In Colonial and Early America, African Americans in the newspapers around the time of the American Revolution were looked for as run aways. Slaves would run away quite often to try to make a better life for themselves. The owners of the slaves, during the late 1700’s, would post descriptions of the run away “Negroes” in the newspapers which included their teeth. Dental care was minimal at the time and even though toothbrushes were sold at supply stores, slaves may not have been given a toothbrush to use to maintain dental hygiene. A visit for a slave to an actual American dentist would have been rare indeed during the late 1700’s.
The English, for the most part, were against Africans being slaves. The British sent convicted prisoners and indentured servants to America from the United Kingdom, who would also run away, but were more difficult to capture, because they looked like American colonists. When the British came to to fight in the American Revolution, one of their first acts was to free the African slaves. The British also recruited African Americans and promised them freedom if they fought on their side during the war. Discussions took place in the British Parliament about the slave trade during this time and how it conflicted with Christianity. The war started in 1775 and the British lost the American colonies in 1783. After that Africans remained slaves in America for another 80 years. Then another war was fought where the Union promised freedom to African Americans if they fought on their side against Confederate soldiers. This time around the African American slaves were set free in 1865.
Notices were placed in the newspaper when a servant or slave ran away before the Civil War. Around the time of the American Revolution many African slaves ran away and in order to find them a reward was offered in the newspaper by the person wanting them back. Injuries, clothing, property, skin color, and teeth were often noted in the reward notice. When teeth were missing and other health problems or injuries were mentioned in the newspaper ad, local citizens must have wondered if neglect or abuse was a cause for the person they were seeking to run away.
William McKean let everyone in Philadelphia know, on June 29, 1774, through The Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper that his “Negro wench, named Jude” had left him. McKean gave a description of Jude as being “about five foot some odd inches high, very black, full faced, a thick short neck, square shouldered and has a remarkable small thick foot, and pretty hollow underneath, and has had one of her feet scalded some time ago, and the skin is a good deal thinner than the other, her fore teeth are a little rotten”. McKean and Jude had lived in Reedy Island Neck, New Castle County and the blurb appeared when she had been gone only 16 days. Slavery was not an easy life and one of Jude’s feet had been burned and her front teeth were “a little rotten”. A medical and dental plan was obviously not a perk of being employed as a slave in the late 18th century. How was Jude’s foot burned long enough to make it hollow underneath? William McKean would have some explaining to do if this was in the present day.
In one run away slave ad on May 18, 1787, D. Magruder was searching for his slave named Joe in Maryland. The notice asked for Joe’s return and mentioned a reward of six Guineas. This was placed in The Maryland Gazette and stated that Joe was 45 years old and had “lost some of his upper fore teeth” which means some of his upper front teeth were gone. At that time printers used the letter f in place of s quite often in newspapers before 1800 but for this story quotes have been corrected to make it easier to understand for the present day reader. The ad stated that Joe had also lost sight in one eye due to an injury. Because Joe had lost some of his upper teeth and vision in one of his eyes, it appears that he was not receiving good medical care by D. Magruder. Joe probably was better off taking his chances by running away rather than being in poor health and injured further with Magruder.
Hannah, about age 18, was another run away slave who left with a slave named Ned Brookes, aged 45. She was described as having “broad teeth” as well as having a burn on one of her feet. They left Thomas Lane’s residence on February 13, 1796 and this notice appeared in The Maryland Gazette on Thursday April 7, 1796. Earlier in this story another slave, named Jude, had also burned one of her feet, but her foot was burned so much that it was hollow on the bottom. It is possible these two ladies had their feet burned as a punishment and/or they didn’t have shoes.
A jailer in Virginia wanted the owner of an African American man named Dick to pick up his property, according to the ad placed in the newspaper in 1770. James Ball, jailer of the Chesterfield County Jail, described Dick as “a middle sized black fellow, with very open teeth before” and guessed that Dick belonged to Mr. Tarlton Fleming of Goochland County. Dick could not or would not tell James Ball who his owner was. The Virginia Gazette ran this notice about Dick on Thursday August 16, 1770, just a few years before the American Revolution.
