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Architects of American freedom went to great lengths to capture runaways

“RUN AWAY FROM HIS MASTER” is how thousands of newspaper advertisements began in colonial times and the early decades of the new republic, enriching publishers and helping to catch escaped slaves. Runaways were fleeing one condition imposed by many kinds of master, from shopkeepers and artisans to powerful planters. In 1769, for example,

By the time this portrait of Thomas Jefferson was painted in 1800 by Rembrandt Peale, Jefferson had had at least three children with his slave, Sally Hemings.

the weekly Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg and circulated throughout Virginia and other colonies as far away as Pennsylvania and South Carolina, carried on page 4 a medium-sized notice placed by a wealthy landowner: “Run away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low,inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and his behaviour is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is expected he will endeavour to dispose; he also carried his shoemakers tools, and will probably endeavour to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me in Albemarle, shall have 40 shillings reward, if taken up within the county, £4 if elsewhere within the colony, and £10 if in any other colony, from THOMAS JEFFERSON”


Thomas Jefferson’s advertisement worked. Recaptured and returned, Sandy continued to resist enslavement. Within a few years his master had sold him, shedding Monticello of a “troublesome” holding. Jefferson was not alone among the Founding Fathers in having difficulty keeping control of the people he owned.

On May 24, 1796, the President of the United States of America advertised in the Philadelphia Gazette seeking the return of a runaway. It irked George Washington that Oney Judge had fled. Judge, 23 and born and raised at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, had been working in Philadelphia as a maid for Martha Washington. The ad read, “absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair, she is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed about 20 years of age.

“She has many changes of good clothes  of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is—but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probably she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.

“Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to that distance.”

This 1769 ad placed by Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Gazette offers a substantial reward for the mulatto slave Sandy. (Virginia Gazette)

Judge had fled in part because the Washingtons were planning to give her to Martha’s granddaughter as a wedding present. The president had said that upon his death his bondsmen and women were to be freed. A change of ownership would keep Judge enslaved. The young woman’s flight to freedom succeeded; Judge lived out her days in New Hampshire, where she married Jack Staines, a free black sailor.

Slave escapes also took place abroad, thanks in part to other countries’ laws. Americans traveling abroad with enslaved servants in tow opened all manner of possibilities. Jefferson, then 44, was serving as American ambassador to France when he began a sexual relationship with his late wife’s young half-sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings. She became pregnant. Sally missed her mother, enslaved at Monticello. Jefferson decided to take his 16-year-old mistress back to Virginia. Many years later, one of Jefferson’s sons by Sally, Eston Hemings, recalled that upon hearing this dictate his mother “demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him…” Only when Jefferson promised that their children would be raised to be free did Hemings agree to go back to Virginia. By taking Sally Hemings outside North America Jefferson had given her a chance to assert her freedom, enabling her to challenge—albeit riskily, since she had to trust her master to keep his word—her status and that of her children. Hemings’s gambit paid off. She returned to slavery in Virginia, but, as son Madison Hemings, recalled more than 80 years later, he and his siblings “all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born.”

Other leading white American slave-owners encountered similar situations. In 1757 Benjamin Franklin and son William departed for London from Philadelphia, where 10 percent of the population lived in bondage. There and elsewhere in the colonies, merchants, planters, government officials, military officers, even clerics had grown accustomed to the services of enslaved servants and assistants. For example, Olaudah Equiano visited Britain several times in the 1750s as the enslaved valet of Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Equiano in time secured his freedom and become a leading British abolitionist. As others of their class and circumstance often did, the wealthy Franklins traveled to Britain with enslaved servants—Peter working for Benjamin, and King, 11, serving William. Benjamin wrote to wife Deborah that Peter “behaves as well as I can expect” and “we rub on pretty comfortably.”

Franklin’s decision to bring Peter and King to London was unremarkable. Blacks, enslaved and free, were numerous in latter 18th-century Britain, especially London, where a growing community in the east end and south of the Thames sustained black public houses and churches. Street names suggested neighborhood demographics—there were several “Black Boy Alleys” and “Blackamoor’s Alleys, a “Black Boy Court,” and a “Blackmoor Street.” When city authorities imprisoned two black men for begging, some 300 black Londoners visited the pair or contributed to their support. A few black Londoners had come directly from West Africa but most hailed from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean and America. Racism was as strong in Britain as in the colonies, although the absence of a large enslaved population and lack of legal restrictions on people of color meant that some enslaved people in Britain joined white church congregations, wed white partners, and lived and worked alongside whites in ways unthinkable in the Crown’s slave-holding colonies.

In Virginia and other colonies, legislation governed the practice of slavery and the lives of enslaved persons. However, the mother country had no such laws—nor, until the 1780s, any proscriptions on owning and trading in slaves. As colonists and later as citizens of an independent republic, Americans could bring enslaved people to Britain and treat them as they did at home. During this era British newspaper columns were dotted with notices and advertisements akin to those in the American press, such as a page 2 ad in the February 2, 1750, London DAILY ADVERTISER: “…To be dispos’d of, A Pretty well-shaped Negro Boy, very healthy, fourteen Years old, speaks good English, has had the Small Pox, always used to go on Errands, attend at Table, &c. the [illegible] good. The Boy to be seen at Mr. Alexander Sutor’s, Peruke-Maker, at New Round Court in the Strand.”

