The Years that Count: Analyzing Years of Separation in “The Christian Recorder” ‘Information Wanted’ Ads

Courtesy of Accessible Archives

Courtesy of Accessible Archives


The Christian Recorder is arguably one of the best sources documenting African-American History from the Civil War Era. A weekly periodical published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), brought religious news and current events to the African-American communities throughout both the North and South in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Aside from the articles, one its most valuable resources at the time of its publication and today for historians, was the “Information Wanted” section. From 1861 (the paper was technically founded in 1854, yet had a short-lived run in publication) to 1902, almost each issue features various ads placed by African-Americans throughout the country who were seeking missing loved ones after the war and Emancipation. Some of the ads placed contain every minutia of information that would have been helpful to locate a loved one from their location of origin, location last seen, length of separation and even specifics dealing with the former lives of their loved ones. Other unfortunately for historians, had the very basics necessary: name of person(s) and person(s) of contact. While the information featured in The Christian Recorder can be drawn out and transcribed into data, it poses a devastating portrait of 600 + families who had been torn apart in the chaotic war. One of the most basic piece of information that is also one of the most haunting, is the compilation of years of separation that appears in the ads. Unfortunately, many of the ads are missing vital information that could have helped some families locate in a more efficient matter. However; there is enough information presented in the ads to at least create an accurate representation of the clientele using The Christian Recorder. Not all of those who placed ads included years that their loved ones were missing or their reason for be separated, but those who did can give me us an interesting snapshot into the chaos during and after the Civil War for African-American families trying to reconnect and live as a free and whole family.


Years of Separation

After reviewing our class compilation of “Information Wanted” Ads, the column for years of separation was something that stuck out for me, especially as I wanted to to try and visually capture a different narrative on family and the emotions of searching for loved ones. Numbers can be challenging though in terms of representing emotions, especially staring at the reader from a spreadsheet.  My goal then, was to create a visual that would help people not only quickly process the information, but hopefully touch them as well. For starters, out of the 686 ads placed in The Christian Recorder from 1861- 1869, only 256 listed the years of separation. Therefore; the sample size for a visual was going to appear small since it was less than half.


While the sample size is small though, the visual it produces can provide a lot of information for the time period when compared to the original spreadsheet and the dates of the ads placed. Below is the bar graph based on the sample size of those who provided the separation length in their ads and the frequency in which they appear. While the below graph may only represent a 37% chunk of those who placed in ads over the time between 1861 and 1869, there was enough information to create a somewhat startling visual.

Untitled 2

The bar graph is  great because it allows historians to determine length of separation while also connecting reason for separation. Again, many of the entries are incomplete and the reasons for separation do not always match up with an entry that provided length of separation, however; we can make many inferences for those that are incomplete, as well as rely on the ads that are complete; providing both reason and length of separation. For instance, as seen above in the graph, one of the most frequently published separation length mentioned in the ads was 4 years. 4 years would make the most sense in the time period of the ads: 1861-1869 because almost 25 entries related the years of separation to military service either by voluntary service, or in some instances forced services. It would make sense considering that many emancipated African-Americans were migrating north with what was left of their families, forcing them to leave they male family members behind. Coming in close to the frequency of the 4 year length , are some multi-decade numbers: 15, 20, etc… While 25 separations were due to military service, approximately 160 + were due to slavery and being sold away from  the family before the war. The next runner-up is 23 entries citing 16 years of separation, followed by 22 entries citing 10 years of separation. For those who listed their cause of separation , these typically link to slavery and the loved one being sold or taken in the wanted ads themselves . It is amazing to see that in the years during and after the war, the families were still hoping to be reunited with loved ones. Some, as the graph shows, were separated for 40 years and one for 45! It must have been so devastating to continue the search for a family member who had been missing for multiple decades. Again, in researching this and compiling the data the numbers become the feature. However; after you look at the numbers and the visuals, one needs to remember that the 40 is 40 years without that loved one, not mere digits. In the aftermath of war and in the promise of freedom, there is still this creative hope  and notion of fidelity that by using The Christian Recorder as an advocate and voice, that there could still be a chance . What surprised me as I compiled the information was the relative low number of people who reported loved ones missing for 1,2,3 years before the significant increase of loved ones being lost for 4 years. i expected many more in the single digit numbers because of length of war-time service and knowing that some southern towns were emancipated late in the war. The Union army, most likely taking what they could get towards the end of the war, it seems that more men would have been drafted and boosted the frequency of 1,2,3 year separations. Almost as emotional as the numbers in the years frequency, are some of the reasons listed for separation in the ads. Again, many are due to military service, but most are attributed to slavery. All the various reasons listed in the ads can seen and analyzed in the visual below.

Wordle: Christian Recorder Ads





As stated before, I chose the topic above because there was something so interesting and yet so haunting about the numbers. In the spreadsheet, it stares back at you as numbers in a  formula. However; once i created the bar graph and could get a comparative visual, it turned into something else for me entirely. I knew from the get go that I wanted to use charts and graphs because they would make an impact as visuals. As simple as it seems, the charts and graphs were made using Numbers by Apple. I made a separate spreadsheet with the information that i needed and picked and chose the different visuals that I wanted it to correspond with and the particulars that i thought would best make the information pop in the most concise way. I wasn’t initially going to add the Wordle, but as I was going through and extracting the information, I felt I would be doing disservice to the bigger picture. Because of the time period I myself after just crunching the numbers and creating the visuals, figured most separation years between 1-8 or 9 years would be due to military service. If not military service, then possible contraband camps, basically any event that was tied to the war or emancipation. As I scrolled through the data, I kept seeing over and over again “sold”, “sold by owner”, “advertisee sold”, “advertiser sold” and even “taken”. It was devastating to see that even after the war and emancipation, the majority of people who appealed to The Christian Recorder for advocacy, were still searching for loved ones who were casualties of the terror of the slave trade and southern slavocracy. While for this article i merely compiled the data, anyone with a deep interest in the Civil War or American slavery, could take this project to a much deeper level. Afterwards, it left me wondering about the narratives of these people. Who were they? Did they find their loved ones? Were their families successful? A project that could culminate from this articles could be a biography of any of the people mentioned in the advertisements, or the advertisers themselves. it would be fascinating to find about their lives as slaves, their migration to the north, or even their connection to The Christian Recorder. I’d also be interested in a compilation of success statistics based on the ads featured in The Christian Recorder, and the families who placed them.



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