Genius of Liberty Runaway Slave Advertisements:
Research Tool for Loudoun County, Virginia and Beyond
By Bronwen C. Souders
Secretary, Black History Committee, Friends of Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg Virginia
Member, Education Committee, Waterford Foundation, Waterford, Virginia
The material in this introduction represents a portion of a paper given at a symposium at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, in April 2005. The gathering, in conjunction with Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center, was part of a national discussion on using primary resources to conduct research on the Underground Railroad. The author hopes that researchers in other counties and states will find name and place links that will enable a broader picture to be formed of the flights to freedom by these brave individuals.
The following advertisements are taken from a rare complete collection of the Genius of Liberty newspaper, a four-page weekly published in Leesburg, Loudoun County, Virginia from 1817-1843.
Loudoun County was formed in 1757 from Fairfax County. That county had been formed in 1742 from Prince William County, which in turned had been formed in 1730 from Stafford County. But Loudoun’s free and enslaved populations predated even those early years. White settlement of the upper Piedmont of Virginia began in 1722, with the signing of the Treaty of Albany, which restricted native American access to the Northern Neck of Virginia. African slaves were an early, if sparse, presence, with absentee landlords in the early to mid 18 th century. By 1820, the approximate period of these advertisements, the enslaved population of Loudoun County had swelled to about 5000, the free black population was several hundred and the white population was about 15,000. This proportion of one-fourth African American to three-fourths Caucasian would hold true for early to mid-19 th century enslaved Loudoun.
For these county numbers to have remained this stable with natural increase, it must have meant that there was a matching loss of population: we know many in the white population moved west to settle the new frontier and the slave population somehow left as well. The following limited sample, taken from one newspaper’s advertisements, shows that a number of them escaped north.
Overview of collection:
There are more than 200 advertisements, spanning 26 years. Of those, approximately 50 or one quarter, represent individuals jailed in Leesburg.
The remaining 150+ advertisements were placed by the owner or renter and gave varying amounts of information—personal and general. Many ads request that they be reproduced in one or more of 31 regional newspapers—some undoubtedly successors of earlier ones—published in the following towns or cities:
Fredericktown, Hagerstown, Cumberland, and Baltimore
Warrenton, Winchester, Alexandria and Charlestown (now West Virginia)
Bedford , Carlisle and Chambersburg
And “ Washington City,” as it was written.
The demographics of the ads:
- 157 (or about ¾ of the total) individuals sought freedom by themselves.
- there were 15 groups of two—friends, siblings, or parent-child, judging from names and ages;
- there were three groups of three;
- there was one group of four (which include a 4 year-old child, one woman and two young men) ;
- there was one group of 24 persons. Within this group, the oldest of the ages given was “c. 60”—there were 2; the two youngest were “infants”.
Of the 217 total, one third (73) had a first and last name; 144 had just a first name.
Genius of Liberty, published Leesburg, Virginia, various issues, 1817-1843,: private collection.
Phillips, John T. II. The Historian’s Guide to Loudoun County, Virginia, Volume I, Colonial Laws of Virginia and County Court Orders, 1757-1766. Leesburg, Virginia, Goose Creek Productions, 1996.
Poland , Charles, P. Jr. From Frontier to Suburbia. Marceline, Missouri, Walsworth Publishing Company, 1976.
Stephenson, Brenda E. Life in Black and White, Family and Community in the Slave South. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.