Most of my friends and relations seem to feel that I have a penchant for making some very obscure selections when it comes to reading materials. I can’t quite understand this; why, during this long holiday weekend I passed the time pouring over the details of this very interesting two-volume work entitled “Runaways, Deserters, & Notorious Villains” written by noted Providence historian and photo archivist Maureen Taylor. These books are a compilation of all the advertisements placed in 18th century RI newspapers regarding runaway slaves, wives, and apprentices, as well as deserters from the Revolutionary War and a few escaped prisoners thrown in for good measure. From these advertisements, it is possible to glean all sorts of interesting tidbits of information regarding life in 18th century North Kingstown. With all this going for them, for the life of me I can’t understand why they aren’t on any bestsellers list.
So what did we learn from these advertisements? As far as runaway slaves go, as expected in a community with more than its fair share of slaves, there were quite a number—19 to be exact. There would be quite a few more were it not for the division of the town into North and South Kingstown during this period, as there were even more slaves in our sister community to the south. Lodowick Updike at Smith’s Castle lost his slave Dimas, in April of 1763; he described him as a “subtle fellow with a forged pass” and is willing to pay $6 to get him back. At the other end of town, Phebe Browning lost four of her slaves, Rose and infant, Nancy & Jenny, in 1799 and will only pay ten cents reward for reach. She describes them in some detail and proclaims that Jenny is a “wench.” Also in the southern end of town, Willett Carpenter lost two slaves in 1799, one named Cezar and the other with the very odd moniker of Handsaw. He offers up a $5 reward for each. Down in Wickford, Immanuel Case advertised the loss of his slave Cuffe who he describes as a “short thickset fellow with a long-built head.” The most valuable slave advertised was Warren who belonged to John Barber and was trained as a merchant seaman. In 1780 a reward of $120 was offered the capture of this “fellow who is exceedingly black with a greasey look.” Most likely Barber “rented” Warren out to ship owners and this loss of income caused him to offer up a large reward. Slaves were not the only runaways listed here; also we can find a few runaway apprentices like William Wightman who ran off from his employ with Benjamin Reynolds in 1796 and intriguingly enough Sarah Short “who deserted the bed” of her husband Charles in 1797. Charles tells the world that he will pay none of her debts from this point on.
As for deserters from the armies and navy of the colonial government during the war for independence, North Kingstown with 13, had her share as well. Easily the most intriguing was William Corey who deserted not once, but twice; first in 1779 and then again in 1782. This was more common than you might imagine; you see in a time when recordkeeping was limited at best, numerous less than honest young men collected more than one “signing on” bonus in this manner. Also interesting is the fact that 31 percent of all the North Kingstown deserters were from the Shearman family. I can’t say as I know what to make of that fact.
Finally, we only had one escaped prisoner to be on the lookout for according to the advertisements, that being Christopher Fowler, who broke out of the county jail in January of 1778. Based on the date, it’s probably safe to assume that Fowler’s crime was being a Tory, a loyalist to the King of England. His ultimate fate is unknown to me at this time. If anyone has any interest in further information on these runaway slaves and deserters, check out Maureen’s great book.