10 Remarkable Runaway Ads

Arts & Literature

October 24, 2014
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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A frequent discovery when reading 18th Century newspapers is the runaway ads. In an era when people could be owned by or contractually bound to others, individuals who absconded were often advertised by their masters. These ads give us amazing descriptions of individuals and show the society’s remarkable diversity of physical attributes, demographics, personalities, situations and material culture. Better still, many of them are outright fun and amusing. Sometimes it’s the choice of words used, sometimes it’s the characters that are described, but it’s hard not to smile when reading these ads. From thousands that were published during the American Revolution, below are ten selected because they’re fun to read; most are from Pennsylvania newspapers simply because those papers carried far more runaway ads than others – but there are hundreds more every bit as entertaining as these, from all over the colonies.


Six Dollars Reward.

Run away from the subscriber, in Charlestown township, Chester county, on the 26th day of February, a servant man, named James Thomson, but will undoubtedly change his name, as by his own information he has been used to do; he is about 35 years of age, about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, a thick well set fellow, of a swarthy complexion, straight black hair, black eyes, has a sour look, is fond of strong liquor, given to lying after a quiet manner, has a low voice, apt to give bad language when he is angry, talks good English and Dutch, and several other languages; he has been used to attend a saw mill; he says he is something of a carpenter; it is likely he may forge a pass, as he is a good scholar; the lower joint of his little finger on the left hand is out of its place; had on, when he went away, a small old felt hat, bound with black tape, a short sailor’s jacket of blue nap cloth, lined with green baize, had black horn buttons on it, ozenbrigs shirt, old brown cloth breeches, a pair of grey coarse yarn stockings, a pair of strong shoes, with round rimmed buckles, one of them steel plated with silver, the other white metal. Whoever takes up and secures said servant, so that his master may have him again, shall receive the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by William Bodly.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 March 1775]


Five Pounds Reward,

Run away from the subscriber, the 7th instant, an indented servant man, named Stephen Kelso, born in New England, by trade a caulker and ship carpenter, served his apprenticeship in New York, about 35 years of age, well made, brownish coloured hair, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high; had on, and took with him, a half‑worn hat, a light coloured jacket, a linsey ditto, old buckskin breeches, old blue yarn stockings, and sundry other clothes too tedious to mention; also took with him sundry ship carpenter’s tools, some marked J W, others S K, and others stamped on the handle; he is very remarkable for shewing his teeth, especially his upper teeth, and stutters when in liquor, which he is very much addicted to, very apt to scratch his breast and shoulders when examined. Whoever takes up the said servant, and secures him in any goal, so that his master may have him again, shall have, if 5 miles, Thirty Shillings, if 20 miles, Forty Shillings, and the above reward if out of the province, including what the law allows, with reasonable charges, paid by Micajah James.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 March 1775]


Baltimore county, Patapsco Neck, April 3, 1775.

Twenty Dollars Reward, for apprehending a Runaway.

James, a mulatto slave, sometimes known by the name of Vulcan, but commonly answers to the name of Buck, took an abrupt leave of his overseer last Wednesday, and has not yet returned; he is a dark mulatto, about 5 feet 9 inches high, strong made, sensible, artful, and deceptive in conversation, firm and daring in his efforts to perpetrate villainy, tho’ of mild temper, and plausible in speech: he has frequently travelled through a considerable part of this and some part of the province of Pennsylvania, is well known, it is supposed, in the borough and county of Lancaster, and is acquainted with Philadelphia, may probably therefore re-visit those places. His working cloaths were a home manufactured long cloth waistcoat with sleeves, and breeches, yarn stockings, osnabrig shirt, and good shoes, nailed with hobs: he is possessed of and has taken with him a blue German serge coat, a green broad cloth vest, two pair of cotton and one pair of thread stockings, two white shirts ruffled at the breast, a good castor hat with band and buckle, a pair of good pumps, with a pair of double rimmed silver buckles. He has a mark if distinction, which from modesty, or some other motive, he is careful to conceal; one of his ears (but which is forgot) is remarkably less than the other. The above reward will be paid if he should be taken up out of the province, and brought home; five pounds if at the distance of 40 miles, three pounds if 30, and forty shillings if 20 miles, with reasonable travelling expences, including the legal charge under the act of assembly, by Thomas Jones.

