Trends in the runaway slave advertisements

By Olivia Carlisle

The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project team has digitized over two thousand advertisements for fugitive slaves from newspapers across the state published between 1751 and 1840. The digitization of these advertisements allows researchers access to a different kind of primary source material that will prove valuable to a number of research areas. The advertisements will be useful to anyone researching genealogy, the culture of the antebellum American South, and the language and terminology of the era, among other subjects. This essay lists a few suggested areas of research which piqued the interest of the project team. These advertisements offer unique insight into slaveholders’ view of their chattel through the descriptions they offer.The similarities and trends among the ads can provide researchers with a wealth of demographic data and information about antebellum culture.

Fugitive slave ads in newspapers shared certain similarities in structure and content. Generally, each included the slave’s name, age, height, and skin color, description of clothing, physical description, and personality traits. Additional information was often provided to aid in the slave’s capture. Those placing ads sometimes mention family members in other locations and list previous owners, as these might have provided clues as to the slave’s whereabouts. The majority of ads that suggest a destination mention a slave’s propensity to aim for free states or the coast, where they were more likely to find help from free blacks or abolitionist whites. A few were suspected to have gone to Georgia or Virginia, often to return to a former home. Some ads also noted the possibility that the slave in question may have headed west.

Other ads comment on the circumstances of escape. It appears that slaves commonly ran away while they or their owner were traveling. Some escaped on horseback, either from the plantation or while on the road; these ads often include a separate--and often higher--reward for the stolen horse than for the slave. In a few instances, slaves are suspected of having run off with a white woman whom the slaveholder believes will pose as the slave’s owner in order to smuggle him to safety in a free state.

Certain descriptions are more commonly found than others. Skin color, for example, ranges in description from “black” to “mulatto” or “yellow skinned”. Physical descriptions usually included a veritable inventory of scars, either from diseases like smallpox, property markings (i.e. branding) or as a result of labor-related accidents (e.g. cotton gins, “cut of an axe”, etc.) Accounts of other physical traits include limps, deformities, birthmarks, and missing limbs.

Descriptions of slave clothing regularly utilize vocabulary which will likely be unfamiliar to the modern reader. Fabrics like ozanburg (also called oznaburg, ozenburg, ozenberg, and so on,) linsey, homespun and kersey were common garb, and at least in the case of ozanburg, were produced expressly for the purpose of outfitting slaves. Personality traits, too, were similarly cataloged for slaves’ potential capturers. Frequently mentioned traits include stuttering, alcoholism, hostility toward authority, avoidance of eye contact, sullenness, “very likely”, and a “down look”. Additional identifying information often includes a mention of the slave’s trade or skills such as farming, blacksmithing, or coopering. A few slaves also had worked in newspaper offices, at universities, or as waiters.

Many runaway slave ads mention whether the slave was literate or illiterate. In the case of a literate fugitive slave, this fact usually prefaced the owner’s suspicion that the slave may have possession of or would create a forged free pass.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the missing slave’s owner placed the ad. In some instances, however, ads were placed by those to whom slaves had been hired out. This system of renting out slaves to other property owners became popular late in the antebellum period and has been credited with contributing to the decline of North Carolina’s system of slavery. Other instances in which the slave’s owner was not placing an ad directly include a variety of representatives, such as guardians of slaveholding minors, executors of estates, and agent for slave owners.

Readers and researchers may note that the authors of ads often reveal their attitudes in the text. Some slaveholders are distinctly hostile toward the runaway slave, declaring that the slave is “outlawed” or providing “dead or alive” rewards (in one case, a higher reward for dead than alive). Other slave owners appear perplexed regarding their slave’s escape, lamenting that the slave had “no provocation” for running away. In at least one ad, the owner states a belief that his slave was kidnapped, and provides a reward for information about the kidnapper as well as for the return of the slave. Perhaps indicative of slaveholder’s economic means is the amount of reward offered: Rewards ranged from two dollars to one hundred, whereas the actual value of a slave in neighboring states averaged around $350.[1]

Throughout the newspaper ads, it became obvious that there were quite a few prominent slave owners placing advertisements about their fugitive slaves. At least six generals, twelve colonels, five governors, and countless esquires were mentioned either as the slave owner, the person placing the ad, or as a previous owner. The governors mentioned include Richard Caswell, first governor of North Carolina; Samuel Johnston, who also held a seat in Senate; and William Tryon, who resided in Tryon Palace, the first governor’s residence in North Carolina. Quite a few slave owners who placed multiple ads were prominent individuals or at least members of prominent families. Philemon Hodges, for example, was one of the first commissioners of Averasboro, North Carolina, a thriving town during most of the nineteenth century that dissipated by the nineteenth century.[2] Stephen Cabarrus, who placed multiple fugitive slave ads, was Speaker of the House of Representatives in North Carolina from 1789 to 1793 and again from 1800 to 1805. John Burgwin, who came from one of the most prominent families in North Carolina, placed at least six runaway slaves ads.[3]

There are also several people with the same last name who could possibly be related for example, the numerous ads were placed by individuals names Littlejohn, Borden, and Pugh. By tracking who placed the newspaper ads and how many were placed, a researcher can discover information about the slave owner and the behavior of the slaves. Many advertisements were placed by executors, and by tracking the advertisements the deceased owner had placed over the years a researcher can discover when the owner died. For example, James Beggs placed multiple runaway slave ads, and in one subsequent advertisement he is noted as deceased; this is also the case of one Joseph Hawkins. Slaves often took the death of their owner as an opportunity to escape. One example is B.B. Benbury; multiple ads were placed by his executor for slaves who had run away after his death.

There are many opportunities for researchers in the newspaper advertisements of runaway slaves that go beyond genealogy. A few areas of possible research that we thought would be interesting include:

While working on the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, the team came across a few specific ads that are too interesting not to mention due to their unusual and uncommon nature. While multiple advertisements state the destination of the runaway slave or where they have been spotted, one slave named Stephen, owned by John Wood, was seen working in the Shingle Swamp, or the Great Dismal Swamp, a refuge of over 100,000 acres where runaway slaves could disappear, and slave owners could rarely follow. Slave owners also stated that some slaves claimed they were free; one such slave, owned by Thomas W. Pearson, claimed that he was free and had been born in London.

When a runaway slave advertisement was placed in the newspaper, the name of the slave was generally included, although there are some that do not include the name of the slave and there is some suggestion that one newspaper got tired of slave owners not providing all relevant information. In an advertisement placed by Benjamin P. Wells for a runaway slave girl, an editorial note at the bottom states, "If this Girl has a name, the owner would have done well to have announced it to the public.--Pr."”"

In perhaps the most interesting advertisement the team came across, the slave owner, while including all the standard information, also felt it was important to focus on the character of the fugitive slave because he posed such a threat to the community. In this advertisement, placed by James H. Keys, the description of his slave, Jacob, is described as having

been heard by the overseer to throw out some hints that all should be free, and that he saw no reason why the sweat of his brow should be expended in supporting the extravagance and idleness of any man; or some words to that effect. This principle, I am informed, he wished to impress upon the minds of my other negroes; and I doubt not will attempt to do the same wherever he goes. It therefore becomes, not only the duty, but the interest of every person, possessed of such property, to apprehend such fellow, and thereby avert the progress of such dangerous principles.

Despite his dangerous thoughts, Keys only offered a ten-dollar reward for Jacob, but on hundred dollars reward was offered for any evidence against any person or persons who had harbored, aided or employed Jacob.

  1. Runaway slaves: rebels on the plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger pg. 176-177; "Slaves Prices and the Economy of the Lower South, 1722-1809" by Joshua Rosenbloom
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