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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

They Ran Away: Writing Stories from Newspaper Slave Ads

Writing a family history is as easy as taking each record you have and turning it into sentences. Any record can be used for the source material. If you don't believe it's that easy, read this challenge from a viewer.

A viewer challenged me to take a difficult document and turn it into something more interesting.

What's the challenge?

A Runaway Slave Ad.

The Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina
Slave Ad from The Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina

Newspaper Citation for Slave Ad

While I typically don't start with citations at the beginning of my draft, let's go ahead and craft the necessary citation.

"Article Title," (Paper Title, City, State), [date], [article type]; [newspaper website] ([URL] : accessed [date]), page #, col #.

Let's build the citation to ensure you're able to in the future.

While the first part of the citation is the article, not every news item has an obvious title.

In this case, we’ll go with the most prominent aspect of the news piece - "$75 Reward."

There next parts of the citation are pretty straight forward.

The part that might trip you up is the part that says “article type.”

Reviewing this article, what type is it?

It falls into the category of slave ads, but is it really advertising a slave auction or sale?

No. It’s not.

Instead, it’s requesting the return of three slaves. However, there are several articles on this page, so how can we identify this article distinct from other ones? That’s when I added the persons London, Peter, and Simon to the citation. It now looks like this.

"$75 Reward," (The Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina), 4 Mar 1840, slave return announcement London, Peter, and Simon; ( : accessed 1 Dec 2022), page 3, col 6.

Transcribe the Article

Now that you have cited this article, how do you go about turning this record into a story?

First, transcribe your document to gather all the resources in the article. With newspaper articles, there are very few transcription skills needed and the process is fairly straightforward.

$75 REWARD, I will give the above reward for the Negroes LONDON, PETER, and SIMON, if apprehended and confined in jail, so that I can get them. London is rather under size, has a down look when spoken to, very black, thick set, about 32 years old speaks short and is my own. Peter is also very black, has a savage look, speaks hoarse, is large and stout built, belongs to John W. Southall, of Hertford, was lately bought of Wm. [William] Scott, of Herford, N. Carolina. Simon is very small, has a pleasing countenance. about 24 years old, speaks and looks well, belongs to J W. Southall. They all escaped from me on my way to Florida, 15 miles from Fayetteville, on the road to Cheraw, on the 28th of February instant. Information may be sent to me at Augusta, Ga. if apprehended soon, if not to Marianna, Jackson county, West Florida.


Feb 29, 1840 - March 4, 1840.

Now that this is accomplished, how do we not plagiarize the story and make it more interesting?

I watched a great presentation at RootsTech 2021 by Bernice Bennet. She provided a list of questions to ask while reviewing these ads. I advise you to watch the presentation and note her questions.

As we consider her questions, we should move to the next step, which is reorganizing the transcription into a more fluid story.

Rearrange the Transcription

On 28th February, 1940, three enslaved men escaped from Briton Barkley outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Briton was traveling to Florida using the road to Cheraw, South Carolina. Briton would continue on to August, Georgia and planned to travel to Mariana, Florida. Barkley posted an ad about the runaway slaves in the Raleigh, North Carolina the day after their escape and the posting appeared in print until 4 March.

The three men were described as follows:

  • “London is rather under size, has a down look when spoken to, very black, thick set, about 32 years old speaks short.” This slave belonged to Briton Barkley.

  • “Peter is also very black, has a savage look, speaks hoarse, is large and stout built.” Peter belonged to John W. Southall, of Hertford, North Carolina but William Scott recently purchased him.

  • Simon is very small, has a pleasing countenance. about 24 years old, speaks and looks well. Simon belongs to J. W. Southall.

After rearranging the details, you're starting to see a more interesting story take shape.

Next, we're going to spice things up by adding context.

Watch the video development on YouTube.

Add Context

Since I received a randomly-selected ad, I do not have the familial context about either of the runaways or the person who placed the ad. If I had that information, the story I would share with you would have greater depth.

I believe the three owners are:

However, I'm not 100% certain and do not wish to be too sidetracked in this challenge.

So, can I still turn the slave ad into something more interesting?

Understand the Finances

One quick improvement to the story would involve putting any financial transactions in context. How much money is really involved?

Mr. Barkley offered a $75 reward for the capture of the three slaves.

Using an equivalency calculator, we can see the conversion of about $2,200 in 2020 dollars.

That’s a sizeable reward!

Prices for staple items in North Carolina in 1840
Prices for staple items in North Carolina in 1840

This newspaper helped me out with General Prices for goods and services in Raleigh. If I'm reading this correctly, pork is $5.50 a pound. Thus, the reward is equivalent to 13 pounds of pork. Or 75 bushels of flax seed, or 16 pounds of flour.

In Wilmington, this reward would be equivalent to 2,500 pounds of rice.

If you looked at a food storage calculator, 20 pounds of flour (among other things) is what one person needs for a year. Our 175 pounds of wheat. But if your staple crop is rice, you would have 2500 pounds of it and that could feed many people.

Since slavery is a sensitive subject, we might leave off on this comparison. Let me know if you think it would add to or take away from the story.

Understand Distances

Another easy story enhancement is discussing distances between Hertford, North Carolina and the ultimate destination in Florida. Then we can insert how many miles into the likely journey that these slaves escaped.

The story mentions that two slave owners were of Hertford, North Carolina. So they journey likely started there.

We should calculate the distance from Hertford to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the slaves made their escape.

