Who ere the subjects of an advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Two Negro Men, supposed to have gone off in Company.”
Two Black men, known to their enslavers as Boston and Newport, liberated themselves in the summer of 1770. They escaped from Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainfield, Connecticut, during the night of August 8. Coit and Kinsman, in turn, immediately set about placing newspaper advertisements describing Boston and Newport and offering rewards in hopes of enlisting other colonists in capturing the Black men and returning them to enslavement. Unlike most enslavers who placed such advertisements in a single newspaper or multiple newspapers in a single city, Coit and Kinsman broadened the scope of their surveillance and recovery efforts by inserting advertisements in five newspapers published in five cities and towns in four colonies. In addition to the reward they offered, they made an investment in advertisements that ran in Hartford’s Connecticut Courant, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, the New-London Gazette, the New-York Journal, and the Providence Gazette.
Although similar, these advertisements were not identical. The variations tell a more complete story of the escape devised by Boston and Newport. Consider the notice that ran in the New-London Gazette. Dated August 9 (first appearing in the August 10 edition) and signed by Coit, it featured Boston only, describing him as “a stout, thick-set fellow, of middling stature, about 30 years old, very black.” It was the only advertisement that included a visual image, a crude woodcut of a Black person in motion, wearing a grass skirt and carrying a staff, an “R” for runaway on the chest. Another advertisement dated August 9 ran in the New-York Journal, but that one included the descriptions of both Boston and Newport. It did not appear until August 23, likely due to the time it took for the copy to arrive in the printing office in New York from Plainfield. An undated advertisement with almost identical copy also ran in the Providence Gazette for the first time on August 18, likely dispatched to the printing office at the same time as the one sent to New York. Coit and Kinsman both signed it. They noted in the final paragraph that “Said Negroes have Passes, and if apprehended, ‘tis requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters.” Quite likely Coit sent the copy for his advertisement concerning Boston to the New-London Gazette, the newspaper closest to Plainfield, prior to discovering that Newport liberated himself from Kinsman. When the enslavers realized that Boston and Newport liberated themselves on the same night, they collaborated on new advertisements with a narrative updated from what ran in the New-London Gazette. The new version stated that Boston and Newport were suspected “to have gone off in Company,” a conspiracy to free themselves. Determining that they had passes may have caused Coit and Kinsman to widen the scope of their efforts by publishing in multiple newspapers in New England and New York, realizing that the passes increased the mobility and chances of escape for Boston and Newport.
Two other advertisements, those that ran in the Connecticut Courant and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, had identical copy. They included short descriptions of Boston and Newport, signed by Coit and Kinsman. In a nota bene, they declared, “It is suspected said Negroes have got a forg’d Pass.” These advertisements were both dated August 10. The notice in the Hartford newspaper first appeared on August 13 and in the Boston newspaper on August 16. As the enslavers fretted about Boston and Newport having better prospects for making good on their escape thanks to the passes, they likely determined that they needed to place notices in additional newspapers. Doing so amounted to an effort to recruit more colonists to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine whether they might be Boston or Newport.
Advertisements for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves appeared in American newspapers just about every day in the era of the American Revolution. The advertisements concerning Boston and Newport were not unique in their content or purpose. What made them extraordinary was the geographic scope of the newspapers in which they appeared and the effort and expense undertaken by the enslavers Coit and Kinsman. They marshalled the power of the press across a vast region in their attempt to return Boston and Newport to bondage.