Comparison and Contrast of Slavery Advertisements

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From Frederick Douglas to Nat Turner to Dred Scott, society was able to learn about the lives of these slaves because they had contributed to history on a large scale. For the everyday slave though, their stories and their journey’s are lost overtime and because of the status of slaves, there is often no trace of them in the historical record.

These slavery advertisements, however, are able to identify the names and stories of these everyday slaves. In hopes of catching these runaway slaves, the slave owner sends detailed information about the slave to a newspaper, who then publishes it for the public. Through these advertisements, the public was able to learn about all sorts of things from the slaves’ descriptions to their personal details hoping to understand, in a new way, about the lives and experiences of those who tried to free themselves from the binds that were holding them back.

In most of these slavery advertisements, there is a description of what the slave looks like. For example, in an advertisement from George Mason, he describes his slave, Dick, as someone who is a “stout lusty mulatto fellow,” with “large features and eyes,” “about 22 years of age,” and ran away with another slave, Clem. Clem is described as “a well set black negro lad,” who is “about 19 years of age.” These advertisements often disclose some sort of specific distinguishing feature that these slaves have. George Mason says that Clem has a “remarkable large scar of a burn which covers the whole of one of his knees.”

In an advertisement by John Branan, his slave Joe, has been cut on his right ear, and had been “branded on each cheek” by William Tapp. In another advertisement by William White, his slave Ben had been “branded on one of his cheeks R,” and “on the top of one of his feet is the scar of a burn.” These descriptions give people today a better idea of how these slaves were treated. The slaves were branded because it would make it easier for these slave owners to identify the slave in case they decided to run. Not just the slave owner but branding would also make it easier for those who were trying to collect bounty by capturing the slave. The descriptions of these slaves allow the population today and historians to create demographics of those who fled with very specific details of things like which age, height, build, were one, more likely to be enslaved, and then two, most likely to run away.

Another detail that the slave owners might add is how the slaves plan on leaving or where the slaves plan to go. In the published advertisement from Thomas Parker, his slave Spencer was “seen making for Alexandria,” and his other runaway slave James, “will probably change his name” and was “seen making for George-Town, where he said it was his intention to go on board some vessel.” What the general public can infer is that when a slave tries to gain their freedom, they are most likely to travel north and they seem to like traveling by water, because it will get them to their predetermined destination faster than walking or running ever could.

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Besides gaining freedom, their destination is predetermined because there is most likely someone the fugitive knows, whether it’s family, friends, or just an acquaintance who could help them out from the plantation. In the advertisement made by George Mason, Mason believes that Dick and Clem have “made towards Baltimore, or Philadelphia, or may have gotten on board some Bay or River craft.” Mason also published the same advertisement in multiple newspapers in northern Virginia and Maryland.

One thing that can be inferred is that Mason was slightly desperate to find his slaves and two, he believed he knew where the slaves were travelling through the location of his publications. These details of where the fugitives might be going allows historians and the general public to create theories on what they believe the strategies of these slaves were. One of the strategies that was mentioned multiple times by these slave owners is the possibility of their runaway slave getting their hands on a pass.

For example, in another advertisement by George Mason, he believes that Dick, and a new runaway slave named Watt, “will perhaps change their names and pass for free men, and it is probable they may have a forged pass.” This tells everyone that one, the slaves know that by changing their name, it will be more difficult for them to be caught, and two, that in order to become free men, they need to get a pass and if they did get a pass, they must have someone who has done it before in order for it to look authentic to people who are on the hunt for them. Because of how specific these narratives are, historians are able to map out a more accurate depiction of where the slaves might have fled from to where they are fleeing to, allowing a visualization of what the terrain or landscape might have been like to ensure that they would not be caught and returned to their slave owner. One prominent example is the Underground Railroad for which Harriet Tubman is famous for. History has shown that Harriet Tubman used the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes, to escape herself and went back and forth multiple times to help other slaves escape as well. While historians are able to figure out where these slaves are running away to and from, historians can also analyze the changes in these patterns of flight and across multiple different geographies over time.

After reading through some of these advertisements, it is not very difficult to imagine the types of horrors the slaves could, would, and did experience, as well as what they were willing to risk just to escape the lifestyle they were currently leading. It becomes increasingly difficult once family ties are involved. George Luck published an advertisement on for slaves Amie and Venus.. While Amie and Venus were not said to have been family, Luck did add in Venus’ description as someone who “has now with her a young child at the breast, about 4 to 5 months old.” A positive correlation has been shown between slaves who are mothers with staying behind with their children instead of jumping on the chance to escape. But it can be inferred with Venus that she probably wanted a better life for herself and her child but unlike the majority of slaves who are mothers, she was willing to take the risk for their freedom.

The time frames given in these advertisements disclosed information as well. George Mason published two different advertisements, one in 1784 and one in 1786, for Dick. The advertisement in 1786 shows that one, Dick was captured after the advertisement in 1784 and that two, he found a new strategy to escape. There is not another advertisement from George Mason after the advertisement in 1786 and this shows that something could have changed for Mason. There is a range of possibilities from releasing his slaves, to Mason passing away, or his other slaves just never ran away again, etc. After further research, Mason died on October 7, 1792, just 6 years after Mason’s last advertisement and that likely contributed to why there were not anymore advertisements from Mason.

While there are likely to have been more advertisements past 1803, the advertisements on the Geography of Slavery website only go up to 1803. It can be inferred that there was maybe less advertisements made after 1803 and so it became more difficult to find advertisements, maybe the newspapers decided to stop publishing these slave advertisements, or it could also be that in certain areas of the United States, the need and/or want for slaves decreased, leading to the decrease in these advertisements.

In conclusion, the public celebrates certain public and historical figures who have helped to shape history but those who went through more common struggles were forgotten. Through these advertisements and its descriptions of these everyday slaves, the general population today has come to recognize how every day slaves also contribute the understanding American slavery and it’s impact on American society today. While they might not have helped to change the course of history, they are a big representation of the daily life and struggles that the majority of slaves went through and should be given more credit for what their significance.

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