Monday, February 14, 2011

Cities and Towns, a Strong Draw for Runaway Slaves

This past weekend I finished reading Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860, which was written by Dr. Richard Wade in 1964. While I have focused much of my recent reading on the latest studies of slavery, I have been interested for some time in going back to earlier scholarship on the subject. I have started this effort primary because I want to get a firmer grasp on the historiography of slavery and how interpretations have changed over the years. During my reading I have kept hearing from many recent historians that such and such historian said this, and so and so said that, so I wanted to read for myself what the earlier scholars had written and judge their interpretation by my own understanding.

I found Slavery in the Cities well researched a very good, fast read. I certainly understand why Dr. Wade kept his study to several selected Southern cities. And, he certainly chose a good geographical representation in his selection, but I would have preferred him to have used sources outside of his main focus cities of Baltimore, New Orleans, Louisville, Mobile, Charleston, Norfolk, Richmond, St. Louis, Savannah, and Washington D.C., and also to have looked a smaller cities and towns such as Lynchburg, Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee for example. Wade's thesis, that slaves in the cities experienced an existence much different than that of their rural plantation counterparts, was quite simple and well supported by his sources.

One chapter that particularly struck me was chapter eight, "Runaways and Rebels." Here Wade explained that, "Unlike those on plantations, 'where no visions visit him [the slave] to remind him of his servitude,' [in the cities] they saw all around them every day the possibilities of what they considered a better life." This revelation by the historian was not missed by Southern whites of the era under study; one of which Wade quoted as saying, "The cities is no place for niggers! They get strange notions into their heads and grow discontented. They ought, everyone of them, be sent back onto the plantations." Wade also noted that "Towns always attracted more fugitives than they lost. Rural runaways headed for the nearest cities and quickly lost themselves in the congestion, protected as much by the anonymity of urban life as the collusion of other Negroes."

While the cities and towns provided a camouflage for some runaway slaves, others stood out and were caught by the city slave patrol or night watchmen. These slaves were often remanded to the town jail and notices were posted in newspapers for their owners to come get them. The attached column of advertisements bear this fact out. These eight notices shown are part of actually nine that were posted by the Franklin County Jailer H.R. Miller in the Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth and ran for several weeks on end in the fall of 1862. Along with these are one other by Miller and two additional advertisements not shown; one from the Anderson County jailer (the neighboring county to the south) with three runaways listed, and one from the Owen County (the neighboring county to the north) jailer.

The advertisements are more similar than different. They all identify the runaway by their name, their approximate or actual age, their complexion and a description of their height and weight. They all end with some statement asking for "the owner of said come forward and prove property, and pay charges, or he will be dealt with as the law directs." Usually the law directed that the slave be held for a period of time and if not claimed he or she would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going toward the expenses for keeping the slave and the balance to the city treasury.

It is interesting that all of these slave were males and came from different places, so apparently they did not runaway together, at least not a first. They claimed to come from Louisville, two from Madison County by different owners, Rockcastle County, Springfield in Clarke County, Ohio, Washington County, Fayette County, Harrison County, and Laurel County. The advertisement from the Anderson County jailer claimed have three runaways from as far as Monroe County, Mississippi, George County, Alabama and Franklin County, Tennessee. The runaway listed from the Owen County jailer came from Pike County, Kentucky.

More than one of the supposed runaways claimed to be free. The man from Rockcastle County, Pat Gadliff claimed to be free, but the jailer included in the ad that he "is supposed to be the property of Wm. Brooks." The man from Ohio, John Smith, also claimed to be free and was "dressed in part with soldier clothes." His reason for wearing soldier clothes is supported by his claim that he was a cook for a "Capt. Smith, of the 93rd Ohio Inf. Vol. Reg."

The most unusual name of the runaways listed was Prophet, other unique names included one named Wash and another called simply Brown. The others had common names such as Bob, John, Tom, Pat and Anderson. Almost all were listed as being under 25 years of age, except for the runaways from Mississippi (36) and Tennessee (50). I wonder if the the ones from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were runaways from the Confederate army that had been occupied Kentucky that late summer and fall.

These advertisements tell a strong story in a small space. Here in one column of a Kentucky newspaper in 1862, 13 individuals were attempting to be free but were potentially being sent back to a life of slavery. One can't help but wonder, what their fates were. Were they eventually claimed by their owners? Did those that claimed to be free men of color have to spend some time in bondage again? If they survive, maybe the records of the Franklin County jail would answer these questions. Maybe I'll try to find out. After all, did curiosity ever kill the historian? Probably not.


  1. I found an extract recently from the diaries of a plantation owner, William Byrd. Its not that he was brutal with his slaves that surprised me, it’s the matter of fact way he commented on it

    “I rose at 5 o'clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer's Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene [two house slaves] were whipped. I danced my dance [physical exercises]……My wife was indisposed again but not to much purpose. In the afternoon I beat Jenny [a house slave] for throwing water on the couch”.

    Sexually assaulting women of the lower orders was no big deal to Byrd either;

    “I rose at 6 o'clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and when she came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive me”.

  2. Very interesting! I will have to check out that diary. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hello. I am wondering if you might be able to answer a question. My great great great grandmother left Frankfort, Kentucky with her five children and made her way to Chatham, Ontario, Canada. They are on an 1861 Canadian census (she is widowed). I have no evidence, but I am assuming since she was African American and from Kentucky, she was likely enslaved. Do you know the names of any Frankfort, Kentucky families who owned many slaves? Her name was Frances Marshall and her husband was Joshua. Thank you.

  4. Hi Debbie,
    That is really interesting. It would probably be very difficult to track down who their owner was in Kentucky. There were 3,384 slaves listed in the 1860 census that belonged to 556 owners in Franklin County (Frankfort). There were also 450 free blacks. I too would assume that they were runaway slaves, because if they were free there would not have been the need to go all the way to Canada. Thanks for sharing your story.