Who were the subjects of advertisements in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago this week?
“RUN AWAY … a Negro Man named Peter.”
For the past six years, the Adverts 250 Project has marked Independence Day by featuring the (incomplete) stories of enslaved men and women who made their declarations of independence when they liberated themselves by escaping from their enslavers during the era of the American Revolution. These stories are incomplete because they are drawn from newspaper advertisements placed by enslavers who enlisted the aid of readers in scrutinizing Black people in hopes of capturing and returning to enslavement fugitives seeking freedom. Still, despite their intentions in placing the advertisements, those enslavers who sought to maintain slavery and racial hierarchies provided truncated accounts of courage, resilience, and devotion to liberty that resonate today.
July 4 fell on a Sunday in 1773. Sunday was the one day of the week that no printer published and distributed a new edition of their weekly newspaper anywhere in the colonies. Rather than select a single advertisement from 250 years ago this week to feature on Independence Day, the Adverts 250 Project presents this census of all of the advertisements about enslaved men and women who liberated themselves that appeared in newspapers from New England to South Carolina during the week before July 4, 1773. As these advertisements demonstrate, enslaved people knew the value of freedom throughout the era of the American Revolution and certainly before July 4, 1776.
On Monday, June 28, 1773, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury carried an advertisement about “a certain Mulatto fellow named Harry” who liberated himself from his enslaver in Newark, New Jersey. Harry “speaks good English” and “understands the Pot-Ash Business.”
On the same day, the Supplement to the Pennsylvania Packet ran a notice offering a reward for “a negro man named STANHOPE.” He had been enslaved in Philadelphia, but made his escape from his most recent enslaver at Trenton Ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.
Also on June 28, 1773, the South-Carolina Gazette featured an advertisement offering a reward for “A New Negro Fellow, named Johnny, Of the Gambia Country” who liberated himself from a plantation in Prince William’s Parish. Johnny endured the Middle Passage, resolving to claim his freedom after arriving in the colonies.
In the same issue, another notice described “A sensible Country born FELLOW, Named BILLY” who fled from his enslaver in St. Thomas’s Parish. Andrew Deveaux described Billy as “about five Feet five Inches high, Twenty-one Years of Age, and has a Scar over one of his Eyes.” Billy did not have the opportunity to tell his own story in the public prints.
On Tuesday, June 29, 1773, the Connecticut Courant carried an advertisement about “a negro man named TONEY” who liberated himself from his enslaver at Hebron. Samuel Gilbert, Jr., suspected that Toney and Samuel Gilbert, a white “hired man,” found common cause and cooperated in escaping from him.
On Wednesday, July 30, 1773, the Pennsylvania Gazette featured a notice about “a Negroe man slave, named RAGON” who fled from his enslaver in New Castle, Delaware. Richard McWilliam suspected that Ragon “keeps near Ogletown” where he had previously been enslaved. If Ragon had written his own story, he may have mentioned family and friends in the area.
Another advertisement in that newspaper offered a reward for “a young Negroe man, named ANDREW” who liberated himself from Christiana Hundred in New Castle County, Delaware. To make good on his escape, “it is probably he will change his clothes” to avoid detection by readers of newspapers who participated in the surveillance of Black men and women.
Also on June 30, 1773, the Pennsylvania Journal ran an advertisement about “a Negro Man named Peter” who escaped from John McCalla in Philadelphia. His enslaver believed that Peter “will endeavour to pass for a free man” and would likely visit his mother, “a free woman named Violet,” in Trenton.
One Thursday, July 1, 1773, the Maryland Gazette featured an advertisement about “a negro man named Till” who liberated himself from his enslaver in Anne Arundel County. Till apparently made a previous attempt. Benjamin Lane reported that Till “was heard to say if he ever went away again he should endeavour to get on the Eastern shore” where he formerly lived. Like others who seized their liberty, Till may have been headed to family and friends.
