.  As one ex-slave stated: ‘if the colored folks had started an uprising the white folks would have set the hounds on us and killed us’ [Rawick (ed.), The American Slave, Vol. 8, (1972) 227].

Enslaved Africans were not simply struck dead with fear in the face of the Pit Bull, runaways would plan their escapes with the dogs in mind and had different tactics to avoid them.  Ex-slaves recalled attempts to make the dogs ‘los’ de scent’ in various different ways  [John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony (1977), 608].  Another ex-slave, recalling slave life, noted that ‘Sam greased his feet with rabbit-grease, and that kept the dogs from him. Aunt Jane said to me that she did not know what Sam used, but it looked like Sam could go off and stay as long as he wanted when the white folks got after him’ [Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage (1890), 22*].  Another former slave remembered instead how her father would ‘wade in water’ so ‘dey [the dogs] can’t track him’. [Rawick (ed.), The American Slave, Supplement, Series 2, Vol. 4, (1977), 45].

Not all of our enslaved ancestors struggled to avoid the savage Pit Bulls, choosing to confront these beast instead.  On ex-slave noted, ‘Dey had to keep knives from Pappy or when dem dogs cotch him he would jus’ cut ‘em up so dey would die’ (Rawick, The American Slave, Vol.12 (1972), 309-10). Barrow’s diary also collaborated these accounts, [p.348]: ‘Mr Turnbulls negros are cutting up a great many shines – 16 ran off & have defied him – are well armed killed two of his dogs while in pursuit of them’.

Despite the undeniable ferocity and tenacity of the Pit Bull, suggestions that ‘the slave is obliged too often to yield and be torn by the savage dogs who gratify the vengeful dispositions of the masters’ do not do justice to the scale of conflict between runaways and dogs [Anderson, Life and Narrative, 48].  

One tale of pursuit by dogs has it that a slave who constantly attempted escapes simply ‘bit a dog’s foot off.  They asked him why he did that and he said the dog bit him and he bit him back’ [George P. Rawick (ed.), The American Slave, Vol. 9, (1972), 38].

It is evident that the Pit Bull, a.k.a ‘Dog Men’ played a significant role in the repressive regime of slavery. Owners and patrollers marveled at the ingenuity and ferocity of the dogs themselves [Barrow, Diary, 378].  

Our ancestors feared the savage attacks and relentless pursuit of these beast, but also fought back and factored Pit Bulls into their escape plans. This is obviously not to say that Pit Bulls and enslaved people were always pitted against one another; enslaved people could sometimes forge friendly relations with the dogs, and sometimes used them in their escape, or appreciate their role in hunting. 

Yet despite this, the role of the Pit Bull in maintaining slavery was well known and the tale of a so-called emancipation that went neatly underscores how integral slaves saw Pit Bulls were to the slave system that oppressed them, and terrorized them AND HISTORIANS, AND OTHERS SHOULD TOO!



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