Homework #4: Reading Questions

For this homework assignment, you should write a comment on this blog post that responds to the readings and discussions that we have been doing in class, including the readings for Monday.

In our February 5, February 7, and February 10, you have been introduced to some of the questions that historians ask about slavery in general and runaway slaves in particular. Your comment should draw specifically on these readings and our discussions to explain which historical question(s) you think we are best equipped to answer with the ads that we have identified in our spreadsheet.

The comment should be approximately 300 to 500 words long, and because it is a comment, it should take into account other comments that have already been made. Before posting your answer, read what other students have said and adjust your comment accordingly to make sure that it contributes something new and constructive to the conversation. For example, if another student has already made a point you planned to make, can you an additional supporting reason to that point, or give a different specific example or quotation from the readings that would elaborate the idea? You must post you comment before class time this Monday, February 10.

There are also two small technical requirements for this assignment:

  • Make sure that your comment is formatted so that there is a single blank line between each paragraph once it is published.
  • Include at least one hyperlinked word or phrase OR one blockquote in your comment, using HTML tags.

With regard to the second technical requirement, you may have noticed when entering comments on previous posts that the WordPress comment box is HTML enabled, which means you can add special formatting to your text, much as Trevor Owens did in this comment on our video games discussion. To add a blockquote or a link to your comment, you need to wrap some of your text in HTML tags, as described below and on this handout by Miriam Posner. You could, for example, link to one of the runaway ads found on the Portal to Texas History, or to one of our readings when you cite it.

Before posting your comment, I recommend that you copy and paste your comment into a Gist on Github. That way, if you make mistakes in the HTML and can’t edit your comment, you can go to your Gist, try to fix your HTML markup, and then make another comment on the post. (I’ll delete old duplicates.)

Code for a Blockquote

Here is how you would make a block quote in your comment:

<blockquote>This is text that I want to indent.</blockquote>

Now that the tag is closed, the text is no longer indented.


Here is how you would make a block quote in your comment:

This is text that I want to indent.

Now that the tag is closed, the text is no longer indented.

Wrap the <a href="http://www.google.com">text to link</a>
in an "a" tag that has the URL assigned to the "href" attribute.


Wrap the text to link in an "a" tag that has the URL assigned to the "href" attribute.

10 Responses to Homework #4: Reading Questions

  1. I believe that the advertisements that we collected could best be used to answer questions about how slave owners thought about and viewed runaway slaves. Questions such as “how did slaveholders regard their runaway slaves,” “why do slave holders think that their slaves ran away,” and “to where do slave holders think their slaves ran” would be interesting questions that could be answered with our sources. Because our sources are written by slave owners, the information they contain may not be entirely true from the slave’s perspective. The article “Jackson Unchained” shows how a primary source written by a runaway slave can be used alongside a runaway slave advertisement to reveal discrepancies between the two perspectives:

    Jackson was able to escape in part because Thomas English was looking in the wrong direction. Rather than seek his wife to the west in Georgie, as English believed, Jackson had chosen to head south, to Charleston, a route he knew from previous work leading cattle (“Jackson Unchained”).

    Franklin and Schweninger also support the idea that slaves often ran to places that slave owners were not expecting, despite the fact that many slave owners kept track of their slaves’ family members and friends (page 165). We may not be able to know if a slave owner was right or wrong in his guess about where a slave was going because we do not have access to a primary source like a memoir, but we do know that a slave owner has incentive to tell the truth as he knows it in a runaway slave advertisement because he wants to recapture his slave. Therefore, a runaway slave advertisement is a representation of what a slave owner views to be both true and important in finding and identifying a runaway slave. According to Franklin and Schweninger in chapter seven of Runaway Slaves, we can also learn some information about the sentiments of slave owners through runaway advertisements. Some slave owners described their slaves in runaway advertisements in a very positive manner (such as calling them intelligent or good looking) (page 166). Others, however, used negative words or had very little description. These descriptions of slaves might be able to help us understand more about which runaway slaves received advertisements and what slave owners thought about runaway slaves.

