runaway slave

If you want your negroes caught, we have well-trained packs of dogs.


Wilson Ledger, 13 November 1860.


Wilson Ledger, 8 January 1861.

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation includes a detailed discussion of “negro dogs” and their widespread use in the antebellum South. The chapter begins: “One of the most widespread methods of tracking runaways was to use highly trained so-called ‘negro dogs.’ Frederick Law Olmsted observed that no particular breed was used in the hunt — bloodhounds, foxhounds, bulldogs, Scotch staghounds, curs — but slave hunters and planters had a method of training each breed to be effective. The dogs were locked and ‘never allowed to see a negro except while training to catch him.’ They were given the scent of a black man or woman’s show or article of clothing and taught to follow the scent. Slaves were sent out as trainees, and when the dogs treed them, they were given meat as a reward. ‘Afterwards they learn to follow any particular negro by scent.'”

J.W. Hamlet and Jacob D. Farmer had illustrious company. President Zachary Taylor was a renowned importer of bloodhounds from the Caribbean, fearsome dogs who would tear a man to pieces if not constrained. John William Hamlet, born about 1823, was a Virginia native. He appears in the 1850 census of Edgecombe County as a poor farmer owning little or nothing, but the next decade saw his fortunes soar. Negro-hunting was good business. Hamlet is listed in the 1860 census of Wilson, Wilson County, as the owner of $4500 in real property and $4800 in personal property (primarily, one can assume, in the form of slaves and dogs.) Curiously, his occupation is not listed. Nor is that of his business partner, Jacob D. Farmer, who enjoyed a similar rise in circumstances from a penniless laborer in 1850 to the owner of sizeable real and personal estates in 1860.

Though the census enumerator may have been exercising discretion, Hamlet was notorious for his derring-do as a slave tracker. In October 1859, a local newspaper published a spine-tingling account of his standoff with three cornered runaways in neighboring Nash County. If the report is be believed literally, only Hamlet emerged from this do-or-die fray unbloodied.

Tboro Southerner 10 15 1859

Tarborough Southerner, 15 October 1859.

Others were less enchanted by Hamlet’s exploits. On 6 June 1860, Honorable Charles H. Van Wyck of New York delivered his “Despotism of Slavery” speech on the House floor. In his spirited response to Southerners’ defense of slavery as a human and elevating institution, Van Wyck called “a few facts” to their attention, including the burning slaves at the stake, the branding of slaves, and the common practice of splitting families on the auction block. If slavery is so “godlike and divine,” he thundered, why do slaves run away? Why the need for ads like this one?:

“Catch him! catch him! But how can you catch him, unless you have along the well-trained pack of negro dogs owned by J. W. Hamlet. This pack consists of five blood-hounds and two catch-dogs, which are very sagacious, and which, once on the trail, will be very apt to start the game.

“The subscriber having prepared himself, with considerable trouble and expense, for this line of business, is ready at any time to undertake the capture of fugitive slaves, in this or any of the adjoining counties or States.

“His rates will be found reasonable; and he is confident that his past success will justify others in employing him. Among many other names which could be given, if necessary, he begs leave to refer to the following: B. H. Bordon, Esq., Wilson; Junius Daniel, Esq., Halifax; R. D. Atkinson, Esq., Smithfield; John Lemon and James Winfield, Esq., of Nash.      — J.W. Hamlet, Wilson, North Carolina.”

After a series of such speeches in 1860, on February 22, 1861, three men attempted to assassinate Van Wyck near the Capital building. The Congressman fought off the attack, surviving only because a book and congressional records tucked into the breast pocket of his coat blocked the blade of a Bowie knife. His assailants fled and were never identified.

negro dogs

Van Wyck’s speech reported in 29 Cong. Globe Appx. 434-439, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. Image from Franklin and Schweninger, Runaway Slaves.

Coartney runs away.

Halifax Free Press 5 4 1833

Halifax Free Press, 4 May 1833.

