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Rewards for runaways

There was a great discussion on Facebook last week of advertisements for the return of runaways.

In this case, not ads the initial poster was used to seeing — not ads for the return of runaway slaves.

No, these were ads for the return of runaway servants.1

one-centGenealogist Renate Yarborough-Sanders concentrates on African-American research; she notes that “We all know about runaway slave ads, and many of us use them in our research.” But, she said, “here’s something I haven’t seen or thought about before — an ad for a runaway apprentice.”

And one ad she had come across is the one you see here: an ad posted in the North State Whig, in Washington, North Carolina, on Wednesday, the 17th of August 1842. William H. Deneale had an “indented Apprentice to the Cabinet making business, named William Augustus Fitch,” who had “absconded.” Deneale offered a one-cent reward, and added: “The above reward will be given, but no thanks, for his delivery to me.”2

And that prompted a question from reader Roberta Estes: “What does the ‘with no thanks’ part mean?”3 Especially when, as Renate noted, “It probably cost more than that to place the ads!”4

Ooooooh… a question for The Legal Genealogist.

Because, of course, the answer lies in the law.

Let’s start with some definitions. Indented Apprentices were servants who entered into legally binding contracts, called indentures, with a master. They were usually youngsters, in their early teen years, and were “usually bound for a term of years, by deed indented or indentures, to serve their masters, and be maintained and instructed by them … This is usually done to persons of trade, in order to learn their art and mystery…”5

So William Deneale in this ad was the carpenter in town, and he’d taken on young Fitch to learn the trade. And Fitch had absconded — run away — made off like a thief in the night.6

Now… it’s pretty clear that if he’s only offering one penny for this young man’s return, and “no thanks” … William Deneale really doesn’t want William Augustus Fitch back at all.

And, in fact, at least one study of advertisements by masters of apprentices opines that, in some cases, the masters “accepted the event and did not want to deal with the likely problems should the apprentice be dragged back to work” and, in others, the masters welcomed it: “For them, having the apprentice steal away one night actually saved the trouble of discharging them. As is true today, employers generally find it easier for the worker to quit on their own behalf than to go through the difficulties of firing them.” Indeed, the study concludes, the ads “offer a wealth of evidence to confirm the argument that a number of masters accepted or even welcomed the departure of apprentices.”7

So why advertise at all?

Because without it masters like Deneale could legally be obligated for damages that apprentices like Fitch caused to others and things that they bought and charged to their masters.

The law generally presumed that a servant was acting on behalf of the master, and therefore the master was answerable for the acts of the servant: “the master may be frequently a loser by the trust reposed in his servant, but never can be a gainer : he may frequently be answerable for his servant’s misbehaviour, but never can shelter himself from punishment by laying the blame on his agent. The reason of this is still uniform and the same ; that the wrong done by the servant is looked upon in law as the wrong of the master himself…”8

Advertising didn’t, and couldn’t, break or end the indenture — that legal contract between master and servant — by itself. But it put the community on notice that the servant wasn’t acting on the master’s behalf, and provided protection for the master if someone else tried to sue for damages caused or debts incurred by the servant.

And, of course, the best part of these ads is… they’re records. Records we can use to add to our family history… records that surely add color and depth to the story.

I mean, seriously… who wouldn’t want proof that “an apprentice boy, by name William Wilson … was 17 years of age last July, and is a stout, well grown lad…”?9 At a time and in a place where proof of age and anything remotely resembling a physical description is hard to find, these ads — and others like them — are pure gold.


  1. Renate Yarborough-Sanders, status update, posted 7 January 2017, ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  2. “One Cent Reward,” North State Whig, Washington, N.C., 17 August 1842, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  3. Roberta Estes, comment on Facebook status of Renate Yarborough-Sanders, posted 8 January 2017, ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  4. Renate Yarborough-Sanders, ibid., posted 8 January 2017.
  5. “Of Master and Servant,” William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: The Rights of Persons (Oxford, England : Clarendon Press, 1765), 414; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  6. “Abscond; to depart secretly and hide oneself,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  7. William F. Sullivan, Jr., “‘Born to be Hanged:’ What Runaway Apprentice Advertisements Reveal about Connecticut’s Master Craftsmen in the Early Republic,” 46 Connecticut History 46 (Spring 2007): 1-15; html version, Runaway Connecticut ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
  8. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: The Rights of Persons, 419-420.
  9. “Ranaway,” Raleigh (N.C.) Register, 30 November 1824, p. 4, col. 3; digital images, ( : accessed 10 Jan 2017).
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