The OAH recently tweeted about a new post at the Process blog. The tweet asked if runaway slave ads can change the way we study slavery.The post is authored by Mary Niall Mitchell, Edward Baptist, and Joshua Rothman, and it describes their new project to create a database of digitized fugitive slave ads:
“Most historians of chattel slavery looking for detailed information about individual enslaved people have turned to a familiar constellation of sources: nineteenth-century slave narratives, the Ex-Slave Narratives gathered in the 1930s and 1940s by the Works Progress Administration, plantation records, and legal documents. We hope that this is about to change, by bringing new and existing digital techniques to a type of narrative that ran daily on the pages of American newspapers from the eighteenth century until the Civil War: the fugitive slave advertisement.”
“By 1865, we estimate more than 200,000 such notices appeared.”
It is possible that there are 200,000 such notices. It seems plausible to me, though I would be more willing to accept it if I was not familiar with Ed Baptist’s technique for creating quantitative estimates. He makes them up.
Although they do mention the work of Loren Schweinger and John Hope Franklin on runaway slaves the overall impression that the authors leave is that little has been done to make use of these valuable pieces of evidence. After all, “historians …. have turned to a familiar constellation of sources,” but they “ hope that this is about to change” as a result of their work. It is this implication that they are boldly going where no historians have gone before that is the problem. There are already a number of extensive collections of digitized fugitive slave ads that, unlike their project, are already available to people. Moreover, historians have long regarded fugitive slave ads as an important source. Some economic historians have created databases including tens of thousands of ads to conduct their research. Bellow I provide a list of some of the digitization projects and historical scholarship related to runaway slave ads.
Can runaway slave ads change the way we study slavery? Yes. I know this because they already have. Why don’t the authors just acknowledge the contributions of the numerous scholars that have already worked on fugitive slave ads? They could simply state that despite all these previous efforts none has yet created a truly comprehensive database that is accessible to everyone. That would be true, and if they were able to create such a database it would be a considerable achievement. But that is not the way of the new history of capitalism. Instead, the approach is to ignore or deny the work of earlier scholars in order to claim false novelty for their own work.
“The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements (more than 2300 items) published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1840. 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.”
“The Texas Runaway Slave Project (TRSP) is a database of runaway slave advertisements, articles and notices from newspapers published in Texas. The project has so far documented the names of over 1400 runaway slaves from Texas.”
“The “Louisiana Runaway Slave Advertisements, 1836-1865” collection is a comprehensive digital collection of advertisements and notices harvested from the newspapers digitized as part of the Digitizing Louisiana Newspapers Project. In these advertisements people from Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley demonstrate their agency and resistance against the institutions of slavery and indentured servitude.
The project team identified and cropped advertisements directly from the digital newspaper images, and they created full-text transcriptions and descriptive metadata.”
“The Documenting Runaway Slaves (DRS) research project is a collaborative effort to document newspaper advertisements placed by masters seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves. and , lead researchers and faculty members in the Southern Miss Department of History, are focusing their pilot project on Mississippi, but plans are already in place to expand the research to the larger Gulf South, the rest of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil.
“The Geography of Slavery in Virginia is a digital collection of advertisements for runaway and captured slaves and servants in 18th- and 19th-century Virginia newspapers. Building on the rich descriptions of individual slaves and servants in the ads, the project offers a personal, geographical and documentary context for the study of slavery in Virginia, from colonial times to the Civil War.”
Hodges, Graham Russell, and Alan Edward Brown. " Pretends to be Free": Runaway Slave Advertisements from Colonial and Revolutionary New York and New Jersey. Taylor & Francis, 1994.
Smith, Billy Gordon, and Richard Wojtowicz. Blacks who Stole Themselves: Advertisments for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1790. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
Prude, Jonathan. "To Look upon the" Lower Sort": Runaway Ads and the Appearance of Unfree Laborers in America, 1750-1800." The Journal of American History 78.1 (1991): 124-159.
Dittmar, Jeremiah, and Suresh Naidu. Contested Property: Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum US South. Working paper, Columbia University (September 2012), 2012. Dittmar and Naidu collected more than 20,000 ads.
Komlos, John. "The Height of Runaway Slaves in Colonial America, 1720-1770." Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, ed. John Komlos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) (1994): 93-116. Komlos collected more than 10,000 ads.