Families: How Those Torn Apart by Slavery Tried to Reunite

Spend any time reading 19th-century newspapers and you’ll likely find them: tucked among ads for barrels of ox beef and puncheons of rum will be notices of persons for sale or, equally unsettling, runaway ads that inventory the appearance or personality of a master’s departed slave. Usually, a reward was offered to track down the individual—“a stout fellow” or “a slender wench,” who was “considerable knock-kneed” or perhaps “marked with small pox,” and showing a “pleasing smiling countenance” or “a down look.”*

In her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, University of North Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams turns her attention to a third kind of newspaper communication—Information Wanted notices posted by African Americans themselves. After the Civil War, this was one of the ways that former slaves sought to find their loved ones.

It’s interesting that “this is how black people showed up in the newspaper most often in that century,” notes Williams in a recent phone interview. “The runaway ads are about money, offering a reward to get ‘property’ back,” she says. In contrast, the Information Wanted ads launch “an emotional appeal.” But rather than providing physical details of the missing person, whose appearance may have changed with the passage of time, they typically use the owner’s name as an identifier.

“I think they’re all really laden with emotion—some much more explicit than others,” she says. “You get some where there is this resentment really coming through. They put the word owner in quote marks, making this rhetorical challenge to the idea of one person owning another. But then they are also poignant—not because they say I loved my mother and cry for her every night, but because somebody has been looking for his mother for 21 years. He thinks he somehow might have a chance [of finding her.]”

In an ad that appears in Nashville’s Colored Tennessean on October 7, 1865, Thornton Copeland wrote, “Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother … My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.”

“That one is really poignant because it raises lots of issues which people contended with,” Williams says. How do you find someone after a separation of more than two decades? “How do you find someone whose name was Betty, knowing that the owner could have changed her name at any point?

“There’s hope. There’s pain. There are multiple emotions in these ads,” Williams says.

As her book explains, newspaper ads weren’t the only strategy used by African Americans. Sometimes they wrote to former owners for information or sought clues to a relative’s whereabouts from one of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up around the country after the Civil War. (Others, of course, took the opportunity to run away while slavery was still in place, often heading toward the plantation where they last saw a family member.)

Williams practiced law before becoming an historian, but she has always been interested in African-American history. “I write books because I want to know the black people in the past,” she explains. “Often we talk about slaves, and the word replaces the people.”

The Help Wanted notices provide a peek at people’s personal stories. The personalities of individuals come through even more in the letters and narratives that Williams also excerpts in her book, particularly those that refer to the loss of family members in childhood. Recalling how her mother was sold and taken from her when she was a child, Kate Drumgoold wrote, “The saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if anything that would direct me and I saw a clear place in the sky and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it 3 ½ years not knowing what that meant and it was there the whole time mother was gone.”

While still a slave herself, Vilet Lester wrote to a former mistress, showing both devotion to her lost child and a keen awareness of the power-dynamic she had to negotiate in seeking information that might lead to their reunion: “I wish to [k]now what has Ever become of my Presus little girl,” she wrote. “I left her in Goldsborough with Mr. Walker and I have not herd from her Since and Walker Said that he was going to Carry her to Rockingham and gave her to his Sister.” She went on to state that her current master might be willing to purchase her, “being a man of Reason and fealing wishes to grant my trubled breast that mutch gratification.”

It’s unknown how many enslaved families were split up or how many were able to reunite after the Civil War. In her book, Williams cites one estimate that from 1820 to 1860, about 800,000 African Americans were sold or moved from the Upper South to the Lower South and West. That figure doesn’t include the separations that took place when slaves were relocated within the same state. “Even a distance of a few miles could be insurmountable if they did not know where they were or if traveling was too dangerous or would trigger physical punishment or sale,” she writes.

Based upon available information, Williams believes that most attempts to find lost loved ones were unsuccessful. “There was just too much time, too much distance, and too few clues of where the person had gone,” she says. In most cases, the only record of a sale might be a passing reference in an owner’s letter to a wife or friend. “Traders might keep a record stating, ‘I sold John for 500 dollars,’ but John who?”

All of this makes the reunions that did occur even more remarkable. For example, Williams includes the account of a former slave and Union army chaplain, who encountered an old woman looking for her son during a postwar celebration in Richmond. She grilled Williams about his history:

What is your name, sir?

My name is Garland H. White.

What was your mother’s name?

Nancy.

Where was you born?

In Hanover County, in this state.

After several more questions, the woman revealed her identity: “This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to; who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

For countless others, that grief was not so neatly resolved. “One thing that is really powerful to me is that these [information wanted] ads continue to appear until the early 20th century,” Williams says. “The separations took place before 1865, and people still thought they could find family members, and they still wanted to.”

In her book, Williams goes on to describe one unintended benefit of the ads:  As terse as they were, the “descriptions provided in those purchased spaces in the newspapers left a trace of the seekers and their loved ones for later generations to find,” she writes. “The pleas for help themselves become remembrances.”

*Descriptions of runaway slaves excerpted from Stealing a Little Freedom: Advertisements for Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1791-1840, Edited by Freddie L. Parker (Garland, 1994).

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