This past weekend I was at Colonial Williamsburg for a conference that highlighted five different woodworkers, two of them enslaved: John Hemings, head joiner at Monticello and Poplar Forest, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, and Cesar Chelor, the first recognized Black plane maker, enslaved by Francis Nicholson. During the course of the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to many who worked at Colonial Williamsburg, and I was impressed with their honesty on the question of enslavement in America. I fully anticipated hearing excuses or glossing over, possibly listening to a brief mention of the enslaved people in Williamsburg. To my surprise, it was not a side piece of the conference, but a major portion, taking up at minimum 40% of the total conversation.
This was clear in one instance from Garland Wood, Master Carpenter at Colonial Williamsburg. He mentioned to me that most of the sawing logs for lumber would have been performed by enslaved people, and he encouraged me to look up the MESDA Craftsman Database as well as the Runaway Ads Database for Virginia specifically. I did just that, and what I found was nothing short of amazing.
You can search on the runaway ad database for specific skills that the advertisements would have highlighted. These include skills from speaking multiple languages to having musical talents and various different abilities in numerous trades. To see what Mr. Wood was saying about the sawyers, I decided to only put in the skill category “carpenter, sawyer” and no other qualifiers to see what came up. Here is what I saw:
239 records total.
Let that sink in for one moment. Seriously. Stop reading and just sit with that.
Okay, now that you’re back, let’s continue. This search lists the first ad on February 24, 1738 and the last ad December 8, 1803. A period of 65 years, only 65 years, has 239 records of runaway ads for only those who are carpenters and sawyers. That does not include any joiners, wheelwrights, coopers, or cabinetmakers. This does not include the 119 years of enslavement in Virginia prior to 1738, nor does it include the 62 years after 1803 that enslavement in Virginia continued. This does not include the enslaved people who stayed on the plantations. This does not include any of the other states that allowed enslavement of humans. This list of 239 records is only, only, for a 65 year period in Virginia and only, only, a list that highlights carpenters and sawyers who tried to escape.
I’ll give you another chance to let that all sink in.
239 records total.
Notice also the misnomer. Those 239 records are not a total. They may be what the researchers have been able to upload up to this point, or even just what has been discovered, but those are not the total records of all of the runaway carpenters and sawyers in Virginia. I can’t say how many more there are, but from the records I have already uncovered and the statistical probability given the amount of years under consideration, it seems about a certainty that there are more people, more stories, to uncover.
These include stories like Toney’s, who ran away on June 15, 1801. The ad, dated June 25, 1801, says the following:
Norfolk Herald (Willett and O’Connor),
Norfolk, June 25, 1801.
Ten Dollars Reward. Ran-away from the subscriber about 10 days ago, a French Negro, a carpenter by trade, named TONEY, about five feet five inches high, speaks English indifferently, and has an impediment in his speech occasioned by a mark on his tongue, is about 40 years old, complexion not very black, had on whe he went away a brown bath coating great coat, white waistcoat and pantaloons, carried with him his tools. The above reward will be given to whomever shall secure the said fellow in Norfolk goal. PETIT. June 23.
Of course, oftentimes these stories leave us with more questions than answers. Does “French” indicate his primary language and that is why he “speaks English indifferently,” or could it indicate a Creole heritage and he was sold to someone in Virginia despite originating in Louisiana? What tools did he take with him? Did he use them to pass as a free Black person who could labor for wages?
We could also consider the story of Charles, with one ad quoted below:
Virginia Gazette (Rind),
Williamsburg, October 27, 1768.
Charles City, Sept. 23, 1768. RUN away from the subscriber, the 11th inst. a Negro fellow named Charles, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, of a yellow complexion, speaks slow and soft, and is about twenty-seven years of age, an artful cunning fellow; had with him when he went away sundry cloaths, but of what sort more than common I cannot remember, only a bearskin great coat, and a large pair of silver shoe buckles. He is a sawyer and shoemaker by trade, and carried with him his shoemaker’s tools. The said fellow reads tolerable well, and is a great preacher, from which I imagine he will endeavour to pass for a freeman. He is outlawed, and I hereby offer a reward of fifteen pounds for his head, severed from his body, or ten pounds if brought alive. He ran away on the 16th of February 1765, and was absent near two years. CHARLES FLOYD.
This is quite a different ad from many that I have found, particularly because the subscriber, Charles Floyd, offered more money for someone to kill Charles than to bring him back alive. I discovered also that this is the second of four ads regarding Charles. The first is from May 2, 1766, the third from February 16, 1769, and the fourth is from April 25, 1771. As you see from the other advertisements, the description remains remarkably similar, including, interestingly, the age. Although the first ad appears to have led to Charles’ capture, given that the second is dated after the “near two years” he was gone the first time, the age even on the 1771 ad still says Charles is about twenty-seven years old. What did Charles allegedly do to cause Floyd to want him beheaded? Was that so bad as to outweigh his abilities as a sawyer and a shoemaker? Why do the third and fourth ads have Sarah Floyd as the subscriber instead of Charles Floyd? Could she be someone who inherited Charles, so to speak, in a will?
There are so many questions we could ask just about these two advertisements, and they do not even scratch the surface of those 239 records, much less the whole of enslavement in America. We must continue to prod, though. This information is not self-explanatory, and these stories will not tell themselves. By digging into something as seemingly simple as runaway ads, we uncover a new world of the dimensions of enslavement, from seeing how desperately people fought for their freedom to challenging our notions of the enslaved people themselves.
239 records. One thing is for sure, though. They are not a total.