Friday, January 13, 2012

Glimpse into the Life of the Slave and Indentured Servant

As we approach the annual observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday and Black History month, we might not recognize these events are rooted in American societal practices begun four centuries ago. The Virginia Center for the Digital History’s project on the Geography of Slavery in Virginia has assembled a rich resource of documents, mostly from contemporary newspaper advertisements, about runaways and indentured servants.

Using this resource, eleven advertisements describe slaves and indentured servants who ran away from their owners in Rockingham County between June 1778 and August 1795.[i] As the advertisements were submitted by the owners, they represented perhaps a one-sided view of the runaways.

Slavery in Rockingham County

One of the earliest references to slaves in the Shenandoah Valley appeared in 1727. From one plantation near the headwaters of the James River, fifteen slaves escaped to the present day Lexington area. Slave-holding customs of the Tidewater area were established in the Valley by the settlers who crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains.[ii] Advertisements often supported this geographic connection where the expected destinations of the runaways were to the Piedmont and Tidewater areas. The runaway advertisements by owners were placed in newspapers at or near Lancaster County, Richmond, Bowling Green, or Fredericksburg. In a few cases, the information provided on runaways noted they came to Rockingham County from one of these areas.

Many of the Rockingham County runaways belonged to the area’s first settlers: John Miller, William Devier, John Craig, Benjamin Tallman, and George and Jacob Chris(t)man.[iii] In 1775 John Craig reported owning nine tithables (a personal property assessment) – more than any one else in his district.[iv] On the 1788 tithable list, Peachy Ridgeway owned twelve slaves and George Chrisman owned seventeen horses and four slaves. A correlation existed between those who had many horses and those who had many slaves.[v] In the 1810 Census, George Chrisman reported fifteen slaves and Jacob Chrisman reported eight slaves.

Slave ownership was not as prevalent in Rockingham County as in the Tidewater and Piedmont areas.[vi] In 1790, Rockingham County had a total population of 7,500 of which slaves were a little more than ten percent. At that time, no free Negroes were reported. Until the Civil War, Negro population never exceeded ten to eleven percent of the local inhabitants.[vii] Even during the “great migration” from Rockingham County between 1805 and 1815, the population distribution did not change. People left the area because of soil exhaustion from tobacco farming and because of opposition to slavery.[viii] These causes and the emancipation efforts of the Methodists explained the 200 free Negroes recorded in the 1810 Census.[ix]

What the Advertisements Tell Us About the Runaways

Physical Appearance
Though most were in their twenties, the ages of the eleven advertised runaways ranged from 15 to 40 years old. The two youngest runaways, Charles (15) and Gowen (16/17), ran away together in April 1794 from George Chrisman, each taking a horse. The boys had been purchased within the previous two years in the Fredericksburg area. The advertisement stated that they were probably going there – perhaps to get a boat to go downriver to Lancaster County, where Gowen had been before. In August 1795, another runaway advertisement for Gowen was placed.[x]

The skin color of the male runaway varied from very black to mulatto and the height ranged between from 5’6” to 5’10” – a range similar to most men of the time. In ten of the eleven advertisements, the physical descriptions included were height, skin tone, and age. So few physical details given suggested either the person worked as a field hand far from the main house or reflected an attitude of the owner towards his property.

Natural or inflicted deformities, a scar on the lip and peculiar walking patterns, such as knocked knees, splayed feet, and a roving walk, were sometimes noted. The many references to peculiar walking patterns might indicate a poor diet or injuries received during the course of work. The absence of or the bearing of slash marks provided another feature by which a runaway could be identified. The description of the only reported woman runaway, Ciceley, included a missing front tooth and a large scar on one arm from a cut by scythe.[xi]

Attitudes, Skills, and Talents 
Some of the runaways were described as “artful” and “deceitful.” Cicely, mentioned above, was described as “very wicked and full of flattery.” The runaways with talents and/or skills were the best described physically. An example was the detailed description provided on the runway indentured servant, Dennis Connolly.[xii] Maybe the master would pay more attention to someone who was not black or a slave. Connolly was described as being about 25 years old, 5’6,” of “thin visage,” with yellowish hair and a large nose. His countenance was bold and imprudent.

