What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“RUN away … some time in October 1762, a Mulatto woman named VIOLET.”
Violet made her escape almost four years earlier, but Philip Kearny was still actively pursuing her in June 1766.
This advertisement demonstrates the efforts enslaved men and women put into making their escapes as well as how vigorously their masters worked to return them to bondage. From hundreds of miles away, Kearny used this advertisement to tell quite a story about Violet. She was born, or so Kearny claimed, in “Princetown” (now Princeton), New Jersey, but in her mid twenties she ran away. She made it to “Frederick town” (now Frederick), Maryland, before being captured and “committed to the gaol.” She managed to escape, which didn’t seem to surprise Kearny, since he described her as “cunning and artful.” He suspected that she was in Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina, hence his advertisement in the Virginia Gazette.
Even before she ran away, Violet did not recognize Kearny as her master. According to the slaveholder, Violet “pretends to be a free woman,” but his narrative indicates that the story was more complex. She disputed that she was a “slave for life,” suggesting that perhaps she had engaged in some sort of indenture or other contract and then been forced into slavery. The details were murky (and Violet would have given a different account of events than the slaveholder), but Kearney reiterated that “she was born a slave.”
Advertisements for runaway slaves have sometimes been called the first slave narratives. Although Violet did not write this advertisement, it is possible to recognize her resistance and recover some of her story by reading against the narrative presented by Kearny.