July 4

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Journal (July 4, 1771).

“RUN-AWAY … a Mulatto Woman Slave, named VIOLET.”

On July 4, 1771, Philip Kearney told the story of Violet, an enslaved woman who liberated herself, though he certainly did not do so in celebration of her fortitude and courage.  In an advertisement that ran in both the Pennsylvania Gazetteand the Pennsylvania Journal, Kearney provided a brief account of what he knew about Violet’s whereabouts for the past decade.  Violet first liberated herself in October 1762.  In 1764, she was spotted “in company with one James Lock, somewhere on the Susquehanna.”  That led to her capture and imprisonment at the jail in Fredericks-Town (now Frederick), Maryland, “on suspicion of having runaway.”  Violet escaped and for seven years managed to elude detection by those who sought to return her to bondage.  In the spring of 1771, however, she “was discovered about fifteen miles from Ball-Fryer’s ferry” in Maryland.

According to Kearney, Violet now had three children.  He wished to enslave the entire family, including children who had only known freedom in the wake of their mother liberating herself.  According to the law, children followed the condition of the mother, and the law still considered Violet a slave.  When Kearney purchased Violet from the executors of Edward Bonnel’s estate, he also acquired any of her children born after the transaction.  Kearney offered ten pounds as a reward for the capture and return of Violet and fifteen pounds for Violet and her children.  Kearney was determined to re-enslave Violet, but she was equally determined to preserve her liberty and protect her children.  Kearney warned that anyone “who may take her up must secure her strictly, or she will certainly escape again, being remarkably artful.”  That artfulness already resulted in nearly a decade of freedom.  With three children, Violet now had even more reason to outwit anyone who attempted to capture her.  Kearney’s advertisement had the potential to bring Violet’s liberty to an end, but it may have also alerted her, her friends, or sympathetic members of her community that she and her children faced new danger.

As the American colonies experienced an imperial crisis that ultimately culminated in a war for independence, Violet seized freedom for herself, repeatedly.  In 1771, colonists did not know the significance that July 4 would gain five years later, but they did discuss liberty and lament their figurative enslavement to Parliament.  Violet, in contrast, experienced literal enslavement before liberating herself.  More than a decade prior to the first shots at Lexington and Concord, she waged her own fight for freedom, an ongoing battle that she might lose at any moment despite the many victories she won.  While certainly not Kearney’s intention, his advertisement told a story of hope and resistance … but it was an unfinished story because the enslaver most certainly aimed to enslave a family who experienced freedom as a result of a woman’s steadfast determination.

On Independence Day, the Adverts 250 Project commemorates the complicated history of the founding of the nation, the grand ideals and the unfulfilled promises, by recounting the experiences of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the era of the American Revolution.  Newspaper advertisements that offered rewards for their capture and return told incomplete stories of freedom, for each a tenuous liberation that brave men and women sought to make permanent but without any guarantee.  Violet and so many others waged their own battled for liberty, as countless advertisements from the early eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century demonstrate.

For other stories of enslaved people liberating themselves originally published on July 4 during the era of the American Revolution, see: