More information on enslaved people has come from an unlikely place.
Joshua Rothman, professor in the department of history at the University of Alabama, discusses how ads placed for the return of runaway slaves gives us a more complete picture of our history.
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 the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.
A New Portrait of Slavery Emerges
Among the millions of people enslaved in the American colonies and the United States, hundreds of thousands attempted to flee their bondage. In doing so runaways laid down a steady drumbeat of resistance out of synch with the rhythms their enslavers tried to instill. They also posed a direct threat to their enslavers’ economic bottom line, withdrawing both their labor and their value as assets from the command of white people.
It is not surprising, then, that slaveholders routinely placed advertisements in American newspapers offering rewards for the return of their absconded property. And even though they were clearly designed as wanted posters of a sort, each advertisement is also a kind of miniature biography of an individual enslaved person who might otherwise make no other appearance in the historical record.
Slaveholders described fugitives not only by name and age, but by skin color, height, and build. They often detailed what people were wearing when they ran away, what special skills they possessed, what languages they spoke, and what kinds of scars and marks of work injuries or torture they carried on their bodies. They described where people had been brought from, guessed where they might be heading, and speculated on strategies runaways would use to elude pursuers.
By collecting, digitizing, and analyzing all of these advertisements together we can reveal fugitives from slavery for the brave and heroic individuals they were rather than leave them buried in the archives in the guise of the criminals and villains their enslavers imagined them to be. Moreover, by looking at large numbers of ads in the aggregate, we are just beginning to find patterns of behavior and action that might otherwise never come to light. They reveal slavery to have been a more dynamic institution than we have ever imagined, and they show in rich detail how the enslaved themselves moved across a landscape of slavery and created possibilities from it that were never supposed to be.
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In a digital archive of fugitive slave ads, a new portrait of slavery emerges
Among the millions of people enslaved in the United States before 1865, hundreds of thousands attempted to flee from those who held them in bondage.
Some left temporarily to protest mistreatment. Others sought to reunite with loved ones from whom they had been forced apart. Many simply wanted freedom.
These fugitives from American slavery often left no trace in the historical record, but we can document the flight of many of them. After all, to their white owners, enslaved people were valuable property – well worth the time, effort and resources devoted to their capture. The method most likely to produce results was enlisting other white people in the search by publicly offering a reward.
Open practically any issue of any southern newspaper from the decades before the Civil War and you’ll see advertisements placed by slaveholders searching for runaway slaves. Perhaps as many as 200,000 of these notices appeared in the public prints of the South, and each one attaches a name and a story to a fugitive.
Historians have known about and used runaway advertisements before, of course, but they’ve never all been gathered in one easily accessible place. So in 2014, a team of scholars led by myself, Edward Baptist of Cornell University, and Mary Niall Mitchell of the University of New Orleans began collaborating on a project called Freedom on the Move to collect and digitize these ads.
After every one of the names and stories in them becomes available to and searchable by scholars and the general public, we hope we will understand, in new ways, the lives and experiences of those who resisted slavery by trying to liberate themselves.
A window into a life
Runaway advertisements were essentially wanted posters for people whose crime was pursuing their own freedom, and slaveholders provided as much detail about those people as possible in order to maximize the chances for recapture.
An advertisement might include a fugitive’s name, age, height, build and skin color. But it could also note specialized skills (“a brick-layer by trade”), languages spoken, distinctive physical markings, and signs of work injuries or torture (“the end of the forefinger of the left hand has been cut off”). Some might note the way a person carried him- or herself (“when walking inclines to lean forward”). A slaveholder could provide details about what a fugitive was wearing when he or she fled, indicate whether he or she could read and write, or speculate about an escaped person’s potential destination.
While slaveholders designed runaway advertisements to put the surveillance efforts of the state and the broader white populace at their disposal, they also unwittingly provided windows into the lives of the men, women and children who were desperately trying to free themselves from bondage and forge their own destinies.
The power of a digitization
By amassing all of these advertisements under the umbrella of one database, we’ll be able to digitally analyze thousands of them at the same time. This has the potential to open avenues for researchers to make discoveries that might have otherwise been impossible.
For example, we could map the places slaves fled from and where their owners imagined they might try to end up, allowing us to visualize a new landscape of movement. We can document changing patterns of flight over time, and across multiple geographies.
We can also create detailed demographic profiles of those who fled, and gain insight into strategies deployed by fugitives as they tried to ensure they would not be caught. How often, for example, did enslaved people steal free papers and attempt to travel under an assumed name, as a man named Bob, who lived near Huntsville, Alabama, did in 1829? How many people were there like Harry, who fled in 1832 from a farm near Jackson, Mississippi, and whose owner was certain he would not only claim to be free but would “dress in and pass as a woman, so as not to be apprehended”?
Heroic attempts at self-liberation
Indeed, we imagine that for most users of Freedom on the Move, the individual stories of fugitives from slavery will linger longest.
It takes little imagination to see the horrors they’d experienced, the risks they were willing to take to escape them and the complications of family ties those risks entailed.
Consider the journey of fugitives Moses and Zilphey, who were probably a married couple and were sought by James Goodson of Montgomery, Alabama, in June 1825. In the advertisement he placed in the paper offering US$50 for their capture, Goodson explained that Moses and Zilphey had first fled from him a year earlier and had made it more than 75 miles north before they were caught and put in the Shelby County jail. Goodson had sent someone to take them into custody and return them, only to have the couple escape from that person. By the time Goodson put out his advertisement, the two had been at large for nearly 10 months – no easy feat, considering they needed to endure the winter, and Moses walked despite having “lost some of his toes off each foot.” Zilphey, meanwhile, likely faced an even more difficult challenge: Goodson wrote “she may have had a child during her absence.”
And take the story of Charles, a 30-year-old man who fled from Joseph Gray near Huntsville, Alabama, in March 1827. In his advertisement, Gray explained that Charles had been brought to Alabama from Virginia, and that this was the second time he’d run away. Gray reported that Charles had made it as far as Nashville on that first occasion; he’d been caught with a white man who was pretending to own him in order to provide cover. Now Gray suspected that Charles “may be playing that same game over.” We don’t know whether or not Charles succeeded in escaping. But with Gray’s mention that Charles had a “back much marked by the whip,” we can guess that he had plenty of incentive to keep trying.
Treated as villains and criminals, in truth enslaved people such as Moses, Zilphey and Charles engaged in heroic efforts to free themselves. Freedom on the Move promises to return their stories, and those of tens of thousands of others, to the public consciousness where they belong.