On the lives of fugitives: Runaway slave advertisement databases

African descended women, men, and children who freed themselves from slavery through daring, life-threatening escapes seem to have captured the public imagination in popular culture as well as academia.

The hit television show “Underground” is a fictionalized account of the Underground Railroad, a network of runaway slaves and “conductors” who gave them refuge amd transportation to the north. The show’s first season began by highlighting the escape of the “Macon 7,” a group of enslaved people who flee Macon, GA after burning several cotton fields. The season ended with the audience being introduced to a new character, Harriet Tubman, who in real life was a former slave and abolitionist responsible for leading hundreds to freedom.

The show has recently begun its second season **please no spoilers** and Ms. Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill in the next five to ten years.

Academics are also finding creative ways to analyze the lives of people who absconded from plantations – through study of runaway slave advertisements. 

The enslavement of African descended people was an important source of capital accumulation throughout the Americas, from the late 15th to late 19th centuries. Multitudes of enslaved people rejected their bondage and fled into mountain ranges, swamps, caves, and other geographically desolate areas that could protect them from capture. Some runaways made their way to urban areas with sizable populations of free blacks into which they attempted to pass as free. Others yet reconnected with family members or fictive kinsfolk, and romantic partners. Many stole money, weapons, clothing, and forged free papers in preparation for the treacherous journey.

Slave owners had vested interest in capturing and returning these ‘fugitives’ to maintain labor forces and productivity levels. Therefore, it was common for planters, or plantation managers, to place advertisements for the missing individual(s) in local newspapers.

Many of these advertisements have survived the 18th and 19th centuries, and several sets have been scanned and digitized for public usage.

Below is a list of existing datasets, as well as those still in development, that are suitable for research and teaching on black resistance. These sources can be used to ask other questions related to social and human capital, and the ways in which enslaved people made use of their immediate resources to facilitate their escape. For example, who were most ‘successful’ at remaining free for longer periods of time, women or men? And why? What role did literacy play in contributing to finding freedom? How important was it for a runaway to have a social network of actors in place to help coordinate the escape? These are questions researchers and students may be interested in pursusing through qualitative and quantitative analysis. The ads, as well as historical fictions of runaways, help broaden public understanding of slavery by highlighting new faces, names, locations, and ways of embodying the spirit of freedom and liberation that pushed the modern era toward democracy. 

Freedom on the Move: freedomonethemove.org

Saint Domingue (Haiti): marronnage.info

North Carolina: http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/RAS

Virginia: http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos/source.html

Texas: http://digital.sfasu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/RSP

Mississippi: http://aquila.usm.edu/drs/

Britain: http://www.runaways.gla.ac.uk/

Canada: https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2016/02/29/canadian-fugitive-slave-adver…

Connecticut: http://runawayct.org/about

Maryland: http://www.afrigeneas.com/library/runaway_ads/balt-intro.html

Slavery Adverts 250: https://twitter.com/SlaveAdverts250



2 responses to “On the lives of fugitives: Runaway slave advertisement databases”

  1. Thanks for compiling this list of datasets related to runaway slaves. I want to call your attention to another resource, http://pfe.rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/ People of the Founding Era, or PFE. This digital prosopography compiles biographical information from the digitized founding era volumes published by the University of Virginia Press, digital imprint Rotunda. But more importantly for this discussion, PFE also includes data from the Geography of Slavery project directed by Tom Costa at UVA-Wise. This is one of the datasets you list above. Tom was gracious enough to share his data with us which we incorporated into the existing population we already had. That population includes hundreds of slaves, generally owned by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson. The runaway slave data expanded our representation of slaves exponentially. We include all of the original runaway ad verbatim as well as structured data drawn from those ads. The slave records are in turn linked to other people records, such as owners or people who posted the runaway ads. The web publication is a subscription based product but you can still do some basic searching and you can request a trial subscription to check it out. 
    Sue Perdue