January 12

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

SlaveryProvidence Gazette (January 12, 1771).“A Likely strong Negro Man.”

On January 12, 1771, an advertisement for a “Likely strong Negro Man, about 28 Years of Age,” ran in the Providence Gazette.  It was just one of dozens of advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children that appeared in newspapers published throughout the colonies during the week of Sunday, January 6, through Saturday, January 12.  From New England to South Carolina, newspapers contributed to the perpetuation of slavery by publishing advertisements about buying and selling enslaved people, notices that described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return, and advertisements about suspected “runaways” who had been committed to jails in northern colonies and workhouses in southern colonies.

Newspaper printers, including John Carter of the Providence Gazette, generated revenues from publishing at least seventy-one such advertisements.  They appeared in newspapers in every region:  six advertisements in five newspapers in New England, eleven advertisements in four newspapers in the Middle Atlantic, twenty-five advertisements in three newspapers in the Chesapeake, and twenty-nine newspapers in the Lower South.  This tally almost certainly undercounts the total number of newspaper advertisements concerning enslaved people published that week.  Two of the four pages of the January 8 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal are missing.  Portions of the January 10 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette are so damaged as to be illegible.  No copies of the Georgia Gazette from 1771 survive, though other sources confirm that newspaper continued publication throughout the year.  This census of newspapers notices concerning enslaved men, women, and children provides only the minimum number of such notices that readers throughout the colonies encountered that week.

That being the case, these advertisements were a familiar sight, a part of everyday life in the colonies … and not just colonies in the Chesapeake and the Lower South.  In New England, the Boston Evening-Post, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, the Massachusetts Spy, the New-Hampshire Gazette, and the Providence Gazette all carried advertisements concerning enslaved people.  In the Middle Atlantic, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal did as well.  Today it may seem striking to some to glimpse an advertisement about the sale of a “Likely strong Negro Man” in the pages of the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s, that advertisement did not seem out of place to readers in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England and other colonies when it was published.

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