Making Their Way To Freedom: Runaway Slave Advertisements From Louisville Newspapers, 1788 - 1860
by Pen Bogert
Louisville As A Stopping Point and Destination for Escaping Slaves
The strategic location of Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio resulted in both its preeminence as a river port and as a terminus for overland trade routes from Tennessee and Alabama. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and particularly after the advent of steamboat transportation in 1811, trade between Louisville and Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans grew rapidly. The growth of sugar plantations in Louisiana and the rapid influx of European settlers into the Mississippi Territory, and the development of cotton plantations there, created a huge demand for slave labor. Individual slave owners and slave traders in Kentucky began selling enslaved African Americans in these areas as early as the 1790's. What began as a sporadic slave trade developed into a flourishing and professional business as early as 1820. Many enslaved persons, separated from their families and sold into Mississippi and Louisiana, attempted to escape back to Louisville and other areas of Kentucky. The burgeoning trade on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers created opportunities for escape as slaves secreted themselves on steamboats or, posing as free persons, found work as firemen and deckhands. Mississippi slave owners were placing advertisements for escaped slaves in Louisville newspapers as early as 1806.
J. Pannill, living near Natchez, was the first Mississippi slaveowner to place a runaway slave advertisement in a Louisville newspaper. On 23 July 1806 he placed an advertisement in the Western American (Louisville) for the capture of a 19 year-old man named Sam, who had been taken to Natchez by G. R. C. Floyd of Jefferson Co., Ky. and sold. There were advertisements for 91 escaped slaves from Mississippi between 1806-1860.
It took about 7-10 days for steamboats to reach Louisville from New Orleans, and steamboats continuing on to Cincinnati would lay over in Louisville for a few days. Steamboats were also a frequent means of escape from Northern Alabama and Tennessee via the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. This study documents 176 persons who escaped on steamboats which were scheduled to stop in Louisville.
Hundreds of enslaved African Americans also escaped overland from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The Natchez Trace was a frequent route as early as 1807 and there were other early routes to Nashville from northern Alabama. The early roads from Nashville north through Russellville, Bowling Green and Glasgow to Elizabethtown, Bardstown and Louisville became major escape routes. One of the earliest Tennessee slaveowners to place a runaway slave advertisement was Andrew Jackson. In 1802 he advertised in the Western Spy (Cincinnati) for the capture of George Melvin, who Jackson stated "will make for the North Western territory, or Detroit" and who "has obtained by some means a good idea of the Geography of that country." George Melvin was captured but escaped again in 1804. This time Jackson placed an ad in the Farmer's Library (Louisville), stating that Melvin had last been seen in Hartford, Kentucky. In 1804 an escaped slave from Sumter County, Tennessee, named Jack Sweetman was seen crossing the Rolling Fork "on the road that leads to Bairdstown." His destination (or so the slave owner thought) was the Indiana Territory or Ohio.1
The road Sweetman took was probably the road that went from Gallatin (Sumter County), Tennessee, through Franklin and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and then across the Rolling Fork in Hardin County to Bardstown. From there he could have continued on through Shepherdsville to Louisville. Numerous other advertisements mention these and other early escape routes. Louisville was also a destination and waystation for 823 slaves who escaped from other areas of Kentucky, particularly Barren, Bullitt, Fayette, Green, Hardin, Meade, Mercer, Nelson, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer, and Washington counties. All of these counties were connected by roads to Louisville. Finally, Louisville and the rest of Jefferson County was itself the point of origin for 1,021 escaped slaves between 1788-1860.
The Western Frontier, 1770 - c. 1810
Much of the literature on the Underground Railroad in Kentucky tends to focus on the period after 1840, and in doing so creates the impression of an environment that changed little over time. In fact, there were major changes in the opportunities and challenges which escaping slaves had to face if they were to be successful in their escape attempts.
During the frontier period there was no Underground Railroad; Ohio and Indiana did not even exist as states and Canada was not yet a safe haven for escaped slaves. Escaping slaves had three choices: they could write or obtain a forged pass, change their names and clothing and attempt to pass as free persons in one of the expanding settlements in Kentucky; they could cross over to the "Indian" side of the Ohio River and either try to make contact with one of the Indian nations or else attempt to reach Vincennes, Detroit and (later) Cincinnati and Chillicothe; or they could attempt a long and extremely dangerous overland trek or river voyage back through the wilderness to Maryland or Virginia.
The first alternative was chosen by many. There are numerous advertisements in the Kentucky Gazette in the 1790's where escaped slaves were suspected of passing themselves off as free persons. Typical of these advertisements was one placed in 1793 by William Farrow of Lexington for the capture of George, who was suspected of "lurking in the county of Logan or Green, or gone to Cumberland [Tennessee]." In 1795 Rawleigh Chinn of Lexington advertised for an escaped woman named Nan, whom, he supposed, was still in Lexington or "if she is not I expect she will try to pass for a free woman."2
The earliest surviving runaway slave advertisement in a Kentucky newspaper was placed by Louisville merchant and landowner John Campbell on 15 March 1788 for the capture of a man named Isaac. Four months later B. Wilson advertised for the capture of two carpenters named Jim and Lewis. Wilson stated that "as they were lately moved from Cumberland county in Virginia, they may endeavour to pass through the wilderness to the place of their nativity. "3 In 1790 Daniel Boone captured an escaped slave from Virginia at the mouth of the Kanawha River4 and in 1793 Thomas Carneal of Lexington placed an advertisement for the capture of John Grey who, he surmised, "will try to pass for a freeman, and will either make for the mouth of Licking [River] or the Eastern settlements [Virginia]: he was raised in Caroline county Virginia. "5
There were many similar advertisements placed in the Kentucky Gazette and several escaped slaves succeeded in reaching the "Eastern settlements."6 In 1785 Peter Brown advertised in a Baltimore newspaper for the capture of a 19-year old escaped slave named Tom, stating that he "ran away from Kentucky, sometime in September last, and was seen on his way to Virginia, this side the wilderness."7 It is clear that the changing nature of the frontier posed great challenges and hardships for anyone trying to escape from slavery. Choices of destinations were extremely limited until around 1795. After that period increasingly successful attempts were made to reach first Ohio, then Detroit and finally Indiana (around 1804). By 1815 the rapid settlement of Ohio and Indiana, the further expansion of European settlement into the Illinois country, the growth of cities in Kentucky and the rapid increase in trade on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers created many more avenues of escape.
Pen Bogert is a reference specialist at the Filson Club Historical Society.
1For George Melvin, see Western Spy (Cincinnati), 19 June 1802,
Tennessee Gazette (Nashville), 24 October 1804 and Farmer's Library
(Louisville) 26 October 1805. For Jack Sweetman see Farmer's Library, 15 February 1804.