Runaway Slaves and “Country Marks”

Earlier today, a facebook friend asked me if I was knowledgeable about the history of runaway slaves. Of course, I said, that’s a topic I’ve been working on for about two years now. Ok, then, they asked further, what was in the meaning of the term “country marks” found in some runaway slave advertisements?

I wasn’t familiar with the phrase. County marks, I thought. Well, it could be welts or whipping marks, or just the marks of the rough hands of a field worker. Perhaps the country marks were some kind of branding that slaveholders used.

I asked for the source and received a link to an apparently unpublished 323-page document called African Runaway Slaves in the Anglo-American Atlantic World, Vol. 1: North America, edited and introduced by Douglas B. Chambers. In this volume, available here the term “country mark” apparently a total of 247 times.

Some who had country marks had scars on their foreheads, cuts on their cheeks, around their necks, between their eyes, on their arms or breasts. Some had ears full of holes. Country marks were lines, diamond-shapes, crosses, Most seem to be scars, but I wouldn’t rule out that some were tattoos.

Among the runaways with country marks, many were called “very black” and said to speak little or no English. This all points to one common denominator, that is, one thing they had in common: they were African-born. It dawned on me then (and perhaps I am a bit slow) but it dawned on me then that these country marks were made in Africa and symbolized tribal allegiances.

If gashes on a cheek is a country mark, then it is also a tool for locating the origin of the slave in question. Four gashes on the cheek is one place, five gashes is another. A number of these enslaved Africans had filed teeth.  I wonder to what extent colonial Americans, free or enslaved, could match slaves to their tribes or regions based on their marks. The place identifier often used in these advertisements were “Guinea/y” , “Angola” and “Ebo”.

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