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Last active Aug 29, 2015

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TxRunawayAds

The @TxRunawayAds account tweets excerpts from advertisements related to runaway slaves in nineteenth-century Texas newspapers, along with links to the page images of the ad in the Portal to Texas History.

The tweeted excerpts come from ads identified and transcribed in the spring of 2014 by students in two digital history courses at Rice University and the University of North Texas, taught respectively by Caleb McDaniel and Andrew Torget.

The excerpts and links are composed and tweeted automatically with Python scripts written by Caleb McDaniel. Once a day, the feed posts a random ad from our data set. Occasionally, the feed also posts an ad that appeared "on this day" in history.

For more information about this project, please visit our full site at Digital History Methods.

Rationale

Why Runaway Slave Advertisements?

Unfortunately, the primary sources on slavery in the United States are limited. These sources are usually written from the perspective of the slaveholder and often reduce slaves to their monetary value. This can make it difficult for historians to learn about the personal experiences, attitudes, and relationships of enslaved men and women. Among these primary sources, runaway advertisements offer one of the best glimpses into the names, personalities, and experiences of individual slaves, as well as the institution of slavery as a whole.

It was in the slaveholder's own interest to provide as detailed and accurate a description of the runaway as possible, often including descriptions of slave appearance, mannerisms, and relationships. They also often include the owners' speculations as to where the slave might have escaped to, as well as when they ran away. All these data points can be analyzed together to create larger pictures of life at the time by mapping escape destinations, identifying seasonal trends in labor, and drawing up profiles of slave lifestyles in different areas over time.

Most of all, these runaway ads offer a valuable picture of the struggle for human liberty made by individual enslaved men and women in the nineteenth century. Of course, the advertisements must be taken with a grain of salt, since they are written from the biased perspective of the slaveholders attempting to recapture their human property. Nevertheless, runaway ads are one of the most detailed and long-standing forms of historical documents about enslaved people. They can help us answer questions about how slavery operated and what forms of resistance were available to slaves.

Why Twitter?

Since people often go to Twitter to relax and read funny tweets, it may initially seem odd to encounter a sobering subject like slavery in the middle of a stream. On the other hand, seeing ads in this context may help to convey the prevalence and the everyday nature of the ads in nineteenth-century newspapers. When looking for ads, we noticed that nineteenth-century newspapers often contained lighthearted poems, humorous stories, or notices of local events.

To twenty-first-century readers, one of the disturbing aspects about these ads is how they are mixed into the rest of the newspaper in such a mundane way. By inserting these ads into Twitter feeds, among all the jokes and day-to-day updates, we hope to communicate both the jarring effect that finding the ads initially had on us, as well as the familiarity that made white nineteenth-century readers see the advertisements as a normal feature of their world.

The collection of digitized runaway slave ads is extensive, and with some exceptions, largely untapped. With a large community of readers, the project might help surface ads significant to some individuals, historians, and institutions who might not otherwise have discovered the relevant source(s). For example, in creating the Twitter bot, we stumbled upon a previously unknown advertisement listed by William Marsh Rice, the founder of Rice University. The advertisement reveals valueable information--the name of one of Rice's slaves--that was not even included in his census information. We hope that with the broad reach of Twitter, more ads will be unearthed that are of value to historians.

Why Texas?

Compared to research on slavery in other Southern states, not much research has been done on slavery or runaway slave advertisements in Texas.

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger's Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (2000), one of the most comprehensive projects on runaway slaves in the South, does not even include Texas in the data or analysis, but rather implies that the phenomenon of slave flight was relatively uniform throughout the South. Randolph B. Campbell advanced the discussion on slavery in Texas through his book An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (1989), but also emphasized the similarities between Texas and slavery elsewhere.

Other scholars, however, suggest that slavery in Texas (specifically in central Texas) was unique from that in other Southern states and offered unusual opportunities for resistance and flight to enslaved people due to Texas's proximity to Mexico and Indian nations. The tweets from @TxRunawayAds will hopefully prompt renewed attention to these debates and suggest new lines of research about the subject.

Texas also serves as the geographic focus for this project because of the unparalleled resources of the Portal to Texas History, which allows permalinks to point to particular locations on digitized newspaper pages. Unlike many previous runaway ad projects, which display cropped advertisements, the Portal allows viewers to see runaway ads in their original historical context on the page.

About the Sources

The @TxRunawayAds currently selects randomly from a set of approximately 500 advertisements located in issues of the Telegraph and Texas Register, the Austin State Gazette, and the Clarksville Northern Standard from between the years of 1836 and 1860. For more information about these newspapers, the Portal to Texas History, and slavery in Texas, visit the Mapping Texts project, an NEH collaboration between Stanford University and the University of North Texas, or The Texas Slavery Project, edited by Andrew Torget.

Credits

This essay was written by Alyssa Anderson, Aaron Braunstein, Daniel Burns, Clare Jensen, Caleb McDaniel, and Kaitlyn Sisk.

Location and transcription of ads were performed by the following people:

Rice University University of North Texas
Alyssa Anderson Moises Gurrola
Aaron Braunstein Megan Haase
Daniel Burns Amy Marie Perry Hedrick
Clare Jensen Molly Joyce
Maria Montalvo Ariel Kelley
Kaitlyn Sisk Emily Pierce
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