Fugitive Slave Advertisements
poster advertisements placed by slaveholders offering
rewards for the capture and return of runaway slaves.
advertisements in newspapers developed their characteristic form sharing
certain similarities in structure and content. Over time, stock
engravings of runaway slaves
developed to draw the attention of readers. A common engraving
used in many adverts is shown here (called 'The Runaway'
originally from The Anti-Slavery Record published in New York
City by the American Anti-Slavery Society).
In the majority of cases, the
missing slave’s owner placed the advert. In some instances, however,
adverts were placed by those to whom slaves had been hired out. This
system of renting out slaves to other property owners became popular
late in the antebellum period. Other instances in which the slave’s
owner was not placing an advert directly include a variety of
representatives, such as guardians of slaveholding minors, executors of
estates, and agent for slave owners.
structure of the advert typically started with the reward offered for
the return of the fugitive, usually increasing as the fugitive fled
farther from his or her place of enslavement. The name and
residence of the slaveholder, and the
date of the escape would be
noted. Then followed the body of the advert in which the
slave-holder or his or her agent provided information intended to help
identify and locate the fugitive. Such information included the name of
the runaway and other names by which he or she might be known, and a
physical description usually noting approximate age, skin color, weight,
height, clothing, identifying marks, scars or physical defects. Certain
descriptions were more commonly found than others. Skin color, for
example, ranged in description from “black” to “mulatto” or “yellow
skinned”. Physical descriptions usually included a veritable inventory
of scars, either from diseases like smallpox, property markings (i.e.
branding) or as a result of labor-related accidents (e.g. cotton gins,
“cut of an axe”, etc.). Accounts of other physical traits include
limps, deformities, birthmarks, and missing limbs.
mentioned character or personality traits or unusual skills or
abilities. Some also mentioned the presumed
escape motive, possible destinations
and whether the fugitive was thought to have received any
assistance - and, occasionally, from
whom. Frequently mentioned traits include stuttering, alcoholism,
hostility toward authority, avoidance of eye contact, sullenness, “very
likely”, and a “down look”. Additional identifying information often
includes a mention of the slave’s trade or skills such as farming,
blacksmithing, or coopering.
Sometimes family members in other locations and a list of previous
owners were included, as these might provide clues as to the slave's
Many runaway slave adverts
mention whether the slave was literate or illiterate. In the case of a
literate fugitive slave, this fact usually prefaced the owner’s
suspicion that the slave may have possession of or would create a forged
Examples of fugitive slave
advertisements are plentiful and generally may be accessed freely on the
Internet (just search the Internet with 'fugitive slave
advertisements'). Several State-based projects have digitised these
advertisements, for example The University of North Carolina have
digitized over two thousand advertisements for fugitive slaves from
newspapers across the NC state published between 1751 and 1840.
Here is one advert that
caught my eye, a $300 reward for Harry aged about 19 years, Ben aged
about 25 years and Minty
aged about 27 years. Minty is of course the nickname of Harriet Tubman, who would later
in life have a reward of some $40,000 offered 'Dead or Alive' for
'stealing slaves' (i.e. a conductor on the Underground Railroad). Harry
and Ben were Harriet's two brothers and on 17th September, 1849, all three had left their home in
Poplar Neck, Dorchester County, near Cambridge, Maryland, to travel north to gain their
freedom. Their owner, Eliza Ann Brodess, posted this advertisement in
the Cambridge Democrat newspaper.
Tubman Reward Notice 1849" by Eliza Ann Brodess,
and/or Cambridge Democrat - Cambridge Democrat, 1849
(scanned from Kate Clifford Larson's Bound for the
Promised Land, p. 79). Licensed under Public Domain via
Wikimedia Commons -
Sources and Further Reading
'Encyclopedia of The Underground Railroad'. Published by McFarland & Company Inc, 2006.
Trends in runaway
Sawyer Kem Knapp,
'Harriet Tubman Biography', Published by DK Publishing, 2010.