November 18

GUEST CURATOR:  Kaden McSheffrey

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Boston-Gazette (November 18, 1771).

“Ran-away … a Negro Man Servant named CROMARTE.”

This advertisement from the Boston-Gazette in November 1771 offers a reward for “Negro Man Servant named CROMARTE, commonly called CRUM” who “Ran-away” from Samuel Fitch.  At first, Fitch calls Cromarte a “Negro Man Servant” and does not mention the word “slave.” At the end of the advertisement, however, he calls Cromarte a “Slave for Life” when he warns “Masters of Vessels and others” not to help him. This is interesting because many people are not aware that slavery was present in the northern colonies in the eighteenth century; most people assume that slavery happened only in the southern colonies. It is clear that this is an advertisement about an enslaved man in Boston in 1771. Cromarte’s experience was part of a longer story. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, “John Winthrop (the founder of Boston) … recorded on 26 February 1638 that the Massachusetts ship Desire had returned from the West Indies carrying ‘some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc.’”  Slavery was part of Massachusetts history from the earliest days of English settlement.



In Slavery and American History: The Tough Stuff of Memory (2006), James Oliver Horton tells a story of a tourist in Boston shocked to learn about slavery and the slave trade in New England.  “I thought we were better than that,” the tourist lamented.  Reflecting on this encounter, Horton notes that “confronting the contradiction between the American ideal and the reality of American history can be disturbing.”  He continues with an assertion: “The first task for the public historian is to attempt to address popular ignorance of slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and centrality.”[1]  Fifteen years later, historians and others continue to work toward that goal.  They have made some progress, especially in the wake of the 1619 Project, though that work has also met with backlash.

I teach at a regional university.  Most of my students grew up in New England.  They arrive in my classes assuming, as many Americans do, that slavery was limited to southern colonies and states.  When they serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, they see for themselves the extent that slavery thrived throughout the colonies, including in New England, during the era of the American Revolution.  They do not merely read an article or listen to a lecture about slavery in the region; instead, they encounter accounts of enslaved people repeatedly as they examine newspapers from the period.  My students must grapple with the diversity, complexity, and centrality of slavery in the era of the Revolution, intensively examining a relatively short period does not necessarily address the longevity of slavery in New England.  In doing independent research to identify primary and secondary sources to help him analyze his selected advertisement, however, Kaden incorporated the longevity of slavery in Massachusetts into his work as guest curator, identifying the first documented reference to the sale of enslaved people in the colony more than 130 years before Cromarte, a “Slave for Life,” liberated himself from Samuel Fitch in Boston in the fall of 1771.


[1] James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: New Press, 2006): 37-38.

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