Runaway Ads for enslaved people throughout Maryland are available online at the  Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery database. The ads tell us much about the mind of the slaveowner.

Here are some of my observations:

1) Slaveowners knew a surprising amount of information about enslaved families. This also speaks to the extended kinship communities that slaved people formed:

William Belt Robert Clagett

This one even names the slave’s father:


Some of the ads demonstrate that slaves had surnames. I think it’s interesting that some ads say “he calls himself”:

Basil Burgess Richard Wms

There are also common themes of the slaveowner’s belief that the escaped slaves were headed to Philadelphia. Also, many state that the runaways were aided or had free papers from a free negro.

Maryland had over 83,000 freed blacks by 1860 and the ads illustrate the slaveowner’s distrust of them:

Nathan Magruder

The man in the ad below sounds like the most popular slave in Maryland!:

Thomas Rawlins

Evidence abounds of the violence slaveowners exerted to hold slavery in place. The man described below received a burn on his face “for his villainy”:


This one’s back is “very much cut for his rogueness”:

Sam Magruder

In the next ad, I felt myself rooting for the “gang of six.” They made it all the Pennsylvania. The slaveholder derisively mentions the “abolition magistrate” that let them go:

Gang of Six

Exploding the Myths

Slaveowners devised every more elaborate reasons why slavery was moral, correct and necessary. Runaway Ads all explode several of the myths that slaveowners made up as rationalizations. Here are two:

Myth 1. Slaves did not form the emotional attachments to their family in the same way that whites did.

This was the justification often used to defend the buying and selling of human beings.

If that were true, why is it that so many slaves escape and are headed back to their wives, parents, etc.?

Myth 2. The natural state for negroes was slavery; they needed white caretakers; that they were happiest this way.

If that were true, why do so many run away repeatedly, even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them? Why do they run away even when they already wear the marks of painful physical punishment?

I’ll end with an ad that took my breath away. It’s a little harder to read than the others, but it describes Susan, a runaway who was”far advanced in pregnancy”:


What must have happened to Susan to take off on a journey that would almost certainly fail, especially in her state? I imagine it must have been something horrific.

This was what slavery was everyday, and I never forget that.

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