Published March 14, 2019

In our “Unfreedom” episode we talk with Allison Madar about the evolution of laws affecting indentured servants and enslaved people in early America. Madar’s research draws on a variety of historical documents to reveal early Virginia’s culture of violence toward enslaved people, including old advertisements for runaway enslaved workers which demonstrate how colonists kept unfree workers in their place.

By presenting some of these advertisements we want to highlight how pervasive and commonplace the culture of surveillance was in early Virginia, and reveal the extent to which masters of enslaved people viewed them as property.

The April 11, 1766 Virginia Gazette ran an ad by Thomas Watkins: “Run away from the subscriber, on or about the 10th of February last, a Virginia born Negro man named George America, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, about 30 years old, of a yellow complexion, is a tolerable good shoemaker, and can do something of the house carpenters work, walks quick and upright, and has a scar on the back of his left hand; had on a cotton waistcoat and breeches, osnaburg shirt, and yarn flockings. As the said slave is outlawed, I do hereby offer a reward of $1 to any person that will kill and destroy him, and 40s. [shillings] if taken alive.”

Madar explains that “The thing that really struck me was looking at old issues of the Virginia Gazette, and reading through runaway advertisements, and getting to the end of an advertisement, and finding that that master promised much more money for the head of their runaway enslaved laborer than if someone brought that runway back to them alive.”

The September 15, 1768 Virginia Gazette contains an advertisement placed by James Burwell, concerning a man named Gaby: “Run away from the subscriber, about three months ago, a tall black Negro fellow named Gaby, about 40 years old, round shouldered, bends in one of his knees (which I have forgot), is very subject to sore legs, has very long feet, and had on when he left me the usual winter clothing of corn field negroes. He has a wife at Mr. Robert Nicolson’s of Williamsburg, where (in all probability) he may be secreted by her. He is outlawed, and a reward of ten pounds will be given for his head, or twenty shillings, if safely delivered to James Burwell.”

Madar describes her reaction to these advertisements: “And when I say much more money I’m talking about a master offering ten pounds to kill their enslaved laborer, and forty shillings to being that laborer back alive. And that incentive to kill is horrifying, and it wasn’t common, but every time it pops up it devastates me.”

See more primary documents below:

April 16, 1767-Runaway ad for Will and Peter, placed by John Brown (page 3)—also appears in April 23 and April 30 issues (pages 3 and 4, respectively)

May 4, 1769-Runaway ad for Peter, placed by William Gregory (page 3)—also appears in May 11 and May 18 issues (page 4 in both)

Feb. 7, 1771-Runaway ad for Will, placed by Henry Batte (page 3)—also appears in Feb. 14 and Feb. 21 issues (page 3 and 4, respectively)

May 16, 1771-Runaway ad for Tom, placed by James Henderson (page 3)—also appears in May 23 issue (page 3)


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