    One problem with framing our research questions based on the viewpoint of the slave owners is that the advertisements we found were not entirely runaway slave advertisements written by slave owners or overseers. Depending on how our research questions are framed, this could make it difficult to work with a portion of our sources. At the very least, though, we must keep in mind the authors and perspectives of our sources when considering questions for our research.

    • I was intrigued by this sentence from Kaitlyn’s post, which brought to mind some very poetic images for me:

      “Jackson Unchained” shows how a primary source written by a runaway slave can be used alongside a runaway slave advertisement to reveal discrepancies between the two perspectives.

      In the case of Jackson, he is alert to the discrepancy between how his master views him and how he views himself. The paternalistic narrative in the post-colonial South does not recognize the ability of the slave to observe his or her master. Jackson shows that this hierarchical narrative is not accurate, and that he and Thomas English are both capable of observation, interpretation and invention.
      The paternalistic representation of slavery is a carefully constructed narrative we cannot trust. The same is true of the runaway slave ads. For one thing the slave ads are viewed by the public and potentially embarrassing to the slave owner, who doesn’t want to seem like a horrible man or a fool. This embarrassment may also result in more extreme punishment for a slave that is recaptured.
      So the slave owner is leaving out information in the ads not only because of misunderstanding on his part, but also because he doesn’t want to expose himself.

    • Susanna Ashton

      Hi –quick thought here from Susanna Ashton, the author: I like your point that we need to see these advertisements as usually placed by masters and owners but often by overseers or agents. Thus the intimacy and knowledge of the enslaved person might vary by patterns we could note in that relationship. …….Thanks for thinking through my essay!


  2. I agree with Kaitlyn’s point on the perspective of slave owners as being central to the runaway ads. As far as slave perspectives, the Jackson Unchained article made me realize that the selection of slave perspectives and biographies comes primarily from the ones who succeeded in running away. Although I believe Franklin and Schweninger include interviews and more personal accounts, the biographies and larger amounts of information are available from both the successful runaways (time to write once in the North) and the literate (ability to write diary or memoirs). Although the runaway ads could not give us slave perspectives, they could suggest what information less successful runaways were willing to give (or claim to give). As we have read in Franklin and Schweninger, slaves would sometimes lie about their owners, preferring being sold to returning to the certainty of familiar abuse. The found runaways are not always trusted by the writers of the ads, as evidenced by the caution with language found in this ad : “calls his name Bob,” “says he belongs to Stephen Low,” etc

    Kaitlyn’s final point on the different types of ads interests me in how the two types connect or disconnect. What differences are there between runaway ads placed by owners and runaway finds posted by the sheriff? How long each of them ran could indicate some level of success or failure. We mentioned the “geography of the runaway” in reference to several of the articles (specifically Camp’s book), but the geography that would be interesting from a Texas perspective is how far away slave owners advertised. Were Texas runaway advertisements increased by the fact that Texas was a possible runaway route to Mexico? In addition, how far away did the captured slaves claim as their home? I believe the Texas geography of slavery might be unique from the other geographies discussed in Franklin and Schweninger in chapter five. The basics of this chapter could set a standard to help us determine the Texas differences, but we would also probe more specifically into the idea of geography.

    Something to consider when we choose our project is the size of our collection and the fact that it is from a single source. Given the smaller nature of our sample size, projects such as peak times for runaway ads (in addition to already having been explored at a significant level by others) are impracticable given the number of ads we have to work with. To a certain extent, our project needs to either rely on comparison with other data sets (such as the database from Franklin and Schweninger) or to focus on the individual and unique characteristics, the information that can be drawn out of an ad without requiring numbers to uphold and argue.

