Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Sample of Kentucky Runaway Slave Advertisements

I mentioned in a recent post on slave quarters that understanding slavery is not an easy thing to do. Reading the slaves' own narratives, scholars' historical interpretations, and various primary sources leads me to conclude that it seems as if almost no two slave's situations were the same. No matter how one looks at it, and even trying to avoid the tendency of presentism, slavery was little more than stealing another person's labor. It is little wonder then that so many slaves, especially those in the border-slaveholding states, tried to runaway from their masters.

Along with viewing where slaves lived, another way to try to help understand slavery, and how pervasive and diverse it was in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century, is to look at runaway slave advertisements.

The following advertisements are from Kentucky owners who attempted to locate their absconded bondsmen and bondswomen. The advertisements range from 1807 to 1860 and were by no means difficult to locate. Runaway slave ads were placed in Kentucky newspapers from before it became a state in 1792, to right up until the 13th Amendment outlawed the practice in 1865. Several of these listed were found with just a quick and random perusal of some Kentucky newspapers. Even more readily found, but not included here, are advertisements for slave sales in the Bluegrass state, but I try to cover those in a future post.

The above advertisement is from a Woodford County owner in 1807. Woodford County was a leading hemp producer, and by 1860 its population was just over 50% African American. Like many runaway advertisements, this one makes the reader wonder what happened for the slave to attempt to murder his master?
A number of advertisements provide physical descriptions of the escaped slave, especially height and complexion. Many of those descriptions like the one above give evidence of abuse; "Upon his body are several old marks of the whip, one of them straight down the back."

This advertisement from Farmington Plantation owner John Speed explained that the runaway, Charles, was a skilled slave. Not only was he a shoemaker, but he was also a butcher and brickmason. Speed assumed that Charles would make way for the free states of Indiana or Ohio and possibly by steamboat. Steamboats of all sizes plied the Ohio River waters and employed many free and enslaved African Americans, so becoming a stowaway would probably be easy and raise little suspicion for a runaway.

The following is a transcription of the above advertisement that was found in a May 1834 edition of the Tri-Weekly Maysville, Kentucky Eagle, provided since the copy is difficult to read:
"$ 50 Reward. Ran away from the subscriber, living in Bourbon County, Ky. on Thrusday the 24th of April, a negro man named MARTIN, 22 years old, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, tolerably made. He had with him a mixed janes [jeans] and and black cloth coat, a janes, a linsey (both blue) and a cloth or casinet (of a dark color) pair of panatloons, and had on a black fur hat. He is supposed to have rode off a bay horse with some white on his hind feet. The above reward will be given for said negro, if taken out of the State, or $25 if taken out of the county, or $5 if taken in the county, provided he be delivered to me, or secured in some jail, so that I get him, WILL HAZELRIGG"

It seems that few slaves actually had the classical names, such as Pompey and Caesar, that grace so many fiction works of the antebellum era. The runaway in this ad, Dread, had the most unusual name that I came across in my short search. This ad was from the December 16, 1826 edition of the Paris, Kentucky Western Citizen, and unlike the other ads included his wife Betty.
This ad explains that the couple were brought from South Carolina last spring, so they had been in Kentucky less than a year when they made their escape.

It seems that most runaways that absconded independently were men; most between 20 and 40 years old. This slave woman, Celia, fits the age range of the men runaways and was described as "heavy, stout made, of copper complexion, and" was "quick-spoken." One is left to wonder if "quick-spoken" means that she was quick and witty, or if she had a quick temper that got expressed verbally. The owner requests the slave to be "delivered at L.C. ROBARDS' jail in Lexington." Louis Robards was a notorious slave trader in Lexington.

The above advertisement from the May 9, 1850 issue of the Lexington Observer and Reporter sought out Ben, who was "raised in the Green River country." Like many of the advertisements the reward amount changed depending on where the slave would be apprehended. Usually, the farther away from where the slave escaped, the more the reward.

This slave ad, unlike the others, was a handbill or broadside instead of a newspaper advertisement. The owner was from Mason County which is in northeast Kentucky on the Ohio River. Across the river from Mason County was Ripley, Ohio a well-known Underground Railroad and abolitionist town that helped hundreds of slaves make their way to Canada. One can only wonder if Emily too made the long journey north or if she was returned to Thomas H. Williams.

