Guest Post: The Art of Absconding: Slave Fugitivity in the Early Republic

Guest Poster Shaun Wallace (@Shaun_Wallace_) is an Economic and Social Research Council-funded Ph.D. candidate at the University of StirlingHis dissertation examines how reading and writing influenced and aided slave decision-making in the early republic. Shaun holds a B.A. (Hons.) and a MRes. from the University of Stirling and is president of Historical Perspectives, a Glasgow-based historical society run by and for graduate students in the United Kingdom.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.43.09 PMA “very ingenious artful fellow” appears a peculiar description of a runaway advertised for recapture. The advertisement, for Harry or Harry Johnstone, featured in Baltimore’s Federal Gazette newspaper, on May 2, 1800, at the request of Nicholas Reynolds, overseer of criminals for Baltimore County. Harry had absconded from Gotham gaol, near Baltimore. Reynolds described Harry as a “tolerable good blacksmith” and a “rough carpenter.” A “very talkative” slave, he was a man of “great address.” On first impression a relatively congenial description; in actuality, Reynolds’s use of the term “artful” condemned the runaway.[1]

In his eighteenth-century dictionary, Thomas Sheridan defined “artful” as “performed with art; artificial, not natural; cunning, skilful, dextrous,” which was linked to cunning, meaning “skilful, knowing, learned; performed with skill, artful; artfully deceitful, trickish, subtle, crafty” breeding “artifice, deceit, flyness, flight, fraudulent dexterity; art, skill, knowledge.”[2] Advertisers in the early republic used these descriptions interchangeably, but sparingly, not to describe the act of running away. They used them to denote a feared slave type. Indeed, an “artful” slave was empowered by their sense of self. They had the confidence to define and control their own lives and skill to make these attempts plausible. The artful slave was a discontented slave but skilled and with the ability to transform their identity for the purpose of escape. My argument is that literacy was at the heart of slaves’ artfulness and, in turn, their confidence.

A much contested skill, reading and writing instruction was sought by many slaves but frequently denied by masters. Despite slaveholder and legislative efforts to deny literacy, slaves used their agency to circumvent such efforts. Stealing what instruction they could, they learned through manipulation and in secret.  Reading ability exposed slaves to the world of print, developing their minds and imagination while writing nurtured self-expression. Both inspired self-confidence. Both could inspire fugitivity. Despite Ivan McDougle’s insistence nearly a century ago that “the more a slave learned the more liable he was to become dissatisfied and runaway,” the influence of literacy on escape attempts remains understudied.[3] My argument draws upon the work of historians such as Janet Cornelius and Heather Andrea Williams who have linked literacy with slave mobility.[4] I argue that it played a significant role in encouraging escape attempts and aided slaves in their efforts to pass as free. These slaves conformed to what David Waldstreicher termed the “confidence men” fugitive slave type.[5] Confidence men were artful slaves capable of transforming their physical identity and behaviour to hide their slave identity and convincingly portray free persons.

It is curious that the prominent role of literacy in fugitivity has not been explored despite being publically acknowledged by advertisers in numerous slave runaway advertisements. For instance, John Ruppert explicitly acknowledged this relationship when advertising for his runaway, Prophet. Described as speaking “good English,” “very smooth tongued” and capable of telling “a very plausible story,” Ruppert noted it was “probable he [Prophet] will pass for a free man as he can both read and write.” Similarly, Daniel O’Hara advertised for his “remarkably knowing” literate runaway, John, who also would attempt to pass as free while Henry Ware, Jr. feared his “remarkable” young “country born” literate slave Isaac would “change his name and endeavor to pass as a free.”[6] Not all advertisements for artful slave remarked on the literacy status of the runaway but this is to be expected. Slaves typically secreted their education. Owners were often reluctant to admit such skills.

Image 1Comparatively analyzed, there are striking similarities between the advertisements for literate and artful slaves. Both attest to slaveholders attempting to downplay the slave’s ability to change their name, clothes, and behavior to pass as free. From the 8,190 advertisements, 590 (7.2 per cent) advertised slave artfulness and of these, 175 (29.66 per cent) remarked on the runaway passing or attempting to pass as free.[7] These advertisements most commonly refer to slaves changing their names, clothes, or behavior in an attempt to pass as free – all traits of the confidence men. They appealed to and played upon wider society’s paranoia of the cunning untrustworthy slave. For example, when advertising for runaway slave, Jack, Elias Brown speculated, “It is probable he may change his name and dress, and endeavour to pass for a free man, as he is an artful rogue.” While Jack’s artfulness empowered him to transform, it was presented as a negative trait by Brown, who attached the term “rogue” to Jack’s character description.[8] Artful slaves were advertised as “rogues,” “villains,” and apt to be “sly” and “impudent.” Of the 8,190 advertisements in my database, these were the most common terms. Patricia Bradley has described these efforts as a rhetoric developed by slaveholders to protect themselves from the reality that these slaves had reason to run.[9] While reasons for slaves absconding were numerous, my argument is that many escape attempts were informed and directed by local news captured in newspapers, broadsides, and periodicals and inspired by a craving for further knowledge by empowered and learned slaves. Literacy was a fundamental skill needed to interpret and communicate within society. Through large-scale quantitative analysis of slave runaway advertisements it is possible to draw these conclusions about slave literacy.[10]

DatabaseAs part of my dissertation, currently being undertaken at the University of Stirling, I have logged 8,190 slave runaway advertisements between c. 1790 and 1810 in a relational database. The advertisements are predominantly from Maryland and Georgia newspapers. But this figure also includes smaller random samples from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. This figure includes advertisements that were repeated. The idea of the project is to marry the theoretical understanding of literacy, which is well known in the historiography, with the social realities of slave agency captured in the runaway advertisements. Further research into the relationship between slave artfulness, particularly the role of literacy, and slave resistance models is needed. The artful slave was not just a feature of public advertisements but also a private concern between slaveholders. In a letter sent to John Gibson, in Annapolis, on May 21, 1819, J. R. Stevens warned:[11]

“I have taken the liberty of addressing you on acct. of Jim, who has been skulking about in this neighbourhood upwards of a fortnight. You know he is a very artful Boy. I should not be surprised should he through the assistance of his mother make his escape – I would not wish you to take him back if it is not agreeable to you.”

