This is my 2nd post from the Belle of Washington’s tour of the Albemarle’s history
Welcome back to the Belle of Washington. We left Elizabeth City early this morning and came down the lovely waters of the Pasquotank River. Now we’re passing the Little River and, up on its northern shore, the little hamlet of Nixonton.
I’ll say more about Nixonton’s history in a second, but first I think this is a good time and place to talk about runaway slave advertisements because there are some especially interesting ones that refer to Nixonton.
I haven’t mentioned runaway slave advertisements previously on this blog (or on this voyage), but they are a rich source for making the early history of the North Carolina coast come alive.
Here’s what they are: runaway slave advertisements appeared commonly in coastal newspapers prior to the Civil War. If a slave escaped and was not quickly re-captured, the slave’s owner often took out an ad in local newspapers that described the enslaved man or woman.
Those advertisements usually included a physical description of the runaway slave, as well as his or her occupation and what they were wearing at the time of their disappearance.
In addition, the ads often mentioned the slave’s likely destination—a mother’s home in another county, for instance, or a seaport such as Edenton, where they might try to get a secret berth on a ship and escape by sea.
Of course the ads also offered a reward for the fugitive slave’s capture and return.
Though brief, runaway slave advertisements contain a wealth of information about the history of the North Carolina coast that we could not possibly otherwise know.
“Raised to the Sea”
For instance, when I was writing my book The Waterman’s Song, I learned at least three important things from runaway slave advertisements.
First, when I looked at the occupations listed in runaway slave advertisements from the North Carolina coast, I was astonished that so many enslaved African Americans worked in the maritime trades. Again and again, I found runaway slave ads that referred to enslaved sailors who “had been raised to the sea.”
In addition to serving on seagoing vessels, many other runaway slaves had previously worked as river boatmen, pilots, fishermen, ship builders and in other maritime trades.
That was a revelation to me, and it gave me a totally new sense of what maritime life was like here before the Civil War.
Far more than I had imagined, coastal slaves traveled by water, worked on the water and took to the water to harvest fish, oysters and other seafood for their families.
In addition, I discovered that coastal North Carolina’s slaves also used the water to gain access to the revolutionary political currents that roiled both sides of the Atlantic in the 18thand 19th centuries, including a great deal of anti-slavery thought.
A Multi-lingual Society
Second, the runaway slave advertisements showed me that many coastal slaves spoke languages other than English. That was especially true in the runaway slave advertisements published prior to the War of 1812.That was something I should have already appreciated, but those runaway slave advertisements really drove the point home.
Again and again, I found references in those ads to slaves that were fluent in English and at least one other language spoken in Europe and/or the French, Spanish, Danish and/or Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
In fact, on one occasion, I found a description of a slave runaway that spoke English and three of those languages.
Of course, many also spoke at least one African language— Igbo, Mande, Arabic or one of hundreds of other languages.
In that way, the runaway slave ads gave me a greater appreciation both for the ethnic diversity and the complex political histories that could be found in North Carolina’s maritime slave communities, especially, as I said, prior to the War of 1812.
The Maritime Underground Railroad
Third, those runaway slave advertisements taught me a lot about the Underground Railroad.
In reading old newspapers, I quickly observed that most slave owners in eastern N.C. placed their reward notices in seaports downriver of their homes and plantations.Even if they resided 100 miles inland, they still posted their reward notices in seaports such as Plymouth, Washington, New Bern and Wilmington.
Through experience, those slaveholders had learned that fugitive slaves that sought to go North rarely headed there by land.
Instead, in eastern N.C. at least, fugitive slaves headed to the sea. Consequently, their owners offered rewards for their capture in seaports, where runaways sought to find clandestine passage on ships headed to the northern states or a foreign country.
You’ll hear more about that “maritime Underground Railroad” when the Belle of Washington reaches Edenton this afternoon.
At that time, we’ll talk about Harriet Jacobs, authoress of one of the most important books ever written about North Carolina’s coastal past. Jacobs escaped from Edenton by ship in 1842.
So those are three important things that I learned from runaway slave ads. For the curious, they offer many other insights as well.
UNC-Greensboro’s Runaway Slave Ads Project
When you get back home, if you’re reading this from the deck of the Belle of Washington, I strongly encourage you to read some of the runaway slave advertisements that appeared in North Carolina newspapers. They’re not hard to find now.
That wasn’t true when I first began doing this kind of historical research. In those days, I had to travel to distant libraries in order to locate the old newspapers. Then I had go through them issue by issue to find the runaway slave advertisements. It was worth it, but it was slow going.
However, now it’s much easier. At the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Professor Loren Schweninger and his students have created a very impressive, searchable database of all known runaway slave advertisements that appeared in North Carolina newspapers between 1750 and 1840.
You can find a link to UNC-G’s North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements Project here.
At UNC-G’s web site, you can look up runaway slave advertisements for the towns and counties that we are visiting on the Belle of Washington.
But if you live elsewhere in North Carolina, you might also want to search for the runaway slave advertisements for where you live now or where you grew up. Many of them are very powerful and deeply moving, and I think you will find it a rewarding experience.
To be continued….