Runaway from Freedom

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University



Download this database spreadsheet. Click the right mouse button to save a copy to your disk, or, on a Macintosh, click and hold the mouse button and choose “download link to disk.” It runs in Microsoft Excel. Mason students can use a personal copy of Excel or the version provided on Mason's LAN network. For help using Excel, contact STAR.

Begin searching the online version of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette was the most important newspaper in English North America. It carried local news as well as reports from the rest of the colonies, from the Carribean, and from Europe. You can search the Gazette at this link. Begin your search with the period 1728-1750, then search the period 1751-1765, then finally the years from 1766 through 1783. Enter “runaway” as your search term.

Enter the information you find into the “runaways” database you downloaded. You should enter information for at least thirty runaways. They may be slaves, or indentured servants, or apprentices .


Consider these questions as you begin to compile your database:

  1. First, did you notice any change between 1728 and 1783? Did ads for one kind of runaway become more common? Did the things the ads said, or the information they gave, change over time? Was there any evidence of change in attitudes from the Revolutionary War?
  2. What kind of unfree labor are you seeing most often? Apprentices? Slaves? Servants? Is it sometimes hard to tell? Does it become easier over time to tell if the runaway is a slave, an apprentice, or a servant?
  3. How old were the runaways? Did their age change over time? Where were they from?
  4. What kinds of marks distinguished them? Did they try to disguise themselves?
  5. Did the runaways seem to have any resources--that is, were they poor and ragged, or well dressed? Did they seem to have help, or were they alone?
  6. Was there a reward offered? Did it vary depending on the person?
  7. Did the runaways appear to have any skills?
  8. How often did the ads give the race or color of the runaway? Was it sometimes hard to tell?
  9. Did the runaways attempt to disguise themselves?
  10. Is there any consistent pattern to their movements—that is, are most of them escaping from one place to another? Does that pattern change?


Write a three page analysis of the data. Your paper should be double spaced, with a cover page. You must also email a copy of your database to your professor by the assigned deadline.

After you have read and considered the guiding questions, you need to begin a careful analysis of the data. There is no right or wrong answer in this assignment: instead, you will be graded on how well you support your conclusions. The paper should be no more than three pages, double spaced. Here is a general guide to writing historical papers.

It's often useful to begin by considering if anything you found was unexpected. Were you surprised by anything you found—or didn't find? Historians pay special attention to these "gaps" between what we expect as "normal" and what we seem to find in the material. Some historians argue that the past itself is a foriegn country, with very strange and different customs. Consider those things that surprised you—what can you conclude from them?

Next, you might try looking for patterns. Did the things which suprised you tend to repeat? Were there other repeated patterns? It's worthwhile to make a list of any patterns you notice. Can you see any relationship among these patterns? Is there a connection between them?

Finally, consider whether there has been any change over time. Did you notice anything different in the last set of ads? If so, what did it mean? Your goal here is not just to report what you see, but to try to figure out what it means. You should feel free to speculate, as long as you have evidence. Here is a guide to using historical documents.

Click to see a typical ad; a second example is available here.

This next part is crucial: Your paper should have a thesis, a conclusion you have drawn about runaways. It should support that thesis with evidence drawn from the information in your database. It needs to be more than the obvious, more than something like "most runaways were men." You should try to be as precise as possible and to take account of any change that occured over time. When you are describing or quoting from the evidence you have found, you must give the source in a foot or endnote.

Updated | April 2004