    • Susanna Ashton

      Hi Claire – This is Susanna Ashton. Caleb McDaniel invited me to respond to a couple of your thoughtful comments on my essay. What an awesome opportunity. I’m in Maine right now desperately tracking Jackson’s movements on the UGRR up here (he made it to Boston but had to flee again in 185, this time with the help of a nascent UGRR). anyway, I only have a brief few minutes to reply…wish I had more. BUT – let me start with your idea concerning how far runaway advertising networks went. That is a fabulous question and really one where creative digital visualization could help. I’m seeking an advertisement for another individual who ran away in 1838 and my plan is to start with the most local papers and then go to the county ones, and then the regional and then the stet…it didn’t really occur to me to go past the state borders because that seemed to much (since the bulk of this kind of searching needs to be done on microfilm still, sigh, not yet searchable databases. ). In a broader sense, imagine how much is at stake her in understanding the notions of imagined nation through advertisements. How far could an owner imagine a slave running? I bet you the English family never thought Jackson would end up in Scotland but they did use an agent to hunt for him in Boston…… another aspect to consider is how the advertisements reveal much about marroonage and petite marronage. If a slave ran away and an owner thinks it is just to visit his family but will likely return two weeks later, an owner won’t put out an advertisement immediately. But after a month with no return he may start putting out ads. Thus we can measure what owners thought was grande marroonage not petite marronage (running away for small periods as opposed to running away for good). Indeed, I’d like to see a database that could correlate the time markers between when a slve ran and when an advertisement was placed because that is very revealing. Jackson, for example, runaway on Christmas. But he wasn’t advertised for until March.

  3. I likewise agree that the ads work strongly to present the slave owners’ perspective on the runaways, and that they largely will be biased. The story in “Jackson Unchained” is evidence that a successful escape could easily include an element of misdirection for the slave owners. In fact, you could even go so far as to argue that in our set of ads, the longer the ad is run (indicating that the slave has not been caught or returned yet) the more likely the stated destination in the ad is likely to be incorrect.

    I think one thing that our ad spreadsheet can help to answer are specific questions of the demographics of the groups we’re working with. Like we discussed on Friday, there were distinct divides between the numbers of men and women running away, and the types of escapes- permanent or just laying out- that were likely to be made. Our ads can give us a sample set of things like age and gender dynamics in those reported to have run away. This could provide either supporting or contrasting evidence to statements like the one made in Chapter Two of Camp’s book Closer to Freedom:

    Gender norms and definitions of female duty helped to shape fugitive behavior by diminishing women’s rates of flight.

    Reports of women escaping more frequently at certain times of year, or of running away with children could then lead us to ask more questions and search for more evidence within our pool of information to see where indications in our demographics might point us.

    I do see our data set as being small and perhaps not as reliable to make broad claims from as Franklin and Schweninger do, but I don’t think it should be discounted entirely because of our sample size. Rather, I think it would be wisest to take the findings with a grain of salt, and see which areas we can use them to project upon the slave population as a whole, and which areas historians should look elsewhere for information for.

  4. I agree with Kaitlyn that the information most readily available in the advertisements is the opinions of the slaveholders. In class we mentioned that slaveholders often placed ads in the paper with the assumption that they wouldn’t be seen by slaves, and if they were, the slave most likely couldn’t read the ad anyway. Because of this, subscribers treated the paper as a sort of private conversation between them and other slaveholders, giving us a glimpse into how they might have spoken about slavery and runaways among a private group of their peers.

    Although the ads clearly don’t voice the opinions of the runaways, and inherently tell a biased story, I do think they can offer us some insights on enslaved methods of resistance (in addition to the very act of running away itself). Many of the ads I looked at in the Telegraph and Texas Register described a history of “disobedience” from the runaway such as this one for a man named Arch:

    he has been taken up five or six times, since he ran off from me, and made his escape every time; he has broke irons off twice since he lef me; he is a great rascal.

    Other advertisements describe slaves who committed acts of theft on their way out, such as stealing horses, guns, clothing, or valuables. One slave ran away on two different occasions, with separate ads placed about six months apart, suggesting the slave was captured but ran away again as soon as he had the chance. These ads can give us a glimpse of the efforts slaves made to assert their own autonomy and fight back against ownership. Ads such as the one for Arch also suggest an individuality and determination to run away multiple times over again. When looking at a stand-alone advertisement, it’s easy to treat each one as an isolated instance of resistance, but some of the more descriptive ads can provide a sense of history and clues about how running away interacted with other methods of resistance. Some of the ads can help us answer questions about what methods slaves used to resist their enslavement and rebel against their masters.