[Maryland Gazette, June 1, 1775]


Five Dollars Reward.

Run away from the subscriber, living in Woodbridge, East New Jersey, on the night of the 23d of July last, an Irish servant man, named John Morgan, about 20 years old, 5 feet 5 inches high, down look, brown bushy hair, something marked with the smallpox, speaks very coarse, cannot read nor write, is something of a balance master, can carry sticks, rakes, forks or the like, on his chin or nose, which he may likely do to get liquor, as he has no money, unless he sells some of some of his clothes; he had on, and took with him, two homespun linen shirts, the one check the other striped, two homespun woollen shirts, two coats, one brown saggathy, one home made cloth mixed blue and white, a pair of drilling breeches, a pair of brown saggathy ditto, two pair of tow trowsers, worsted stockings, Germantown make, halfworn shoes, brass buckles, one of which is mended with pewter, very clumsily. Whoever takes up said servant, and secures him in any of his Majesty’s goals, shall have the above reward, paid by Jeremiah Manning.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 August 1775]


Was Stolen,

…on the 18th day of September last, from the subscriber, living in Nottingham township, Burlington county, West Jersey, A sorrel Stallion, near 16 hands high, 15 years old next spring, has neither brand nor ear mark, has a small star in his forehead, some white hairs on his near buttock, shod before with steel shoes, a natural pacer, and low in flesh; likewise an old saddle, with light coloured plush housings, and a snaffle bridle. Were taken by a man who called himself John Stewart, but he has passed in other places by the names of John Noble Armstrong, alias John Armstrong, alias John Wentworth Armstrong, alias Newgent, and is apt to change his name at almost every place he comes to, and is a cunning artful fellow, pretends he was brought up in the practice of the law, is apt to drink hard, and when merry very foul mouthed and wranglesome; had on, when in the neighbourhood, a white fur hat, a white linen cap, a blue surtout coat, a red waistcoat, a white shirt, coarse homespun linen drawers, brown thread stockings , pumps, with yellow metal buckles; he is about 5 feet 10 inches high, near sighted, of a sandy complexion, much pock marked, and has some scars in his face, near the left side of his mouth. Whoever takes up both horse and thief, and secures them, so that the thief may be brought to condign punishment, and the subscriber gets his horse again, shall have Three Pounds reward, and for the horse, saddle, and bridle only, the sum of Twenty Shillings, and all reasonable charges shall be paid, by Abraham Lobb.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 October 1775]


This present instant, on the fourteenth day,

My apprentice boy did run away;

Thomas Stillenger he is called by name,

His indenture further testifies the same;

Small of his age, in his twelfth year,

My bargain of him has been very dear;

He has always been a vexatious lad,

One reason why he is so meanly clad;

Hat, shirt and breeches were almost new,

Sheeps russet stockings, and half worn shoes,

To describe the rest I am not inclin,

Cloth for a jacket he left behind;

Of apple pies with him he took but five,

For to preserve himself alive;

Three quarter dollars are missed of late,

Which perhaps he took to pay his freight;

Believe him not, if you be wise,

He is very artful in telling lies,

He is also guilty of another crime,

Of taking cloth from time to time,

And as he lived so far from sea,

Down Brandywine did it convey;

The freight whereof not being paid,

Sunk to the bottom and there it staid;

All which by chance is got again,

One piece doth only yet remain;

For which I whipt him, I thought severe,

But did no make him shed one tear.

Whoever doth him safely secure,

Of a reward they may be sure,

Six pence at least I do propose,

To give for him with all his clothes;

Or clear me of him for ever, and mine,

And his indenture away I will sign;

Now to inform you further still,

I keep a saw and fulling mill;

In East Fallowfield township and Chester county is the place of my abode, I subscriber my name unto the same, and that is William Moode.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 March 1776]


Three Pounds Reward.

