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Language and Runaway Slave Ads

K-12 Objectives | Materials Needed | Procedures | Assessment | Related Resources

Discipline: U.S. History

Specific Lesson Topic: Using Literacy strategies in approaching Virginia Runaway Slave Advertisements

Methodology: Primary Sources

K-12 Objectives:

  • Become familiar with 18th century runaway slave ads
  • Develop strategies for confronting and decoding unfamiliar words
  • Identify unfamiliar words and use strategies to decode


National History Standards:

Standards in Historical Thinking

  • 2: Historical Comprehension
  • 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
  • 4: Historical Research Capabilities

U.S. History Standards

  • Era 2 Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • Standard 3: How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas

Virginia Standards of Learning

  • 11.2
  • 11.17

National Council for the Social Studies

  • Individual Development and Identity
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Power, Authority, and Governance



Students will read several runaway slave ads. These ads have been selected for their challenging language. We suggest using this lesson as an introductory lesson before engaging students in further research with the runaway slave digital archive. The teacher will model the strategy of THINK ALOUDS with one ad to help students learn how to confront a difficult passage. Students will then pair up to develop their own think alouds.

"In think-alouds, teachers make their thinking explicit by verbalizing their thoughts while reading orally . . . Students will more clearly understand the strategies after a teacher uses think-alouds because they can see how a mind actively responds to thinking through trouble spots and constructing meaning from the text" (Vacca and Vacca 1999, p. 53). While it may seem awkward at first, modeling think-alouds helps students see that even adults confront unfamiliar words and follow a logical process to help de-code the confusion.

Introduce the Geography of Slavery Project. Explain that students will be learning one strategy called Think Alouds as they begin to explore the archive. Explain that historians reading language from another era often confront words that they do not know. They must often make guesses based on contextual clues or prior knowledge to help understand the past. Model the strategy with a sample advertisement. To hear the strategy practiced aloud, click on the button to the right. To hear this over the web, you will need to have Real Player on your computer. This is available to download for free - just click on the Real Player icon to the right and follow the on-screen instructions. If you would rather read the Thinkaloud yourself, see the ad below with suggested additions in red.

This ad is from the Virginia Gazette, February 22, 1770:

"GREENWICH, [I need to look at a map of Virginia in the 18th century to find out exactly where this is] Feb. 15, 1770 [It must have been a cold time to run away]. RUN away from the subscriber [I think that might mean the person who placed the ad], in Gloucester county [if I looked at a map maybe I could see if Greenwich is in Gloucester county], the 5th instant [I have read a lot of these ads and I know that this means the 5th of this month. It's a phrase used in 18th century letters. Looking back up at the dates, I see that he must have run away on the 5th, the owner placed the ad on the 15th, and the newspaper came out on the 22nd. If I did not know about the older use of "instant," I would need to look it up in a dictionary with historical meanings], a very likely [this is an odd use of the word likely.I really don’t know what that means – maybe he’s likable or maybe likely to run away] Virginia born Negro fellow named ADAM, of a yellow complexion, about 25 years old, near 6 feet high, by trade a sawyer and cooper [this must be some sort of profession but I will need to research this]; he had on when he went away a white plains waistcoat and breeches [that reminds me of britches – maybe it means pants], knit yarn stockings, Virginia shoes, steel buckles, an oznabrigs shirt [what a strange shirt – I have no idea what type of cloth that might be, but I don’t think it’s a very nice fabric if slaves wore it] , and a felt hat. He carried with him a light coloured suit of cloth cloaths [I wonder why he would carry extra clothes if he was trying to make a quick getaway. Maybe they would be useful as a disguise or maybe to trade for food], and other things unknown, and some books; as he can read and write [I'm surprised he can read and write. I wonder how he learned] an indifferent [I know this word to mean “showing no feeling” but maybe it means his handwriting is passable but nothing special] hand, he purposed, when he went off, to forge himself a pass [I guess this means he had to have a pass to even be off his owner's property] to go to Carolina, to pass as a freeman. I will give FORTY SHILLINGS [Gosh, I have no idea how much this is worth – could it be 40 cents or $40? I have to investigate] reward, besides the allowance by law, to any person that delivers the said slave to me, or either of my overseers, in this county; and if taken in Carolina FIVE POUNDS [I don’t know anything about their money. I really need to research this]. JOHN FOX.

Ask students to give feedback on the thinkaloud.Have them articulate some of the strategies you used.Make a list of some of the things you need to research and some that you made reasonable guesses on. The archive has some helpful explanations for some topics such as 18th century currency.

Explain that students will pair up and read two ads together. The first student will read one ad and do their think aloud while the other listens and then they will switch roles on the second ad. When the student is the reader, he or she will generate a list of unfamiliar words and a guesses or comment beside each. After the duo has read its two ads, they will join another pair and share their lists to see how many words they have decoded as a group of four.

Ads for Pairs:

Once students have paired and shared in a four-some, ask the class to give some feedback on words they learned and how they decoded them. Then, generate a list of words or concepts as a class that are still unknown.


Have students use the database, a dictionary (on-line ones are available), their textbook, or outside resources to investigate one or two terms that were still unfamiliar. Write a brief one paragraph summary explaining their word or concept.


Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998)

T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, "Myne Own Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Gerlad Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University PRess, 1972).

Jo Anne L. Vacca and Richard T. Vacca, Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum, 6th edition (New York: Longman, 1999).

This module created by Brooke Graham of the University of Virginia.