What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD … a NEGRO MAN, that understand the Rope-making Business.”
“What can we learn about the experiences of enslaved people and the history of slavery in America from newspaper advertisements?” This is a question that I regularly pose to students in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery and Freedom in America, and Public History classes when I introduce them to the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and explain that they will serve as guest curators. John Clapham’s advertisements in the September 29, 1769, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette illustrate one of the primary objectives of the project. It usually takes most students by surprise.
First, they are astounded to discover advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children in newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Like many Americans, they are most familiar with a narrative that places enslaved people in the antebellum South in the nineteenth century, but they do not initially realize the extent that slavery was an institution in every colony in the eighteenth century. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project forces them to grapple with the number and frequency of these advertisements as they examine dozens of newspapers from the era of the American Revolution. If I were to present Clapham’s advertisement from the New-Hampshire Gazette in class, some students might not appreciate the magnitude, instead dismissing it as extraordinary. When they examine for themselves all the newspapers published in the colonies in late September and early October 1769, they discover that other advertisements concerning enslaved people appeared in other newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, Connecticut Courant, the Connecticut Journal, the Essex Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, the Newport Mercury, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Chronicle.
Most of my students grew up in New England or neighboring states. They confess that the presence of slavery in the region was not part of the narrative they encountered, whether in school curricula or in their communities. That allowed them to dismiss slavery not only as part of distant past but also as something that occurred somewhere else, not in the places they call home. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project helps them to reconsider the past and achieve a more complete understanding of the tensions between liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. I’ve learned from experience that it is not nearly as effective to present a selection of advertisements I have carefully culled to make specific points. Instead, my students integrate the history of slavery into their narratives of the eighteenth century much more effectively when they have the experience of examining dozens of newspapers from the period themselves.