Recently, I came across an interesting notice in an early edition of the Virginia Gazette. On June 9, 1738, Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, placed a notice in the newspaper about one of his indentured servants running away. The notice read…
“RAN away from Capt. McCarty’s Plantation, on Pope’s Creek, in Westmoreland County, a Servant Man belonging to me the Subscriber, in Prince William County; his Christian Name is John, but Sirname [sic] forgot, is pretty tall, a Bricklayer by Trade, and is a Kentishman; he came to Patowmack, in the Forward, Capt. Major, last Year; is suppos’d to have the Figure of our Saviour mark’d with Gunpowder on one of his Arms. He went away about the 20th of April last, in Company with three other Servants…”
The notice then described the three other indentured servants, ostensibly belonging to McCarty. First, sailor Richard Martin was “a middle siz’d Man, fresh colour’d, and 22 Years of Age.” Next, tailor Edward Ormsby was “a small thin Fellow, of a swarthy Complexion . . . has a Hesitation or Stammering in his Speech, and being an Irishman, has a good deal of the Brogue.” Finally, carpenter Richard Kibble was “a middle siz’d young Fellow, has several Marks made with Gunpowder on his Arms, but particularly one on his Breast, being the Figures of a Woman and a Cherry Tree.”
I found the inclusion of the tattoos’ descriptions fascinating and the spark to many questions. How common was tattooing in Colonial America? Who was most likely to have tattoos? What kind were popular? Where were they placed on the body? And finally, why did colonial people choose to permanently mark their bodies in this fashion?
Tattoos in Early America
Tattooing is as old as the human race itself. Anthropologists place its origins sometime in the pre-historic Paleolithic era or “before the wide dispersal of man.” Tattooing has been practiced in early societies and indigenous cultures for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, documentation of tattoos from the 18th century is scarce, and finding information about tattooing in early America is nearly impossible. Two records I did find helpful were the Seamen’s Protection Certificate Applications (SPC-A) and various runaway indentured servant and convict notices in the Virginia Gazette.
The SPC-A were applications made by seamen under the Act for Relief and Protection of American Seamen of 1796. The act was passed to protect American seamen from impressment into the British Royal Navy in the years that led up to the War of 1812. Each sailor who served on a United States vessel applied for a certificate of protection, which included a detailed physical description that encompassed any tattoos.
The applications range from sailors of 12-years-old with one tattoo to 59-years-old with several detailed designs. Tattoos on the “17 and under” tended to be pretty standard symbols like personal initials, initials of loved ones, or small maritime and religious marks like anchors and crucifixes. These were boys probably just starting their careers as sailors and had not yet had the time or the travels to collect a more complex range of tattoos.
For the more seasoned sailor, initials, names, words, and letters seemed to be the most common and sought after tattoos with 38% of all reported from 1796-1818 falling into this category. Second most common was the 21% of sailors who reported some type of sea-themed tattoo from simple anchors and compasses to more complex ships, mermaids, and sea creatures.
Surprisingly, coming in at 8% were symbols of love with around 200 tattoos. These included but were not limited to hearts, linked hearts, hearts and darts, hearts and arrows, hearts with initials and dates, bleeding hearts, and hearts with doves. Patriotic and political tattoos were prevalent as well, particularly with men born in or before 1776. These designs included flags, eagles, clusters of stars, “1776”, and words such as “Independence” and “Liberty”. Religious symbols represented around 8% of tattoos and another 4% were miscellaneous depictions of people and animals or other crude drawings.
Around 95% of tattoos were found on sailors’ hands or arms. This became much less common during the 20th century when areas like the chest, shoulders, back, and legs grew in popularity, providing a bigger canvas while also being easier to cover.
Indentured Servants & Convicts
Another source for my survey of colonial tattoo use was newspaper notices alerting the populace to runaway indentured servants and wayward convicts. Fifteen different notices examined from the Virginia Gazette between 1737 and 1768 described a runaway’s tattoos. For these 14 men and one woman, the tattoos ranged from initials made with gunpowder to a complicated floral design in blue ink.
The woman, a “convict servant” named Winnifred Thomas, was described as “mark’d on the Inside of her Right Arm, with Gun-powder, W.T. and the Date of the Year underneath.” It is a fair assumption that the tattooed W.T. were her initials and may have been done for identification purposes.
Of the 14 men, 11 had lettering of some sort, whether their initials or the name of a loved one. Convict servant William Roberts, for example, had tattooed on his arm the name “Mary Roberts” along with “Letters on one of his Hands, mark’d with Gun-powder, and on one of his Arms a darted Heart.”
Six of the men had designs ranging from floral patterns to bleeding hearts to religious iconography. Christopher Lewellen, a runaway indentured servant, had “a great many letters and Flowers mark’d on his Arms in Blue, with the letters C L on one of his Hands, very dull.” John Peters, also an indentured servant, was “mark’d on the middle of his Breast, with the Picture of a Woman and several Children before her” plus “on one Arm, a crucifix,” and “on the other, the Jerusalem Arms.”
The placement of the tattoos tended to be on the arms, wrists, or hands with all 15 having at least one mark on these extremities. Only two men were described as having marks on their chest in addition to their arms.
There is minimal information available that documents tattooing and tattoos in Colonial America. What information we can glimpse is from records that were mainly descriptive markers of the subject. The personal history and individual intent of the tattoos are lost to time.
We can surmise from the data that the people who marked their skin with gunpowder or ink tended to be those on the margins of society. At the time, these were people deemed to be in the lower rungs of society or people in positions of servitude. They could mark their bodies without their social position being questioned because they were already positioned at the bottom.
Why might they mark themselves in society when already marginalized? There are a few possible reasons. First, the tattoos could have been forced upon them. It was common for soldiers to get tattoos as a form of identification. It would have been a convenient and permanent way to mark convicts, indentured servants, enslaved workers, and others in servitude, hindering potential escapes and creating easier captures.
Second, tattoos created comradery and a sense of belonging, particularly for the sailors. It became sort of rite of passage for sailors to tattoo their bodies with marks of their trade and thereby distinguishing themselves from “landlubbers.”
Lastly, people got tattooed for sentimental reasons, which is similar to the primary reason people arguably get tattooed today. Tattoos reminded them of their family, faith, and history. It was a way to permanently remember important events and people in their lives.
We do not know if Augustine Washington’s runaway notice in the Virginia Gazette resulted in the return of John or any of the other three indentured servants. He offered 5 pounds reward for John’s return. The notice reports that “They went away from Capt. Aylett’s Landing, on Patowmack, in a small Boat and are suppos’d to be gone towards the Eastern-Shore or North-Carolina.” Another of the runaways in one the other notices examined was believed to be headed to North Carolina as well. The wild, sparsely-populated swamps, tidal marshes, and barrier islands of both regions drew many of the 18th century’s marginalized people seeking to create a new, freer life. Many likely marked in some way by tattoos.
 Ira Dye, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), 520; Petar N. Zidarov, “The Antiquity of Tattooing in Southeastern Europe,” in Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing, ed. Lars Krutak and Aaron Deter-Wolf (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 137-149.
 Dye, 544.
 Dye, 541.