Ten dollars was offered as a reward for an African American “girl called Trace” who was described in The Maryland Gazette, on Thursday June 1, 1797 as being about 18 years of age, having a smooth face, small eyes, white teeth, flat nose, no breasts and not very black. Jeremiah Berry III posted the ad in the paper looking for Trace and wanted her back. Berry felt she may have gone to be with her grandmother, who was listed as being owned by a Mr. John Brice in Annapolis.
William Brogden put a notice in the newspaper about his “Negro Daniel” who had run away in the evening on February 18th, 1796. The description of Daniel included that he had lost a part of one of his ears and that his teeth were long and remarkably yellow. The Maryland Gazette placed this in the paper on April 7, 1796 when Daniel had been gone for almost two months. One can only imagine that what caused part of Daniel’s ear to be missing may be the reason he keeps leaving William Brogden. The long yellow teeth did not seem make Daniel stand out enough to be caught very easily, because Brogden mentioned that Daniel had left several times before and listed all the cities Daniel had visited while he was gone in the newspaper as well.
Saul and Sam were noted as being brothers and “each of them hath good teeth” as stated in the ad placed by John Massey Jr. in The Pennsylvania Packet on December 23, 1789. Saul was said to be about 28 or 30 years old and Sam was about 20 or 21 years old. They left Suffolk County, Delaware on September 12, 1789. The reward offered by Massey was “Ten Pounds” and this ad was placed after the American Revolution so American currency in different areas must have been both dollars and pounds for a little while after the war.
Rind’s Virginia Gazette had a long ad placed in the paper about a convict servant farmer named George Newton who had run away. Newton was said to have been born in Yorkshire, England and had red hair and freckles and he also took with him an African American man named George. There was no description of George Newton’s teeth in the ad. The second George (the African) was described as being about 5 foot 3 inches tall, well made and “his fore teeth in the upper jaw is a good deal worn” in the ad placed by James Tutt on Thursday August 17, 1775. Both men were depicted as “cunning artful fellows” and there was a mention that the African American named George had lost part of a toe on his left foot and one of his fingers were stiff on his left hand. James Tutt had a small note printed below his name “I suspect a negro man, named Tim, belonging to the honourable John Taylor, is gone off with them.” James Tutt does not seem to have given George very good medical or dental care because of all the injuries mentioned in the notice.
Tom ran away from James Walker near Elk-Ridge Landing in Anne Arundel County, as noted in a classified ad run in the Maryland Gazette run on Thursday June 18, 1795. Tom was said to be about 26 years of age and six feet tall and was going by the name of Tom Toogood. He was portrayed as having a “wide mouth, large teeth and walks very clumsily.” The ad also stated that Tom Toogood had petitioned the court for freedom but it was not granted.
The Pennsylvania Packet had a notice for a forty dollar reward for Ned. The description included that “the rascal was base enough to run off and without any cause given him to justify such infamous and ungrateful behaviour.” Ned and Chance were given a written pass to go to Colonel Nathaniel Ramsey’s place. Only Chance showed up at Ramsy’s house for, according to the notice, “Chance, like and honest and grateful negro, being sensible of the indulgence given to him went unto col. Ramsay, with whom he is happily placed.” Ned took off and is credited with being with a “rapist Negro called Smith’s Sam”, whom was said to be the property of a Mr. Price of Cecil County. The notice also stated that now Ned is Sam’s accomplice and they were out committing crimes together. James Hutchings placed the ad on page 4 of the newspaper on Friday, November 18, 1785. The newspaper notice printed the date of August 30, 1785 that the notice was sent from “Baltimore, State of Maryland”. The description of Ned was that he was “a very black negro, about 5 foot 6 inches high, stoops, and is somewhat round shouldered, and I think he has lost one of his fore teeth and has a very narrow chin.”
