Fugitive Slave Advertisement
On a fateful October day in 1848, three runaway slaves, Jesse, Jim, and Mark had vanished from their respective slave owners Tyre Glenn, Nathan Chaffin, and Solomon Transou in a rebellious and venturesome act against not only their masters, but the sentiment manifested against them and all the other enslaved African American men, women, and children. This system, designed to propagate slavery, was operated under the influences of slave owners who saw them as nothing more than an investment. Just two years before the implementation of a revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, regulations on the search, capture, and return of fugitive slaves were inconsistently and poorly enforced. This meant that there were increased tendencies for enslaved people to attempt to escape slave owners and utilize important systems like the Underground Railroad to bring formerly enslaved people north, helping propagate that behavior.
However, slave owners have used runaway slave advertisements throughout the practice of slavery to provide an objective source physically describing runaway slaves, their possible whereabouts, intentions, reward values, and other potentially important information. In that same October in 1848, Tyre Glenn, Nathan Chaffin, and Solomon Transou paid for an advertisement in a local publication in an attempt to have the public track the escaped enslaved men down and report their capture. While disturbing in nature, runaway slave advertisements help provide context for historians about the escape of formerly enslaved people before and after the implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Over time, the only notable currency, and frankly the most important, that people have learned to value was not the price tag placed on human life, but rather the enriching stories of the daring and impressive escapes from a system of oppression and animosity, much like that of the protagonists of this advertisement: Jesse, Jim, and Mark.
To better understand the advertisement, it is first important to improve understanding of the history of the system of slavery at the time in the United States and North Carolina. The first enslaved people entered the United States in Virginia in 1619. Shortly after this in 1640, Massachusetts became the first of the colonies to legalize slavery. The other colonies followed suit, legalizing slavery with Georgia being to last to officially do so in 1750. The first enslaved people in North Carolina arrived with the European settlers in the late 1600s to early 1700s and slavery was officially legalized soon after this. North Carolina did not play a very large role in the trade of enslaved people due to its geography. It only had one port used for the trade of enslaved people which was located in Wilmington, where black people outnumbered white people “2 to 1”. Despite this, the number of enslaved people in North Carolina was increasing rapidly, meaning regulation was necessary to maintain and control this new economic system based upon enslaved labor.
The first important law pertaining to slavery that was enacted in North Carolina was the North Carolina Slave Code of 1715. This required enslaved individuals to carry a ticket from their slave owners with them as they traveled, which provided their reason for travel. This law also prevented enslaved individuals from congregating in groups for any reason, religious or otherwise. In 1741, a second law was passed that put even stricter limitations on the already limited freedoms of enslaved individuals. These restrictions included not being able to own or raise their own livestock or carry a gun (even for hunting) without their owners’ permission. By 1767, there were about 40,000 enslaved individuals in North Carolina with 90% being enslaved people that worked in agricultural fields. In 1786, North Carolina banned the importation of enslaved people. This was short-lived as the ban was lifted in 1790 and the trade of enslaved people resumed with great force. The United States Congress enacted the first Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which was a law that required the return of any fugitive slaves. By the 1800s, there were over 140,000 enslaved blacks in North Carolina, with 53% of slave owners maintaining control over fewer than six enslaved people. The system of slavery continued to grow in the years leading up to 1848, which was the year of the runaway slave advertisement in question. In North Carolina, there were 245,817 enslaved individuals during the 1840s and approximately 8% of non-white North Carolinians were free. This shows that there was a significant enslaved population. In order to prevent enslaved people from escaping, a system of advertisements and postings in municipal newspapers and periodicals became a powerful tool in controlling the movement of enslaved people and thus were incredibly common.
