What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … A STOUT LIKELY NEGROE FELLOW, named TIM.”
A dozen advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children ran in the January 24, 1770, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Some offered them for sale like commodities. One sought skilled laborers, sawyers and squarers, “on Hire by the Year,” with the wages going to the enslaver rather than the workers. A regular feature, the “Brought to the Work-house” notice that often appeared as the last item on the final page of the Georgia Gazette, described four “NEGROE FELLOWS” captured and confined until those who asserted ownership claimed them.
In the midst of all the depictions of selling and imprisoning of enslaved people spread throughout the colony’s only newspaper, the vast majority of them unnamed in the advertisements, two notices did include names, at least the names that enslavers called those they held in bondage. Charlotte, a woman born in the colonies and “well known about Savannah,” escaped from William Mackenzie a week earlier. Tim, a man “about 30 years of age, Carolina born,” escaped more than a month earlier. Readers could recognize him by his “white whitney great coat, [and] red stroud breeches” as well as by his stutter if they attempted to engage him in conversation or challenge him with questions. Perhaps most distinctively, at some point Tim had been “branded on the left cheek” with the letter “R,” perhaps denoting “runaway” after a previous unsuccessful attempt to make good on his escape.
Like all of the advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children, filtered through the perspectives of enslavers, these two advertisements for “runaways” tell exceptionally abbreviated stories about their experiences. Although incomplete, they testify to a spirit of resistance and survival in the era of the American Revolution. As colonists decried their figurative enslavement to Parliament during the imperial crisis, Charlotte and Tim did not need a tutorial on the meaning of liberty. The fragmentary evidence in newspaper advertisements does not allow historians and others to reconstruct their stories as completely as the stories of white colonists who left behind more documents, but those notices do give us a glimpse of other struggles for freedom that took place during the imperial crisis. Enslaved men, women, and children had been seizing their own liberty by escaping from their captors long before the era of the American Revolution. They would continue to do so for nearly another century until slavery was abolished throughout the United States after the Civil War.