George Washington placed this ad, seeking four fugitives, in the Maryland Gazette, on August 20, 1761. At this point in time, Washington, who had been a slaveholder since his father died when he was 11 years of age, had just radically expanded the number of people he owned through his marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis. When the two merged households in 1759, she brought 84 enslaved people with her to Mount Vernon, Virginia.
The description of the four runaways shows how close many people working on plantations in Virginia in the middle of the 18th century were to their African origins. Two of the fugitives, the ad stipulates, had just been bought “from an African Ship in August 1759” and spoke little English. Another was a “Countryman” of the two who were new to Virginia and could have communicated with them to plan the escape.
Their identifying characteristics, too, tied them to their African homes: “Jack” has “Cuts down each Cheek, being his Country Marks”: “Neptune“‘s “Teeth” were “stragling and fil’d sharp” and his “Back, if rightly remember’d, has many small Marks or Dots running from both Shoulders down to his Waistband.”
The editors of the Papers of George Washington have annotated this ad, noting other appearances of these enslaved workers in Washington’s correspondence and accounts. (The annotations are available online.) Among their insights: Three out of the four people named in this ad can be found on lists of enslaved people at Mount Vernon a year after they tried to run.