When discussing the trade of enslaved people, along with the system of runaway slave advertisements that were so successful in maintaining control over enslaved individuals, it is important to remember one of the first advertisements in the American colonies to involve enslaved people. The Boston News-Letter, the colonies’ first successful newspaper, published an article on June 5th, 1704, a month after the weekly was established, describing a local merchant named John Colman who sought to sell “Two Negro Men” alongside a “Negro Woman and Child”. This would, in turn, mark the beginning of a period in which slave advertisements were almost constantly issued to the general public. While this advertisement is not a runaway advertisement, it began the practice of advertising the sale of enslaved people in print, which set in motion the beginnings of what would become an incredibly powerful system designed to keep freedom away from enslaved people.
With persistent fugitive slave advertisement postings throughout the first half of the 19th century, it was clear that these actions were being taken in an attempt to expand the powerful system that sought to control enslaved African Americans. An important component of this brutal system was the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. This civil statute, containing a clause that ordered states to return fugitives from labor (runaway enslaved people) upon the slaveholders’ requests, was met with a great anti-slavery sentiment from abolitionist groups in the North who sought to petition to repeal it. Congress, in an attempt to seal any divide between newly established states and to avoid pressure from Southern lawmakers, passed the act. In implicit defiance, many Northern states did not comply and outright neglected to put the law put in place. The passing of these laws prompted many free African Americans, like the infamous case of Solomon Northup, to be illegally captured and sold into slavery. There are many moments when these laws were used to remove someone of their freedom in the name of the law, solely for the color of their skin.
Nearing the mid-1800s, many enslaved African Americans resorted to using secret networks like that of the Underground Railroad. With full knowledge of these escape routes and systems existence, Southern lawmakers and politicians sought to increase pressure on Congress in order to maintain control over the enslaved. As a result, Congress ended up passing a revised version of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, adding to the plethora of provisions regarding fugitive enslaved people and the punishments against those who bravely interfered in their capture. The law also gave federal commissioners more power over individual cases, paying them more for the return of runaway enslaved individuals as opposed to anything else. This generated an increased ire and stronger resistance from Northern states. Abolitionist efforts grew more intense than ever and it wouldn’t be for more than a decade later, over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, until the Fugitive Slave Act was eventually repealed by Congress on June 28, 1864. The almost century-long propagation of this pro-slavery behavior was in large part owed to the system of runaway slave advertisements that reasserted the reality that the Fugitive Slave statute put in place.
In the case of the runaway slave advertisements, the advertisements varied in shape, size, and content. Many were placed as articles on newspapers while others were illustrated as typical posters. For the advertisement in question describing runaway slaves Jesse, Jim, and Mark and their slave owners Tyre Glenn, Nathan Chaffin, and Solomon Transou, respectively, the information illustrated is formatted in poster-like form, with the dimensions roughly being 8” x 11”. As for the color of the advertisement, it sports a cream to tan color resulting from the wear and tear on the paper over many years. The slave silhouette in the top left corner is a common sight among many newspapers and poster slave advertisements. The caricature’s savage-like nature represents the general public’s sentiment towards African American enslaved people at the time. The text placed in the advertisement is ink on paper and the names involved are highlighted in bold text to grab the reader’s attention on the important details. The bolding on dates, names, and reward prices, along with the advertisement’s objective approach to describing the runaway enslaved people and their possible escape routes, give the reader straight-forward information on what’s important to know. Compared to other slave advertisements posted previously, the introduction of the revised 1850 Fugitive Slave Act changed runaway slave advertisement formatting to include more information on the penalties of assisting runaway enslaved individuals, expanding the draconian nature of runaway slave advertisements that would be issued after the 1850 statute was passed.
This slave advertisement presents a common scenario involving escaped enslaved individuals. The top of the advertisement boldly and audaciously states the price reward for the capture and return of Jesse, Jim, and Mark. From the time the runaway slaves escaped to the publishing of this advertisement, an undisclosed amount of time had passed and is simply cited as “a short time since”. Lathan A. Windley, researcher and author of A Profile of Runaway Slaves in Virginia and South Carolina from 1730 Through 1787, states that “masters trying to reclaim their property had to give such basic information about their slaves as would distinguish them from others” and that “owners left behind a mine of data about slaves that in some cases could not be obtained from other sources.” These advertisements included valuable information in the objective descriptions on an enslaved individual’s “sex, age, height, color, physical defects, deportment, literacy, accomplishments, birthplace, when the fugitives ran away and where they ran from, and their suspected destinations”. This is shown through the individual descriptions of each enslaved person.
