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.”
Because of the relatively few original sources available for researching enslaved people, these ads have become a key resource and the subject of several ongoing projects, including North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements Digital Collection, The Geography of Slavery (Virginia and Maryland), Texas Runaway Slave Project, Runaway Connecticut, and Runaway Slave Ads (Baltimore County). Some of these projects include ads for runaways of all sorts, while others include only those related to slavery.
A number of books reprinting some of these ads have also been published, like Daniel Meaders’s Advertisements for Runaway Slaves in Virginia, 1801–1820; Ruby J. Lanier and Natalie G. Taylor’s Runaway Slave Advertisements (North Carolina); Antonio T. Bly’s Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century New England, 1700–1789; Farley Ward Grubb’s Runaway Servants, Convicts, and Apprentices in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728–1796; and Joseph Lee Boyle’s “Stiles Himself a Prize Fighter”: New-York Runaways, 1706–1768. As with the online databases above, some printed books include ads for runaways of all sorts, while others include only those related to slavery.
Closely related to runaway advertisements are “information wanted” advertisements. As the volume of runaway ads decreased in the 19th century, particularly after Emancipation, they were replaced in some papers with “information wanted” advertisements bought by those seeking family members and friends from whom they had been separated.
For the formerly enslaved, a typical ad reads something like this one from Dallas in 1900:
LOST RELATIVES. I want to find my sister Melvina, daughter of Charles Gordon, who lived near Richmond, Va., at a little place called Chicot. I also had two brothers by name, Sam and John, all of them belonged to a Mrs. Susie Sharp, of that place. Any information leading to the whereabouts of either or all of them will be thankfully received. Address, Rachael Sharp, 308 Cottage Lane, Dallas, Texas.
For more ads like this, see Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery.
Other “information wanted” ads sought to reunite immigrant families and families in the midst of further migration. Such an ad might read like this one from New York in 1841:
Of Thomas or Patrick Kelly, who emigrated to this country in the spring of 1838, from near Castlerae [Castlereagh], Co. Roscommon, Ireland. When last heard from was in Providence, R. I., his brother Bernard has arrived in New York, and wishes to see or hear from him, he can be found at 163 Mulberry st. Our exchange papers will please copy this.
For more ads like this, see, for example, Laura Murphy DeGrazia and Diane Fitzpatrick Haberstroh’s Irish Relatives and Friends from “Information Wanted” Ads in the Irish-American, 1850–1871 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001) and Diane Fitzpatrick Haberstroh and Laura Murphy DeGrazia, Voices of the Irish Immigrant: Information Wanted Ads in Truth Teller, New York City, 1825–1844 (New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2005).
As thorough as some of these publications and databases are in their focused purposes, there are many other ads not yet reprinted, so further research in original newspapers is important. Useful databases are found at Newspapers.com (good for “information wanted” ads; not so good for runaway ads), America’s Historical Newspapers (Readex/Newsbank; available at most major libraries), and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. For “information wanted” ads, ethnic newspapers are a particularly good source.
Have you used runaway and “information wanted” ads to solve a genealogical problem? Tell us about it. And if not, think about your existing problems of identification and migration that might be answered by a thoughtful search of these ads. It’s true that the people identified in these ads are only a fraction of the existing population, but if your ancestor is among those named and described, that ad will be priceless.
 “$25 Reward,” Carolina Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.), 26 December 1838, 3; North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements Digital Collection (http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/RAS/id/329/rec/31 : accessed 23 April 2020).
 Joseph Lee Boyle, “Stiles Himself a Prize Fighter”: New-York Runaways, 1706–1768 (Baltimore: Printed for the Clearfield Company by the Genealogical Publishing Company, 2020), 377, citing New York Journal; or, the General Advertiser, 3, 10, 17, and 31 December 1767, pages not given.
 Boyle, New-York Runaways (note 2), 77, citing New-York Gazette Revived in the Weekly Post-Boy, 10 August 1752, page not given.
 Boyle, New-York Runaways (note 2), 293–294, citing Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, 23 July 1764, page not given.
 “Lost Relatives,” Dallas Express, 13 January 1900, page not given; Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery (https://informationwanted.org/items/show/3618 : accessed 23 April 2020).
 Diane Fitzpatrick Haberstroh and Laura Murphy DeGrazia, Voices of the Irish Immigrant: Information Wanted Ads in the Truth Teller, New York City, 1825–1844 (New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2005), 160; New York Genealogical & Biographical Society Digital Book Collection (https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/elibrary/information-wanted-ads-truth-teller-irish-newspaper-new-york-city-1825-1844 : accessed 25 April 2020); citing Truth Teller (New York, N.Y.), 23 January 1841, page not given.