Virginia Gazette, May 19 1774

We know a great deal about the “founding fathers”—the famous patriots who fought for their freedom in the Revolutionary War. We know much less about the much larger numbers of Americans who labored as slaves, indentured servants, or apprentices. Benjamin Franklin estimated that at the time of the American Revolution, roughly one half of Pennsylvania’s labor force was legally unfree—bound to someone else as property, for many years or for a lifetime.

Slaves were owned for life, and most of the time, their condition was inherited–the child of a slave mother was also a slave. Indentured servants were legally owned for a limited term–typically five to seven years. A person might sell themselves into indentured servitude, perhaps because they had no other options, perhaps to finance passage to the colonies. Criminals might be punished with a term of indenture. Indentured servants were the legal property of the buyer in almost exactly the same way as slaves. They could be whipped and beaten, they could be bought and sold or confiscated to settle a debt. Apprentices were children legally bound to service for a term of years. Typically, an apprentice would be bound to a master craftsman. The craftsman would own the apprentice legally, and the apprentice would receive room and board and, theoretically, training in the master’s craft.

In this assignment we will use the online version of the Pennsylvania Gazette to learn about runaways—those who ran from a state of legal unfreedom. Using this collected information, we will then try to draw useful conclusions about the people on whose labor the revolution depended.

Step one: download this database spreadsheet. Click the right mouse button to save a copy to your disk, or, on Apple, click and hold the mouse button and choose “download link.” It runs in Microsoft Excel. Mason students can use a personal copy of Excel or the version provided on Mason’s LAN network. Or you can use the excellent free program Libre Office.

Step Two: begin searching the online version of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Enter “runaway” as your search term.  The Gazette, published by Benjamin Franklin, was the most important newspaper in English North America. It carried local news as well as reports from the rest of the colonies, from the Caribbean, and from Europe. You can search the Gazette at this link. Begin your search with the period 1728-1750, then search the period 1751-1765, then finally the years from 1766 through 1783, and collect information from ten ads in each period.

Step Three: enter the information you find into the “runaways” database you downloaded. You should enter information for at least thirty runaways. They may be slaves, or indentured servants, or apprentices.

Step Four: Write a five page paper that makes an argument about the nature of life in Colonial America, based on these ads.

Some things to consider
1. First, did you notice any change between 1728 and 1783? Did ads for one kind of runaway become more common? Did the things the ads said, or the information they gave, change over time? Was there any evidence of change in attitudes from the Revolutionary War?

2. What kind of unfree labor are you seeing most often? Apprentices? Slaves? Servants? Is it sometimes hard to tell? Does it become easier over time to tell if the runaway is a slave, an apprentice, or a servant?

3. How old were the runaways? Did their age change over time? Did their gender change? Where were they from?

4. What kinds of marks distinguished them? Did they try to disguise themselves?

5. Did the runaways seem to have any resources–that is, were they poor and ragged, or well dressed? Did they seem to have help, or were they alone?

6. Was there a reward offered? Did it vary depending on the person?

7. Did the runaways appear to have any skills?

8. How often did the ads give the race or color of the runaway? Was it sometimes hard to tell?

9. Did the runaways attempt to disguise themselves?

10. Was it more common to run in some seasons than in others?

11. Pay attention to the person posting the ad. As strange as it may seem, in colonial American a person could be arrested on suspicion of being a runaway, and then sold into indenture to pay the costs of his or her own imprisonment.

You need to construct an argument. It does not matter what you argue so long as you use the ads as evidence to support your case. For example, one of the best papers I ever got on this assignment tracked the colors of the clothes, and made an argument about trade routes changing based on the fact that some colors became more common over time.
You need to cite the ads and quote from them.