The descriptions are important to further examine because there are some characteristics that appear in multiple descriptions of the enslaved individuals that could lead to a better understanding of slavery in 1848. Jesse is described by Tyre Glenn as “5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, light complexion, trim build, small feet and hands, good teeth, very active and daring, but not intelligent”. Jim is described by Nathan Chaffin as “full 6 feet high, black, good front teeth, straight and erect.” And Finally, Solomon Transou describes Mark as “about 5 feet 8 inches high, dark complexion, stout built, good teeth, not intelligent.” This is how each enslaved individual was described, which gives an interesting look at how enslaved people were viewed at the time. The first similarity between these descriptions was that each of the runaway enslaved men was described with “good” teeth. It is interesting that something as small and topical could be used to identify and distinguish enslaved people. This demonstrates how the health and treatment of many enslaved individuals were poor and that something like good teeth would be able to distinguish slaves from each other. It also shows the animalistic and brutal way in which enslaved people are compared against each other and the differences between their physical health meant more in value than the mental fortitude of an enslaved person. While slave owners frequently had a proper description of their slaves, they often experienced some trouble giving exact ages and skin tones, along with their exact height and size. Many slave owners used words like “tall”, “short”, “middle stature”, “well grown”, “middling stout”, among many other words or phrases, to describe their slaves. In the state of Virginia, for example, “out of a total of 1,276 fugitives, heights were given for 689, or a 54 percent”. It was common for slave owners to give rough physical descriptive estimates on enslaved people, making the capture and return of runaway enslaved individuals to be a somewhat rare occurrence. In fact, the widespread abolitionist opposition proved to be such a powerful force that any implementation of the law to the Northern states proved to be virtually unfeasible. It was so unfeasible, that in 1860, only around 330 enslaved people had been returned to their Southern masters. While the physical descriptions of the escaped enslaved person were important, mental and psychological descriptions of enslaved individuals were often provided in runaway slave advertisements.
Another fascinating similarity between the descriptions of the enslaved on the runaway slave advertisement was that both Jesse and Mark were described as “not intelligent”. This shows how many slaves at the time were characterized as unintelligent because it was common practice, and often the law, to not allow slaves to learn at this time. This can be seen in interviews conducted with formerly enslaved people by the Federal Writers Project, which found that about “5 percent mentioned having learned to read and write as slaves”. This demonstrates the uniqueness of gaining any education while being enslaved. It is incredibly powerful that something that enslaved individuals were not usually able to obtain at the time was used to define them so frequently.
Another important element of the runaway slave advertisement is that there was a one hundred and fifty dollar reward for the return of all three slaves or fifty dollars for the return of one of them. This is compelling because, in the current 2020 value, fifty dollars would equate to roughly sixteen hundred dollars. This is able to provide an approximate estimate of how much enslaved people were valued by their owners, and the lengths they may take to retake control over them. Many advertisements also featured caricatures or cartoons depicting a runaway enslaved person, frequently in the animalistic and brutish style common when depicting African Americans in the mid-1800s and similar to the caricature depicted on the runaway slave advertisement poster.
The runaway slave advertisement poster paid for by Solomon Transou, Nathan Chaffin, and Tyre Glenn is an abnormally large one in regards to many advertisements common in North Carolina in 1848. While this particular advertisement is a full-page advertisement promoting the capture of the three formerly enslaved men, many runaway slave advertisements were smaller advertisements among a collection of advertisements and notices most frequently posted in municipal newspapers. Using the runaway slave advertisement database crowdsourced and archived by Freedom On The Move, a collective project of several universities to create a database of fugitives from North American Slavery through runaway advertisements and postings, it became clear how prevalent runaway advertisements were throughout North Carolina and the south. Newspapers and periodicals such as the Charlotte Journal, Wilmington Journal, and Mecklenburg Jerffersonian were all publications in which these advertisements were posted in North Carolina, and were vital in spreading word of the enslaved person’s escape throughout the community. These advertisements were important tools in controlling and limiting the freedom of both enslaved and free African Americans and give historians great insights into the movement of enslaved people, how this system worked, and what the slave-owning population thought of the enslaved.
