Cornell Creates a Database of Fugitive Slave Ads, Telling the Story of Those Who Resisted Slavery in 18th & 19th Century America

While the val­ue of slaves in the U.S. from the colo­nial peri­od to the Civ­il War rose and fell like oth­er mar­ket goods, for the most part, enslaved peo­ple con­sti­tut­ed the most valu­able kind of prop­er­ty, typ­i­cal­ly worth even more than land and oth­er high­ly val­ued resources. In one study, three Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas his­to­ri­ans esti­mate that dur­ing most of the 18th cen­tu­ry in South Car­oli­na, slaves “made up close to half of the per­son­al wealth record­ed in pro­bate inven­to­ry in most decades.” By the 19th cen­tu­ry, slave­hold­ers had begun tak­ing out insur­ance poli­cies on their slaves as Rachel L. Swarns doc­u­ments at The New York Times.

“Alive,” Swarns writes, “slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets. Dead, they were con­sid­ered vir­tu­al­ly worth­less…. By 1847, insur­ance poli­cies on slaves account­ed for a third of the poli­cies in a firm”—New York Life—“that would become one of the nation’s For­tune 100 com­pa­nies.” Giv­en the huge eco­nom­ic incen­tives for per­pet­u­at­ing the sys­tem of chat­tel slav­ery, the fact that peo­ple did not want to be held in forced labor for life—and to con­demn their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to the same—presented slave­hold­ers with a seri­ous prob­lem.

For over 250 years, count­less num­bers of enslaved peo­ple attempt­ed to escape to free­dom. And thou­sands of slave­own­ers ran news­pa­per ads to try and recov­er their invest­ments. These ads are like­ly famil­iar from text­books and his­tor­i­cal arti­cles on slav­ery; they have long been used singly to illus­trate a point, “but they have nev­er been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly col­lect­ed,” notes Cor­nell University’s Free­dom on the Move project, which intends to “com­pile all North Amer­i­can slave run­away ads and make them avail­able for sta­tis­ti­cal, geo­graph­i­cal, tex­tu­al, and oth­er forms of analy­sis.” While the data­base is still in progress, exam­ples of the ads are being shared on the @fotmproject Twit­ter account.

The ongo­ing project presents a tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty for his­tor­i­cal schol­ars of the peri­od. “If we could col­lect and col­late all of these ads,” the project’s researchers write, “we would cre­ate what might be the sin­gle rich­est source of data pos­si­ble for under­stand­ing the lives of the approx­i­mate­ly eight mil­lion peo­ple who were enslaved in the U.S.” It is esti­mat­ed that 100,000 or more such ads sur­vive “from the colo­nial and pre-Civ­il War U.S.,” though they might rep­re­sent a frac­tion of those pub­lished, and of the num­ber of attempt­ed, and suc­cess­ful, escapes.

Many of the ads casu­al­ly reveal evi­dence of bru­tal treat­ment, list­ing scars and brands, miss­ing fin­gers, speech imped­i­ments, and halt­ing walks. They show many of the escaped slaves to have been skilled in sev­er­al trades and speak mul­ti­ple lan­guages. A large num­ber of the escapees are chil­dren. As Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orleans his­to­ri­an Mary Niall Mitchell tells Hyper­al­ler­gic, “iron­i­cal­ly, in try­ing to retrieve their property—the peo­ple they claimed as things—enslavers left us mounds of evi­dence about the human­i­ty of the peo­ple they bought and sold.” (Mitchell is one of the projects three lead researchers, along with Uni­ver­si­ty of Alabama’s Joshua Roth­man and Cornell’s Edward Bap­tist, author of The Half Has Nev­er Been Told.)

The slave­hold­ers who ran ads also left evi­dence of what they made them­selves believe in order to hold peo­ple as prop­er­ty. One ad describes a run­away slave named Bil­ly as hav­ing been “per­suad­ed to leave his mas­ter by some vil­lain,” as though Bil­ly must sure­ly have been con­tent­ed with his lot. In the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of cas­es, we will nev­er know with cer­tain­ty what most peo­ple thought about being enslaved. Yet the fact that hun­dreds of thou­sands attempt­ed to escape at great per­son­al risk, often with­out any help—to such a degree that extreme, inflam­ma­to­ry mea­sures like the Fugi­tive Slave Act were even­tu­al­ly deemed necessary—should offer suf­fi­cient tes­ta­ment, if the rel­a­tive­ly few writ­ten nar­ra­tives aren’t enough. “For some” of the peo­ple in the ads, says Mitchell, “this may be the only place some­thing about them sur­vives, in any detail, in the writ­ten record,”

Free­dom on the Move, writes Hyperallergic’s Alli­son Meier, “expands on the his­to­ry of resis­tance against slav­ery in the 18th and 19th cen­turies.” It offers a com­pelling pic­ture of two intol­er­a­bly irre­solv­able views—those of slave­hold­ers who viewed enslaved peo­ple as pro­pri­etary invest­ments; and those of the enslaved who refused to be reduced to objects for oth­ers’ plea­sure and prof­it.

Vis­it Free­dom on the Move and find out more.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Boston Pub­lic Library Launch­es a Crowd­sourced Project to Tran­scribe 40,000 Doc­u­ments from Its Anti-Slav­ery Col­lec­tion: You Can Now Help

The His­to­ry of the U.S. Civ­il War Visu­al­ized Month by Month and State by State, in an Info­graph­ic from 1897

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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