What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
Edward Westmore’s advertisement tells only a portion of the story of “a Negro fellow named JAMES” who had been “COMMITTED to the publick gaol [jail] in Williamsburg,” Virginia. It appears that Westmore believed that James was a runaway slave; he refers to James having an owner, but it seems less clear that James acknowledged that he was a runaway or that anybody had alerted Westmore and other Virginians to be alert for a runaway fitting James’ description (including the distinctive “gashes of his country” that marked each cheek, an African practice).
James apparently revealed a portion of his past to Westmore, including a sale that took place six years earlier when Colonel Hunter sold him to David Sallen. Did Sallen still own James? Did James acknowledge that Sallen was his master and admit to being a runaway? It’s difficult to reach a definitive conclusion based on the truncated narrative in this advertisement. James reported that he had most recently been in Philadelphia, but whether he was there with his master – either Sallen or someone else – was ambiguous, at least as far as what was reported in Westmore’s advertisement. After all, it states that “The owner may have him” rather than “said Sallen may have him.”
James may very well have been a runaway slave. It was the most probable scenario, but it wasn’t the only one. It was also possible that he had achieved or been granted his freedom, yet as an African man traveling through Virginia he would have been subject to suspicion. His word would not necessarily have been enough to keep him from being captured and committed to the local jail with the expectation that a master was looking for him and would eventually claim him. His appearance alone – the color of his skin and his African origins – made him a target for harassment and incarceration that would not have been directed at most white colonists.