Runaway Advertisement for Henry and Lewis
Runaway advertisements were a common method employed by enslavers to find their escaped enslaved persons. While many advertisements provided details from a brief description to a lengthy paragraph and ranged in reward pricing, this paper will focus on the specific advertisement for Henry and Lewis in 1854 and situate it with other advertisements in that decade. Additionally, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 will be discussed to show the crucial role that the act played in the increasing desire to catch enslaved persons.
On Tuesday, October 10th, 1854, a notice was posted in a newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina. The notice was a runaway advertisement worth $50 for two runaways named Henry and Lewis. The advertisement described their features such as age, height, and weight with a description of where they were bought from. Henry was around twenty-seven or twenty-eight and weighed around one hundred and seventy-five pounds. He was also five foot ten. Lewis was around nine years younger at one hundred and twenty-five pounds and five foot four. The advertisement was written by the enslaver M. J. McCulloch and he gave an assumption that they would escape back to Wilkes County, where Henry was bought from. In fine writing at the bottom, he explained that the full reward would be given for both and that Henry was worth $40 and Lewis was worth $10.
McCulloch was correct in his guess on where they would run to because a later notice was posted in The North Carolina Whig stating that two escapees had been apprehended. These two runaways were Henry and Lewis and they had been caught by Sheriff E. Staley of Wilkes County. This notice was released in January of 1855, three months and twenty days after their escape. The notice requested that the enslaver prove ownership and pay the charges and take them back. It was likely that Henry and Lewis aimed to run back to Wilkes County because Henry had connections and family to protect them and keep them secure. In this case and many other runaway cases, they get caught because they lose their way, get questioned, or are forced to have their paperwork examined. This is what would happen more in the South, especially with the commonness of slave advertisements that appeared in Newspapers daily (The North Carolina Whig).
If an enslaved person ran away, enslavers would post advertisements in newspapers for their return. Owners of enslaved people would suffer a large economic loss when an enslaved person ran away. Advertisements were posters that worked to provide as much detail as possible for the chance that their fugitive could be recognized, caught, and brought back. General details used in a runaway advertisement were the enslaved person’s name, age, height, build, skin color, and a price reward associated with the enslaved person. The price reward would range from twenty five cents to five hundred dollars. The price would depend on factors such as how fast they would be returned, if the enslaved person had a specialized skill, or if they believed their enslaved person had left the county or state (Franklin & Schweninger).
The reward for catching runaways usually ranged from $20 to $50 but there were many factors that could alter the price. Something that could dramatically raise the price was how close to the border the escape happened. This was because there was less of a chance to recover them if they went across the border into the North, so the enslavers would be more desperate to gain control back. A woman’s rewards were sometimes priced higher because of the idea that they would produce offspring that could work, providing the enslavers with large profits. However, most of the time men would have a higher reward because they could work more and earn more money for the enslaver. The reward price was sometimes increased if the runaway was claimed an outlaw by the enslaver, and they were killed prior to the return back to the enslaver. Punishments could also increase the price of the reward, the apprehender would occasionally be paid extra per lash that they give to the fugitive (Franklin & Schweninger).
When enslavers realized that a fugitive was missing, they knew that they would suffer a large economic or personal loss. There would be a larger loss for an enslaver without many enslaved workers because their production levels would dramatically decrease. In some cases it would be large personal losses too (Franklin & Schweninger). For example, Harriet Jacobs’ enslaver Dr. Flint was obsessed and had sexual desire for her. Her escape damaged him emotionally instead of financially and he wanted her back as his property for his own desires. Because of this, he traveled everywhere hunting for her, going to New York and trying to trace her steps in order to reclaim her and bring her back to slavery.
When enslaved persons ran away, enslavers would typically take it personally and if they were caught, their anger would be taken out on the fugitives. This would come out as punishment which was usually lashes. This would range from fifty to one hundred lashes; however, it would depend on who the enslaved person was and what they did for work. If the enslaved person was needed for hard labor, it is likely that the punishment was lessened in order to keep them working at a high rate. Some other punishments included a neck iron, a torture device used to choke the enslaved person and keep them shackled, branding with the enslavers initials, cropped ears, beatings, decreased food rations, and taking away clothing items (Franklin & Schweninger).
It is unknown how many fugitives successfully escaped because they did not want that information to be publicized in case they were targeted to be recaptured and brought back to slavery. Enslavers themselves also did not want this information public because then it would put a bad name on themselves and they would be less likely to continue in the slave trade and business. When fugitives fled to free territories, it would be impossible to track because a new name would be created for themselves and their ancestors. It would have been easier to track if an enslaved runaway fled to see family to seek refuge however the risk of recapturing would increase. A senator claimed that around 10,000 runaways escaped to free territory every year but the number is likely higher because of fugitives escaping to Canada and other areas that were untrackable (Franklin & Schweninger).
