“Famous for inventing Lies”: Pennsylvania Runaways, 1784-1790


Author: Boyle, Joseph Lee
Pages: viii, 456 pp.
ISBN: 9780806359670


For many years, Mr. Boyle has assembled the names of servants whose runaway status was advertised in colonial and Revolutionary-era American newspapers. Mr. Boyle has produced multiple volumes of runaway collections for Pennsylvania, as well as Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and New England. The Pennsylvania book at hand marks the first collection of runaways based on newspaper ads placed following the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that concluded the American Revolution.

The runaway ads abstracted for this new volume are more diverse than have appeared in previous ones. For instance, multiple ads for slave and Native American runaways appear, and they are identified by race and surname (when available). The Pennsylvania Slave Act, passed on March 19, 1780, which was the first extensive abolition legislation in the western hemisphere, likely encouraged some African Americans to seek their freedom in Pennsylvania. The act stopped the importation of slaves into the state, required all slaves to be registered, and established that all children born in the state were free, regardless of race or parentage. Many of the newspaper ads provide distinctive physical features of the escapees, such as “a slow hobbling gait” or “his feet remarkably deformed,” or “both his arms are marked with the letters W. H.” As he has with previous books, Mr. Boyle has included ads placed by men whose spouses “eloped” from them for one reason or another.

Mr. Boyle’s transcriptions of the runaway ads, taken from twenty-eight different newspapers (including papers from Rhode Island to Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania), provide valuable demographic information, giving name, age, sex, height, place of origin, clothing, occupation, speech, physical imperfections, and sometimes personal vignettes. Individuals whose very existence would have been hidden from us in late 18th-century newspapers.

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