Primary Source Activity: Runaway Slave and Servant Advertisements (mid-1700s)

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1. Overview

In this exercise, teachers examine advertisements for runaway slaves and servants from the Virginia Gazette in the mid-1700s and ask the following questions:

  • What do you notice about this advertisement?
  • What questions do you want to ask about this advertisement?

After discussing these questions, and learning more about the historical context of slavery and completing a spreadsheet, teachers draw conclusions about the advertisements and about slavery in the 18th century. Teachers then discuss possible classroom applications.

2. Source Analysis, Part 1

  • Distribute individual copies of Advertisement #1 and historical definitions.
  • Ask teachers to work in pairs and examine the advertisement closely, and write down observations, unfamiliar words or phrases, and a list of questions about the advertisement and the time period.

3. Group Discussion

Write three columns onto the board: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What did you notice about this advertisement? What surprised you?
  • What details are in the ad?
  • Why might these details have been included?
  • What is missing from this advertisement? What can the advertisement tell us and what can it not tell us about this time period?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the advertisement, the context, or the historical background?
  • What do you already know about slavery? About indentured servants? About runaway slaves and servants? About runaway advertisements? About this time period?

Additional Information About Advertisement #1:

Thomas Jefferson seems to have a number of opinions about the character of this particular slave (using descriptions like "insolent and disorderly," "addicted to drink," and "artful and knavish") — much more than we might expect of a slave owner with a large number of slaves. This could indicate that Sandy was particularly valuable to Jefferson, that Jefferson wrote the ad based on an overseer's comments, or that Sandy's behavior had come to Jefferson's attention, behavior Jefferson would have seen as disruptive.

4. Historical Background

Present this historical background to enhance the group's knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 6. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

  • The nature of slavery evolved in Virginia over time: Beginning with the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown in 1619, an initially unplanned system of hereditary bondage for blacks gradually developed. Over the course of 150 years, slavery became entrenched in Virginia society, increasingly supported by a series of restrictive laws and reinforced by the teachings of the community and family. Attitudes and class structure legitimized a slave system increasingly based on color of skin. By the 18th-century, slavery was an integral part of life in Virginia.
  • Slavery was governed by an extensive body of law developed from the 1640s to the 1860s: Each slave state had its own slave code and body of court decisions. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited through the mother. They defined slaves as property, often in the same language used to describe real estate. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of contract, no slave marriage had any legal standing. All codes also had sections regulating free blacks, who were still subject to controls on their mobility and employment and were often required to leave the state after emancipation.
  • Slavery was most prevalent in the Chesapeake region: At the dawn of the American Revolution, 20 percent of the population in the 13 colonies was of African descent. Most blacks lived in the Chesapeake region, where they made up more than 50 to 60 percent of the overall population. The majority, but not all, of these African Americans were slaves. Whether free or enslaved, blacks in the Chesapeake established familial relationships, networks for disseminating information, survival techniques, and various forms of resistance to their condition.
  • The lives of the black populace in North America differed widely: The majority of blacks living in the Chesapeake worked on tobacco plantations and large farms. Generally, slaves on plantations lived in complete family units, but were more likely to be sold or transferred than those in a domestic setting. They were also subject to brutal and severe punishments, because they were regarded as less valuable than household or urban slaves. Urban and household slaves generally did not live in complete family units. Most domestic environments used female labor; therefore there were few men, if any, on domestic sites. Most male slaves in an urban setting were coachmen, waiting men, or gardeners. Others were tradesmen who worked in shops or were hired out. The first official United States census, taken in 1790, revealed that eight percent of the black populace was free.
  • Indentured Servitude: Indentured servants played a significant role in the economy of the colonies. Between 200,000 and 300,000 servants came to North America during the colonial era, comprising more than half of all European immigrants. Indentured servitude, developed by the Virginia Company to help bring workers to the colony, was based on earlier forms of indenture, but differed in important ways. Indentured servants in the colonies had fewer freedoms than apprentices in England and terms of servitude varied, depending on age and skill level. They retained some legal rights, but could not marry without their master's consent and their terms could be extended if they ran away or became pregnant. With rising demand and growing costs for purchasing servant labor, though, slavery gradually replaced indentured servitude among Europeans.

5. Source Analysis, Part 2

6. Conclusions

  • What did you notice about Advertisement #2? What questions do you have?

Additional Information About Advertisement #2:

This advertisement shows the importance of clothing at the time. Clothing is described in great detail, suggesting that it was valuable and might not have been easily replaced. In addition, clothing was closely tied to class. The assumption is that even if the runaways were not wearing these exact clothes, they would wear something similar because that is all they would have been able access.

Finish the discussion using the following questions:

  • Based on the historical context and your work with runaway advertisements, what conclusions can you draw about slavery and indentured servitude in 18th-century Virginia?
  • What conclusions can you draw about society (e.g. values, currency, skills, work, gender, race, physical characteristics, dress, social structure) in this era?
  • What additional resources or historical context would help you?

7. Classroom Applications

  • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
  • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
  • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?

8. Extension Activity: Data Gathering

Examining multiple runaway ads for slaves and servants allows an in-depth examination of slavery and servitude based on individual lives and a comparison of the positions of un-free whites and blacks.

*This activity is based on Professor Michael O'Malley's Runaway from Freedom lesson.