The artful slave was a feared character and drawing upon private discourse and public advertisements which suggest slave literacy had a greater role in the development of slave artfulness, I explore the role of literacy in character types such as Waldstreicher’s “confidence men.” It would appear that slave literacy was also related to resistance models such Gerald W. Mullin’s theory of “outwardly resistance” resorted to by acculturated and assimilated slaves.[12] These “shrewd psychologists” were knowledgeable runaways who combined astuteness, adaptability, and practicality to remain inconspicuous; interpreting, manipulating, and reinventing themselves during escape attempts.[13] Indeed, literacy appears to have inspired and aided these artful slaves in their escape attempts.


[1] Federal Gazette, May 2, 1800. The advertisement would be repeated once the following week, on May 9. Afterwards, it did not feature again.

[2] Thomas Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1790.

[3] I.E. McDougle, “Slavery in Kentucky,” Journal of Negro History 3, no. 3 (July 1918): 290.

[4] J. Cornelius, “We Slipped and Learned to Read: Slave Accounts of the Literary Process, 1830–1865,” Phylon (1960-) 44, no. 3 (1983): 171-86; H. A. Williams, Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

[5] According to Waldstreicher, these slaves typically had three of four skills assigned to them in advertisements: ability to manipulate clothes, language, and signs of trade or skill – the three signs of social status amongst men. The Confidence Man more generally was an artful dodger-type character who was skilled and frequently assumed the identities of others persons for personal gain. The confidence man was a deceiving and manipulative character. Somewhat of an eighteenth-century cultural phenomenon, the confidence man first appeared in Herman Melville’s 1857 novel, The Confidence Man while scholars such as Steven C. Bullock have also produced studies of the confidence man. See David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 56, no. 2, African and American Atlantic Worlds, (1999): 243-72. See also Steven C. Bullock, “A Mumper among the Gentle: Tom Bell, Colonial Confidence Man,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 55, no. 2 (April 1998): 231-58.

[6] Georgia Gazette, October 18, 1792; Georgia Gazette, March 19, 1789; Columbian Museum, October 31, 1797.

[7] These figures are taken from my own database of runaway slave advertisements. Over a two year period, as part of my Ph.D. project have harvested and analysed over 8,190 advertisements that featured in newspapers from c. 1790–1810. The project has used the advertisements to unearth information on 1,642 slaves and 1,197 advertisers.

[8] Federal Gazette, October 22, 1796.

[9] Patricia Bradley, Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), 33.

[10] The Ph.D. project adopts a similar methodological approach as Antonio T. Bly who has produced one of the foremost recent works to quantify slave literacy rates. Bly quantifies local literacy rates using slave runaway advertisements that mention slave literacy status. See Antonio T. Bly, “‘Pretends he can Read’: Runaways and Literacy in Colonial America, 1730–1776,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 261-94.

[11] J. R. Stevens to John Gibson. May 21, 1819, Ridout Papers, MSA SC 910, Box 10, Folder 37, Maryland State Archives.

[12] Acculturated and assimilated slaves were those who typically resisted “outwardly,” running in search of freedom as opposed to those without these skills who resorted to sabotaging crops or slowing their labour thus resisting “inwardly.” Gerard W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 35-9.

[13] Daniel E. Meaders, “South Carolina Fugitives as Viewed Through Local Colonial Newspapers with Emphasis on Runaway Notices, 1732–1801,” The Journal of Negro History 60, no. 2 (April 1975): 309.

3 responses

  1. Shaun and others may be interested in a publication and ongoing project called People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach, that I run at Documents Compass (part of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities which is a department of the University of Virginia). Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project collects biographies from the published documentary editions of the Founding Fathers and other Founding Era projects such as the Dolley Madison Digital Edition and The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Horry Pinckney. We are now working on the data from Tom Costa’s project at UVA-Wise on runaway slave ads. Tom has shared his data for more than 10,000 runaways slave ads from Maryland and Virginia newspapers, 1736-1803 (see over the last two decades, Tom’s project analyzed each advertisement in much the same way you describe; that is identified different categories of information in the transcription of each ad: cloth, disease, physical characteristics, and speech, among others. This last category aligns with your “literacy status,” as you describe it. We hope to have all of these records processed and made available in the formal publication for searching and comparison in the next month or two. People of the Founding Era is a publication of UVA Press Rotunda and you can obtain trial access here

  2. It seems some of the notices were meant to entice slaves back to their owners. Natchez-based Winthrop Sargent’s Boston advertisement offered an excuse for his enslaved barber to return to his Master. The 1807 notice stated that Sancho was most probably “inveigled away by some artful villains for their own use and benefit,” so Sancho would be welcomed back with “wonted kindness and affection.” But if he did not voluntarily return, any who harbored him or concealed him, would be punished to the “full extent of the law.” Sargent also made the point that there was no place to hide by listing his relatives and agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: The Art of Absconding: Slave Fugitivity in the Early Republic | Star Thrower


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