What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, (At a Distance from the Town of Providence only).”
Among the advertisements in the June 10, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, an unnamed colonist offered to sell an enslaved youth. The advertisement did not provide many details except that the “young NEGROE WOMAN” was approximately fifteen years old and had been “born in the Country” rather than surviving the middle passage from Africa. The advertiser claimed that the enslaved youth was “capable of any Work suited to her Age,” but did not specify any particular skills that she possessed. Interested parties were instructed to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.
None of that deviated from typical advertisements that offered enslaved men, women, and children for sale in the 1760s. The advertisement, however, did include one unusual element. It specified an exception concerning the terms of sale, stating that the seller intended to deal with buyers “At a Distance from the Town of Providence only.” The advertisement did not elaborate on the reason. This suggested a deliberate effort to separate the young woman from someone else. It hints at a story that most likely will never be recovered.
“Enquire of the Printer” advertisements truncated the information provided to readers, but they also truncated the miniature biographies of enslaved men, women, and children contained in those advertisements. Filtered through the perspective of a slaveholder, the advertisement obscures what may have been one of the most significant relationships in the young woman’s life at the time. Perhaps the advertiser considered it necessary to sell her “At a Distance” in order to effectively separate her from family members who exercised too much influence over her. Perhaps friends encouraged her to engage in acts of resistance and the seller hoped that sending her away would correct such insubordination. Perhaps she had embarked on a new romance that made her difficult to manage. Perhaps she frequently participated in altercations with the advertiser or a member of the advertiser’s family. Perhaps she had been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by a member of the household and selling her “At a Distance” was a strategy intended to make it easier for members of the household to overcome the rifts in their relationships with each other that had resulted. What might this young woman have recorded had she written her own narrative rather than having her experiences voiced, mostly in the formulaic language of advertisements of the period, by an unnamed slaveholder? The advertisement insinuates so much more while denying the young woman her own voice and concealing her story from readers past and present.