Finding Runaway Slaves: Freedom on the Move and the Databasing of Fugitive Slave Advertisements from North American Newspapers

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(Left to right) Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. Edward E. Baptist is Professor of History and Dean of Carl Becker House at Cornell University. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Most historians of chattel slavery looking for detailed information about individual enslaved people have turned to a familiar constellation of sources: nineteenth-century slave narratives, the Ex-Slave Narratives gathered in the 1930s and 1940s by the Works Progress Administration, plantation records, and legal documents. We hope that this is about to change, by bringing new and existing digital techniques to a type of narrative that ran daily on the pages of American newspapers from the eighteenth century until the Civil War: the fugitive slave advertisement.

From the earliest days of colonial slavery in North America until the final realization of Emancipation, enslaved people ran away in large numbers. They did so for many reasons: to reach free territory, to escape a violent owner, to return to family from whom they had been separated, or to gain some leverage in negotiation with an owner or overseer. Both owners looking for runaways and jailers who captured fugitives mid-flight printed information in local newspapers to assist in the recovery of escapees. With a few short lines each, they produced tiny, dense narratives that often included detailed physical descriptions of fugitives (such as height, build, appearance, clothing, any scars or identifying marks) as well as information regarding specific skills, literacy level, and linguistic abilities. At times they also included fugitives’ personal and family histories, when and where they had been bought or sold, and even speculation about where a fugitive might be headed and why. An owner in Hunstsville, Alabama, for instance, posted the following ad in 1830:

$10 REWARD

RANAWAY from the subscriber, on or about the 10th of August last, a negro man, named WILLIS, aged 21 or 22 years, about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high—rather a bright complexion, stoutly made, when spoken to has a down look, tolerably thick lips, the thumb of the right hand has been cut off at the root of the [illegible]; he is left handed, and is a first rate brick-moulder. He was raised near Hillsborough, N.C. and was brought to this county about three years ago. It is probable that he may attempt to return to North Carolina again. The above reward will be given, if taken in this county, if out of the county, all reasonable expenses will be defrayed.

GEORGE STEELE

Huntsville, Sept. 10, 1830

FederalUnion_18530301_01_01 (1)

Ad that ran in North Carolina’s Federal Union newspaper on March 1, 1853. (click to expand)

While it is difficult to know the outcome of these escapes—some runaways succeeded, but many more were recaptured, as evidenced by the large number of jailer ads—we know who ran, and in many cases how often they did so.

Thousands of these enslaved individuals on the run inhabit the pages of historical newspapers in the United States. By 1865, we estimate more than 200,000 such notices appeared. These men, women, and children who risked their lives to flee from their enslavers could change how we think about enslavement in the United States by giving names and faces to the people who directly contested slavery. As historians Loren Schweinger and John Hope Franklin pointed out in 1999 (well before digital technology allowed us to create a comprehensive database) the stories contained in the ads demand that we de-center the dominant narrative of escape along the Underground Railroad. While the history of an underground antislavery network is a familiar one, the paths of most fugitives are not. An ad for Fanny, published in New Orleans in 1844, for instance, relayed that she was thirty years of age, spoke both English and French, was missing her front teeth and had “very dark skin.” But is also reveals that her flight depended upon family ties. She took one daughter, “a mulatto, aged about 7,” with her when she ran. But she had another daughter, on Girod Street, “and may go there at night.” The ad also reported that Fanny had been seen at St. Mary’s Market. Hence, Fanny’s goals were immediate, her flight shaped by circumstance: a young child in tow, another child living separately from her, and the necessity of buying or selling goods at market to sustain herself and her family. In fact, the majority of the individuals who appeared in fugitive slave advertisements had trajectories, like Fanny’s, that were calculated, unique, and accomplished without the aid of abolitionists. 

As a corpus, these ads make for very difficult reading. Yet while they illuminate the emotional trials, brutal punishments, and poor physical health enslaved people endured, they also testify to the individual and collective will of those trapped within the system of chattel slavery. Unwittingly, with these advertisements in search of their lost “property,” owners and jailers exposed and preserved thousands of acts of resistance from slavery.

With the help of students at our respective institutions, we are compiling digital versions of all fugitive ads placed in North American newspapers. And with a team of digital librarians and programmers at Cornell University, we are creating a searchable database for these ads and a crowdsourcing interface that will allow citizen historians and students to assist in the collection of data. They will correct transcriptions of the advertisements produced through optical character recognition (OCR) and then answer a controlled set of questions about what details they found in the ad. Those answers will produce metadata, which will enable searches across the database using categories such as age, gender, or type of skill. In addition, we are partnering with scholars and libraries that have already digitized regional collections of the advertisements, with the aim of creating as close to a complete data set as possible.

Ultimately, scholars and citizen historians alike will be able to engage the material both in the aggregate, tracing patterns and trends, and in the singular, as the individual stories of enslaved people. The possibilities afforded by looking at the ads in the aggregate might include tracking and mapping widespread resistance of enslaved people to cotton production, or to the massive forced migration that moved one million people from the older to the newer areas of the South between 1790 and 1860. Both of these phenomena could be measured and mapped by coding and aggregating the kinds of data found in runaway ads. The data will allow other phenomena to be traced, as well, such as long-term changes in marriage and kinship patterns, use of clothing and other consumer goods by the enslaved, or the indicators of physical health, well-being, or violence that are present in descriptions of a fugitive’s stature, weight, and visible marks of injury like whip scars and maimed body parts. New digital technologies not only make these sorts of innovative analyses possible, but also, we hope, will inspire new questions about the past.

While the ads lend themselves to macro analysis, however, we do not want to lose sight of the individual lives they document. We recognize that it is through these personal narratives that Freedom on the Move will most successfully engage students at all levels as well as the broader public interested in African American genealogy. The daily refusals of people like Willis or Fanny to submit to the persistent cruelties of slavery have left us with a wealth of primary material. Searching across digitized fugitive ads, we can discover new ways of understanding, at individual and quite personal levels, both the toll slavery took on human bodies and its failure to defeat resistant spirits.

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