The initial advertisement was released four years after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. This was so important for enslavers and it made things almost impossible for runaways to escape to freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted for the capture and return of enslaved runaways and it required that the government actively intervene to help the enslavers gain control over their enslaved persons again. Citizens were also required to help capture the runaways. It also meant that the enslaved could not testify on their own behalf nor have a trial by jury. Those who aided the escape or protected the runaways were fined $1,000. The government hired catchers to travel to the North to hunt fugitives and bring them back to slavery in the South; however, it was common for the catchers to capture free blacks and bring them back into slavery (Delbanco).
In an example of another advertisement, there was a $200 reward for a husband and wife. The price for the man was $175 and the woman $25. In another advertisement, the price for a woman and child was again $25. The price for the man was likely higher because they would be able to work in heavy labor and earn more profit for the enslaver than the woman and child.
Before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, there was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This act was very similar to the act of 1850 however there were increased penalties to the fugitives and also those that aided them. One way that it was harsher was that dogs were used to track down the fugitives. People who aided those who escaped were sentenced to six months in jail along with a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. There was a larger punishment because the act made the federal government responsible for catching, returning, and trying the runaways (History.com).
The Fugitive Slave Act was not successful and not many fugitives were returned to their Southern enslavers. There was criticism of the act and many Northern states refused to enforce it. States such as Vermont and Wisconsin passed measures to nullify the act and many abolitionists tried even harder to assist the runaways, ignoring the punishments and risks that could affect them if they were caught aiding the fugitives (Delbanco).
As the act came into effect in 1850, there was an increase in ways to escape the jurisdiction and hide from the federal government and their rules over the enslaved. One very popular way was the Underground Railroad from North Carolina. This idea started in 1809 with abolitionists, called Quakers, in Guilford County. They held meetings attempting to relocate all their enslaved persons in North Carolina to northern states, Haiti, and Liberia. They then created their own organization called the Manumission Society which held 1,600 members however legal measures forced them to disband in 1834. Next, they shifted their focus to the Underground Railroad with many of the same members. This began in Guilford County and many runaways sought refuge there (Coffin).
The Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad, but instead a metaphor. Fugitives would hide during the day and move at night. Stations were named to signify hiding places by those who wished to aid the runaways. The people that would assist were called conductors and the runaways themselves were referred to as passengers. The runaways not only relied on white abolitionists, but also heavily on fellow fugitives and free blacks. They would have to put full trust in them and they were rarely ever betrayed (Coffin).
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, there was also the U.S. Congress’s Compromise, which admitted California as a free state. This gave another route for fugitives to flee to and many used the Underground Railroad to get there. Once in the North, many states refused to return those who escaped and they began to support and help the Underground Railroad process in order to help more escape to the North and Canada, to be out of US jurisdiction (Coffin).
The most famous black leader of the movement was Harriet Tubman, known as “Moses” to the people that she wished to help. Throughout her life, Tubman ventured back and forth between the North and South nineteen times in order to help nearly three hundred enslaved persons escape slavery and achieve their freedom in the North (Coffin).
When an enslaved person escaped to the North, they were still not safe. Even though the North despised the Fugitive Slave Act and wanted to abolish slavery, they could not prevent hunters from taking blacks back to the South by law. They were still subject to federal law as implemented by the US Constitution; however, they chose not to enforce the laws and punishments that the South put in place. This meant that even in the North, they still had to go into hiding. This required help from families and communities. The protection would rely predominantly on whites to ensure that they were hidden. Southerners knew that they would hide in these communities and would commonly raid them to drag both runaways and free blacks back to the South. The white abolitionists who aided fugitives’ escape were incredibly important to their safety and they soon realized that Canada was the dream location to flee to because it was out of US jurisdiction (Blackett).
The problematic issue of putting a price on the enslaved was very important to Southern enslavers. The price for a skilled worker was far greater, making these workers more valuable to the enslaver. This is because the enslaver would profit more from the work that they would produce. Examples of this would be potters or blacksmiths. However, there were very large discounts to the price of the enslaved for any factors that could make work harder for the enslavers. Their price would be discounted if they were physically impaired, crippled or had a vice, such as gambling or alcohol. More importantly, the price would be cut by sixty percent if they had previous runaway attempts (Williamson & Cain).
The price fluctuations in the nineteenth century were very similar to the fluctuations in the economy today. However, the most important factor for the change in price was the demand for cotton. An initial price for the enslaved would be very expensive, on average it would cost around $750, which in today’s money is close to $20,000. The expectations of wealth however, did not come from how much money a person had in the south. Instead it would be judged on how many enslaved people they had on their property, and if someone had over 500, it would be equivalent to being a millionaire. In the South, eighty percent of white men did not own an enslaved person; however, the twenty percent that did owned hundreds all across different working sites and plantations (Williamson & Cain).
