Friday, April 20, 2012

Runaway Slave Ads

Runaway advertisements and Notices of Committal are some of the most rewarding sources for ascertaining the movement, motivation, and destination of enslaved persons have have taken flight. Runaway ads were placed by slave owners or their representatives in newspapers. These selection of the press in which to post such ads was aimed at recapture of the fugitive, so often ads were placed in papers outside of the slave's farm or plantation site.

Out-of-State owners, especially Virginians, advertised in Maryland's press for the state represented the last obstacle to the "free" North. Committal Notices were announcements of capture and detainment of persons suspected of being fugitives from slavery. Not being able to prove their free status, persons so detained faced return to their masters (if they were fugitives), or sale into slavery at the benefit of the county (if no owner claimed the detainee). Only those able to prove their free status, by document or corroboration of status from white persons, were released. 

Owners seeking fugitives knew that is was to their advantage to give as complete a description of the person being sought as possible. Names and aliases, gender, age, physical features, and distinguishing marks, clothing and apparel are the most basic components. Often a biographical sketch was included. This gave highlights about the fugitive's friends and familial connections in other parts of the state or region. The picture that emerges is one of a slave community that was not necessarily bounded by the farm or plantation property lines. Many times, advertisers would give hints as to why the enslaved person may have taken flight. While such insights reflected masters' perceptions of the enslaved's world, and are frequently biased, the descriptive quality nonetheless provides researchers with valuable tools for understanding slave psychology as well as the give-and-take relationship between members of Maryland's slave society.

Runaway Slaves Reward Flyer

A flyer advertises a $200 reward for the capture of “Jim” and “Jack,” two men who apparently escaped slavery in Saline County, Mo., in June 1860. Saline County was part of the region known as “Little Dixie” where emigrants mainly arriving from Kentucky earlier in the 19th century had established southern institutions and culture. This area included some of the largest slaveholders in Missouri. Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.

Interpreting an advertisement for a runaway slave from Choices Program on Vimeo.

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