A former slave shows scars on his back from savage whipping (left); a slave family picking cotton (right).

Bettmann/Getty Images (family); Time Life Pictures/National Archives/ The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images (former slave)

WANTED: Missing Slaves 

New databases of old newspaper ads are revealing details about the lives of slaves that had long been lost to history  

From the 17th century through the Civil War (1861-65), about 8 million black people were enslaved in America. They picked cotton on Southern plantations, toiled as carpenters and blacksmiths, and tended to their masters’ homes and families.

Some of them ran away, hoping to escape to a place where slavery had been abolished. Others were sold by their masters, never to see their parents, children, or siblings again.

Who were these people, and what were their lives like? For a long time, historians had only partial answers, relying on a limited scope of primary sources, like diaries and autobiographies written by a small number of literate slaves, or transcripts of interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s. But now, new searchable digital databases of old newspaper ads—placed by masters looking for escaped slaves or by former slaves looking for family members—are filling in some of the gaps. The ads are helping historians identify patterns about slavery that had been lost to history; they’re also helping genealogists and descendants of slaves to begin reconstructing the missing pieces of family trees.

Among the new databases are:
Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery (informationwanted.org), which collects ads placed by former slaves trying to locate family members after the Civil War.

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia
(http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos), which features
18th- and 19th-century ads for runaway and captured slaves from Virginia.
Freedom on the Move, which aims to digitize up to 200,000 ads by slave masters looking for escaped slaves, from colonial times to 1865. (The project is slated to go live later in 2018.)

Edward Baptist of Freedom on the Move, which is based at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says the new projects will be extremely valuable to a variety of audiences. They come at a time when many schools are examining their own ties to slavery (see “Slavery & Schools,” below).

“[The ads] are going to be a massive broadening of the primary source material that’s readily available for not just scholars, but also teachers, students, and the general public to understand the history of slavery in a really immediate way,” he says.

From the 17th century through the Civil War (1861-65), about 8 million black people were enslaved in America. They picked cotton on Southern plantations. They tended to their masters’ homes and families. And they even toiled as carpenters and blacksmiths.

Some of them ran away, hoping to escape to a place where slavery had been abolished. Others were sold by their masters, never to see their parents, children, or siblings again.

Who were these people, and what were their lives like? For a long time, historians had only partial answers. Researchers had to rely on a limited scope of primary sources. These included diaries and autobiographies written by a small number of literate slaves. They also included transcripts of interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s. But now, new searchable digital databases of old newspaper ads are filling in some of the gaps. The ads were placed by masters looking for escaped slaves or by former slaves looking for family members. They're helping historians identify patterns about slavery that had been lost to history. They’re also helping genealogists and descendants of slaves to begin reconstructing the missing pieces of family trees.

Among the new databases are:


• Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery (informationwanted.org), which collects ads placed by former slaves trying to locate family members after the Civil War.

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia (http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos), which features 18th- and 19th-century ads for runaway and captured slaves from Virginia.

Freedom on the Move, which aims to digitize up to 200,000 ads by slave masters looking for escaped slaves, from colonial times to 1865. The project is slated to go live later in 2018.

Freedom on the Move is based at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Edward Baptist, a scholar with the project, says the new databases will be extremely valuable to a variety of audiences. They come at a time when many schools are examining their own ties to slavery.

“[The ads] are going to be a massive broadening of the primary source material that’s readily available for not just scholars, but also teachers, students, and the general public to understand the history of slavery in a really immediate way,” he says.

The ads are a reminder of how much slaves resisted.

When slaves fled plantations and homes, their owners often placed detailed ads in newspapers offering rewards to anyone who returned them.
(The Constitution, ratified in 1788, said escaped slaves must be returned to their masters, and the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 strengthened that law.) Many of the details included in the written notices describe the runaway slaves more like objects or animals than humans, including references to their mannerisms, skin markings, teeth, and skills.

Some of the content is harrowing. 

