Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ran away … a Negro man slave named BOSTON.”
An enslaved man known as Boston was determined to seize his liberty in the summer of 1771. He escaped from his enslaver, Caleb Humastun of Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 1. Just over a week later, Boston was captured in Lyme, the town where his former enslaver, Ezra Selden resided. Perhaps he had ventured there to visit family or friends. Perhaps he intended to encourage or assist family or friends in freeing themselves as well. Humastun did not concern himself with such details in the advertisement he placed in the August 16 edition of the New-London Gazette. Like every other “runaway” advertisement, it relayed events from the perspective of the enslaver rather than the enslaved. Whatever Boston’s motivation for heading to Lyme, he ended up “hand cuff’d” upon being captured. That, however, did not prevent him from making his escape, freeing himself a second time.
Humastun cautioned that “Whoever shall take [Boston] up … take care he don’t again escape,” but returning the enslaved man to bondage required more than merely confining him physically “in any of his Majesty’s [jails]” or elsewhere. Colonists seeking the reward Humastun offered first had to identify and capture (again) the fugitive seeking freedom. Humastun warned readers against allowing Boston to fool them, noting that he was “pretty talkative, flattering,” and would use those qualities to “tell any story to deceive, so as to prevent being secured.” In other words, Boston was smart enough to convince others that he was not a runaway, though Humastun, like other enslavers who resorted to placing advertisements in the public prints, turned positive attributes into accusations when it came to describing Boston. He had not been able to maintain order when it came to keeping Boston laboring in Waterbury, so he instead exercised what power remained to him by shaping the narrative to his own liking when he published an advertisement in the New-London Gazette. Doing so allowed Humastun to regain some of the authority he lost when Boston liberated himself. In the end, Humastun’s advertisement revealed more about the enslaver and his insecurities than it did about the formerly enslaved and his reasons for returning to Lyme.