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I have been studying runaway slaves recently. One of my Prather ancestors ran away and was caught in DC in 1858.

“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation” by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, is probably one of the most complete published studies.

This book provides genealogists with important background history.

Recently I purchased “Blacks Who Stole Themselves” (what a great title, right?).

This book features advertisements from the Pennsylvania Gazette for runaways from 1728-1790. Many of the runaways are from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey & Virginia.

New Perspectives

I have a know someone friend who teaches African-American History and we frequently discuss various aspects of slavery. He opened my eyes one day when were talking about Lincoln “freeing” the slaves.

He said to me, “NO, the slaves freed themselves. They ran away in such large numbers during the Civil War that they forced the issue.”

I keep thinking about what it must have been like to run away and have no concept of where to go. No maps. To risk your life over and go into the woods with your baby.

They knew they had right to freedom, and would do anything to attain it.


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In general, in each ad there is a listing of where, when and who the slave ran away from. Often there is the slave’s age and name, a detailed description of their clothing.

Finally, there are usually comments about the slave’s personality, physical looks and perhaps occupation.

Information Contained in Runaway Ads

The ads are revealing on several levels. They document the prevailing views of the slaveowner’s beliefs about blacks and slaves. 

Other things I noticed include:

  1. The large number of runaways who have what are likely African  or African-inspired markings. They had holes in their ears and noses and scars on their faces and foreheads
  2. The description of many that are “new to this country,” “country-born,” “lately arrived from Barbados”(or Angola, or Guinea, or Dominica) and many who  “do not speak English”
  3. Many are described as “Spanish negroes” or “Spanish mulattoes”
  4. The description of their personalities as: cunning, sly, complaisant, sour, impudent, bold, artful, smooth-tongued, surly, sour, sensible, talkative, shy, well-spoken, lusty (what in the world does that mean?)
  5. Many are described as having “been much cut” on their backs, by “often whipping”
  6. Some ran away in groups of 2-5 people, comprised of women and men, sometimes even with white indentured servants
  7. Several ads discuss the runaway having Indian blood, one even saying “he can talk Indian very well”
  8. Many of the ads mention the slaves having brass or pewter buckles on their shoes, which I assume would have stood out because that was a rare commodity
  9. Several of the slaves could read and write, and the ads talked about how they are “pretending to be free,” “will pretend to be searching for a master,”  “is almost white,” and could easily “write themselves a pass”
  10. The fear of freed blacks (particularly in Philadelphia) is evident in that many ads purport that the runaway is “being hidden by freed blacks.”
  11. Another ad stated the owner’s suspicion that he supposed his slave was “being harbored by some base white woman, as he has contracted intimacies with several of that sort”
  12. Africans held one to their original names, as an ad stated, “the said negroe is named Jupiter, but it is thought he may likely call himself by his negroe name, which is Mueyon, or Omtee”
  13. “he is a short, thick fellow, limps with his right knee, and one of his buttocks is bigger than the other” (I’m just trying to picture that;)

Runaway Ad Projects

There are a few websites which have undertaken the goal of documenting runaway slave ads. There’s Maryland’s Underground Railroad website, which includes runaway ads, and the University of Virginia’s project.

There’s also a site for Baltimore County, MD and The Geography of Virginia website. Check them out if you get a chance.

Crystal Eddins created a new compilation of ad databases

There’s a North Carolina runaway ads database

A PDF of colonial runaway ads is also available

The Power of Resistance

I am inspired that slaves constantly resisted the system of slavery, with dedication and perseverance. This post is dedicated to a slave who ran away in 1759:

“…a negro man named Caesar, he has both his legs cutoff and walks on his knees.”

Can you imagine? That one took my breath away. Caesar demanded his freedom so badly he would run way with no legs. Simply astounding.

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