What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … a short squat young Mulatto fellow.”
Amos Legg, an enslaved “young Mulatto fellow,” seemed determined to escape from bondage. In an advertisement alerting readers of the Virginia Gazette that Legg had made his escape, William Meredith also reported that “Sometime past he was taken up by Capt. Dawson of Norfolk, in Jamaica, and brought home.” Legg must have been a particularly recalcitrant slave, one who did not allow the setback of having been captured and returned to his master deter him from making a subsequent attempt to seize his own liberty in an age when Virginia’s gentry protested what they considered “enslavement” via infringements on their liberty by Parliament.
Like other genres of advertisements, those for runaways often followed a general formula and included stock language (just as they often included a stock image of an enslaved person). Advertisements for runaways frequently warned “masters of vessels” against giving passage to suspected runaways attempting to put as much distance between themselves and their masters as possible. That Legg had previously made it to Jamaica from Virginia indicates that masters had real cause to worry about such possibilities.
This advertisement tells a story of the resilience of one man who refused to accept his enslavement, but it also reveals the tenuous position of runaways. No matter how far away from their masters they managed to get, they were never completely free or safe. Their everyday experience included the possibility of capture and return, compounded by threats of punishment for the audacity of having made an escape at all. A sharp-eyed captain had taken up Amos Legg hundreds of miles from Virginia. How many other advertisements about runaway slaves resulted in men and women being returned to their masters after an all-too-brief respite from bondage?