What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be SOLD … A Healthy likely Negro.”
When the new year began in 1770, colonists in New York had access to four newspapers printed in their bustling port city. Hugh Gaine published the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury on Mondays, the same day that James Parker circulated the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. On Thursdays, John Holt distributed the New-York Journal. Commencing in May 1769, Alexander Robertson and James Robertson released a new issue of the New-York Chronicle on Thursdays. All four newspapers carried advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children, who comprised a significant portion of the population. According to the New-York Historical Society, “As many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. … Almost every businessman in 18th-century New York had a stake, at one time or another, in the traffic of human beings.” Gaine, Parker, Holt, and the Robertsons certainly had a stake, generating revenue from advertisements offering enslaved people for sale and from notices describing those who escaped, the advertisers hoping that colonists would recognize, capture, and return “runaways” for a reward.
This advertisement seeking to sell a “Healthy likely Negro Wench, about Thirteen Years of Age,” appeared in the January 4, 1770, edition of the New-York Chronicle. As in so many other advertisements of this type, the seller did not include their name but instead instructed interested parties to “enquire of the Printers.” When they acted as information brokers in response to such enquiries, the Robertsons and other printers became even more enmeshed in the slave trade.
Yet the Robertsons ceased offering such services, not necessarily out of any moral compunction but instead because the New-York Chronicle closed down. The January 4 edition is the last known issue and, quite probably, the last issue of that newspaper. The newspaper did not survive an entire year, but the printers still managed to play a role in facilitating the slave trade in the colony. This advertisement offering a thirteen-year-old girl for sale ran on the final page of the January 4 edition. The New-York Chronicle helped to perpetuate slavery until the newspaper’s very end. New Yorkers then had one less place to insert advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children, but the disappearance of the New-York Chronicle likely made little difference in that regard. Three other newspapers continued to publish those advertisements, further embroiling colonial printers in maintaining and bolstering the slave trade. Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury tended to carry the most advertisements concerning enslaved people, but the others published them as well. As the 1770s dawned in New York, none of the city’s newspaper printers refused such advertisements and the fees associated with them.