Personal Advertisements long ago

Advertisements seeking persons were rarer than advertisements offering merchandise, or those looking for strayed or stolen cattle or horses.  Those appearing most frequently were posted by those seeking runaway slaves, or for runaway apprentices or indentured laborers.  Usually a reward was offered for the runaways, but it was not often large.  A William Bee, of Charleston, offered a reward of five dollars for his Negro Man, Job(Charleston Courier, Feb. 9, 1813), whereas Temperance Welborn and William Horton in Flat River, N.C., offered the following when two slaves ran away: “Twenty-five dollars Reward will be given for apprehending and securing the said Runaways–or a proportionate part for either of them”(Raleigh Register, Jan. 17, 1812)

A Providence firm offered twenty dollars reward for “an indentured apprentice boy, by the name of John T. Hewes, about 18 years of age, about five feet ten inches high, with black hair, and grey eyes, and stoops a little when he walks”(Providence Patriot, September 17, 1813).  Aaron Evans, of Raleigh, advertised that “any person that will deliver said Apprentice to him, shall be reasonably compensated for their trouble”(Raleigh Register, June 12, 1812).  But Philip Oehter, also of Raleigh, offered only six cents reward for “a bound Boy by the name of CORNELIUS HINE.  All persons are forewarned from harboring said boy, and any person bringing said boy to the subscriber shall have the above reward, but no thanks.”(Raleigh Register, Jan. 1, 1813)  This formula, “the reward, but no thanks,” was used fairly often.

There were three other kinds of personal ads, but I will only deal with two now.  One was a warning to the readers not to trust or harbor a certain person, as did sea captains like George J. Fortune of Charleston. “Notice.  All persons are forbid to trust any of the crew of the brig HOPE, as I will pay no debts of their contracting” (Charleston Courier, June 6, 1815). New Hampshire must have had a law which bound the son (and daughter?) to the father (or mother?) until he/she was twenty – one, and the following kinds of ads are common:  “I hereby certify, that I have this day relinquished to my son John Thurstin Barter, all right to his services until he is twenty-one years of age; and he has full right to transact business for himself in all cases.  Henry Barter, Jr.”(New Hampshire Patriot, Feb. 18, 1828).  Far rarer are the ads placed by fathers reluctant to lose their sons, or their earnings, but Jeremy Howland was one: “Absconded Child.  Notice is hereby given, that Moses Howland, my son, of the age of nineteen years, did on this twelfth day of March instant, without my leave, and contrary to my commands, leave my house and employ; therefore this is to forbid all persons from harboring or trusting him on my account, or paying him for any of his services, as I am from this date determined to no debts of his contracting; and to demand, recover and receive all sum or sums of money or other things he may earn by his labor from all person or persons whomever who may employ him in any way or manner.  Jeremy Howland”(New Hampshire Patriot, March 14, 1828).

With so many people moving from one place to another in the United States, it is somewhat surprising that the following type of advertisement is not found more frequently:  “Information Wanted.  JOHN LONG, Dec. and MOLLY his wife, living near M’Connelstown, Bedford county, Pa. had three sons, John, William and James, who, if living, are now in the western country–Their mother, now old, helpless and disconsolate, requests any of them to return to live with her, on her small tract of land.***Printers will do an act of humanity by inserting the above” (Scioto Supporter, June 30, 1813). Immigrant newspapers often printed ads from those looking for a relative, usually giving place of birth, place last heard from and, sometimes, reason for seeking the person.  The following is typical:  “INFORMATION WANTED.  Any person who is, or has been acquainted with Mr. James Brown, formerly of Gobnaskale parish of Donaghedy and county Tyrone, Ireland, will please to transmit what they know of him to his nephew John Brown at Ramapo, Rockland county, N. Y. or to the editor of this paper.  The last information of Mr. Brown was that he resided about 20 years since at Petersburgh, and was then in the habit of shipping flour to West Florida.  If living he is now aged about 65 years.  Sincere thanks will be due to any person who may write respecting him as above directed”(Shamrock, August 17, 1811).

During the War of 1812, the British blockade of the coast of the United States gave a different twist to these ads.   The New York Shamrock usually gave a list of passengers and their home towns who were onboard ships from Ireland arriving at Philadelphia or New York.  As early as July 11, 1812, the paper began designating arriving passengers who had been impressed into the British service by British ships which had stopped their ships on their way into the American ports.  On July 11, the paper listed the passengers arrived at Philadelphia July 2, 1812, on the brig Pallas, from Lough Sicilly, Ireland. “Of fifty-six passengers, three, James M’Ginley, Thomas Orr and Owen Leonard had been impressed”.  On July 25, the paper listed ninety-seven passengers having been on board the ship Mary, from Londonderry, which arrived at Philadelphia, July 8, 1812.  Of this total, twenty six were impressed by a British ship.  One of these, James M’Cready, left a possible relative or wife, Grace M’Cready, both from the town of Dungivin, to arrive alone at Philadelphia.  Sometimes the British would not be content with just impressing some of the passengers, they would confiscate the entire ship, and take it into Halifax.  Such, apparently, happened to a Mrs. Kennedy and her children.  “Mrs. Bell Kennedy, who was carried into the Island of St. Johns, or Halifax, by the British, on her passage from Londonderry (Ireland) to the U. States, is hereby informed that her husband, Henry Kennedy is now in the city of New-York, at the house of Mr. James Hunter No. 6 James Slip, where he shall be happy to hear from her and his six children who were taken along with her.”  The Shamrock, which published this ad, asked a favor of its exchange-newspapers. “Editors of Newspapers to the eastward, will serve the cause of humanity by giving the above one insertion, and the editor of the Shamrock will reciprocate when required.”(Shamrock, February 6, 1813)  We hope the Kennedys were reunited.


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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden