What can you learn from a runaway slave?

Old newspapers are one of the most useful pieces of historical information for both historians and archaeologists. For historians, they can reveal not only a chronological account of what happened in a certain region, but it also gives  a glimpse into the mindset of those who lived there: discussions about politics and the actions taken by individuals or institutions are all reported in the confines of the news. For archaeologists, while this information is often useful for the same reason as the historian may find them useful, we often prefer looking at the advertisements: what tools are for sale? What objects are people using at the time? How much do they cost? This helps us to provide better context for the items that we find in the ground, and lets us make larger claims about the people who may have used them.

When studying slavery, however, the advertisements begin to take on a unique spin: because slaves were perceived not as people, but as property (or as tools), they regularly appear in the advertisements. One particularly unique form of ad was the slave runaway notice, where plantation owners would provide a monetary reward for the return of a slave who had run away. Runaway advertisements were ubiquitous in Southern newspapers, as the loss of a slave was a major economic blow to a planter for multiple reasons: not only did they lose the production value of the slave’s labor, but the slave him or herself was a valuable commodity. By the middle of the 19th century, plantation owners net worth was often measured through the value of their land and their slave holdings. To lose one was a financial risk.

For scholars, Runaway slave advertisments provide a wealth of information about the lives of the enslaved. Their appearances are often listed, providing information about their dress and personal physical appearance. If they have a certain deformity or disability, those are often mentioned. It is often interesting to read the numerous descriptions of the color of the slave’s skin: this was a critically visible marker, and planter’s were very descriptive. In many ways, these descriptions indicate that, although the investment was purely one of economic investment, planters and their overseers had an intimate knowledge of their slave’s habits, appearance, and level of health.

When read on a deeper level, these advertisements also give glimpses into the personal lives of the slaves. First, there is the pure fact that they ran away: this was a major act of resistance, and required a great deal of courage. Most were not successful. Regardless, forcing a planter to place a runaway notice in the paper was a daily reminder to the public that slaves were dissatisfied with their current condition, and were willing to go to extreme lengths to resist it. In some instances, possible whereabouts are listed, providing a glimpse into the slaves’ social or familial lives. The descriptions of clothing, markings, tattoos, and piercings also can point to certain cultural traditions that were practiced on the plantation. For archaeologists, this is important when you consider that these same objects could be excavated in slave contexts.

We have found one slave runaway advertisement that was placed by Dr. Brome in the St. Mary’s Beacon. It details the escape of William Washington Walton, one of Dr. Brome’s many slaves, in 1861. Dr. Brome offers $50 for his return, and describes his physical appearance, as well as discusses his wife who lived on another plantation. Through this document, we are able to learn about a number of components of African American life, such as familial relationships, the necessary actions that were taken to gain freedom, and the extreme measures that planters took to regain their property.

You can learn more about this advertisement by visiting the exhibit pages on enslaved blacks and the spaces outside of the plantation.

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