February 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Georgia Gazette (February 11, 1767).

“RUN AWAY … NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA, about 15 years of age.”

This advertisement about a “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA” who ran away from her master would have been very familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated August 5, 1766, it first appeared in the August 6, 1766, issue. It then appeared in almost every issue published for the next six months; the February 11, 1767, issue marked half a year that Donald Mackay inserted this runaway notice in the newspaper published in Savannah.

The longevity of this advertisement may be interpreted in more than one way. It might testify to the value that Mackay placed on Maria or how intensely he chafed for her return. As I noted when I first examined this advertisement last August, the physical description of Maria suggested that Mackay valued the “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGRO GIRL” for more than just her capacity to labor in the household or the fields. The expenses incurred by placing an advertisement for her return almost every week for six months (plus an award and reimbursement for “al reasonable charges” associated with Maria’s capture and transport) indicated that Mackay was willing to make a significant investment in reclaiming his human property. Maria’s potential resale value possibly more than justified such expenses.

That line of reasoning, however, assumes that Mackay instructed James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, to insert this advertisement each week and that he agreed to pay for each appearance. Like other newspapers published in smaller cities, such as the Providence Gazette, the [Portsmouth] New-Hampshire Gazette, and the [Hartford] Connecticut Courant, the Georgia Gazette featured significantly fewer advertisements than newspapers in the major urban ports. That the advertisement for the runaway Maria consistently appeared for six months may have been a function of the printer seeking to fill the pages with any sort of content, especially considering how many other advertisements in the Georgia Gazette ran for extended periods, often much longer than similar notices in newspapers published elsewhere.

Perhaps the real story combines elements of these two possibilities. Maybe Donald Mackay was so eager to have Maria returned and James Johnston was so eager to fill the columns in his newspaper that they worked out a payment schedule that included discounted rates. Whatever the circumstances, the frequency that this and other advertisements appeared in the Georgia Gazette raises suspicions that not all notices were indeed paid notices.

August 6

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 6 - 8:6:1766 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 6, 1766).


It would have been impossible to overlook Donald Mackay’s description of Maria, an enslaved young woman: “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL.” Each of the adjectives suggested that Maria was attractive, a young woman that most masters and others would have found desirable, a young woman who most likely would have become increasingly alluring as she continued to mature.

In the absence of any sort of visual image (not even a crude woodcut), Mackay put a black body on display by asking readers to imagine Maria’s appearance and inviting them to scrutinize every black woman they encountered to determine if they might be the runaway Maria.

This advertisement also hints at the treatment that Maria may have already experienced or that she was likely to experience at some point. White men had unfettered access to enslaved women throughout early American history, from the colonial period through the antebellum era and the Civil War. Writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent nearly a century after this advertisement was published, Harriet Jacobs published a slave narrative in which she documented the constant threat of sexual absue she faced as a slave in North Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Various other sources – slave narratives, letters, ledgers, and journals, written by both black and white authors – confirm the sexual violence perpetrated against black women under slavery. Some do so explicitly.

Others, like this advertisement, raise the possibility with more subtlety, asking observers to read between the lines.

A multitude of circumstances probably influenced Maria’s decision to run away, but her vulnerability to sexual abuse was likely one of them. Donald Mackay did not elaborate on all the reasons that he wanted this “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL” captured and returned, but eighteenth-century readers would have been aware of what was unwritten. This advertisement was about more than recovering a piece of human property who could work in the fields or do domestic labor in the household.

Advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children allow us to reconstruct portions of their lives when we read against the grain and interrogate the implications of what white authors have written.