May 3

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 3, 1773).

“RAN away from Admiral Montagu … a Negro Man, named JOHN POLITE.”

Two issues.  That was how long after they became printers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy it took for Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks to aid in perpetuating slavery in colonial New England by publishing advertisements offering rewards for the capture of enslaved people who liberated themselves.  The April 26, 1773, edition commenced with a notice that John Green and Joseph Russell transferred the “Printing and Publishing of this PAPER” to Mills and Hicks.  That issue featured a new colophon that promoted the various goods and services available in Mills and Hicks’s printing office, where “Advertisements … for this Paper are taken in.”  In the next issue, the new proprietors of Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy ran an advertisement that described “a Negro Man, named JOHN POTITE,” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend the above Negro, and bring him to Admiral Montagu.”[1]

Mills and Hicks were not alone in publishing that advertisement.  On the same day, May 3, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet included it (along with two other advertisements concerning enslaved people) in the Boston Evening-Post and Benjamin Edes and John Gill included it (along with an advertisement about another enslaved man who liberated himself) in the Boston-Gazette.  The other two newspapers published in Boston at the time did not happen to carry that particular advertisement, but Richard Draper did publish two advertisements about enslaved people for sale in the May 6 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Isaiah Thomas had not printed any advertisements concerning enslaved people in the Massachusetts Spy since late February when a notice in that newspaper instructed readers interested in purchasing a “NEGRO WOMAN … as good a house-negro as any in America” to “Enquire of [t]he Printer” for more information, effectively making him a broker in the sale.

Mills and Hicks participated in a practice established throughout the colonies.  No printers refused to publish such advertisements out of principle.  Instead, they inserted notices about enslaved men, women, and children in their newspapers, disseminated them far and wide, and collected the advertising fees for providing those services.  In many cases, they acted as brokers after publishing and disseminating the advertisements, as Thomas did for the sale of enslaved woman advertised in his newspaper in February 1773.  Although the practice had been well established by the time Mills and Hicks became proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, they chose to accept new advertisements concerning enslaved people when enslavers submitted them to their printing office.  They could have enacted a different editorial policy, just as other printers in Boston and beyond could have done so at any time.  Apparently, colonial printers considered publishing such advertisements too lucrative to discontinue them during the era of the American Revolution.


[1] That advertisement misspelled the enslaved man’s name: John Polite.  The compositor fixed the error in the May 10 edition.

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