Warren Beuford was looking for his run away slave named David (alias David Gasco) and put an ad in the Virginia Gazette, which was published in Williamsburg, on January 9, 1772. Beuford stated he had been looking for David since April of 1771. Beuford gave a description of David as being “about thirty years old, five foot nine or ten inches high, remarkably well made, has lost one or both of his great toes by being frost-bitten, one finger next to the little one has been hurt, which occasions it to stand erect, and has lost some of his teeth”. When reading this description it is somewhat easy to tell why David ran away. David needed to have some heat in his quarters and very likely needed some socks and shoes to cover his feet. Losing teeth indicates a lack of care and possibly a poor diet as well. David was losing teeth and toes by staying with Beuford and probably felt he had a better chance of survival on his own.
Harry Perfume was sitting in the Gloucestor jail since February 8, 1774. William Smith, the jailer, put the notice in the paper on March 3, 1774 and stated that Perfume said he had no master and that he had sailed on boats to London and back many times. Smith said Perfume told him that he had stayed in Norfolk, Philadelphia and parts of Pennsylvania. Apparently Smith didn’t believe the story Perfume gave him, and stated in the ad that “any gentleman who can give good account of said Negro, or prove their property, may have him on paying charges.” The description Smith gave of Perfume was that he was “about thirty years of age, is much pock-pitted, one of his fore teeth is somewhat decayed, has on Plains waistcoat and breeches of a brown colour.” Harry Perfume’s teeth may even have become more decayed if he was not given a toothbrush by Smith while in the Gloucester jail.
An African female run-away named Lucy who was described as being “28 years of age, slender made, and has a slender hand and foot, supposed to be about 5 foot 3 or 4 inches high, has a brazen look, and is a little inclined to a yellow complexion; some of her jaw teeth are rotten and partly gone, but her upper fore teeth stand good and far apart”. Baldwin Lusby ran the ad in The Maryland Gazette on July 14, 1785 offering a reward for her return. Lusby stated that she left on April 2nd of the same year and he wants readers to know she is telling people that she is free and probably left by water with a soldier from Annapolis. Lucy was very young to already have so much decay on her lower teeth. The gaps in her upper teeth made her easy to identify for anyone looking for the reward money.
John Taylor was the jailer at Smithfield in Virginia. He was holding a man named Boatswain in the jail who was supposed to be sold but made his escape. In the ad placed in The Virginia Gazette on Feb 4, 1773, Taylor said Boatswain’s English was bad. Taylor stated Boatswain “is a black fellow, about five feet eight inches high, his lower teeth are filed sharp, his clothing is very ragged and had an old rug about him when committed”. Taylor had it printed in the newspaper that the owner could have him if the owner could prove Boatswain was his and paid the charges. Boatswain may have been straight from Africa because of his inability to speak English. It is uncertain as to why his lower teeth were filed sharp but Boatswain having filed teeth made him much easier to identify.
On January 19, 1775 a reward of forty shillings was offered in Rind’s Virginia Gazette for anyone who could deliver Caesar, “a remarkable likely Virginia born Negro man”. William Dandridge Jr. described Caesar as being “about 22 or 23 years of age, 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, has rather a sulky countenance and lost 2 of his upper teeth” in the notice placed in the newspaper. Dandridge stated, in the ad, that Caesar may have gone back to Mr. Holt Richejon of King William County, who had owned him previously or to see his brother who belonged to Mr. Ellington of Amelia, Virginia. The “sulky countenance” may have been due to being a slave, having no say in being sold away from his family, and not having dental care for his two upper teeth that were gone.
Nelson, an African American, left Gideon Alston’s home on March 2nd, 1795. Another man named Ned had also left Alston’s home two days later. Alston placed a notice in The North Carolina Journal on July 20, 1795 that he would give a fifty dollar reward for Nelson and Ned’s return or twenty-five dollars for each. Nelson was “about 30 years of age, his bodily weight is about 125 lb and has a remarkable scar on one of his cheeks and a broken upper fore tooth.” The scar on one of his cheeks and broken upper tooth could have happened at the same time. Mentioning the scars, and teeth with a lack of dental care, must have made newspaper readers wonder at the time, what was going on in the homes of the people who put out rewards for capturing run away slaves.