In the same issue, another advertisement described “a certain negro man named BOB” who escaped from his enslaver at Mount Pleasant in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Bob planned carefully. He stole some clothing to disguise himself, “procured a forged pass,” and presented himself as a free man named Robert Alexander.
That edition of the Maryland Gazette also carried an advertisement about “a mulatto slave named JACK” who “plays on the violin.” Jack liberated himself from his enslaver in Garrison Forest, about ten miles from Baltimore. He likely stole a horse from a nearby tavern to aid in making his escape.
Another advertisement in that newspaper described “a negro man, named Frank,” who seized his liberty from his enslaver at Piscataway in Prince George’s County. Thomas Clagett expressed dismay that Frank “has lately taken upon himself the practice of physick, in which employment he has against my consent been countenanced by a few people.” Claggett considered such “encouragement” the cause of Frank’s “elopement.”
Also on July 1, 1773, the New-York Journal carried the advertisement about “a Mulatto Fellow, called HARRY” that appeared in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury three days earlier. In both advertisements, Thomas Brown reported that Harry might head toward Albany.
On the same day, the Virginia Gazette featured an advertisement about “a Negro Man named JAMES” who liberated himself from his enslaver in Mecklenburg. John Armistad described James as “an artful Fellow” who “may endeavour to pass for a Freeman.”
In another notice in the Virginia Gazette, an enslaver described “a likely Virginia born NEGRO FELLOW,” but did not give the name of the Black man who escaped to freedom. John Puryear expected that the unnamed “NEGRO FELLOW” would “change his Dress, endeavour to pass for a Freeman, and make for York Town, where he was raised, and brought up as a Waiting Man.”
That issue also carried an advertisement about “a likely Virginia born Negro Man named SAM” who liberated himself from his enslaver in Prince George County more than six months earlier. Michael Nicholson thought that Sam “will probably endeavour to get on Board a Vessel, in Order to make his Escape” and “forewarned” captains “from carrying him out of the Colony, at their Peril” of being punished as accomplices.
Just below that advertisement, another notice described another unnamed “NEGRO MAN” who seized his liberty when he escaped from his enslaver in Hertford County, North Carolina. The unnamed “NEGRO MAN” could “read and write tolerably,” skills that he might use “to pass for a Freeman.”
The July 1, 1773, edition of the Virginia Gazette also featured an advertisement about “a very light Mulatto Fellow named JESSE, about eighteen Years of Age,” who fled for freedom from his enslaver in Charles City. Given Jesse’s light skin, Charles Christian thought it possible that the young man “will endeavour to pass for a Freeman.”
One more notice from that newspaper described “a Negro Man named JACK, alias Phil,” who made his escape “from on Board the Matty, lying in Pagan Creek.” James Prudden offered a physical description of Jack, alias Phil. Like so many other enslaved men and women who liberated themselves, Jack, alias Phil, did not have an opportunity to record his own story in his own words.
All of these advertisements can be found here:
- Slavery Advertisements Published June 28, 1773
- Slavery Advertisements Published June 29, 1773
- Slavery Advertisements Published June 30, 1773
- Slavery Advertisements Published July 1, 1773
For other stories of enslaved people liberating themselves originally published on July 4 during the era of the American Revolution, see:
- An account of Caesar, a blacksmith (Providence Gazette, July 4, 1767)
- An account of Harry, his wife Peg, a free woman, and their two children (Pennsylvania Chronicle, July 4, 1768)
- An account of Guy and Limehouse, two youths (South-Carolina and American General Gazette, July 4, 1769)
- An account of Jack, a Black man, and Tony, an Indian man, who took a boat when they made their escape (South-Carolina and American General Gazette, July 4, 1770)
- An account of Violet, a woman who eluded capture by her former enslaver for at least nine years (Pennsylvania Journal, July 4, 1771)
- An account of Caesar, who liberated himself at the same time word spread about colonizers burning the Gaspee (Providence Gazette, July 4, 1772)