Horses and horsemanship played an interesting role during slavery. The most famous black horseman in the Revolutionary period was our old friend, William “Billy” Lee, George Washington’s slave and personal attendant, the only slave whom Washington freed upon his death. Billy Lee was, by all accounts, a superb horseman, and rode just behind his master.
In the black abolitionist Henry Bibb’s famous slave narrative of 1849, horses compose almost a leitmotif: Before finally attaining his freedom, he is captured, handcuffed and tied by his feet to a horse and returned to slavery, but he effects his ultimate escape by stealing another horse (“the best looking of them”) from a large plantation, and riding him “not less than forty miles that night, or before sunrise the next morning,” to gain his freedom. Bibb, a famous newspaper editor whose narrative was extremely popular, tells us, “I thanked God, and thanked the horse for what he had done for me, and wished him a safe journey back home.”
And then there is the famous 1862 painting titled “The Fugitive Slaves,” by Eastman Johnson, which depicts a slave family fleeing to freedom on a stallion, suggesting that horses were used by slaves to make their escapes.
Slaves also rode horses professionally: As Lisa K. Winkler writes in Smithsonian Magazine, slaves served as jockeys from Colonial times, long before black men dominated the first decades of the Kentucky Derby (in the first Derby in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were black): “…when President Andrew Jackson moved in the White House in 1829, he brought along his best Thoroughbreds and his black jockeys. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country’s most valuable horseflesh,” they “were allowed to travel the racing circuit” and “they competed alongside whites.” So, for as effective as the trope is used in Django to distinguish a free Negro from a slave, this is not historically accurate.
It Was a Dog-Eat-Slave World
Professional slave catchers used dogs to chase and capture fugitive slaves. As David Doddington writes in “Slavery and Dogs in the Antebellum South” for the website Sniffing the Past, “it was the use of trained dogs that appears to have most concerned” the slaves. “Former slaves claimed that masters, patrollers, or professional slave catchers would use ‘savage dogs, trained to hunt and follow the track of the poor colored fugitive,’ ” according to the 1857 slave narrative of William J. Anderson.
But tracking slaves is one thing; devouring them, as happens in Django, is quite another. Did this happen — could this have happened — given the fact that the ultimate goal of a master was to exploit his human chattel for maximum profit, and destroying property would not be perhaps the best business decision?
Apparently, it sometimes did happen. Doddington quotes a slaveholder from Louisiana named Bennett H. Barrow, “who kept a detailed dairy and 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.’ ”