An Amazing Advertisement for Runaway Slaves
June 25, 2007
Even as a boring researcher who spends days on end in dusty old archives, every now and again something shocks you. I came across this ad not long into my research regarding runaway slaves in Eastern North Carolina. [The full size image can be found below the page break].
Why is an old advertisement so shocking and interesting? The above advertisement’s five simple (although surprisingly verbose) paragraphs are short hand for a much larger and even more interesting tale. Their story includes enslavement, betrayal, yearning for freedom, fatherhood, rebellion, courage, anger, and half a dozen other compelling emotional angles that should perk the ears and tug at the heart.
Beyond that, the characters are laid out in a detailed manner (considering the space allowed for an advertisement), but in such a way that you are left desiring to know more about them.
Foremost, there is Welcome, a trusted and favored slave- most likely a slave driver. His master, Isaac Wright, describes Welcome’s physical appearance as “34 years of age,” “stout and well set,” “legs a little bowed,” “full face,” “large thick neck,” “a man of great strength,” “large thick and flat feet,” “walks rather slow and heavy,” “countenance somewhat heavy,” “has no appearance of hard usage,” “much inclined to be fleshy,” “weighs about 180 [lbs],” and “about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches.” The image we get here is of a strong middle-aged man (perhaps at his prime). Welcome is not some Greek statue of a man (“fleshy” would preclude such an option), he probably resembled something more like a modern day barrel chested strong man.
Wright’s description of Welcome as “ha[ving] no appearance of hard usage,” might lead one to believe that Welcome was a privileged slave. Such a conclusion is well supported by the remainder of Wright’s description of Welcome’s non-physical aspects. Wright describes Welcome as “speak[ing] easy with some address,” “of fine understanding,” “can read and write a little,” and having “some knowledge of figures.” All of these descriptors would point toward Welcome serving as a slave driver- and a rather trusted one at that. Furthermore, such conclusion is almost definitely accurate, considering that Wright felt confident leaving his plantation for 8 days, entrusting Welcome with both farm and stock.
There is one more important aspect of Welcome that the ad mentions- Welcome as a father. The role of a slave as parent is rarely mentioned in these kind of ads, so it is quite special to see it appear within this advertisement. We see it in several different ways.
- We see Welcome as a father trying to bring his daughter to freedom with him.
- We see Welcome as a father whose daughter lived in a privileged position (one different from his own).
- We see Welcome as a father possibly concerned with his daughter’s physical and intellectual betterment.
First, let us get acquainted with the character/person of Betsey. Betsey was a 13 year old house slave. Betsey according to Wright was also “well grown,” with a “very fair complexion for a negro,” with “stout features” like her father. Wright’s wording-”raised a house servant”- points to two interesting possibilities. Foremost, Betsey had a somewhat privileged (although by no means easy) life growing up in Wright’s household. Also, although this is merely conjecture, the past tense (“raised”) hints at a possible falling out between Betsey and her master- perhaps the impetus for Welcome’s journey toward freedom with his daughter.
The ad gives plenty of reason to believe that Betsey might have been a rather spirited young woman. First, Her owner appears well acquainted with her appearance when frustrated or angry- “when vexed sticks out her mouth and look[s] impudent.” Furthermore, Wright claims that like her father, Betsey is literate and able to spell. There is a reason that most slave codes tried to keep slaves illiterate. Educated slaves often meant unhappy slaves. It seems (and this should come as no surprise) that once the mind has been set free the spirit is all the more fascinated with gaining liberty- or at the least not suffering under the horror of being human chattel.
So it is almost anti-climatic to see the ad describe what must have very a emotional scene (and possibly a very chaotic one) in the following manner:
He took his daughter in the day time from the possession of their mistress.
My mind echoes and floods with the frustrating number of possibilities. Did he take her by force? Was this planned? Did he develop some clever scheme to get her from her mistresses side? Did he divulge the plan to her before all of this or did he tell her at the last moment. It is enough to drive me insane. I would love to know.
As for Betsey’s condition in life. It appears unlikely that Betsey’s position in the house was related to her father’s good service. After all, he would have only been about 21 when Betsey was born. There is no way of knowing, but it seems there are two possibilities. One, Wright’s household was in need of a house servant and Betsey was born at the right time. The other possibility, Welcome was perhaps the offspring of Wright (or one of Wright’s relatives).
Why would I guess as much? First, it seems odd that not only was Betsey treated well, but so was her father. Remember that after over two decades in the field he lacked the appearance of hard use. There is also the description of Betsey that describes her as “very fair for a negro.” But such is just conjecture- very tempting conjecture.
Although we can never know exactly why they ran, we do know with certainty that they chose to seek out freedom outside their plantation. What did they take to further that purpose?
- Books, papers, and pens
The reason for the clothing is obvious. Beyond mere comfort the right clothing would allow them to blend in and pass as free blacks or perhaps even privileged slaves on a errand for their master. The papers taken would supply two ends. First, the papers and pens could be used to write passes that would allow Welcome and his daughter relative freedom of movement even with active patrols in the area. Second, the books were likely readers that young Betsey used or could use to work on her writing skills, essential to her and her father’s future freedom. Last, like the Hebrews leaving Egypt, they left with compensation for their servitude. This money would allow them opportunities in how they might obtain their freedom. If they had enough funds they might attempt to purchase help from local whites- a dangerous choice. Safer, yet still dangerous, they might attempt to buy passage on a ship (should they reach one) heading toward freedom- whether heading north (Boston) or east (Britain) or further south (Haiti/St. Domingo).
What a compelling story, right? Or Maybe I am just too much of a history geek.
Well, for your viewing pleasure, here is the full page advertisement.