Enslaved people were very influential for an enslaver’s social status and wealth. They were considered to have more power if they had control over enslaved people before 1830, it was considered old money. The occupation of the enslaver itself also held large amounts of power and influence in the Southern community and determined the wealth. Those of higher jobs, likely men with education, were expected to have many enslaved people and they would have more opportunities to partake in trade and negotiations of the enslaved people. Jobs that held large amounts of power that would generally have many enslaved people were lawyers, doctors, and politicians. Enslaved people that worked for them would be forced to work as servants, but many would also work on their personal plantations. An average plantation would have a range of enslaved people from twenty to three hundred (Williamson & Cain).
Many spoke up against slavery, in the hope that it could be abolished. It was common that the leaders of these movements were once enslaved that fled or bought their Freedom once in the North. They were typically men and they would hold gatherings and speeches, attempting to grow the abolitionist movement. They would then help with the Underground Railroad and escape attempts to free others in captivity. There were many famous abolitionists that supported the movement once free and they had their own personal views and contempt for slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. Two huge influencers that led the way were Jermain Wesley Loguen and Frederick Douglass.
Jermain Wesley Loguen was referred to as the “Underground King.” He was born into slavery, but stole his master’s horse and fled to Canada. He became a farmer before returning to New York where he met his wife and had children. One of those was later married to Lewis Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ child. He then became an abolitionist activist as a minister and one of the most active members to the Underground Railroad. It is said that he aided over 1,500 fugitives in seeking freedom. He is most famous, however, for his rescue of William Henry in 1851, a captured fugitive. Along with a committee of abolitionists, Henry was broken out and he escaped to Canada to gain his freedom. He criticized the Fugitive Slave Act heavily after it was passed by preaching: “I will not live a slave, and if force is employed to re enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man. If you will stand by me—and I believe you will do it, for your freedom and honor are involved as well as mine—it requires no microscope to see that—I say if you will stand with us in resistance to this measure, you will be the saviors of your country” (Loguen & Williamson 265). This called for all abolitionists to help fight for freedom and destroy the Act and slavery itself. He pleaded that Syracuse may become an “open city” for fugitives and he won the majority for that proposal.
Another abolitionist, Fredrick Douglass opposed the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass was born into an enslaved life but he was able to escape to the North and earn his freedom. He worked with many abolitionists to assist the freedom of other fugitives. He criticized slavery and the government themselves along with the Fugitive Slave Act: “There is protection for a horse, for a donkey, or anything, rather than a colored man-who is, therefore, justified in the eye of God in maintaining his right with arm” (Douglass & Foner).
Looking at fugitives as a whole, there is a lot more than one small notice in an old newspaper. There is deep history and broad connections to vast memorable moments that happened in the United States in the nineteenth century. Every small detail matters in an advertisement and can give large amounts of information about the importance of an enslaved worker and the desire that they are returned in a timely manner. The year and location of the advertisement make huge ties to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the peak of the Underground Railroad, and the arising tension between the North and the South. This all inevitably led to the Civil War, abolishing slavery for all in the United States.
Object biography by Kevin Coleman, Alex Di Martino, Nick Giannuzzi, Kiara Kamlani, Christian Kohrs, Heath Weed. Spring 2021.
You can view thousands of similar ads from the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project here.
The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project makes available some 2400 advertisements that appeared in North Carolina newspapers between 1751 and 1840. A collaboration between The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), the project builds on the work of Freddie L. Parker (Stealing a Little Freedom: Advertisements for Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1791-1840) and Lathan Windley (Runaway Slave Advertisements)and presents digital images of the advertisements alongside full-text transcripts and additional metadata to facilitate search and discovery.
Members of this project team were interviewed for the audiovisual that is paired with this research guide.
“A senator claimed that around 10,000 runaways escaped to free territory every year but the number is likely higher.”
What is the Fugitive Slave Act?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted for the capture and return of enslaved runaways and it required that the government actively intervene to help the enslavers gain control over their enslaved persons again. Citizens were also required to help capture the runaways. Those who aided the escape or protected the runaways were fined $1,000 and at risk of jail time.
“In the South, 80% of white men did not own an enslaved person; however, the 20% that did owned hundreds all across different working sites and plantations.”
Blackett, R. J. M.. The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. United States, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Coffin, Alex. “Underground Railroad.” NCpedia, www.ncpedia.org/underground-railroad.
Delbanco, Andrew. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. United States, Penguin Books, 2019.
Douglass, Frederick, and Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass: Pre-Civil War decade, 1850-1860. United States, International Publishers, 1950.
Franklin, John Hope, and Schweninger, Loren. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.
History.com Editors. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Dec. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts.
Loguen, J. W., and Williamson, Jennifer A.. The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life. United States, Syracuse University Press, 2016.
Williamson, Samuel H, and Louis P Cain. Measuring Worth - Measuring the Value of a Slave, www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php.
“28 Mar 1855, Page 3 - The North Carolina Whig at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, newscomnc.newspapers.com/image/66763708/?terms=M.J.McCulloch&match=1.
“17 Mar 1847, Page 4 - The North-Carolina Star at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, newscomnc.newspapers.com/image/56213817/?terms=Runaway+slaves&match=1.