GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Five Pounds Sterling Reward. RUN AWAY … NEGROE MAN, named DAVID.”
This advertisement for a runaway slave named David provides a brief description of his appearance, including special features like the holes in his ears and the blanket, hat, and pair of “cheque trowsers, and an old cheque shirt” he took when he escaped. Slaves’ appearance was crucial to advertisements seeking their capture because clothing was one of the most important means of identifying people in the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Runaway slaves attempted to disguise themselves through altering or changing their clothes when possible.
Charmaine A. Nelson recently discussed the use of clothing in runaway slave advertisements. The amount of control slaves had over their appearance varied, and while David may not have had much choice in the clothes he possessed he still could have attempted to change his appearance after escaping his master. Nelson draws attention to David Waldstreicher’s arguments regarding the importance of describing slaves’ appearance and clothing in runaway advertisements, along with “trades or skills, linguistic ability or usage, and ethnic or racial identity.” Nelson also focuses on the case of a runaway woman named Cash, whose description included clothes she owned and that she presumably produced.
It’s depressing to realize that at a time when ideas of liberty and democracy were taking root in the American consciousness, people were also callously trampling on other humans’ attempts to gain freedom and prosperity.
For more information see “Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care” at The Junto.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Thomas Lee’s notice offering a reward for David included all four of the most common types of descriptions in runaway advertisements identified by David Waldstreicher. Sam has already investigated the clothing David took with him. Lee also implicitly remarked on David’s trade or skills when he mentioned that the enslaved man fled “from the subscriber’s brick-yard.” He explicitly incorporated linguistic ability (“can speak no English”) and ethnic identity (“of the Gambia country”). This notice was one of nineteen runaway advertisements printed in newspapers throughout the colonies during the week of February 26 through March 4, 1767. Most deployed some or all of these common means of describing runaways.
From the clothes that David wore to his height to the “large hole in each year,” Lee provided means for identifying the fugitive slave according to his physical features, but doing so required surveillance by readers of the Georgia Gazette. In order for runaway advertisements to be effective, colonists needed to scrutinize black bodies – carefully, actively, and constantly. Using text rather than images, runaway advertisements put the bodies of Africans and African Americans on display in the pages of newspapers, but this effect was not limited to print. Such advertisements demanded that readers take special notice of any and all black people they encountered, especially any not previously familiar to them. Such advertisements required close inspection of black bodies as readers compared published descriptions to the flesh-and-blood people who stood before them. As a result, runaway advertisements targeted specific individuals, but they potentially affected all black people subject to being sized up by readers on the lookout for fugitives.
Readers of the Georgia Gazette grappled with only one runaway advertisement in the March 4, 1767, issue. However, other runaway advertisements had appeared recently in previous issues, including one for Maria that ran for six months. Such descriptions would have become very familiar to readers who encountered them week after week. Often multiple runaway advertisements appeared in any given issue of the Georgia Gazette. As a result, readers could mentally conjure up an assortment of mental images of various runaways whenever they encountered unfamiliar Africans and African Americans. Print furthered the display and examination of black bodies in colonial and Revolutionary America.
 David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 248.