The article mentions traveling along the a specific Road in South Carolina, and the notice author intending to to go August, Georgia and then on to Marianna, Florida. All totaled, the journey, if successfully completed, would take Mr. Barkley and the slaves 750 miles.

Now, a horse-draw vehicle, on average could travel 10-30 miles per day depending on condition of available roads, weather, the condition of the horse or oxen, and the weight of the carriage. .

Assuming the average of the average, we’ll say Mr. Briton and the slaves traveled 15 miles per day from Hertford County, North Carolina to where they escaped near Fayetteville.

Thus, the slaves likely escaped twelve days into a 50 day journey.

Now, Mr. Briton said the men escaped 15 miles from Fayette, but didn’t specify if this was northeast or southwest, so we’re going to leave that detail out to keep the story tight. If you add the article beside the text, your reader can do their own speculation.

On 28th February, 1940, three enslaved men escaped from Briton Barkley outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Briton was traveling to Florida using the road to Cheraw, South Carolina. The escaped happened twelve days into a fifty day journey by horse-drawn wagon.

Barkley offered a $75 dollar reward for the apprehension and holding of the three men. The reward is equivalent to $2,200 today.*

* Inflation equivalency for 2020 dollars.

Can you see how the story is already improving?

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Adding More Details

Again, without knowing more about the principals are in this article (Briton Barkley, John Southall, William Scott, and the three escapes), you might think there isn’t much else to discuss.

That’s where you would be incorrect.

Consider Motives

We could speculate about:

  • What may be the motivation for this person to run away?

  • Where do you think the runaway is trying to go?

Since we are lacking enough insight before and after this event, what other questions might we consider.

  • Since Peter and Simon were connected to Mr. Southall, would they want to escape to be together? Were they family of just familiar with each other?

  • Did any fellow slaves (perhaps family members) escape previously and Peter, Simon, and London trying to meet up with them?

  • Are they the first to make the attempt?

  • Was Mrs. Southall, Scott or Barkley terrible masters and escaping, would perhaps get the men a better situation?

  • Given the ultimate destination over 700 miles from Hertford, North Carolina, the trip is likely a permanent move. Did Simon, Peter, and London escape so they could stay close to their family members in North Carolina? How would the make that work if Mr. Scott or Southall exchanged money with Mr. Barkley?

You COULD include the speculation if you knew more about these individuals and what eventually happened to the fugitive slaves. When you speculate in your story, be sure to use vocabulary that informs your reader that you are considering what might have happened, but you are not making definitive conclusions.

Add Historical Context

Another option involves adding appropriate historical context to the story.

After a google search to understand the Underground Railroad, the History Channel offered quick facts to enhance our knowledge.

Using this one site, I now have the following to add to the story.

London, Peter, and Simon faced great challenges if they were to reach freedom. The most daunting one being the distance from Fayette to a Free State.

By 1840, the function of the Underground Railroad was active throughout the United States. However, these slaves escaped nine years prior to the infamous Harriet Tubman’s participation.

Yet, the slaves would either need to travel four hundred miles north to Pennsylvania and then on to New England. This route would take them through slaves states of most of North Carolina, then Virginia and Maryland before reaching the Pennsylvania border.

The other option was to go to southern Ohio. This route would like transverse 450 miles northwest and pass through another large section of North Carolina and Virginia and possibly Kentucky.

The chances for successfully reaching freedom were difficult since they were deeply in slave territory.

A physically fit person could walk 15-20 miles per day. London is 32 and thick set, Peter is large and stout, and we don’t know his age. Simon is 24 and small. In good conditions, they could likely travel 400 - 450 miles in 25 - 30 days.

However, these men might have to travel by night or off the main roads to avoid capture. Additionally, they are likely escaping without supplies which might reduce the amount of ground they can cover per day because they’re not ‘just walking.’

Another worry that faced Peter, Simon, and London included avoiding capture and jail, or worse.

If they didn’t reveal their true names or owner’s names, a jailer would put a notice in the newspapers revealing who they had captured. If the original owner did not claim these men, the men would then be sold. However, the jailer would inform further owners of their escapee status which might result in a worse living situation than the ones they left.

Wow! Notice how many paragraphs you could add to the story by simply adding historical context.

And, notice that these details about the trials the three escapees faced add ‘drama’ to the story. Granted, this is a case of telling and not showing because we can’t zoom in on Peter, London, and Simon. However, there’s enough to make things a little interesting.

Always consider adding context to even the smallest story.

Can We Go Further?

Are there more details we can dig up?


  • Research the three owners to learn more about their operations.

  • Attempt to figure out how Briton Barkley might have known Mr. Southall and Mr. Scott and why he was traveling with their slaves.

  • Search newspapers to see if the three owners had other slaves that disappeared to see if there was a trend.

  • Look at Raleigh newspapers to see how often a runaway was captured.

Notice this one little article can generate even more questions to ask to add more depth to the story.

Of course, if you were related to any of these persons, that adds another layer to the article which is pretty awesome. Well, slavery wasn’t awesome, but the ability to write a story from a newspaper clipping is really cool and doable.

Don’t you think?

Choose My Next Writing Challenge

If you would like to challenge me with a different record type, send me a link to the record type (and hopefully the associate family tree) and I’ll walk you through the process of turning records into paragraphs in a few easy steps. Use the contact form to send your submission.

Continue Learning How to Write a Family History

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