Run away from the Birdsborough Forge, in Berks county, Pennsylvania, on the 16th of June, 1776, a Negroe Man, commonly called Cuff Dix; he is an active well made fellow, and a most excellent hammerman; he is about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, fond of liquor, understands English well, though he stammers in his speech; there is an iron ring in one of his ears, which if he can take out, a hole will remain it, large enough to receive the small end of a pipe stem, in which case he will probably endeavour to conceal the hole by filling it up; he wore, when he went away, a small old hat, light coloured homespun jacket , tow shirt and trowsers. He has often run away, changed his name, denied that the subscriber was his master, and been confined in several goals in this province; he was employed the greatest part of last summer by a person near Dilworthtown, in Chester county. Any person who shall harbour said Negroe shall be dealt with as the law directs, and his name not omitted in a future advertisement. As Negroes in general think that Lord Dunmore is contending for their liberty, it is not improbable that said Negroe is on his march to join his Lordship’s own black regiment, but it is hoped he will be prevented by some honest Whig from effecting it. Any person who shall bring said Negroe home to his master, or secure him in any goal, so that he may be had again, shall receive the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by Mark Bird.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 July 1776]


Eight Dollars Reward.

Run away from the subscriber, living in Pittsgrove township, Salem county, West-New-Jersey, on Sunday, the 21st day of July, a servant man named William Blackmore, about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, short light hair, is knock-kneed, and turns his toes out in his walk, he came from the West of England, and talks upon that dialect, is very talkative and impudent, and inclines to swear, fond of company, and apt to get in liquor; has a large scar in the calf of his leg, occasioned by a scald; had on, when he went away, a blue cloth jacket, without sleeves, or lining, old buckskin breeches, broke before, coarse thread stockings, old shoes, an old fine shirt, a half worn beaver hat, scalloped and cocked up (which he stole) he had with him a tow and linen shirt, also an iron collar around his neck, on one shank of which was marked I. H. and on the other W. B. he covers it with his shirt, but may easily be discovered; it is likely he will change his name, as he has done before; it is expected he will endeavour to get on board some of the king’s ships, as he is a great tory. Whoever takes up the said servant, and secures him in any goal, so that his master may get him again, shall receive the above reward, and reasonable charges paid, if brought home, by Isaac Harris.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, July 21, 1776]


Eight Dollars Reward.

Run away, on Sunday, the 9th of this instant February, a native Irish servant man, named Philip Clark, about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, pretty well set, of a flesh colour, has a pocked turn up nose, has a remarkable way of throwing his head back when he eats spoon victuals, is much given to liquor, has black hair, which he wears most always curled, has a large white lock on one side of his head, which he says came by a fall from a mare, and sometimes says by a blow with a quart pot; it is thought he will cut off his hair; had on, when he went away, a light cloth coat, with metal buttons and striped lincey lining, two light cloth jackets, buckskin breeches, tied with strings at the knees, two pair of stockings , one plain blue, the other dark grey ribbed, new neats leather shoes, with plated buckles, a plain silver stock buckle, a check silk handkerchief; he took with him a common prayerbook; it is though he will go on board a privateer, or go to Howe, as he is a Tory, and as he is a good scholar may forge a pass. Whoever takes up said servant, and secures him in any goal, so that his master may get him again, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by Samuel Landers, in Ridley township, Chester county.

N.B. If any officer has enlisted him, his master will sell him reasonable; enquire of Mr. John Roberts, Taylor, in Elbow Lane, or said master.

[Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 February 1777]


Lancaster, December 22, 1777.

Twenty Dollars Reward.

Deserted form Capt. Gourley’s company, of the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, a certain John Brown, by trade an armourer, about five feet seven inches high, pock marked, fair complexion; had on a light coloured coat, white linen jacket, leather breeches, and a beaver hat.

