Runaway indentured servants

Runaway Indentured Servants in the Chesapeake Bay Region

Was your relative one of many runaway indentured servants in the Chesapeake Region? If so, you may have discovered that finding them, or their true identity, can be quite a challenge. This potentially colorful leaf on your family tree is absolutely worth exploring – maybe they came to the New World poor and working for a better life, or maybe as a hardened criminal seeking freedom.

The demand for labor in the colonial period was such that by 1775 an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 indentured persons had been transported to America. The majority of these individuals were indigent, eager for a better life in the New World, and willing to work off the cost of their passage by reimbursing ships’ captains or others by the sweat of their brow. Other servants, especially after England’s Transportation Act of 1718 opened the floodgates for exiled criminals, were in America to work off their prison sentences. This combined labor pool was vital to the economic life of the Middle Colonies, including Pennsylvania, which received a significant population of German servants, also known as redemptioners.

Owing to the vicissitudes of 18th-century life, not all servants served out their full term of, typically, seven or fourteen years. Some “owners” were cruel. Working conditions could be demanding, especially in summer months, for Europeans unaccustomed to the hot, humid climate of the Chesapeake region. The countryside was also wide open, which made flight seem like a plausible option. And, of course, some of the servants were hardened criminals, to whom a labor contract would have seemed like a trifling affair.

Whatever the motivation, runaway servants were not an uncommon phenomenon in the 18th century. One source estimates that between 20-25% of indentured servants fled their masters. From the genealogist’s standpoint, this presents a methodological problem, since it was in the runaway’s best interest to conceal his/her identity after making a successful getaway. In other words, even if the runaway kept the same name, it is quite likely that the link to his original residence in America and to his country of origin would be lost. Lost, that is, unless one can uncover his/her identity in the thousands of runaway ads placed in colonial newspapers by disgruntled “owners.” And this is precisely where the research and publications of Joseph Lee Boyle come in.

Since 2009 Mr. Boyle has compiled four volumes of runaway servant ads for the Chesapeake region. In the process he has combed scores of 18th-century newspapers for references to missing servants. Following three collections of runaway servant ads pertaining to Maryland runaways from 1720 through 1774 (“Given to drinking and whoring”: White Maryland Runaways, 1720-1762, “When Drunk is Very Bold.” White Maryland Runaways, 1763-1769and the award-winning “Drinks hard, and swears much” White Maryland Runaways, 1770-1774), Mr. Boyle’s latest book contains more than a thousand runaway advertisements for the colony of Delaware. “Very impudent when drunk or sober.” Delaware Runaways, 1720-1783 includes descriptions of runaways and criminals living in Delaware, as well as those born or having contacts there. The ads contained references to the runaway’s age, sex, height, place of origin, clothing, occupation, speech, and physical imperfections. In compiling this work, Mr. Boyle consulted twenty-one colonial newspapers from Boston to Maryland, relying on Pennsylvania papers most heavily. In all, this book refers to 2,500 runaways and their masters.

Following are examples of the author’s Delaware runaway transcriptions for the year 1762:


RUN away, the 16th of this Instant, from the Subscriber, living in Dover, Kent County, on Delaware, a Mulattoe Servant Man, named Francis Miller, about 34 Years of Age, about 5 Feet 11 Inches high, slim built, walks loose in his Knees, pretty much pock-broken, and a large Beard: Had on when he went away, A blue Kersey Jacket, lined with ozenbrigs, old Check Shirt, old breeches, good Shoes, milled Stockings, and, it is believed, he stole, and took with him, two Great Coats, one old blue Cloth, the other light coloured. It is supposed he is gone up the Country to one Joseph Cookson’s, living in Lancaster County, near the Head of Pequea. Whoever takes up said Servant, and brings him Home to his Master, shall have the above Reward, and reasonable Charges; or if secured in any goal, so that he may be had again, shall have what the Law allows, paid by THOMAS PARKE.

N .B. All Persons are forbid harbouring or concealing him, as they will answer the fate at their Peril.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 28, 1762.

January 28. RUN-away from the Subscriber, living in Brandywine Hundred, New-Castle County, an English Man named John Jones, a thick set Fellow, about 50 Years of Age, long visag’d, wears his own hair of a brownish colour, he has on and carried with him, three brown Coats, one whereof is new, with carved mettle Buttons, likewise a red Jacket and old Buck-skin Breeches, and a good Beaver Hat, likewise three pair of blue Stockings, one pair worsted, the rest of his apparel unknown (and supposed to have taken a watch with him). Whoever takes up said Jones and secures him in any of his Majesty’s Goals in this Province, so that the subscriber man have him, shall be paid the sum of THREE POUNDS, by CALEB PERKINS.

The Pennsylvania Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1762; February 4, 1762. See The Pennsylvania Gazette, January 28. 1762.

Image Credit: Advertisements for runaway indentured servants, Maryland Gazette, May 22, 1755. This image belongs to the Gilder Lehrman Collection. Please visit the Gilder Lehrman Collection of American History here to see this image in its original context.

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