This last advertisement is a handbill as well, but unlike the others was from western Kentucky. But, like the previous ad, it too was from an owner that lived on the Ohio River. Being so close to the free states must have been a strong temptation to slaves that lived in Kentucky towns and counties along the Ohio River. Of course the fugitive slave act of 1850 meant that they could be "returned to servitude" if caught in Northern states. The would only truly be free if they made their way to Canada.

Again, this just a very minuscule sample of the runaway advertisements that graced Kentucky newspapers and that were pasted on buildings and on fences across the Commonwealth. They serve as a reminder of how valuable slave property was to their owners, and they provide us with insight into what measures slaves would take to be free of their masters.


  1. Hi Tim,

    Ironically I was just at our National Archives and the Provincial archives of Nova Scotia here in Canada looking into similar issues. You may be interested in one of the better online sources that deals with slavery and runaways here in Canada - here's a sample of a poster akin to what you've just posted.
    See: http://www.gov.ns.ca/nsarm/virtual/africanns/archives.asp?ID=16

    Also, I am wondering if you ahve ever come across any first hand accounts of slaves from the Kentucky area who may have fled to Nova Scotia or Ontario c.1780s-1815. According to James W. St. G. Walker (see: The Black loyalists:
    the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870, University of Toronto Press - 1992) a number of Black Loyalists came from your region. Just curious if you have ever come across any references to their exodus during the era of the American Revolution or the War of 1812.


  2. I will have to check out the link you provided. It sounds really interesting.

    As far as Kentucky slaves making it Canada...Most of what I have read deals with what was I think then called Canada West, but is now Ontario. Town names that come up quite often are Chatham, Windsor, and St. Catherine's. Prominent figures are Henry Bibb and Lewis Hayden (who eventually ended up in Boston).

  3. Interesting.

    While looking up stuff a couple of weeks ago in a Cincinnati newspaper, I found an ad for a slave who had run away from the Lexington area apparently. Part of the ad included language like "Printed per request of the Lexington Herald" (or whatever the paper's name was at the time. I don't know why I didn't transcribe the ad and keep it as it certainly grabbed my attention

  4. Very interesting Richard. I haven't had the time to explore any papers north of the Ohio River, but I sense that they would be rife with runaway ads from Kentucky owners too.

  5. Hi,
    I am putting together an assignment using primary sources for a class of 8th graders and I would like to know your original sources for your slave advertisements. Did you get them from the Internet? Can you please e mail me as soon as possible? Thanks so much!
    Your blog is very informative!

  6. Very interesting blog. I'm participating in a group of history teachers that are meeting throughout the year & are required to post primary source assignments as resources. Could you please tell me your source for the "100 Dollars Reward Emily" ad from Mason County (Lewisburg)? I actually live in Lewisburg, Ky & look forward to researching the Thomas Williams farm. Thank you, Kathy

  7. Thanks for the kind complements on the blog. Most of these ads came from various period microfilmed newspapers, but some came from the Library of Congress website and a few from J.Winston Coleman's 1940 book, Slavery Times in Kentucky. The Emily runaway ad came from the Coleman book.

  8. Thanks for the resource!

  9. Hi Tim, great piece and thank you! I am writing an MA thesis on the Underground Railroad in Wayne County, IN, which was a flourishing institution compared to many other areas. Many of the fugitive slaves came up through Kentucky (not that they were all from KY, but probably many were) through at least three points - Cincinnati, Madison, IN, and Jeffersonville, IN, and from there many funneled through Wayne County with its large Quaker and free African America population. I wanted to know where I can find more ads from the Kentucky side of the Ohio, and perhaps other plantation-areas in KY, so I can perhaps come up with a rough guess and look at how many escapes where reported in the papers, and attempt to offer a little conjecture that could connect them - numbers, ages, gender - with the ones that came through this area. Can you offer any help or direction? Thank you so much. Truly, Nicholas Patler ... nickpatler@hotmail.com

  10. Can you tell me how you found the advertisement for Celia (runaway in Kentucky)? I would like to use the image in a journal article but need to find the original source and attain permission for use. Thank you so much for your help!

  11. Hi Heidi, I'm sorry, but I can't remember in which newspaper I located that particular advertisement.

  12. Looking for a wanted notice for a man named Henry Barr. Have a notice for a man who ran away from a Kentucky slave owner named Barr?


    1. Sorry Don, I've looked through my databases of owner posted notices and jailer posted notices and I don't have anything for a Barr. However, my database only covers 1861-1865.