January 22, 2022

Digital Collection: “Runaway Slave Ads Portray Grim Period of U.S. History”

From Cornell University Library:

Runaway slave advertisements – a common sight in North American newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries – are frankly disturbing. They describe people as property, listing their physical attributes and family connections in chilling terms.

Yet the roughly 100,000 runaway slave advertisements also contain a wealth of information. They offer clues about the heartbreaking personal stories of those who were enslaved and sought their freedom. Taken together, they illuminate the sweep and scope of slavery and its tremendous human cost.

A unique interactive project in development at Cornell seeks to tell that entire story. The project, “Freedom on the Move” (FOTM), aims to compile all North American runaway slave advertisements, never before systematically collected, into a collaborative database of information.

The project will include new tools allowing partner institutions to add their own archives, opening up unprecedented ways to engage a large online community and to study this traumatic but critical period in U.S. history.


A joint venture launched by Baptist, Cornell University Library and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER), FOTM will integrate existing runaway slave advertisement projects, and allow archivists and researchers nationwide to add advertisements and search terms. Some of the data collection will be crowdsourced, creating a community of collaborators and producing a living educational tool for instructors at all levels, in multiple disciplines.

The ads include detailed information about slaves’ appearance, mannerisms, styles of dress, states of origin and destinations, and once completed, FOTM will offer this data for statistical, geographical, textual and other analysis. It will also provide insight into the powerful human stories of each individual’s experience of American slavery, illustrating both large-scale statistical trends and personal histories.

FOTM began with Baptist’s research for his 2014 book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” on the expansion of slavery in the U.S. from the Constitution to the Civil War.

Professor Mary N. Mitchell of the University of New Orleans and professor Joshua Rothman of the University of Alabama are key collaborators in the FOTM project, which has been supported jointly by the Cornell Department of History, CISER and Cornell University Library. The current phase is funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.

Direct to “Freedom on the Move” Digital Collection (via Cornell University)

See Also: Building Freedom On The Move (Slide Presentation)
Meeting Presentation from 2013.

See Also: Post About Project by Joshua Rothman (via The Conversation)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.