Fugitive slave ads abounded in American newspapers until the end of the Civil War. Abhorrent in their treatment of people as property, these brief descriptions of African Americans who escaped enslavement, albeit sometimes temporarily, bear witness to the bravery and unique characteristics of individuals who defied a massively powerful system allied against them.
An important part of that system was the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington in February 1793. The Act made it a federal crime to assist those who had escaped slavery or to interfere with their capture. It allowed the pursuit of “persons escaping from…their masters” everywhere in the United States, North and South.
Washington, himself a slave owner, directed one of the best documented campaigns to recapture a runaway, including having ads placed. Ona (Oney) Judge, an enslaved woman who was Martha Washington’s lady’s maid, fled from the President’s House in Philadelphia, rather than return to the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.
Ona Judge was never captured and gave newspaper interviews in the 1840s in which she stated her reasons for escaping. In addition to wanting to be free, she had been told that she would be given as a wedding present to Martha Washington’s granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, upon the deaths of the elder Washingtons.
Judge’s interview appears on the same page as a review of the then recently published Frederick Douglass memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Quickly becoming a bestseller, the memoir is an early example of the famous abolitionist’s eloquent and effective writing, in this case documenting his time enslaved and his escape.
The vast majority of those who escaped or attempted to escape enslavement in America were never well-known, though. The only record we have for many are fugitive slave ads, some 200,000 of which were published. Chronicling America provides this Topics Page and a window to finding thousands more ads.
One of the most detailed, humanizing, and chilling runaway slave ads that I found in a search of Chronicling America is for Peter. Humanizing in its favorable description of Peter’s appearance and intelligence. Chilling in its reference to his being “easily frightened by the whip.” Peter’s description also makes reference to a scar, as do many of the descriptions in the ads.
The same ad ran in the Rodney, Mississippi weekly Southern Telegraph from May 27 to September 27, 1836, sometimes twice within an issue. It also ran in the Natchez Courier, according to the ad.
Another type of fugitive slave ad was for runaways who had been captured and jailed. I cannot claim a thorough search, but I did not find an ad for Peter “in Jail,” so we have some reason to hope that Peter eluded capture and was able to remain free. Tragically, many of those who escaped were captured. If they were not claimed, they were sold at auction.
Runaway slave ads continued to be published in newspapers during the Civil War, but they no longer had the full power of the federal government behind them with the passage of the Confiscation Acts and with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, all applying only to those enslaved within the Confederacy. Slavery as an institution in the United States finally ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.
• Chronicling America Topics Pages on African American History and on the Civil War
• Library of Congress Resource Guides on African American Studies and on American Slavery
• Freedom on the Move: A database of fugitives from American Slavery