I have been intrigued lately with the topic of runaway slaves. I research the Prather family in Montgomery County, Maryland and recently discovered that one of the Prathers I am tracking ran away and was picked up in DC in 1858. I guess that started it all. I pulled out my copy of “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation” by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, which is probably the most complete study to date. I also purchased a book recently called “Blacks Who Stole Themselves” (what a great title, right?) that I first saw at the Library of Congress. This book features advertisements from the Pennsylvania Gazette for runaways from 1728-1790. Many of the runaways are from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey & Virginia. I have a good friend who has a doctorate in African-American History and we talk alot about this. He opened my eyes one day–we were talking about Lincoln “freeing” the slaves. And he said to me, “NO, the slaves freed themselves. They ran away in such large numbers during the Civil War that they forced the issue to be confronted.” I was (and still am) fascinated by this perspective.
I keep thinking about what it must have been like to run away and have no concept of where to go. No maps. To risk your life over and over again (many of the runaways have a history of running away). To go into the woods with your baby. To leave your children. To not be able to read or write, or have anything else than the knowledge that you were born free and have a right to freedom, and will do anything to attain it. I wonder constantly if I could have done that. I think about how awful it must have been. I don’t know how they survived. Nothing but the grace of God.
As I read over these runaway ads (which are a terrific source for finding slaveholders) I want to share some of the things that stood out to me. In general, in each ad, there is a listing of where, when and who they ran away from,the slave’s age and name, a detailed description of their clothing, usually comments about their personality, physical looks and perhaps occupation. The ads are very telling on several levels, especially the view of the slaveholder or white majority society’s impression of blacks/slaves. Here’s a list of things and specific ads that resonated with me:
- the large number of runaways who are described as having what are likely African or African-inspired markings: holes in their ears and noses, scars on their faces and foreheads
- the description of many that are “new to this country”, “country-born”, “lately arrived from Barbados”(or Angola, or Guinea, or Dominica) and many who ” do not speak English”
- many are described as “Spanish negroes” or “Spanish mulattoes”
- the description of their personalities as: cunning, sly, complaisant, sour, impudent, bold, artful, smooth-tongued, surly, sour, sensible, talkative, shy, well-spoken, lusty (what in the world does that mean?)
- many are described as having “been much cut” on their backs, by “often whipping”
- some ran away in groups of 2-5 people, comprised of women and men, sometimes even with white indentured servants
- several ads discuss the runaway having Indian blood, one even saying “he can talk Indian very well”.
- many of the ads mention the slaves having brass or pewter buckles on their shoes, which I assume would have stood out because that was a rare commodity
- several of the slaves could read and write, and the ads talked about how they are “pretending to be free” ,”will pretend to be searching for a master”, “is almost white”, and could easily “write themselves a pass”
- the fear of freed blacks (particularly in Philadelphia) is evident in that many ads purport that the runaway is “being hidden by freed blacks
- “’tis’ supposed he is being harbored by some base white woman, as he has contracted intimacies with several of that sort”
- “the said negroe is named Jupiter, but it is thought he may likely call himself by his negroe name, which is Mueyon, or Omtee”
- “he is a short, thick fellow, limps with his right knee, and one of his buttocks is bigger than the other” (I’m just trying to picture that;))
There are a few websites which have undertaken the goal of documenting runaway slave ads. There’s Maryland’s Underground Railroad website, which includes runaway ads, and the University of Virginia’s project. There’s also a site for Baltimore County, MD and The Geography of Virginia website. Check them out if you get a chance. My friend Michael Hait did a good article on the genealogical value of runaway slave ads awhile ago. I love this short article at Yale University about analyzing runaway slave ads, which was really interesting.
Let me know your thoughts, family, if you found any relatives you are researching in runaway ads, or if you just found something interesting worth sharing.
I am so proud of the fact that slaves constantly resisted the system of slavery, with dedication and perseverance. I dedicate this post to a slave who ran away in 1759: “…a negro man named Caesar, he has both his legs cutoff and walks on his knees.”
Can you imagine? That one took my breath away. Caesar demanded his freedom so badly he would run way with no legs. Simply astounding.