Also a certain Francis Harris, lately discharged from one of the floating batteries, by trade a mill wright, about five feet eleven inches high; had on when he deserted, an old light jacket with sleeves, and flowered, flannel breeches; he is much given to drink, and apt to say in his discourse, PLEASE GOODNESS, or by way of oath, BY HE THAT MADE LITTLE APPLES OR POOP LANTHORNS. Whoever takes up said deserters, and secures them in any of the gaols of the United States, so that they may be returned to their regiment, shall receive the above reward and reasonable charges, paid by John Bickham, Lieut. 9th Pennsylvania Reg.

[Pennsylvania Packet, 22 December 1777]


FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Advertising page from a 1781 issue of the Jamaican newspaper the Royal Gazette, one of many newspapers from the period displaying notices about runaway slaves. Source: British Library


  • Good material. The runaway ad that stuck in my mind appeared in the 28 Aug 1768 Boston Post-Boy and issues the following month:

    Caesar a Negro Fellow noted in Town by having no Legs, is supposed to be strolling about the Country: If he can be brought to the Printer for One Dollar, besides necessary Expences, it shall be paid.

    1. That’s definitely one of the most memorable runaway ads I’ve come across, J. L. According to my records, the Caeser-no-legs ad also appears in the 17 August and 24 August 1769 Boston Weekly News-Letter. I believe the Boston Post-Boy date you meant was 28 August *1769* (it appears again in the following 4 September 1769 Boston Post-Boy). The 24 August 1769 News-Letter is among the Harbottle Dorr collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society: http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/2/sequence/681

    2. While today we use the word “leg” to describe everything between the hip and the ankle, in the parlance of the era “leg” generally referred only to what’s between the knee and the ankle. Above that was the thigh – like how we describe chicken parts today.
      From this amusing description I assume that Caesar had remarkably short shins, and so was described as having “no legs.”

      1. Don, that’s the best explanation I’ve heard for Caesar’s lack of “legs.”

        John L. S., the “strolling” idiom didn’t just mean walking but also general vagabondage—moving from place to place without having a fixed abode. Very suspicious in the eighteenth century. Still, it was a lot easier with legs.

  • Great article, Don! I noticed at the end of his bad poem, William Moode still managed to squeeze in an ad for his saw mill.

    I’m still puzzled at the scene of the above “run”-away ad for Caeser-no-legs “strolling about the Country”.

  • Thanks for an amusing article – although I`m sure it was not amusing for those parties involved at the time – both fugitives and owner/hunters. What is striking is the fine descriptive detail which seems to be almost photographic in nature. It seems as though each fugitive posed for a camera picture prior to fleeing. I suppose the more descriptive picture portrayed would result in greater chance of apprehension and return of the fugitive. Are there any records which reveal whether or not these specific advertisements and others were successful?
    Thanks again.
    John Pearson

    1. As someone who can’t recognize people even from photographs, I often wonder how these ads could possibly be effective. The ads in this article were chosen because they’re especially descriptive; many others give very few details at all. We can only assume that people were better acclimated to recognizing others based on descriptive information rather than images, in an age when images were not pervasive as they are today. I wonder about the “mechanics” of how these ads let to someone being apprehended – did people notice a stranger behaving suspiciously, then check the newspapers for advertisments? Or were some people astute enough to read the ads and then chance to notice someone who fit the description? Certainly if you were an employer or recruiter you might compare new applicants to advertisements, but it’s hard to imagine everyday citizens making effective use of these ads.

      And yet, there are thousands of runaway ads. Their sheer number is testimony to their effectiveness – if they didn’t work, we wouldn’t find them in almost every issue of every newspaper, sometimes ten or more in one issue. There are a number of published compilations of particular categories of ads – for slaves, for deserters, for women, etc.

      There are individual cases where we know that a runaway returned to their station – either apprehended or voluntarily – but even in those cases we can’t say whether the advertisement figured in the person’s return. It would be an interesting study to take one genre of ad – for deserted soldiers, for example – and try to determine how many of the subjects were caught. A monumental research task, but one that would yield thought-provoking results.

      1. Long before feedback of effectively-spent marketing dollars, I would suppose one would never see this addition to the bottom of the runaway ad, “Mention this ad to receive an extra four shillings added to your reward sum.”