From the advertisements, the owner or his family members would appear to pay more attention to someone who was often seen working near the owners’ house. Any slave with a known talent would also be described in more detail than a field hand. Moses, who ran away near the courthouse in 1795 from Jacob Chrisman, was described as a shoemaker and a wood worker who could sing and play the fiddle and was able to read plain print. The advertiser thought Moses would try to pass as a free person. Physically, in addition to height and age information, Moses was described as a mulatto with no “slesh” marks. The January 8, 1795 advertisement was placed in Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser and that suggested Moses destination. This advertisement was placed in January, but Moses and many of the other runaways were reported as having left during the summer months. Perhaps the owner hoped when winter came the runaway would return.

Dress and Objects Taken  
One advertisement by John Craig for a runaway read as if the owner was a victim of a planned burglary.[xiii] Tom, with “a roving walk and a natural mark on his neck,” was a 29 years old, 5’8” mulatto. He was also a shop joiner. He left with a white man calling himself Elijah Gardner. They stole “a small shot gun, a black leather shot bag with ammunition, a beaver hat, green coat, red calimanco[xiv] jacket, old leather breeches, coarse and fine shirts, thin leather shoes, thread stockings and other wearing cloaths.” One cannot image that Tom could escape for long wearing the finery. Maybe Elijah could! If clothing was taken, the items more likely were similar to those stolen in 1778 by the indentured servant, Connolly. He took “old country made shoes, yarn stockings, hunting shirts, as well as the common dress of tow linen shirts.” A coarse shirt of tow linen made from flax or hemp was a frequently described article of dress in the advertisements.[xv] George, who ran way in 1795 from John Miller, was also described as wearing a tow shirt and an old hat in addition to having many scars on his back from the lash.[xvi]

In summary, the who, what, when, where, how, and why given in the advertisements also provided indirect information about the person placing the advertisement and the situation from which the person ran away. What individuality revealed about the runaway rarely flattered and sometimes was not even very distinguishable within the general population. Some runaways appeared capable of succeeding as a free a person and may have tried to do so. They evidently had some knowledge of geography, as many of the runaways appeared to have wanted to get to some place specific and familiar. The descriptions in the advertisements provided us with some historical references on life of the slaves and indentured servants. Finally, the assembling of these documents provided a glimpse of late 18th century Rockingham County.

[i] The early date is the year when Rockingham County was formed from Augusta County. There were some reported runaways from the Rockingham area prior to 1778.
[ii] Scott Hamilton Suter, Shenandoah Valley Folklife, (University of Mississippi Press, 1999), 10-11.
[iii] J. Houston Harrison, Settlers by the Long Grey Trail, (Dayton, Va, C.J. Carrier Company, 1935). This book was originally published in 1935 by Joseph P. Ruebush in Dayton, Va.. The names are found throughout this volume where they interacted with the Harrison family either through marriage or legal dealings.
[iv] John W. Wayland, A History of Rockingham County Virginia (Harrisonburg, Va, C.J. Carrier Company, 1996) 107. This volume was originally published in 1912 by Joseph P. Ruebush, Dayton, Va.
[v] Ibid., 107.
[vi] In general at the beginning of the 19th century throughout Virginia, especially in these later areas, the depletion of the soil from tobacco had brought about an agricultural depression.
[vii] Ibid., 107.
[viii] Harrison, 385-86, 390.
[ix] Wayland, 107.
[x] Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser, May 8, 1794 and August 11, 1795.
[xi] Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, Richmond, July 24, 1793.
[xii] Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, June 5, 1778.
[xiii] Virginia Gazette or American Advertiser, Richmond, October 11, 1786.
[xiv] Calamanco is a woolen fabric, checked on one side and glossy on the other.
[xv] Tow cloth is made from flax or hemp. Booker T. Washington, in Up From Slavery, (New York, Barnes & Noble, 2003) 6, writing in 1901, reveals that

...the most trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy...was wearing a flax shirt. In the portion of Virginia were I lived it was common to use flax as part of the clothing for slaves....the flax which of course was the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely image any torture, except perhaps, the pulling of a tooth that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time.
Fortunately, Washington had an older brother who volunteered to” break-in” the shirt for him.
[xvi] Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser, Fredericksburg, May 12, 1795.

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