Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772, he appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins.”
In the spring of 1772, James Eppes, the jailer in Charles City, placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform Hardin Perkins that he imprisoned “a Negro FELLOW, who says his Name is Tom.” This notice demonstrates how closely some colonizers read and remembered the runaway advertisements that regularly appeared in early American newspapers. In addition to Tom stating that he “belongs to Mr. Hardin Perkins of Buckingham,” Eppes surmised “From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772” that Tom “appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins, as he exactly answers the Description.” That earlier advertisement described Tom as “about forty Years old, of the middle Size, and has an impediment in his Speech.”
Tom managed to elude capture for about nine months. Perkins reported that Tom liberated himself in August 1771, not long after the enslaver purchased him. Perkins suspected that Tom was “lurking about Williamsburg” and offered forty shillings to anyone who “secures the said Negro, or gives me such information that I may get him again” or five pounds to anyone who delivered Tom to Perkins. According to Eppes, Tom was “COMMITTED to Charles City Jail” on May 10. Eppes did not mention where Tom spent his time during his nine months of freedom or the circumstances of his capture. Like other advertisements offering rewards for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves, this one told only part of the story.
That Eppes matched Tom to an advertisement that ran in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette two months earlier suggests that the jailer carefully read the runaway advertisements and kept newspapers on hand for at least several months so he could review the notices and consult them for similarities when imprisoning Black men and women. Newspapers played an important role in the infrastructure of returning enslaved people who liberated themselves to those who purported to be their owners or masters. Printers disseminated the information, followed by jailers and others creating archives to aid in the capture and return of fugitives who sought freedom.