Ben Franklin had owned Peter and his wife Jemima for about seven years. Desire to reunite with Jemima may have kept Peter from disappearing into black London during Franklin’s lengthy stay in the city, but King was less fettered. Within a year of taking up residence with the Franklins on Craven Street in London, King, whom the elder Franklin later characterized as “of little use, and often in mischief,” took advantage of his masters’ absence and ran off. In a letter to Deborah, Benjamin reported that the youth “was soon found in Suffolk, where he had been taken into the Service of a Lady that was very fond of the Merit of making him a Christian, and contributing to his Education and Improvement.” William had “consented to her keeping him while we stay in England,” he added. Wondering whether King’s new keeper might “persuade Billy to sell him to her,” Benjamin made clear that his son continued to claim ownership of the child.

At some point between 1760 and early 1762, King left Suffolk and returned to London. His benefactress may have tired of him or died. King may have fled again, perhaps because William was attempting to reclaim him. In any event, on February 16, 1762, William Franklin published a notice in the Public Advertiser describing his absconded property, offering a two-guinea reward for King’s recapture and return.

Writing and placing runaway-slave ads would have been second nature to the Franklins. Benjamin owed no small part of his wealth to profits from fees he had charged when masters bought column space in his newspaper to advertise slave sales or seek out elopers. By the time Franklin transferred management of the Pennsylvania Gazette to David Hall in 1748 slave-related ads made up almost a quarter of the paper’s commercial linage.

William’s ad regarding King indicated that “a likely black BOY, named King, about Sixteen Years of Age” had fled his master’s home on Craven Street, carrying off not only “a good Violin” but a large quantity of clothing—although not his servant’s livery. William thought it likely that, with Britain and France at war, the youth would go to sea. Sailoring was among the most egalitarian trades; the Royal Navy and hundreds of privateers were eager for crewmen, with color no barrier.

In mentioning King’s “mischief,” Benjamin Franklin may have been referring to assertions of resistance and independence by a youth chafing at re-entering America’s slave-holding society and thinking Britain offered him a shot at liberty. Benjamin, accompanied by Peter, returned to America. Before sailing home himself a few months later, William placed a second ad in the April 13, 1762, Public Advertiser, this time on page 3, seeking to regain his property: “ABSENTED from his Master’s Service, a likely BLACK BOY, named KING, but sometimes calls himself JOHN KING, about sixteen Years of Age, and is somewhat paler than the generality of Negroes. Took with him a good Hat with a Silver Button and Loop, an old blue Frock and Waistcoat much worn and dirtied, Leather Breeches, and spotted Worsted Stockings. He left a new Livery behind him, probably that he might the better pass for a free Negroe; but it is not unlikely that he may change his Cloaths. It is supposed that he has an intention of going on board some Privateer or Letter of Marque. All Captains of Vessels or others, to whom he may apply, are requested to stop him, and send Information thereof to Mrs. Stevenson near Charing-Cross. Whoever apprehends and secures the said Negroe, or informs where he is, so that his Master may have him again, shall have One Guinea for their Trouble, and all reasonable Charges.  N.B. Whoever harbours or conceals him will be prosecuted.”

William’s phrasing conveys King’s increased air of independence, noting that he has augmented with a surname the traditional first name appellation likely imposed on him at birth by his mother’s owner. The Franklins might refer proprietarily to this young man as “King,” but he “calls himself JOHN KING.”

As may have been the case for Peter and was so for Sally Hemings, the presence at home in America of beloved relatives could be a powerful counterweight against escape. A famous 1772 English court decision, Somerset v Stewart, may have barred any master from forcing an enslaved person to leave England and return to a colony where slavery was legal, but American slave owners could and did use emotional ties between enslaved people to ensure faithful service and obliquely enforce returns to bondage in America.

Twenty-two years after Somerset v. Stewart had become British law, John Jay traveled to London, bringing along an enslaved man, Peet (Peter) Williams. Williams’s wife and child were owned by New Yorker Morgan Lewis, from whom Jay had purchased Williams seven years before.

Jay, a leading New York merchant, HAD extensive political and diplomatic experience. His career had culminated in serving 1789-95 as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In London, he was to negotiate a treaty keeping the peace between Britain and America. Joining him and Peet Williams on the journey was Jay’s teenage son, Peter. As Jay was making ready to return to New York in 1795, Williams may or may not have known that he was free to remain in England. However, as Jay noted in letters to his wife Sarah, Williams deeply missed his family. “Peet begins to wish himself home again,” John wrote to Sarah. “Peet… is anxious to be at home again.” When Jay returned, Peet came along.

Peter, John King, Sally Hemings, and Peter Williams were but a few of thousands of enslaved people brought from America to Britain and France during the 18th century. Slave-chasing ads run by British newspapers illustrate that many seized the day and made a break for freedom, albeit in a setting, while outside slavery’s reach, that nonetheless was racially oppressive. Others, tightly bound by family ties, turned their eyes and their hearts back toward home.