What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … a Negro man named PETER.”
I could not select a single advertisement to feature today. Instead, I have chosen an entire genre: advertisements for runaway slaves.
Today’s advertisements from the Virginia Gazette are the first from the Chesapeake colonies featured by the Adverts 250 Project. As I have explained previously, different institutions provide varying levels of access to Readex’s Early American Newspapers database. The most complete access is available via the American Antiquarian Society (there listed as America’s Historical Newspapers), Readex’s partner in creating the database. Via my own campus library and the Boston Public Library’s online electronic resources, I am able to access about two-thirds of the titles from 1766 available via the American Antiquarian Society, but those titles are restricted primarily to New England and Middle Atlantic colonies. (My students and I are able to access Early American Newspapers via the campus library and the Boston Public Library anywhere we are connected to the Internet. Accessing the database via the American Antiquarian Society, however, requires being on site. To avoid an additional layer of responsibilities for an already extensive class project, I did not require my students to visit the American Antiquarian Society. Instead, I delayed incorporating the additional newspapers from the Chesapeake colonies into the Adverts 250 Project until I resumed my role as sole curator once the semester concluded.)
I have argued before that regional differences within eighteenth-century newspapers have shaped the Adverts 250 Project to this point. Today I present visually striking evidence to make that case.
We have certainly seen that slavery was present in New England and Middle Atlantic colonies in the 1760s. Advertisements seeking to buy and sell enslaved men, women, and children appeared regularly in the local newspapers, as did other advertisements warning against runaway slaves and offering rewards for their capture and return to their masters. Such advertisements did not appear, however, with the frequency seen here. A single page of the May 2, 1766, issue of the Virginia Gazette included NINE advertisements for runaway slaves, each easily identified by the crude woodcut that accompanied it. I have previously argued that advertisements for slaves in newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies demonstrated that slavery was a part of everyday life, commerce, and culture in early America. The Virginia Gazette gives us a glimpse even further south where a greater number of slaves toiled – and seized their own liberty by running away. Slavery was well integrated into the northern colonies, but it was truly ubiquitous in the Chesapeake and Lower South.
The appearance of this page of the Virginia Gazette is stunning in its own regard. It becomes even more jarring when taking into consideration the recent repeal of the Stamp Act, a development widely celebrated as delivering the American colonies from enslavement by Great Britain. Virginians were among the first and most vocal opponents of the Stamp Act. Their yelps for their own liberty, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, stand in strike juxtaposition to the bondage of enslaved men, women, and children in their colony.