September 10

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

Sep 10 - 9:10:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (September 10, 1767).

“LOTTERY, For DISPOSING of certain LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS.”

Advertisements offering slaves for sale regularly appeared among the multitude of commercial notices in colonial newspapers. Sometimes masters sought to sell a single slave via a private sale. Other times merchants advertised auctions for dozens of slaves recently arrived in the colonies as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Especially in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, executors frequently placed notices concerning estate sales that included multiple slaves.

Thomas Moore, however, devised a different method for “DISPOSING of certain LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS.” Instead of selling his slaves via auction or negotiation, he ran a lottery with a limited number of tickets. Moore and his agents sought to sell 335 tickets. Forty-one would win prizes, but the other 294 were “Blanks.” Participants could calculate that each ticket had roughly a one in eight chance of winning one of the prizes.

Moore carefully delineated the forty-one prizes, listing a short description and value for each. A total of thirty slaves accounted for twenty of the prizes. The remainder consisted of seven prizes for land (with various improvements), ten for cattle, and four for horses. The total value of all the prizes amounted to £6700. Once all 335 tickets were sold at £20 each, Moore was assured of achieving the full value of the slaves, land, and livestock, a much less risky venture than going to auction and possibly coming up significantly short of the assessed value of his property.

The list of prizes included seven men, ten women, and thirteen children of various ages. Moore described some of the children as “boy” or “girl” rather than “man” or “woman,” suggesting that at least some of them may have been youths. In several instances, prizes consisted of multiple slaves sold together as families. In such cases, Moore used the word “child” and sometimes included an age, usually one or two years. He placed more emphasis, however, on the skills possessed by their parents. Harry, for instance, was “a fine sawer and clapboard carpenter.” York was “a fine gang leader.” Sarah was “a fine house servant, and a very good mantuamaker.”

Participants who purchased a single ticket and won cattle or horses broke even, but those who won slaves or land had a windfall. One slave, a “Negro woman named Sue,” was valued at £25. Ten others were valued at £30, £40, or £50 each. Jemmy, “as good a sawer as any in the colony,” merited £100 on his own. Each of the eight families had been assessed from £75 to £180. Any prize involving land had an even higher value, from £250 to £2000 for a tract of 500 acres and a house that would have been considered the grand prize.

It would not be accurate to say that giving away enslaved men, women, and children as prizes in a lottery was any more or less cruel than other methods of selling them. Moore’s advertisement for his lottery, however, does demonstrate yet another way that slaves, regardless of their family relations or skills, were treated as property and dehumanized in the colonial era.

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