Who got away? 18th Century Runaway Slaves

K-12 Objectives | Materials Needed | Procedures | Assessment | Standards

Discipline: U.S. History

Specific Lesson Topic: How successful were 18th century runaway slaves?

Methodology: Primary Sources

K-12 Objectives:



Teacher introduction: This lesson makes use of advertisements for slave runaways from the Virginia Runaway's Project. To prepare for this lesson, read the introduction to the Virginia Runaways Digital Project. It may also be helpful to read some of the background documents collected on runaways and the law. The purpose of this lesson is to help students understand the characteristics of 18th century slaves. In addition, the lesson will provide students an opportunity to consider some of the conditions and circumstances that might have accompanied the act of slaves running away. While we have no definitive information regarding the success or failure of the runaway efforts chronicled in the advertisements, students can use the information in the advertisements to make an educated guess. There are some advertisements concerning captured slaves. These can be cross-referenced to determine when slaves were successful in their runaway efforts.

Step 1 - Have students read the following five slave runaway advertisements for the purpose of determine whether the slaves escaped to their freedom.
    Student page for this lesson
Step 2 - Students should complete a chart (print landscape) as they read the runaway advertisement. Completing the chart will help students generalize about whether slaves were successful in their efforts at running away. Students should be reminded that the information in the runaway advertisements was written from the owner's point of view. It may be helpful to allow students to work in pairs. A printable version is available.


Step 3 - Have students present their findings. In their presentation students should indicate who they think would be most likely to succeed in runaway and why. Tally the results and determine who the class thinks would be most likely to succeed. Discuss the results of students' work. Use the notes below to prepare for the class discussion.

Step 4 - Give students an opportunity to go back into the archive and collect more information regarding the categories in the chart. Students can enter each of words an phrases in the chart on the search page of the Virginia Runaway's archive.


Teacher notes - When discussing this activity

Advertisement #1 - December 10, 1736. RAN away from my House, in York Town, the 14th of November last, a Negro Fellow, named Quash. He is middle siz'd, about 27 Years old, speaks very good English, has small Eyes, and has lost the great Toe of his right Foot: He had on, when he went away, an old Kersey Wastecoat, a very good Oznabrigg Shirt, white Cotton Breeches, Yarn Stockings, and a Pair of Shoes, with Bath Mettal Buckles. Whoever brings the said Negro to my House, shall have Ten Shillings Reward. William Nelson.

Quash speaks "very good English." This may help Quash in his efforts to escape. Although he has lost his big toe, there were no other indication that Quash was did not have the physical stamina to stay on the run. December may not be a very good time to hide outside, this could hurt Quash's chances for success. In his favor, Quash appeared to be well clothed.

Advertisement #2 - Williamsburg, December 17, 1736. RAN away from the Subscriber, on King's Creek, in York County, on Wednesday, the 8th of this Inst. at Night, Two Negro Men: One named Cuffee, is a well set Fellow, of a middle Stature, with a full Face, thick Lips, and a bold Countenance. The other named Essex, is a tall slender Fellow, and of a discontented Countenance. Each had on, when they went away, a white Cotton Wastecoat and Breeches, and Oznabrig Shirts. 'Tis supposed they went off in a Clinch-work Yawl, to row with Four Oars, her Stern painted red, with yellow Mouldings; and a small Anchor. Whoever brings the said Negroes to my House, shall have ample Satisfaction from me, Nathaniel-Bacon Burwell.

Cuffee and Essex were well dressed for the cold weather and appeared physically fit. The "Clinch-work Yawl" (a type of boat) should have been a major advantage. The fact that Cuffee and Essex were together may also have been an advantage.

Advertisement #3 - August 24, 1737. LAST Friday was Se'nnight, a Negroe Woman, belonging to Mr. Clayborn Gouge, at Clayborn's Ferry, in New Kent County, either ran away, or was convey 'd away by Water: She is of a low Stature, well set, Grey headed, a Virginian born, and speaks good English. Whoever will bring her to her said Master, shall have a Pistole Reward, besides what the Law allows: And any Person that will prove who convey 'd her away, shall have Five Pounds Reward, paid by Clayborn Gouge.

This "Negroe Women" may have been "convey 'd away" - or taken away - by water. If this was the case, then she must have received help. The woman's ability to speak good English would have also helped her. The time of year was generally conducive to travel.

Advertisement #4 - April 23, 1738. RAN away from the Subscriber in Lancaster County, the 17th Instant, a dark Mullatto Fellow, named Will: He is a lusty, well-set Fellow, aged about 42 years; he is pretty much Pock-fretten, and has a Lump on the hind Part of One of his Legs, near his Heel. He wore a Man's Cloth Jacket, a Pair of brown Cotton Breeches, and an Ozenbrig Shirt, he carried with him, a white Fustian Jacket, a lopping Ax, and a fiddle: He is a Carpenter, Sawyer, Shoemaker, and Cooper. Whoever will apprehend the said Slave, or give Intelligence so that he may be had again, shall be sufficiently rewarded, besides what the Law allows, paid by James Ball.

Will had tools and skills that could be used to help him survive on the run. He was also well dressed and the was on the run in the spring of the year. The "Lump on the hind Part of One of his Legs, near his Heel" may have slowed him down.

Advertisement #5 - RAN away the 15th of July last, from Crump's Neck, a Plantation belonging to the Hon. William Byrd, Esq; in the County of Hanover, a whitish Mulatto Man slave, called Dick: He is about 24 Years old, and of a middle Size, with the Letter R branded on his right Cheek, and a large Scar on the Calf of his right Leg. Whoever shall take up the said Mulatto, and bring him to the Subscriber at the Falls of James River, be he Free Man or Slave, shall have Three Pistoles Reward, Witness my Hand Nelson Anderson.

Dick was described in the advertisement as a "whitish Mulatto Man." This appearance may have helped Dick to pass himself as a white man, but the "Letter R branded on his right Cheek" could have been a major limitation. The time of year should not have been a limitation.


Have students write a short journal entry that describes a slave's plan to run away. This journal entry should include information about what a slave would need to be successful, such as: clothes, tools, skills, and language proficiency, or friends. In addition, the description should include an indication of the best time to run away and a general description of how a run away could travel from place to place. The description could take the form of a plan or an anecdote or could be more detached and general. Students' descriptions should be narrative and not a list.


National History Standards: Standards in Historical Thinking

2: Historical Comprehension
3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
4: Historical Research Capabilities
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction

Virginia Standards of Learning


National Council for the Social Studies

II. Time, Continuity, and Change
V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

This module created by John K. Lee of the University of Virginia.

Cheryl L. Mason and William G. Thomas

All Rights Reserved, 1999