December 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Supplement to the New-York Journal (December 20, 1766).

“RUN away from their Master in New-York, two indented Servants.”

Alexander M’Cullugh was not happy when two of his indentured servants ran away. He posted an advertisement describing Joseph M’Nabb, an “English Man” who “writes a good Hand” and “is a tolerable Scholar,” and William Rankin, a “Scotch Man” who was a “Shoe-maker by Trade.” He offered rewards to anyone who “secures them, so that their Master may have them again,” ten dollars for M’Nabb, but only five for Rankin. M’Cullugh concluded his advertisement with a nota bene that made a general observation about runaway servants: “It has been remarked by several, that none elopes but Irish People, but it is evident from the above, that there are other People of as bad a Species as the Hibernians.” Such caustic comments caught my eye in the aftermath of an election that featured the worst sorts of bigotry as part of an increasingly accepted and normalized public discourse. M’Cullugh cast aspersions based on ethnicity, status, and immigration, and he did so openly, in the public prints. Historians chart change over time, but sometimes the continuities are just as significant.

Advertisements for runaway indentured servants (and for runaway convict servants, too) regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, especially those published in the Middle Atlantic colonies. They were a standard part of the advertising pages, just as much so as advertisements for runaway slaves filled the pages of newspapers printed in the Chesapeake and the Lower South. Whether enslaved or indentured, men and women who called someone else “master” and who were exploited for their labor attempted to escape.

When teaching courses about early American history and culture, my responsibilities include examining the extent and significance of unfree labor in all of its forms. Given its unique aspects and enduring legacy, slavery receives certain emphasis, but not at the expense of indentured servitude, apprenticeship, and convict servants. That multiple forms of unfree labor existed in eighteenth-century America has created a conundrum – but also an opportunity – when working with students on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

That project privileges the experiences of slaves, incorporating every advertisement for runaway slaves while passing over similar numbers of advertisements for runaway servants. It offers an important, but somewhat truncated, glimpse of unfree labor in early America. When I designed the project, I grappled with whether to include advertisements for runaway servants and apprentices, but ultimately decided that would make the project too diffuse and perhaps too large to tackle with students. If the project included advertisements for runaway servants, then it would also need to include advertisements for servants for sale. It was better, I reasoned, to start with the slavery advertisements as an experiment and see how that unfolded before adding other sorts of runaways to the mix. Perhaps in the future the project might expand to include all unfree laborers. Perhaps my students and I could develop an alternate project devoted to runaways of all sorts (including runaway wives).

That’s where the opportunity arises. Even as my students passed over advertisements for runaway servants when doing the research for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, they recognized that they were indeed excluding a fair number of advertisements that resembled those included in the project. Although runaway servants were not incorporated into the digital humanities projects we pursued, they made it into one-on-one and classroom discussions about colonial American society and economics throughout the semester.

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