The Freeman’s Journal out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was definitely for free male readers. On February 26, 1783 subscriber Joseph Wood was looking for an African American man named Sam who was about 30 years old, had a small scar on his forehead and had lost some of his teeth. “He is country born but can talk some Dutch” Wood had written in the reward ad. Sam had left Wood in November, 1784 and had already been gone over two months when this appeared in the newspaper. Wood said of him “he is a cunning artful fellow and will change his name and pass for a free negro”.
Even after the American Revolution the ads for run away slaves continued in local papers, including papers that were in the north. The Dutch West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam (present day New York City) in 1626. The British troops occupied New York City in 1776 and promised freedom to African slaves who ran away from their masters to New York City. Thousands of Africans ran away from slavery and moved to New York City during that time. In 1799 New York state passed a law for gradual abolition of slavery in the state.
The Poughkeepsie Eagle out of Poughkeepsie, New York had a twenty dollar reward notice published on October 26, 1796, for the return of “a slender Negro man named York, very black, about 20 years old, five feet 7 or 8 inches high, large prominent eyes and white teeth”. James G. Graham said York had been living in Shawangunk in Ulster County until September 30, 1796 and wanted him returned.
Stephen Leggett offered a ten dollar reward in The Poughkeepsie Eagle for “my Negro man, named Tom, about 23 years old, five foot 8 or 9 inches high, walks considerably bent, rather blacker than what Negroes commonly are, his teeth are very white and shows them a good deal when talking”. This ad appeared in the paper on July 10, 1798. Leggett lived in Stanford, Dutchess County, New York.
Rewards were not just for African Americans either. On November 19, 1776, The Pennsylvania Packet newspaper ran an ad offering a reward for an Irish servant named Francis Irwin (alias Michael O’Brian) who had run away from Samuel Messersmith. Irwin was a blacksmith and horse farrier for Messersmith in Baltimore and it was stated that he had probably left on October 10, 1776. Messersmith described Irwin as “a stout fellow, about five feet eight or nine inches high, of sandy complexion, grey eyes, large fore teeth, and has a remarkable hoarseness in his voice” and offered six dollars for his return.
Convicts were sometimes sent to America to be servants. One ad placed in The Maryland Gazette on June 25, 1767 listed the names of English convicts who had run away from Northampton Iron-works in Baltimore County. Edmund Grimshaw was one of the run away convicts. Grimshaw was said to be 21 years of age, well-fed, about 5″9″, with red hair and a fair complexion. The writer added that “his right eye tooth doubles over his other teeth” and that he had a lot of pit marks from small pox and a large pit or mark about an inch from his mouth. Another convict from England, named John Hardy, ran away at the same time and Charles Ridgely Sr. & Co. were offering a reward of 40 shillings each for the return of both of them.
William Jefferies was a convict who was living in Kent Island in Queen Anne’s County in Maryland, when he ran away with an indentured servant named Thomas Cornish. Jacob Carter offered forty shillings as a reward if Jefferies and Cornish were brought back from outside the county, and twenty shillings if they were returned from inside Queen Anne’s County. Jefferies was said to have been working as a shoemaker but Carter stated in the notice that none of Jefferies’ tools were taken with him so he suspected Jefferies would change his name and occupation. Carter wrote that Jefferies was “5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, a well shaped fellow, he has lost two of his upper teeth, he wears his own hair, which is black, and curls” in the note he sent to The Maryland Gazette on June 4, 1756. The paper published this article on June 10, 1756 on page three.
In the newspapers from the 1750’s and 1760’s there were more people looking for run away convict servants from England, Ireland and Scotland and indentured servants from East-India than for African slaves. Fewer ads during that appeared about African Americans who had left their masters possibly because they were easy to identify and return so not as many African Americans risked leaving slavery at that time. After the 1770’s there were more reward notices for African Americans that had run away placed by men who wanted their property returned. Many of the teeth of the people they were looking to have returned had decayed or missing teeth. This indicates a general lack of dental care or lack of access to dentists, and possibly unhealthy diets of African Americans around the time of the American Revolution.
Sources: Newspaper clippings were all found on Newspapers.com and you have to subscribe. If you look at the slideshow you can see most of the original ads.