Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ran Away...A Negro Man Named Ben

I ran across this runaway slave advertisement the other day while browsing through the Library of Congress' online primary sources. It is not unlike many of those that I have recently found. Like many others it offers a generous reward and provides a vivid description of not only the runaway, but also the circumstances that the owner suspects led to his running away, or "absconding" as the owner puts it here. Abscond...is that a great word or what?

Apparently this man, Ben Thomas, stole from his owner, Joseph Desha, about $300.00 and made off with the cash on the night of October 27, 1827. Ben was described as "about 30 years old," was about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches tall, weighted about 180 pounds, and was "unusually broad across the shoulders". Additional descriptions included his complexion, which Desha referred to as "uncommonly black," and instead of the common term, "likely," that masters used in many ads, Desha referred to Ben as having "tolerably good features," and it said that Ben was bearded when he ran away, but may have shave since then.

The ad states that Ben was from Washington D.C., where he was previously owned by a Colonel Hebb. Interestingly, a little extra searching found that Hebb had also sold some slaves to President Andrew Jackson when he was in Washington, and some of them later served "Old Hickory" at his retirement home Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee.

Desha may have purchased Ben when he served as a congressman from 1807 to 1819. His service in the House of Representatives was briefly interrupted by his participation in the War of 1812, but Desha ran for governor of Kentucky in 1820. He lost the election to John Adair, but he ran and won the 1824 election, which he served for one term. Therefore, Desha was governor when he ran this advertisement in 1827.

Outside of Ben's physical description it was explained that he was "an excellent house and body servant," which makes his access to steal the money from Desha's desk easier to understand. Desha also claimed that Ben was "shrewd and artful" and "capable of telling a very plausible story," so he may have had a good chance of making his getaway permanent. It was not against the law in Kentucky to teach slaves to read and write as it was in most slave states, and Desha further explained in the ad that Ben "had made some progress in learning to spell." It would be interesting to know if Desha had a hand in Ben's education or if he had only found out about his learning. One more similarity of this ad with other ads is that a greater reward was offered if Ben was captured outside of the state than if caught in Kentucky.

Would it be possible to find out if Ben was caught or not? Possibly. Maybe Desha's census or tax records in following years would reveal his slaves' names and provide a clue. Maybe the Papers of Joseph and John Desha at the Library of Congress hold the answer. So many questions, so little time to research and satisfy curiousity.

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