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Friday, November 04, 2005

Runaway Slave Records Presented To Balch

Nov 03, 2005 -- For years, Bronwen Souders has been passionately intrigued by the history of Waterford, the 1733 village near where she and her husband, John Souders, live. Together, they have written several books on the history of the town’s Quaker settlers and its Civil War-era inhabitants. A dual path for Bronwen Souders has been exploring the history of the town’s black population, which, on the eve of the Civil War, was among the most populous free black settlements in the commonwealth. Recently, the Souders presented the Thomas Balch Library for Genealogy and History in Leesburg a valuable gift: a bound collection of all the records of runaway slaves found in the pages of the 19th century publication, The Genius of Liberty, published by S.B.T. Caldwell for the years 1817 to 1843. The Souders presented the results of their research to the library on behalf of the Black History Committee of The Friends of the Thomas Balch Library. An anonymous donor funded the research. This week, Bronwen Souders said the value of the gift reflects, in part, the fact that the published set of advertisements is apparently one of only a few complete collections in the country. During a two-year period, the researchers located the almost 200 advertisements placed in the newspaper by irate slave owners or jailers, scanning each individually, indexing them by date and compiling them into one document. The collection also contains a summary of information on each individual, including where the slave originated, the date of the advertisement, where and when jailed and notes on the owners. The Souders became involved in the project when they were taking notes from issues of The Genius of Liberty, to find information on Waterford they couldn’t find elsewhere. They were given access to the bound books of the publication by a private owner. The Balch Library, the county’s most comprehensive repository of genealogical and historical records, only has about the first six years or so of that publication, according to Bronwen Souders. They used a portable scanner to copy particularly interesting articles and advertisements. Then Bronwen came upon the slave advertisements. First, she started to copy just the Waterford-area runaways, but soon realized she had to do it for the entire county because of the significance of the information for slave descendants and researchers alike. “The records indicate there was an underground railroad funneling from the south through Loudoun,” Souders said. Of the almost 200 slaves recorded, more than a quarter were recaptured. Some went south to join up with other family members. Souders also has access to a privately owned jailer's notebook of the period, which has given her a great deal of information about slaves who ran away, but who presumably were not considered valuable enough by their owners to go to the expense of placing an advertisement. For example, Souders noted there were 5,000 slaves in Loudoun and, over the 25-year period researched, only 200 ads were placed. The sheriff received a 10 cents-per-mile remuneration for capturing a runaway, and rewards in differing amounts, anywhere from $20 to $50 or more, were offered. The out-of-state reward was much higher than for those recaptured in Virginia—$10 in county, $20 in state and more if taken out of state. One advertisement offered $150 for three runaways. The ads included the names of a fair number of women and children. One notice, “A Crop of Runaways,” related to the entire slave population of a Mr. Marshall, ranging in age from infant to 60. Marshall offered a reward of $400. The entire group of 24 slaves was recaptured. The idea of humans chasing down another human being and individuals being considered as “commodities” are chilling reminders of the period, although the ads are fascinating from a historical point of view. Ozburn Rustin, who was cited in a May 30, 1829, advertisement, escaped from Washington, DC. He was described as a servant boy who escaped on May 24, being “About 17 years old, a dark mulatto, tall and slender, a little knock-kneed with a fullness in the middle of the upper lip. I think some of his upper teeth have been separated with a file and some of his back teeth plugged with gold.” A childhood scald on his hand was also noted as were his long arms and “swinging, awkward walk.” Given that excruciating detail of description, it’s a wonder he managed to escape. The ad for William Lee, published Aug. 31, 1819, goes into a lengthy description of him, where he had been before—in at least three counties—and the names of several Loudoun owners for whom Lee had worked. Ironically, they included George D. Smith, who owned the Souders’ present farm. The ad also gave a likely escape route that Lee would use. Information as to where the runaways might be headed was also provided in some ads. In September 1822, brothers “Len and George” were described as having probably procured free papers and to be heading for Philadelphia or Pennsylvania to trade with Quakers and to be using “their plain language and dress.” “They were very specific,” Souders said, adding descriptions also included the clothes the slaves were wearing or had taken with them and their profession. “Knowing the type of work they were in, that’s where they would look,” she said. Slaves working on neighboring plantations, such as present-day Rockland, Raspberry Plain and Selma on Rt. 15 north of Leesburg, had the advantage of being able to plan their escapes together. All three estates were near the Potomac River, which in September 1822 would have had low enough water at certain spots to permit crossing into Maryland and passage into Pennsylvania. Souders said the records show the slaves had “dreadful injuries,” noting burns, scars, scabs, even pieces of missing anatomy. Souders said she and her husband were moved by the “persistence and courage” of the slaves. Recapture could mean instant death, being severely punished or sold south. “But they kept running away,” she said. Three quarters of the slaves mentioned were from Loudoun, although a sizable amount were born in Louisiana. Wrenching as some of the material is, it gives a modern-day researcher an “eyewitness account of the living conditions of many of these men, women and children, and thus a belated opportunity to honor their courage in seeking freedom many years later,” Souders said. Once escaped, slaves might be connected with family members who had already escaped. Some, after the end of the Civil War, resettled in their old locations. A future step in the research, according to Souders, will be to research what happened to Loudoun slaves in their new lives and to link their histories with those of family members who stayed behind. Thomas Balch Librarian Alexandra Gressett said she was delighted with the gift. “It documents a period of time in African-American history that’s hard [to document] in terms of people’s family,” she said. The committee was excited to be able to do the project because it gives a point of reference and automatic access for comparative research. “It’s a tremendous research tool,” Gressett said. For more information on the collection, go to and link to black history, then to runaway slave history.


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