What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“His past Offences will be forgiven.”
Charles Crouch, the printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, generated significant revenue from publishing advertisements for “runaways.” Most of those runaways were actually enslaved men and women who escaped from those who attempted to hold them in bondage. These included “a negro fellow named LONDON, this country born” and “a negro man named ISAAC” who spoke “tolerable good English” even though he came from “the Guinea country” and survived the Middle Passage. Both men were subjects of advertisement that ran in the supplement published on March 15, 1770.
Apprentices, indentured servants, convict servants, and even recalcitrant wives were sometimes the subjects of other runaway notices, though not nearly in the same numbers as enslaved people in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal and other newspapers published in Charleston. In newspapers published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, however, the number of runaway notices for apprentices and servants rivaled or often exceeded the advertisements for enslaved men and women who escaped. Still, notices calling on colonists to help identify and return enslaved people to those who purported to be their masters appeared in every newspaper from Georgia to New England.
Crouch not only published advertisements concerning a variety of runaways but on occasion found himself in the position of placing them. In the same supplement that carried notices about London and Isaac, Crouch ran a notice directed to his own apprentice, William Way, who “hath absented himself from my Service, for two Months past.” Addressing Way or anyone who would pass along the message, Crouch pledged that if the wayward apprentice “will return of his own Accord, and behave himself well in future, his past Offences will be forgiven.” Enslavers occasionally, though rarely, made similar proposals when they attempted to recover people they treated as property.
Crouch’s advertisement told a truncated story about his disobedient apprentice. It told Crouch’s side of the story. In the advertisement, Crouch blamed Way for “absent[ing] himself” and accused him of “past Offences” that the printer would generously forgive, but he did not comment on anything that he might have done to exacerbate the situation. It did not indicate if the master had mistreated or abused the apprentice. Every runaway notice told only a partial story, one constructed by someone who possessed significantly more power and authority than the subject of the advertisement. Such notices aimed to reassert order in the face of apprentices, servants, and enslaved people exercising agency and seizing power away from those who usually wielded it. These skirmishes played out in advertisements that appeared in the public prints throughout the colonies.