In colonial America’s earliest years, those with runaway slaves, indentured servants, apprentices, military deserters, escaped prisoners, husbands, wives, or children had to rely on broadsides or word of mouth to advertise a reward for their return. Unsurprisingly, few such broadsides (and no words of mouth) survive. With the advent of colonial newspapers in the early to mid-18th century, however, runaway ads began appearing there with great regularity. Thankfully, many of those papers have been preserved, along with personal details that are rarely found in any other source.
The typical runaway ad is somewhat like this one from the Carolina Observer in Fayetteville, North Carolina:
$25 Reward. RANAWAY from the Subscriber, on the 6th inst. [instant; the present month] fourteen miles below Asheville, N C., a negro man named JIM. He had on when he left, a pair of light red Pantaloons, light mixt Coat, with a Round Jacket over it; he is about 5 feet 10 inches high, has a fierce look, a naked forehead, and has lost some of his teeth, which affects his speech. He was carried from Duplin County, N. C., and will aim to get back again. The above reward will be paid to any man who will apprehend and lodge him in any Goal [Gaol/Jail] so that I get him again. For the above reward apply to J. P. Smith, of Wadesborough, N. C.
F. Cooper. Wadesborough, Dec 20, 1838 25 3w
Some advertisements, however, include more remarkable details. We learn, for example, that apprentice John Shopman not only ran away in 1767, but that he spoke “very broad Yorkshire, being lately come over.” We learn that the Welsh servants John Owens and Francis Nuttle were “both Perriwig-makers, but may pretend to be sailors” in 1752. And we learn that “a Negro man, named Jacob, belonging to Mr. George Wray of Albany . . . “Broke Bridewell” [escaped jail] in 1764, “lately had the Small-Pox, and is very much Pock-broken,” and that he spoke “good English, some French, a little Spanish, but little or no Dutch.”
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