What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Said Negroes are supposed to have Passes.”
In eighteenth-century newspapers, advertisements often served as a supplemental source of news. Paid notices delivered information about current events that editors did not necessarily select for inclusion among the news articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper. Advertisements about “runaways,” enslaved people who liberated themselves, fit into this category of paid notices that delivered the news.
Consider an advertisement concerning “two Negro Men,” Boston and Newport, “supposed to have gone off in Company” with each other that ran in the August 18 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette. The enslavers who placed the advertisement, Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainsfield, Connecticut, provided lengthy descriptions of Boston, “a thick-set, well-built Fellow, of a middle Stature, about 30 Years of Age very black,” and Newport, “a well-built Fellow, of a lesser Size than the former, and not so clear a Black, about 24 Years of Age.” In addition to these physical descriptions, Coit and Kinsman listed all of the clothing that Boston and Newport took with them, hoping that “a Snuff-coloured Velvet Jacket, lined with Calimanco, having Horn Buttons nearly of the same Colour” would help vigilant colonists recognize Boston or that “a Pair of Brown Fustian Breeches” would aid in identifying Newport. The enslavers also suspected that Boston and Newport “have Passes,” though they did not elaborate on how the enslaved men had acquired those passes, whether they were literate enough to forge passes for themselves or if an accomplice provided them. Coit and Kinsman may not have known; they “requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters,” perhaps in hopes of examining them to determine their origins and prevent Boston, Newport, and other enslaved people from making use of other passes in subsequent attempts to liberate themselves.
Placed for the purpose of capturing Boston and Newport in order to return them to bondage, this advertisement operated as a news report that supplemented the other contents of the Providence Gazette. As readers perused the paid notices in the August 18, 1770, edition, they learned of impoverished colonists seeking “the Benefit of an Act … for the Relief of insolvent Debtors,” a burglary in Middletown, Connecticut, a variety of goods “STOPPED” because they were “Supposed to have been stolen,” and the efforts of Boston and Newport to seize their own liberty. Since printers often focused on reprinting news from faraway places, local news appeared among the advertisements.