“Very impudent when drunk or sober.” Delaware Runaways, 1720-1783


Author: Boyle, Joseph Lee
Publication Date: 2014
Pages: xii 404 pp.
ISBN: 9780806356945


It is estimated that 350,000 to 500,000 indentured servants were imported to the American colonies through 1775. The Chesapeake region, which includes Delaware, received the highest number of servants, followed by Pennsylvania. Although by the start of the 18th century the importation of black slaves increased dramatically in the Chesapeake and southern colonies, white bound labor–both voluntary indentures and convict laborers–remained significant until the American Revolution. On the other hand, in the decade before the American Revolution, an estimated 20-25 percent of the Delaware Colony’s population was enslaved. The 1790 U.S. census demonstrates that 70 percent of the state’s black population were slaves, and slaves were 15 percent of the state’s total population of 59,096 people.

Of course, if indentured servitude and slavery were to be significant sources of reliable labor, runaways could not be permitted to go free with impunity. This book, accordingly, identifies indentured servants and African-American slaves who fled their Delaware masters and whose apprehension was elicited in colonial/Revolutionary newspapers’ ads. These ads included descriptions of runaways and criminals living in Delaware, as well as those born or having contacts there. The ads contained references to the runaway’s age, sex, height, place of origin, clothing, occupation, speech, and physical imperfections. In addition, the ads often featured attitudes of the owners and personality traits of the runaway.

In compiling this work, Mr. Boyle consulted twenty-one colonial newspapers from Boston to Maryland, It should be emphasized that Delaware had no newspapers for the entire time period covered in Mr. Boyle’s compilation, and neighboring New Jersey lacked them until 1777. While Maryland had two newspapers for much of the period, many of the issues did not survive. Hence, the compiler relied heavily upon the Pennsylvania Journal (or Weekly Advertiser) and the Pennsylvania Gazette, particularly for the early years under investigation.

In all, “Very impudent when drunk or sober” refers to 2,500 runaways and their masters. It also includes an informative introduction concerning the status of indentured servitude and slavery in Delaware, as well as a detailed bibliography of the sources Mr. Boyle consulted and suggestions for further reading.

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