While the runaway slave poster is much larger in physical size than many of the time, the reward offered of fifty dollars per escaped enslaved individual is much more standard among runaway advertisements in North Carolina in 1848. Runaway slave advertisements offered rewards that usually ranged from ten dollars to fifty dollars for an enslaved person. They were most commonly around twenty to thirty dollars per fugitive enslaved person but could be as low as ten cents or as much as one hundred dollars depending on the perceived value of the escaped enslaved person by a slave owner. Much like the runaway slave poster in question, nearly every advertisement included a concise description with a distinguishing marker or characteristic, such as a scar. These descriptions often also included defamatory remarks about the intelligence or mental state of the formerly enslaved person that were intended to portray their inferior status in the eyes of the slave owner. Many of these smaller advertisements also contained a cartoon or caricature of an enslaved person attempting escape, much like the runaway poster.
These caricatures were almost always a depiction of a sole enslaved person, and are best analyzed in Marcus Wood’s Blind Memory which discusses the images of slavery in England and America. These caricatures were portrayed brutishly and crudely, often carrying a small bag or bindle stick. They almost always had one foot up, representing the opinion of the slaveholders that the enslaved were to always be on the run until they were returned to their owner. The dark ink used for the caricatures also stands blatantly apart from the light paper, in stark contrast to the idea of an enslaved person sneakily escaping under the cover of night. An action often considered to be the biggest act of defiance by the enslaved person is portrayed as an obvious and idiotic act taken upon by someone who does not have the capacity to carry out their intended actions. This portrayal by the slave owner of the enslaved was exactly what the owner believes of the formerly enslaved rather than an accurate portrayal of what the enslaved person looked like. These caricatures were intended less to aid people in search of the fugitive but rather to display them in the brutish and less than human nature in which the owner views them. The escaped enslaved person was not viewed by their former owner as a person, and through these caricatures, the owner would show that they believed that the formerly enslaved did not have the capacity or ability to escape and that their return to their status as an enslaved person was inevitable and was more a question of when their property would be returned.
This advertisement provides some information and a brief look into the slave owners and their slaves, but more research is required to learn more about them. Tyre Glenn, the owner of Jesse, had one of the largest plantations in North Carolina. His plantation was called Glenwood and was built a few years after this advertisement was posted. This new plantation was roughly 3,500 acres and housed over 200 slaves. Prior to this, Glenn grew up in Surry County where he began his career as a domestic trader of enslaved people. In 1830, Glenn entered into the trade of enslaved people with a Mississippi businessman named Isaac Jarrett. Their business lasted five years but ultimately fell apart leaving both of them very wealthy and influential in their communities. After this business venture, Glenn bought a 901-acre plantation from Jacob Conrad in Surry County, which he would eventually grow and turn into Glenwood Plantation. While owning this 901-acre plantation in 1845, he began a prosperous cotton business. He controlled many enslaved individuals at this point and required many of the enslaved people to work long and hard hours in the field. Due to the number of enslaved people Glenn owned and their long and hard work in the fields, many attempted to run away. This resulted in no further information on Jesse’s runaway or any of his other enslaved individuals. There is less information known about Nathan Chaffin, but there was still some information about his past. Chaffin’s father died in 1823 and because he was the only child that was of legal age, he was made guardian of all his siblings. This also gave him ownership of all his father's enslaved people and other properties. He was sued by his two younger brothers because his father’s property was supposed to be divided between them, but Nathan attempted to keep it for himself. He would eventually lose this battle in court. This is the extent of the information known about his personal life, but there were also other advertisements that were posted for Chaffin about other enslaved individuals that ran away ($10 Reward). No other information regarding the enslaved person Jim could be found. Finally, Solomon Transou owned a plantation in Stokes County where he had enslaved people who performed a variety of services for him. They ranged from fieldwork to woodworking. Limited other information about Transou is available, but there is a lot of information about other enslaved individuals that he owned, including accounts from those individuals. Transou had another enslaved person named David where accounts from him can be read in A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina and African American Slavery in Piedmont North Carolina. The account describes David attempting to escape, which resulted in him being locked in jail. While he was in jail, he and another inmate set fire to the jail, which resulted in them being convicted of arson. Although there is a plethora of information about the enslaved man David, there was no more information found about Mark. It is interesting that all three slave owners had large plantations with multiple enslaved individuals that attempted to escape. In general, learning more about the owners that these enslaved individuals escaped from helps to provide more context of the time, which can lead to a better understanding of the treatment of enslaved individuals and their deprivation of freedom.