$25 Reward.

RAN AWAY from the Subscriber, about six months since, a negro woman named COARTNEY — she is about 5 feet 6 inched in height, very black, and about 30 years old. I have no doubt she is lurking about Sparta and Mrs. Hunter’s, near Tarborough. I will give $35, is she is delivered to me in Stantonsburg, or confined in any jail in the State. All persons are forbid harboring or employing her under penalty of the law. WM. STEWART.

Stantonsburg, April 26th, 1833.

He will attempt to pass for a free man.

The Star and North Carolina State Gazette 5 4 1833

The Star and North Carolina State Gazette, 4 May 1833

$25 Reward.

Eloped from my plantation on Tosnot, Edgecomb county, on the 19th instant, a negro man named BRYANT, 22 or 23 years old, five feet 9 or 10 inches high, stout built, quite yellow for the appearance of his hair, which is as knotty as the negroes usually is, long lips, large feet and long toes, has a down look when spoken to; had on when he went off dark clothes and a black forward hat. It is probable that he will procure papers and attempt to pass for a free man, as he has done the like before, and will probably skulk about Doct. Hall’s plantation near Tarborough until he is prepared to make his escape, as his father and mother live there. I will give the above reward to ay person who will confine him in jail so that I get him again, or deliver him to me at Stantonsburg.  WILLIE BROWNRIGG.

Stantonsburg, April 22, 1833

His father is a free negro.

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North-Carolina Free Press (Tarboro), 24 January 1832.


RAN AWAY from the Subscriber, in May Court week last, a bright mulatto boy named JOHN, about 19 or 20 years of age, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, thick set and well built – he has a scar under his jaw, (I think the left jaw,) and thick ankles.  He is a shrewd fellow, and will perhaps alter his name and attempt to pass as a free man.  His father is a free negro, named Hardy Lassiter, living on Toisnot.  The above reward will be given for John’s apprehension, if delivered to me in Edgecombe county, or secured in any jail so that I can get him again.  All persons are hereby forbid harboring, employing, carrying off said boy, under the penalty of law.  SAMUEL FARMER.  Nov. 28, 1831.


He intends to leave this state with a free negro.

$20 REWARD. – RAN AWAY from the subscriber on the 6th instant, a negro man by the name of CAGE. Said negro is about twenty-seven years old, about five feet ten inches high, quick spoken and rather black – weighs some hundred and seventy pounds. It is my opinion that he intends to leave this State, with a free negro by the name of Nicholas Williams. The above reward will be given to any person, who will confine said negro in any jail or deliver him to me at my house about three miles above Toisnot Depot, Edgecombe County, N.C. – Josiah Jordan.

Tarboro Press, 13 March 1847.

Deliver him to Toisnot Depot.

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Eastern Carolina Republican (New Bern NC), 3 July 1850.

And then a shorter version, with different emphasis:

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Eastern Carolina Republican (New Bern NC), 20 November 1850.


will be paid for the delivery of the said HARRY to me at Tossnott Depot, Edgecombe county, or for his confinement in any Jail in the State so that I can get home, or One Hundred and Fifty Dollars will be given for his head.

He was lately heard from in New-Bern where he called himself Henry Barnes (or Burns), and will likely continue the same name, or assume that of Copage or Farmer. He has a free mulatto woman for a wife, by the name of Sally Bozeman, who has lately removed to Wilmington, and lives in that part of the town called Texas, where he will likely be lurking.

Master of vessels are particularly cautioned against harboring, employing, or concealing the said negro on board their vessels, as the full penalty of the law will be rigorously enforced. GUILFORD HORN.   June 29th, 1850

He has a free wife living near Stantonsburg.

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Newbern Sentinel, 4 September 1824.

N.B.: Wilson County was formed in 1855 from parts of Edgecombe, Johnston, Nash and Wayne Counties. At the time this ad was published, the town of Stantonsburg was in extreme southern Edgecombe County, very close to Wayne.