Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“RUN-AWAY … a Negro Man named CUFF … Three Dollars Reward.”
“TO BE SOLD, A Negro Man … expert at all husbandry Business.”
The Slavery Adverts 250 Project demonstrates the ubiquity of advertisements about enslaved people in newspapers published throughout the colonies, testifying to the presence of slavery in everyday life from New Hampshire to Georgia. Although historians have long been aware of the extent of slavery in northern colonies and states from the seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century, the general public, including students, largely conceives of slavery as confined to southern colonies and states. From experience incorporating the Slavery Adverts 250 Project into early American history courses for college students, I have witnessed countless expressions of surprise that so many advertisements ran in newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania and that the subjects of those advertisements represented only a small fraction of the enslaved men, women, and children in those places.
Even in New England, every newspaper published in the late 1760s and the early 1770s disseminated such advertisements, generating revenues that made those publications viable enterprises. During the period of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution, the same newspapers that spread the word about abuses perpetrated by British soldiers quartered in the colonies and Parliament scheming on the other side of the Atlantic also carried advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children. The vast majority of those advertisements fell into two main categories: some presented enslaved people for sale and others described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return. Most of these advertisements ran in newspapers published in Boston, the largest port city in New England, but they also appeared in newspapers printed in towns in Connecticut, New-Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
For instance, the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy published advertisements about enslaved people, though not with the same frequency or in the same numbers as Boston’s newspapers. In general, the Connecticut Journal featured far less advertising of all sorts than its counterparts in larger towns, but published the same kinds of notices, including advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, and advertisements about enslaved people. The April 26, 1771, edition featured two advertisements about enslaved men. An anonymous advertiser described an unnamed man in his mid-twenties as “expert at all husbandry Business, healthy, spry and ingenious.” Interested parties could purchase the young man, but they needed to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information. In such cases, printers facilitated sales in their newspapers and acted as brokers beyond the printed page. In the other advertisement, Edward Hamlin of Middletown offered a reward for capturing Cuff, who had “RUN-AWAY” earlier in April. That fugitive seeking freedom was also in his mid-twenties. He spoke “good English” and played the fiddle. Hamlin described Cuff’s clothing and “narrow Face” to aid readers in identifying him. The printers collaborated in turning their press into an instrument of surveillance targeting all Black men that readers encountered.
These two advertisements in the Connecticut Journal were representative of the thousands of advertisements about enslaved people disseminated via colonial newspapers every year in the era of the American Revolution, a substantial number of them published in New England. Slavery in those northern colonies has largely disappeared from public memory, but it should not be overlooked or forgotten. Only in grappling with this difficult history can we tell a more complete story of America’s past that will allow us to better address the challenges we face in the present.