A runaway slave advertisement is so much more than just a runaway slave advertisement. There are lives behind the people involved and with that come stories. Not only are there stories behind each runaway slave advertisement, but there is also commentary of the past, such as the treatment and value of enslaved individuals, that allows for an unbiased view of the past. It is fascinating to look at something, such as a runaway slave advertisement, and understand the complex and rich history behind it. This leads the reader to think about what other common object could have a story or share commentary of the time that the object was from. Everything contains a rich history, it is just a matter of whether it can be found.
Object biography by Will Chaltas, Mike Klausner, and Seba Pauli,
Directions for Optimal Understanding of this
Fugitive Slave Advertisement.
1. Watch slideshow for an introduction to the elements of this advertisement.
2. Read this paper to gain further background information and a more elaborate analysis of the
advertisement in full.
3. Explore UNC Greensboro's digital collection of North Carolina Runaway Slave
Advertisements from 1840-1849 to see other advertisements from North Carolina around the same time.
4. Reflect on the Runaway Slave Advertisement and Slavery in 1848.
a. How were slaves valued in 1848?
b. How were slaves portrayed?
c. What can you learn about slavery in
1848 from this advertisement?
d. If something as small as a runaway
slave advertisement from 1848 can
have such a rich history and story behind it, what other objects could have extensive, important histories?
View more Runaway Slave Advertisements from North Carolina here.
The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements (more than 5000 items) published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1865. These brief ads provide a glimpse into the social, economic, and cultural world of the American slave system and the specific experience within North Carolina. Working from microfilmed copies of these rare publications, the project team scanned the ads to provide digital images, create full-text transcripts and descriptive metadata, and develop a searchable database. The NCRSA website includes digital scans of the ads, contextual essays to address their historical research value, full text transcripts, an annotated bibliography to aid researchers, and a searchable database.
“Over time, the only notable currency, and frankly the most important, that people have learned to value was not the price tag placed on human life, but rather the enriching stories of the daring and impressive escapes from a system of oppression and animosity, much like that of the protagonists of this advertisement: Jesse, Jim, and Mark.”
“Masters trying to reclaim their property had to give such basic information about their slaves as would distinguish them from others” and that “owners left behind a mine of data about slaves that in some cases could not be obtained from other sources.”
These advertisements included valuable information in the objective descriptions on an enslaved individual’s “sex, age, height, color, physical defects, deportment, literacy, accomplishments, birthplace, when the fugitives ran away and where they ran from, and their suspected destinations.”
5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, light complexion, trim build, small feet and hands, good teeth, very active and daring, but not intelligent."
“About 5 feet 8 inches high, dark complexion, stout built, good teeth, not intelligent."
In current value,
$50 would equate to roughly $1600
History.com Editors. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, December 2, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts.
Windley, Lathan A.. A Profile of Runaway Slaves in Virginia and South Carolina from 1730 Through 1787. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 1995. Accessed May 9, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.