Runaway Slaves: Advertisements Analysis

In the eighteenth century in the United States of America, millions of Afro-Americans were subjugated and forced to work without payment for the benefit of the white people. Notwithstanding the harsh conditions, physical, and psychological abuse experienced by the enslaved during the antebellum era in colonial Virginia, many ventured to escape at the risk of being severely punished or even killed if found. By examining the runaway advertisements published in local newspapers in terms of demographic characteristics, major changes over time, and skills possessed, it is clear that the highest percentage of escaped slaves included males under 30, working physically exhausting jobs.

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Characteristics of Runaway Slaves

Composition by Age, Sex, and Marital Status

By examining the runaway advertisements in terms of age and sex composition, some critical patterns appear. As followed by Costa (2005), in Virginia, slave masters reported that males escaped approximately five times more often than females. In particular, within 70 years, 3304 advertisements about missing men were posted in contrast to 592 women (Costa, 2005). Such a vast difference in numbers may be explained in several ways. Since escape required much physical strength and endurance, men naturally were more prepared for the strive. Additionally, because many enslaved women had extramarital children from their masters, they were controlled more strictly.

Not only gender but also the age of the slaves had a significant impact on the likelihood of them running away. As followed by Costa (2005), approximately half out of 3000 escaped males was under thirty; with the same tendency for women, wherein out of 592 females total, around 300 were young adults. One interpretation for such a pattern is a generally higher level of resilience in a younger age, meaning that those under 30 tended to rebel more against the old order. Another possible explanation refers to the fact that the elderly are less likely to risk their lives when running away because of a fear of death and the need to raise children.

Marital status, as well as the fact of having children, also were important factors in the slave’s final decision. Most of the escapes, documented by Costa (2005), capture instances of single slave rebellion with rare exceptions to pregnant females running away. Similar to the older people, most women expecting were afraid to leave the manor, unsure of the appropriateness of the living conditions for raising children. At the same time, Costa (2005) mentioned more than 30 cases, wherein mothers dared to elude with their minor kids. Such distinctions in the women’s decisions represent the significance of strong will and endurance, needed to escape.

Composition by Skills and Abilities

Apart from the age, sex, and marital status of the slaves, another critical aspect influencing the individuals’ decision to escape includes acquired skills and abilities. Surprisingly, the more literate the slaves were, the higher the likelihood of them staying with their owner was. For instance, according to Costa (2005), out of 3500 total slaves reported missing, only 125 could read and write, 35 spoke a foreign language, and 120 were skilled at playing a musical instrument. Furthermore, from those educated, more than 90% of the escaped were men (Costa, 2005). On the one hand, this tendency may be explained by a possible better treatment of literate slaves, who could serve as private teachers for the masters’ children. On the other hand, little research has been done to name the overall percentage of educated Afro-Americans at the time.

To increase the likelihood of finding their escaped servants, apart from mentioning their intellectual skills, masters also included their manual work description in the runaway advertisements. As summarized from the work of Costa (2005), the highest escape rates were associated with the most physically demanding jobs, such as blacksmith or plantation worker. Those involved in the tedious daily routine often eluded together with the entire family and minor children. While such a decision contains a high risk of dying from hunger, poverty, and physical diseases, obtained during hard work, it still offers a promising perspective of starting a new life, free of abuse and slavery.

Changes in the Number of Runaway Slaves Over Time

When looking at the dynamics of the slaves’ escapes in respect to the timeline, it is clear that masters hardly reported any runaways in the first half of the eighteenth century. As mentioned by Costa (2005), only 68 advertisements appeared in local newspapers till 1750. The number of escaped slaves peaked in the late 1780ties, reaching almost 2000 individuals over 10 years (Costa, 2005). Such a wave of rebellion might be connected with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which legalized slavery and expanded the rights of slavery masters.

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Ultimately, the brief overview of major trends observed in the runaway advertisements in eighteenth-century Virginia provides enough evidence to argue that young men with physically enduring jobs were most likely to escape from their masters. Some critical factors influencing the slave’s final decision to escape included age, gender, marital status, and skills acquired. Apart from the demographic characteristics, prominent historical events, such as the ratification of the US Constitution led to the intense waves of the slaves’ rebellion.


Costa, T. (2005). Explore advertisements. Web.

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