What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“She was with child when she went away.”
Every advertisement about a runaway slave tells a story of resistance and the struggle to claim the same liberty enjoyed by the slaveholder who placed the advertisement. Yet these advertisements contain much more. They often reveal family histories or suggest bonds of affection among enslaved men, women, and children. As much as slaveholders may have wished to pretend otherwise, such stories embedded in advertisements intended to reclaim their property testified to the humanity of men, women, and children held in bondage.
Consider Sampson and Miley. The two ran away from the same plantation at the same time, quite likely departing together. Alexander Kerr described both of them in an advertisement. Sampson, approximately thirty, was missing two of his front teeth. Miley, a “slender made wench,” may have been even more recognizable by her “yellow complexion” and the “country marks on her face.” In addition, she was “with child” when she ran away. Her pregnancy would only become more apparent until she delivered the baby. After that, caring for an infant would continue to distinguish her from other black women.
What was Sampson and Miley’s relationship? He may have been the father of Miley’s child. Perhaps they made a decision that as parents they needed to escape together rather than allowing their child to be born into bondage. Perhaps Sampson and Miley had been in a relationship that their master refused to recognize. Miley’s child may have been the result of sexual assault by their master or an overseer, in which case Sampson could have aided her escape as a means of providing more protection for both mother and child than he previously had been capable of providing for Miley. Perhaps Sampson and Miley were friends, siblings, or otherwise related. They may have determined that they had better chances to make good on their escape if they assisted each other.
Despite all the details included in the descriptions of Sampson and Miley, Alexander Kerr did not specify their relationship to each other. It simply may not have mattered to him. After all, the stakes were much different for him than for the fugitives. Kerr demanded the return of his property, but the pregnant Miley and her companion sought freedom for themselves and a child on its way. Unwillingly, Kerr’s advertisement for runaway slaves revealed bonds of affection that would extend to another generation upon the birth of Miley’s child. Unintentionally, he gave voice in print to the sincerest desires of slaves that he otherwise attempted to keep silent.