Photo: State Archive of Florida


American newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries contained tens of thousands of notices placed by slaveholders attempting to capture the people who had escaped from them. In her dissertation in the field of English studies, Susanna Mäkinen examined the language and structuring of these notices. The study showed that, while the basic features of the notices remained relatively unchanged, there were some differences between various areas and changes in time.

Many of the word choices in the notices expectedly supported the institution of slavery and interests of the slaveholders.

The first newspapers in North America began publishing in the early 1700s. From the beginning, their advertising columns contained texts used by the advertisers to help recapture people who had escaped from their service: servants, apprentices and, most significantly, slaves. Notices concerning enslaved people were a typical sight in American newspapers until the end of the American Civil War. These notices were the topic of Susanna Mäkinen’s dissertation Stability and variation in the genre of runaway slave notices in American newspapers 1704-1865.

– The typical structure of the notices remained unchanged throughout the decades. The notice started with an announcement of the escape, followed by a description of the escaped person, and ended with the promise of a reward for anyone capturing them. The word choices also often occurred in identical form from one notice to the next, Mäkinen describes.

Some changes did take place as time went on. For instance, headlines announcing the reward sum became an expected part of the notice from the latter half of the 18th century onwards. There were also differences in some aspects of the notices depending on the area: for example, notices from Louisiana were more likely to use the word “slave” to refer to the runaway than notices from other areas did.

– In addition to informing the readers about the escape and promising a reward, the writers could use the notices to do a variety of other actions as well. For instance, warnings to the readers not to assist the runaway in any way were fairly common. Some also directed part of the message to the runaway, promising “forgiveness” if they returned voluntarily. The notice might also contain instructions to the editors of other papers to copy the text, Mäkinen states.

Since the notices were written by slaveholders, the language reflects their world view in many ways. Threats of legal actions against anyone helping the runway were a common feature in the notices, also serving as a reminder that the law sided with the slaveholder. People assisting the runaways were also labeled as “malicious” or “evil-disposed” in some notices.

The study revealed that while there was a typical model for the runaway notices, the writers might deviate from it considerably when it suited their needs. Some condensed their notice into one sentence, while others wrote texts that were many hundred words long. Only a small portion of the writers attempted to capture the readers’ attention by using emotional appeals. Most did not waste words attempting to convince the readers to capture the runaway, and instead the simple mention of the escape and promise of a reward seemed to suffice.

– Men, women and children pursuing their freedom were a continuous issue for the slaveholders, so few of them used particularly unique phrasings in their notices. The rather formulaic nature of these texts is evidence of their mundane nature to the people writing them. For present-day readers, however, these texts provide a valuable window to the lives of people escaping from slavery, Mäkinen notes.

MA Susanna Mäkinen defends her dissertation in English studies entitled “Stability and variation in the genre of runaway slave notices in American newspapers 1704-1865” in the University of Turku on Friday May 20, 2022 at 12 o’clock. The opponent is Professor Terry Walker (Mittuniversitetet, Sweden) and the custos is Professor Matti Peikola (University of Turku).

Susanna Mäkinen

Source: University of Turku

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Based on an interview by Alisa Nirman on 3.10.2016