    I think Clare raises an important point about the geographical location of our ads in Texas and that trends and patterns in our sample of ads may differ from those found by Franklin and Schweniger in Runaway Slaves. It would be interesting to analyze some of the same information they did (such as the demographic “profile of a runaway”) to see how Texas compares to other areas of the United States. The fact that we are looking at a portion of ads from a period before Texas was incorporated into the U.S. would make this comparison especially interesting, since presumably, Texas as a separate nation could have had different laws and practices when it came to dealing with runaways.

    • Susanna Ashton

      Hi Alyssa – You have some good points but I will remind you that sometimes fugitives did follow newspapers closely. Harriet Jacobs, for example, escaped to NYC but followed newspapers (in particular the lists of hotel guest and boat arrivals) to see if her master was looking for her. also, back when she was planning her escape he obtained a newspaper from NYC and used it to find plausible stretnames and addresses that she could plausibly refer to in fake letters she had people post from NYC…to mislead her owner from finding her right there in NYC where she was still hiding. So enslaved people were, of course, largely illiterate and disinclined to be found with newspapers on them. On the other hand, they functioned in a print world and were well aware of how print could be used to help or hurt them.

  5. One of the best uses of our runaway ads would be to find trends on the treatment of slaves. Our work might mirror what was done in the seminal book American Slavery, as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Withnesses. However, by focusing on just Texas ads, we might find differences in treatment among Texas runaways from the norm. Since slaves from other states were advertised in the Daily Register too, we would need to be careful to separate the ads by location of the slaveholder. That said, we should be careful extrapolating our findings to treatment of slaves in general, because it is possible that slaves who were treated worse experienced a “push” that caused them to run away.

    Besides treatment, we might also be able to compile and analyze characteristics of runaway slaves. In the ads, a number of runaways were described as intelligent, which counters the typical conception of a field hand. Because intelligence was a characteristic absolutely vital to a runaway’s success in eluding and deceiving potential captors, our data might not surprise us but might at least support our hypothesis. John Andrew Jackson exemplifies the creativity and charm needed to make a permanent escape, and presumably there were many other like him who might show up in our analysis.

    As someone who is more familiar with computation than history, I enjoy the concrete rather than abstractions. Thus, here are some specific questions I think we might be suited to answer:

    – Is there a correlation between appearance (e.g. “mulatto”) and running away among Texas-area slaves? We discussed in class that those who could pass as white or were more “plausible” might have run away more because they had greater chances of succeeding. With the data we could try to answer that.

    – What was the brutality (or lack thereof) experienced by most runaways? We could pull from the surprisingly honest–as others have pointed out–descriptions of the runaways. This is a difficult one to quantify, but we might first study a sample of ads to come up with groups of commonly used descriptive terms, then use the data to run customized searches on digitized versions of the ads for frequency of use of each term.

    – How long did slaveholders wait to advertise their runaway? We might look at the time between posting and date run away. This is easy to quantify, but again, there are confounding variables, such as where the slaveholder thought the runaway was going.

    Still, the ads we have collected are not entirely representative of the average runaway slave. The ads are biased towards describing successful runaways, since unsuccessful attempts didn’t need to be advertised. There are a multitude of reasons slaveholders might not advertise a runaway: because of the costs associated with jailing the runaway, because they were already paying huge amounts to hire slave catchers, because they figured the runaway would turn up on their own accord, because they had dogs (or a fierce determination) and could pursue the runaway themselves, or even because they believed the runaway had made it to freedom and thought advertising to be futile. So it is important to keep in mind that there could be differences in our sample set from the overall runaway population.

    • Susanna Ashton

      Aaron – I see you anticipated my comments about time lapse between escape and runaway placement. good for you! Great minds think alike. 🙂
      anyway, there are so many regional peculiarities to slavery that using Texas advertisements as a discrete category is really do able, also, Texas is a great base because it is so much smaller……not in land mass but n numbers of slaves and in number of early print outlets. That is to say if you could collect slave advertisements on OCR or whatever just for, say the 1840s in the three major newspapers of Texas at that time, you would have a fairly small and manageable data set that wouldn’t take a thousand of people to assemble. In South Carolina, alas, our numbers are not so friendly! But I dream of it! I tried to instigate a big grant proposal to digitize SC save narratives but the technical and copyright issues were too confounding. But Texas is much more achievable…..