One ad, written by a slave master named Benjamin Graves of Chesterfield, Virginia, advertises for two runaway slaves named Edmond and Henry. Graves describes the latter as “a tall black fellow, about 24 years of age, many scars on his face and hands occasioned by a burn; on his right cheek there are two or three large welts, also produced by fire.”

The scars mentioned in many ads make clear how often the men, women, and children in captivity were whipped, beaten, and shot; were forced to wear metal collars; and had their faces branded. Some advertisers offered bounties for the escapees’ corpses or decapitated heads.

When slaves fled plantations and homes, their owners often placed detailed ads in newspapers. These ads offered rewards to anyone who returned them.

The Constitution, ratified in 1788, said escaped slaves must be returned to their masters. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 strengthened that law. Many of the details included in the written notices describe the runaway slaves more like objects or animals than humans. They include references to their mannerisms, skin markings, teeth, and skills.

Some of the content is harrowing.

One ad, written by a slave master named Benjamin Graves of Chesterfield, Virginia, advertises for two runaway slaves named Edmond and Henry. Graves describes the latter as “a tall black fellow, about 24 years of age, many scars on his face and hands occasioned by a burn; on his right cheek there are two or three large whelts, also produced by fire.”

The scars mentioned in many ads give some insight into the lives of the men, women, and children in captivity. They make clear how often slaves were whipped, beaten, and shot; were forced to wear metal collars; and had their faces branded. Some advertisers offered bounties for the escapees’ corpses or decapitated heads.

These ads also show that some slaves managed to leave with their children and that some were able to pass for white. And the ads document recaptured slaves who kept trying to escape—an important reminder of how vigorously some slaves resisted being enslaved.

To understand slave resistance, historians had long relied on the 100 or so autobiographies written by escaped slaves—Frederick Douglass’s is the most famous—and the roughly 2,300 first-person narratives of former slaves collected from 1936 to 1938 by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). But in some ways, Baptist says, the runaway ads provide even deeper insight into acts of resistance. 

“What we’re talking about with the runaway-slave ads,” he says “is actions that were taken in the middle of slavery that broke the authority—even if just temporarily—of the enslaver and the whole system of power that that enslaver represents.”

These ads also show that some slaves managed to leave with their children. They show that some were able to pass for white. And they document recaptured slaves who kept trying to escape. This is an important reminder of how vigorously some slaves resisted being enslaved.

To understand slave resistance, historians had long relied on the 100 or so autobiographies written by escaped slaves. Frederick Douglass’s is the most famous. They also turned to the roughly 2,300 first-person narratives of former slaves collected from 1936 to 1938 by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). But in some ways, Baptist says, the runaway ads provide even deeper insight into acts of resistance.

“What we’re talking about with the runaway-slave ads,” he says “is actions that were taken in the middle of slavery that broke the authority—even if just temporarily—of the enslaver and the whole system of power that that enslaver represents.”    

Family Trees & the 1870 Census

After slavery was outlawed in the 1860s (see timeline, below), former slaves often placed ads in newspapers trying to find lost family members who’d been sold to other masters, had run away, or had gone missing while fighting in the Civil War. Judith Giesberg, who heads Last Seen—a project by Villanova University and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia—says most of the ads on that site were placed by mothers looking for their children or children looking for their mothers.

“Each one is a family history,” she says.

Many are rich in detail, and heartbreaking, like an 1866 ad placed by a woman named Elizabeth Williams, who hadn’t seen her four children in 25 years. Williams describes how her Tennessee master sold her and she wound up in Arkansas, separated from her family. “Any information given concerning them,” the ad reads, “will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.”

The details in the ads not only provide a better understanding of the emotional trauma and violence of slavery, according to Giesberg, but also may help genealogists and descendants of slaves retrace family trees prior to the 1870 Census. Before the 1870 Census, slaves were considered property and not people, so they weren’t mentioned.

