Cornell University Builds a Database of Historical Runaway Slave Ads and You Can Help

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York has begun a project to compile a database of historical runaway slave advertisements published in newspapers. The project involves digitizing, preserving, organizing, and enabling analysis of all surviving runaway ads.

According to the Freedom on the Move web site:

Thomas_Jefferson_slave_adBetween the seventeenth century and 1865, millions of African-American people were enslaved in the thirteen colonies and the United States. One of the most common ways to resist slavery was to escape. At one point or another, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people tried to run away.

When fugitives escaped, enslavers often placed runaway notices in newspapers. Such ads included any kind of information that might help readers identify the fugitive: the name, height, build, appearance, clothing, literacy level, language, accent and so on of the runaway. Often the ads speculate on where the escapee might be headed and why, when they were most recently sold, and what kinds of scars and marks they had.

Each ad sketches the contours of an individual life, a personality, a story. Taken collectively, the ads constitute a detailed, concentrated, and incredibly rare source of information about a population that is notably absent from most official historical records of the time. We are fortunate that there are an estimated 100,000 or more runaway ads in newspapers that survive from the colonial and pre-Civil War U.S.

You can help with the database. The web site uses “crowdsourcing,” an effort in which users help index the thousands of ads instead of the university paying a lot of money to have the indexing done by paid employees. Crowdsourcing combines the efforts of numerous self-selected volunteers, where each contributor adds a contribution that may combine with those of others to achieve a greater result.

You can read more about this effort and view the records that have already been indexed at

My thanks to newsletter reader Terry Mulcahy for telling me about this great online resource.

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