What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“My apprentice Patrick Nihell will make his escape.”
Throughout the eighteenth century, runaway advertisements were one of the most common types of notices inserted in newspapers. Slaveholders advertised runaway slaves. Masters advertised runaway indentured servants. Husbands advertised runaway wives. Military officers advertised runaway soldiers who had deserted. Masters advertised runaway apprentices. For people in subordinate positions, for people who were often exploited by others, running away from those who exercised power and authority over them was a means of attempting to remedy their situation.
Some of these advertisements appeared more frequently than others. Advertisements for runaway slaves and runaway servants were most common, though their proportion varied from region to region based on how extensively the local economy depended each type of labor. Newspapers in the Chesapeake and Lower South disseminated many advertisements for runaway slaves, but far fewer advertisements for runaway servants. Their counterparts in the Middle Atlantic regularly featured many of both types of advertisements, though careful quantitative analysis would likely reveal that advertisements for runaway servants significantly outnumbered advertisements for runaway slaves in that region. In New England, on the other hand, advertisements for runaway slaves appeared only occasionally and less frequently than advertisements for runaway servants.
Husbands advertised runaway wives throughout the colonies. Not surprisingly, newspapers in the largest urban ports – Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia – had the highest concentration of such advertisements, corresponding to the size of their populations, yet such notices also appeared in newspapers published in smaller towns. Advertisements for runaway soldiers were the least common, but readers also encountered them in newspapers throughout the colonies.
Finally, advertisements for runaway apprentices ran in newspapers in every region of colonial America, but tended to be most heavily concentrated in those regions that had higher numbers of indentured servants rather than slaves. In running away, abused apprentices sought to escape mistreatment by their masters. In today’s advertisements, Thomas Lee, Jr., updated the standard format for such advertisements. His apprentice, Patrick Nihell, had not run away, but their relationship had apparently deteriorated to the point that Lee suspected Nihell would “make his escape.” In anticipation, Lee preemptively warned “all masters of vessels and others” not to assist Nihell in any way if he did attempt to abscond. He concluded by threatening anyone who colluded with the apprentice “may depend to be prosecuted to the utmost rigour of the law.”