After slavery was outlawed in the 1860s (see timeline, below), former slaves often placed ads in newspapers. They were trying to find lost family members who’d been sold to other masters, had run away, or had gone missing while fighting in the Civil War. Judith Giesberg heads Last Seen, a project by Villanova University and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. She says most of the ads on that site were placed by mothers looking for their children or children looking for their mothers.

“Each one is a family history,” she says.

Many are rich in detail, and heartbreaking. For example, a woman named Elizabeth Williams placed an ad in 1866. She hadn’t seen her four children in 25 years. Williams describes how her Tennessee master sold her and she wound up in Arkansas, separated from her family. “Any information given concerning them,” the ad reads, “will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.”

The details in the ads provide a better understanding of the emotional trauma and violence of slavery, according to Giesberg. But they also may help genealogists and descendants of slaves retrace family trees prior to the 1870 Census. Before the 1870 Census, slaves were considered property and not people. As a result, they weren’t named.

“To find an ancestor in the 1850 or 1860 Census when that ancestor was enslaved is very difficult, if not impossible,” Giesberg explains. She says the specific names and places listed in these ads “can take you beyond that 1870 wall.” (Efforts to re-create family trees, however, may be complicated by the fact that many former slaves gave themselves new names after gaining freedom.)

Some of the ads featured on the Last Seen site are also giving historians greater insight into the importance of literacy among former slaves. An 1883 ad placed by a woman named Betty Davis in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper in New Orleans, for example, states, “I am now 55 years old. I learned how to read when I was 50. I take and read the SOUTHWESTERN, it is food for my soul.” Davis indicated that she was looking for her mother, Priscilla, and her brother, Henry.

Giesberg says even in cases where the chances of reunion were slim, the newspaper notices served an important purpose.

“The ads were a way of commemorating the families that existed,” she says. “So each of these ads was an act of hope and an act of commemoration, which I think we’ve overlooked.”

“To find an ancestor in the 1850 or 1860 Census when that ancestor was enslaved is very difficult, if not impossible,” Giesberg explains. She says the specific names and places listed in these ads “can take you beyond that 1870 wall.” Efforts to re-create family trees may prove to be difficult. That's because many former slaves gave themselves new names after gaining freedom.

Some of the ads featured on the Last Seen site are also giving historians greater insight into the importance of literacy among former slaves. An 1883 ad placed by a woman named Betty Davis in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper in New Orleans, for example, states, “I am now 55 years old. I learned how to read when I was 50. I take and read the SOUTHWESTERN, it is food for my soul.” Davis indicated that she was looking for her mother, Priscilla, and her brother, Henry.

Giesberg says even in cases where the chances of reunion were slim, the newspaper notices served an important purpose.

“The ads were a way of commemorating the families that existed,” she says. “So each of these ads was an act of hope and an act of commemoration, which I think we’ve overlooked.”

Unanswered Questions

But despite what the ads illuminate, there’s still a lot historians are trying to figure out. To what extent did former slaves looking for family write the ads themselves, for example, or dictate the words to editors or literate friends? How many of the families were reunited? And how many runaway slaves aren’t accounted for in these ads, because they were captured before their masters had the chance to place a notice in a newspaper?

Edward Baptist of Freedom on the Move says that the new databases will give historians more tools to answer some of these questions, as well as others they haven’t yet considered.

“There are always gaps in the sources,” he says. “We think we understand, we think we can interpret, but the more windows we have to understand what was actually going on, the better.”

But despite what the ads illuminate, there’s still a lot historians are trying to figure out. To what extent did former slaves looking for family write the ads themselves, for example. To what extent did they dictate the words to editors or literate friends? How many of the families were reunited? And how many runaway slaves aren’t accounted for in these ads, because they were captured before their masters had the chance to place a notice in a newspaper?

Edward Baptist of Freedom on the Move says that the new databases will give historians more tools to answer some of these questions, as well as others they haven’t yet considered.

“There are always gaps in the sources,” he says. “We think we understand, we think we can interpret, but the more windows we have to understand what was actually going on, the better.”

With reporting by Eve Kahn of The New York Times.

With reporting by Eve Kahn of The New York Times.

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