What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Stolen … a large Chesnut Canoe … taken away by Mr. Wait’s Negro.”
In the fall of 1770, Samuel Clark placed an advertisement about a stolen canoe in the Boston-Gazette. That “large Chesnut Canoe, about 14 Feet long,” was connected to advertisements that appeared in newspapers in four colonies, though those notices were concerned with Pompey, also known as Pomp, an enslaved man who liberated himself, rather than a stolen canoe.
When Pompey made his escape, Aaron Waitt, his enslaver, ran a series of advertisements in Essex Gazette, Providence Gazette, New-London Gazette, and New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Waitt sought the assistance of newspaper readers in New England and New York in capturing and returning Pompey to bondage. To that end, Waitt offered a description of the young man, including his approximate age, height, and clothing. To help identify this fugitive seeking freedom, Waitt noted that Pomp had “a large Scar on one Part of his Forehead.” The enslaved man, “a Leather-Dresser by Trade,” spoke “good English.”
Waitt knew something of Pompey’s movements. He reported in his advertisements that Pompey had been spotted “on board the Sloop Free Mason, John Rogers, Master,” which departed from East Greenwich, Rhode Island, for New York and then the Carolinas on October 18. Waitt suspected that Pompey would disembark in New York. From there he could either remain in the bustling urban port or seek out other places to elude capture. Waitt placed advertisements in newspapers published in both New York and Connecticut in anticipation of both possibilities.
Considered together, Waitt’s advertisements provided more information about Pompey’s means of liberating himself than most eighteenth-century newspaper notices about enslaved men and women who, from the perspective of their enslavers, “ran away.” Yet Waitt’s advertisements document Pompey’s plans only after he made it to Rhode Island and continued his venture from there. Clarke’s notice about a stolen canoe presents additional information about the initial portion of Pompey’s journey to freedom. He conjectured that his canoe had been “taken away by Mr. Wait’s Negro of Salem,” referencing current events as reported in newspaper advertisements circulating at the time.
Although placed for the purposes of surveilling Black bodies and returning Black people to colonists who purported to own them, newspaper advertisements can also be used to reconstruct some of the experiences of enslaved people. Pompey did not have an opportunity to record his own narrative in print, but, unintentionally, Waitt and Clarke told a story of a determined man who took advantage of various resources. Pompey appropriated a canoe to put some distance between himself and his enslaver, then he boarded a ship heading to one of the busiest ports in the colonies to make it even more difficult for Waitt to lay hands on him. Printers who published Waitt’s advertisements became accomplices in his endeavor, but in the process they inadvertently recorded the story of Pompey’s courage, ingenuity, and resistance.