Runaway Slave Ads and the Violence of Slavery

In research for my colonial America book, I recently came across a runaway slave ad cited in Ira Berlin’s masterful Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. The ad appeared in the Maryland Gazette in 1766, one of countless such ads seeking the return of runaways from southern farms and plantations in the colonial and antebellum eras. Here’s the ad:

Ran away from the subscriber living in Baltimore-Town, on the 7th of September last, a Negro Girl, named Hagar, about 14 years of age, of a brownish complexion, remarkable long fingers and toes, has a scar under one of her breasts, supposed to be got by a whipping: Had on when she went away, an Osnabrig [a coarse fabric] shift and petticoat very much patched, and may now be very ragged, an iron collar about her neck, which is is probable she has got off, as it was very poorly riveted. She is supposed to be harboured in some negro quarter, as her father and mother encourages her in elopements, under a pretence that she is ill used at home.

Whoever takes up the said girl, and brings her to me, shall have, if taken 10 miles from home twenty shillings reward, if 20 miles forty shillings, and if further three pounds, paid by

                                                                                    WILLIAM PAYNE

N.B. All persons are forbid to harbour the said negro, as they shall answer the contrary at their peril.

What can we discern from this snapshot of American slavery on the eve of the Revolution? A few observations: first, the frequency of such ads speaks to the pervasiveness of slavery in American, and especially southern society, in these years, and the frequency with which even young slaves resisted slavery by running away.

Second, we learn a lot about Hagar’s life just by reading the ad: she already had a permanent scar on her torso from a whipping, and when she ran away, she did so with an iron collar still riveted on her neck.

1775 runaway slave ad

Third, we see that William Payne was not sheepish about admitting that she had this scar (although he is less clear about who gave it to her), or that she departed with the collar fastened to her neck. In fact, he was willing to advertise these facts in the newspaper. Antebellum slave masters, by contrast, would often insist that slavery need not be this brutal, and that it could be practiced in a more humane, Christian fashion.

Finally, Payne still expressed incredulity that some blacks (including Hagar’s parents) would find the whippings and the collar evidence that she was “ill used at home.” It is hard to imagine what he would count as ill treatment, if not such coercive violence.

Historians get so used to slavery’s existence in early America that one can become dulled to how violent it could be. Runaway slave ads could be remarkably frank about slavery, however, and unintentionally make clear the reasons why many enslaved people ran away when given the chance. I’ll revisit the topic of slavery’s violence, and Christianity’s complicated relationship with it in America, in later posts.

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  • Paul M.

    Do you think “ill used at home” is a euphemism for sexual assault?

    • philipjenkins

      It might be, but the physical brutality is probably an adequate explanation.

      • Paul M.

        True. It does make one wonder about the awful punishment he must have meted out to her parents for aiding and abetting.

  • John C. Gardner

    Decades ago, when I was working on my doctorate, I read Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, in which he documented the use of brutal punishment as the mainstay of chattel slavery. Others such as historian Walter Johnson more recently have also documented this 19th century horror. One need only see the works by James Oakes and Peter Kolchin. There may have been some minor improvements since the colonial period but the use of force by the slave holder on his peculiar property was at the foundation of the system. I was born a border state southerner and attended legally segregated schools until beginning college in 1962(thereafter I did participate in the civil rights movement and taught at two separate black colleges). The legacy of slavery and segregation still haunt our psyche as a nation and history.

  • Tom Van Dyke

    It’s hard to imagine this beastly topic getting a clear-eyed assay. What if 70 or 80 or 90% of slaveholders were reasonably humane [or at least not inhumane]? To come to such a conclusion–even if true–would more likely to be met with the charge of minimizing the evil of slavery than be praised as good history.

    The locution

    supposed to be got by a whipping

    seems to be a denial that ill-treatment was the cause of the scar. If nothing else, at least the prevailing sensibilities required they bother to lie about it.


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