      2. Thanks for posting these ads, Don. They are a wondrous way to get a feeling for the period.

        I suspect the “stranger” aspect you mention is the key to the effectiveness of the ads. We tend to project our times onto their lives but, while we can hop in a car, plane, bus, train, etc., and, within a very few hours, be hundreds/thousands of miles away, 18th-century folks could not–and did not–travel much (that activity developed following the Civil War). Their lives could be circumscribed by a circle with a very small radius and, as a result, folks tended to know the inhabitants of their local world. New folks–with their own characteristic features and clothing (most folks did not have several changes of clothing)–stood out in the crowd.

  • While I agree with your point about strangers, Mike, we have to be careful about the generality that “18th-century folks could not–and did not–travel much.” Many, many people of the working classes traveled a great deal, to find work, to see new opportunities, because the very nature of their work was itinerant, or what have you. While it wasn’t as easy as it is today in terms of the time required, we can’t get caught in the notion that travel was rare. Wartime, of course, drastically increase the amount of travel occurring.

    Having focused my studies on people who spent part of their lives in the army, I find it quite common for young men to leave home in their early teens, go to some other town, often quite far away, to seek employment, leave that employment for whatever reason and go to yet another town, etc. This is true of young people in both Great Britain and America (read the biographies in my book “British Soldiers, American War” for examples).

    I do think, though, that the overall lower population density and pace of life made travellers and newcomers more visible and noticable than they are today. Unless you traveled by coach, rare for the working class, you couldn’t pass through a town without being seen by someone; and the ability to travel only twenty or so miles a day on foot meant stopping at more towns than we would today on a similar journey. So I don’t believe that ads were effective because strangers and travelers were a rare phenomonon, but instead because strangers and travelers could not avoid the notice of townspeople.

  • I certainly didn’t mean to imply that travel in the 18th-century was all that rare. I merely meant to say that today’s world puts us in the frame of mind that travel is an easy thing–something not true for 18th-century folk. For example, yesterday I went 45 miles to my mother’s house. No big deal for me–an hour’s trip one-way. But, in the 18th-century, that trip would have involved crossing the Green Mountains and several water courses. At least a couple days one-way. And, it got down into the 20s and snowed some at night. Today, we are pretty much insulated from the vicissitudes of travel that our forebears experienced.

    I also remember a project from long ago in my undergrad days in which we studied travel in the colonial days. I can’t produce the sources but I remember we came up with the finding that something over 90% of period folks never traveled more than 25 miles from their home unless in the process of moving to a new place of residence.

    Lastly, with regard to strangers, I grew up in a small town and, for the last 40 years, have lived in an even smaller township (around 2000 residents spread over roughly 36 square miles with one main village and two considerably smaller ones). Now that I think about it, a high ridgeline runs through the township and, even with today’s easy communication and travel, there still exists something of a social divide between the two sections. Anyways, for certain, nobody knows everybody but we generally can recognize someone as a stranger when we see ’em. And, they often are the subject of at least a bit of conversation. I can imagine similar conditions in the 18th-century.

  • Mike I think you touch on something vitally important in terms of the ads, whether they are for runaway slaves or indentured servants. Being, that even today we can seem to identify someone as “other” or “stranger” based on our knowledge or experience living in a place – be that a town, city, village or even regionally. This, I am assuming, would be even more pronounced in an era such as the 18th century. As global as the marketplace was and remains today, there are indicators and reasons why there are differences regionally.
    I like your referencing something personal to convey that idea – and to share my own take on that, living in a small upstate New York town that has a tourist draw, we (I use this term to mean the permanent year ‘round residents) are quite adept at identifying regional tourists and terms like “Jersey” explain away with remarkable accuracy the something “other” about people navigating our community.
    Getting back somewhat to topic, and in so far as travel, it is compelling to note the differences in travel from the 17th and 18th into 19th century America. It would indeed be interesting to have some materials that indicate how successful these ads would have been with comparison to similar ads in the 1850’s. The American Revolution really allowed politically for that expansion as we all know, but the technology and ingenuity was a remarkable feat.

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