Assignment Two


История и СИД

However since the way servants and slaves lived depended on how their master treated them historical documents written by slaveholders represent a unique primary source of information about the life of servants and slaves. One type of such documents is advertisements for runaway slaves and servants published in newspapers in Virginia.



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Olga Golubkova

Professor Mark Hanna


October 27, 2014

Assignment Two

Slavery was an essential part of American society in the 18th and 19th centuries. It influenced political, social and economical development of the region. There are many sources that contain information on lifestyle, habits and daily routine of the people who were officially seen as property rather than humans. However, since the way servants and slaves lived depended on how their master treated them, historical documents written by slaveholders represent a unique primary source of information about the life of servants and slaves. One type of such documents is advertisements for runaway slaves and servants published in newspapers in Virginia. The database of the advertisements allows to learn about servants and slaves’ lives, as well as to trace changes in American society of that time.

The analysis of 18th century runaway advertisements over time demonstrates that during the first couple decades of the century there were more fugitive servants than slaves, but the situation ended up reversing by the end of the century. Such phenomena may be explained by the fact that servant emigration declined due to the rise of wages in England (where servants came from). At the same time, it became more profitable to buy slaves who would be working for the master all their life. Moreover, 18th century was a period of the establishment of racial segregation in American society. Subsequently, since the majority of servants were white, they were placed higher in a social hierarchy and, therefore, did not feel as oppressed as African slaves and had less motivation to escape.

The advertisement database also allows to observe how the American Revolution could influence the number of runaway slaves and servants. The number of newspaper publications about escaped servants and slaves reached its maximum in 1771 and 1775 with the average of 145 advertisements between these years. One can also see a gradual decline in the number of runaway advertisements during the American Revolutionary War and after it. Thus, the average number of escape publications during the years of the American Revolution (1775-1783) was 90 advertisements per year, while this rate was 59 publications per year during ten years after the Revolution. The switch in ideology promoted by the Revolution can explain why such changes took place. There were masters who realized that fight for freedom and independence presupposed personal freedom and respect for human rights. Such logic motivated them to treat their slaves and servants in a more humane way; therefore, slaves and servants did not run away to escape punishment and poor treatment as often. However, one may also assume that high-placed slaveholders, who were in charge of the main social and political changes of that time, were simply “too busy” establishing a new state to dedicate their time to looking for either runaway slaves or escaped servants.

The runaway slaves and servants advertisements also enable to analyze demographical features of the enslaved part of society. For example, the majority of those who attempted to run away from their masters were men. It may signify that women were even more oppressed by slaveholders who often harassed them, so they were too scared of punishment to make an effort to escape. Enslaved women could also have children, who made them vulnerable in their attachment to them.

Among those who managed to run away the majority of people were between twenty and thirty years old. It is not surprising, because this age is the time when people are physically prepared to overcome hardships of a runaway slave or servant’s life. Nevertheless, even enslaved people under twenty (453 publications) and over forty years old (129 publications) were ready to escape from slavery. In fact, the strong desire to become free was the main reason why slaves and servants were trying to run away. There were also those who escaped to find and rejoin their families, but one can speculate that many of them would be willing to leave their slaveholders even if they did not have families. However, it is also important to take into consideration the fact that the intents in running away were provided by masters who often knew little about their slaves and, therefore, did not indicate the real reason for slave and servants’ escapes. To support this point of view, one can point out that servant runaway advertisements were longer than that of slaves. The size of advertisements together with the number of details about slaves and servants’ appearance, character and background demonstrate that as slaves replaced servants masters were using more and more characteristics that were solely physical.

Physical details provided in the advertisements, nonetheless, show that slaveholders did concern themselves with the physical condition of servants and slaves they owned. They often knew what scars the runaways had and how they behaved when they were intoxicated. A significant common feature of the majority of runaway advertisements is that masters described their servants and slaves’ body built exclusively in a positive way. Such adjectives as well-set, handsome and stout allowed the audience to understand that these people were good workers, so masters would be ready to pay a truly decent amount of money as a reward.

The database of advertisements for runaway slaves and servants is a source that demonstrates that slavery was a cruel phenomenon that, despite certain improvement that occurred from time to time, made the enslaved of different races, genders and ages risk their own lives in attempt to pursue freedom. During 18th century slavery came to American society to become a crucial part of it for many decades.  


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