(note: this is a draft of the essay, so please feel free to comment with suggestions for final revisions!)
How similar were Texas runaway slave advertisements to those of Arkansas and Mississippi? A collection of runaway digitized slave advertisements from a variety of newspapers spanning the years 1800 to 1865* can help answer this question. In the end, patterns of runaway advertisements in Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, are on the whole very similar, with some notable distinctions.
In all three states, runaway advertisements follow a standard format, usually providing similar kinds of information. Most include a description of the runaway slave(s)’ name, age, physical characteristics (such as height and complexion), distinctive marks or injuries, and notable personality traits. The ads also provide information about slave ownership or origins, when the slave escaped (or date captured, in the case of found runaway notices), where the slave escaped from, and where they are believed to be headed. When relevant, the ads provide information about suspected accomplices or a descriptions of horses used for running away. More detailed ads sometimes describe the slave’s clothing, familial relationships, hobbies, or skilled crafts. Most advertisements concluded with the subscriber’s name, and where and how they can be contacted. And as incentive, runaway notices almost always prominently advertise that a generous reward will be given for information about or capture of the runaway slave. At first glance, this consistently short, boilerplate format of runaway ads makes it difficult to really distinguish between them. The ads from Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi start to all look practically indistinguishable, making it difficult for close-reading alone to recognize pattern breaks between the states, without the assistance of computational data. However, there are certain distinctive details that appear more in one state vs. another.
Before describing these differences, it is worth noting the similarities in runaway advertisements across state lines. In all three states, the “typical” runaway is a young male. Ads for female runaways occur disproportionately infrequently, and it is rare to see an advertisement for a child or an elderly slave. As a means of transportation, runaways often take from their masters a horse or a mule. All states feature ads which contain a “white man” suspected of stealing or persuading slaves to run away. These ads often refer to the man as a “white villain,” clearly angered over this blatant disrespect to their property, and offer a separate reward for the apprehension and conviction of the white thief. Some ads describe a specific white man who has been seen in the neighborhood, and are able to provide details of name and appearance. Others, on the other hand, treat this “white man” as a nebulous, unnamed threat. One slaveholder in Texas, for example, found it hard to believe that his slave would run away of his own volition, stating that: “It is believed that he was instigated to run away by white persons, as he has always been treated with great kindness”. For this slaveholder it was easier to blame the outside influence of a villainous white man than question a paternalistic belief in the slave’s happiness. Unlike the other two states, in Texas, the nefarious accomplice/thief is sometimes listed as a “Mexican” as well as a “white man”.
In general, Texas runaways appear to have had more interaction with Mexico and Mexicans than in the other two states – not surprising, considering the state’s shared border with Mexico. Slaveholders in Texas were conscious of the presence of Mexico, often speculating that runaways were headed to the nearby nation. Embodying both fears of white predation and of the looming Mexican border, one Austin Gazette subscriber speculated that his runaway slave was “in company with some rascally white person. It is my impression said boy is making his way west, and will, under the guidance of white men, and with the assistance of his free pass, endeavor to reach Mexico”. While law enforcement officials and slaveholders in nearby Southern states could be depended upon to support the institution of slavery and return runaway slaves, slavery in Mexico had been abolished. This made Mexico an appealing destination for runaway slaves, and a concerning one for slaveholder subscribers.
Arkansas and Mississippi runaway ads, on the other hand, contain more mentions of interaction with Native American tribes than Texas ads. These two states much more frequently mention slaves suspected to be fleeing towards Native American tribes, slaves who are part Native American, or slaves who can speak a Native American language. Whether slaves in Arkansas were described as part Cherokee, or slaves in Texas were described as being able to speak “Mexican” (Spanish), runaway ads from all of the states suggest the diversity of the United States during the 19th century. These ads create a picture of how slaves interacted with and often benefited from the diversity of cultures in the United States and bordering nations.
It is also important to remember that regions of Texas varied both culturally and geographically, and runaway patterns across the state are not homogeneous. While ads from all the states mention instances of slaves stealing and carrying weapons upon escape, these appear more frequently among Texas ads. In particular, notices of runaway slaves carrying guns and sometimes knives appear frequently in ads listed in the Austin Gazette. Significantly, this newspaper circulated in a central Texas area, closer to the Western frontier, compared to the Houston-area based Telegraph and Texas Register. Potentially, proximity to the Western frontier, and the dangers associated with that area, gave slaves more access to weapons, or made slaves feel that taking a weapon with them on their escape was more essential to their success. Similarly, the Austin Gazette more frequently mentions slaves running for Mexico, suggesting that slaves in the central region of Texas ran for Mexico more often than the gulf region (or at least their masters suspected they did).
In all of the states, one thing to keep in mind is that patterns of runaway slave advertisements may not necessarily be the same as actual runaway patterns. There were many reasons why a slaveholder may not have placed an ad for a runaway, or would have delayed placing the ad. Maybe they believed a missing slave was merely “lying out” and would return to the plantation soon on their own. Maybe the slaveholder was using personal means to pursue and recapture runaways, such as a search team of locals, and didn’t feel the need to make a public announcement. Maybe the runaway was not valuable enough to justify the cost of running an ad. Or, in some cases, the slaveholder may not have even noticed the missing slave, if the slave ran away at an opportune time when the plantation was in chaos, such as the death of a master. However, the differences that exist between Texas runaway ads and those from Arkansas and Mississippi are enough to suggest that runaway patterns in Texas were distinct from other U.S. Southern states. These differences appear to be related in part to Texas’s proximity to Mexico and to the Western frontier.
*These included ads from the Telegraph and Texas Register from the years 1836 to 1860, hosted by the Portal to Texas History and transcribed by students at Rice University and the University of North Texas; advertisements from the Austin Gazette from 1850 to 1860, transcribed by students at UNT; and a collection of ads from several newspapers from Arkansas, 1820 to 1865, and Mississippi, 1800 to 1860, transcribed and publicly available from the Documenting Runaway Slaves project at the University of Southern Mississippi.