April 28

Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Connecticut Journal (April 26, 1771).

“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.

March 19

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

Essex Gazette (March 19, 1771).

“Whoever has a Mind to purchase … by applying to the Printer hereof may know further.”

Advertisements for grocery items, an “elegant Assortment of English GOODS,” sermons in memory of George Whitefield, and real estate for sale or lease ran in the March 19, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette.  Readers were accustomed to encountering each sort of advertisement when they perused the Essex Gazette.  They were also accustomed to another kind of advertisement that offered enslaved people for sale.  In that issue, an anonymous advertiser presented a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man, of about 30 Years of Age, who understands the farming Business in all its Branches.”  The advertiser advised prospective purchasers that the enslaved man was “To be SOLD, for Want of Employ, and not for any Fault.”  In other words, he was not ill, lazy, or disorderly; his current enslaver did not have enough work to keep him occupied.  The advertiser, who also had a “House Lot” in Marblehead for sale, instructed interested parties to contact the printer for more information.

Samuel Hall was that printer.  He began printing the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1768.  The success of that newspaper and every other newspaper published in the colonies depended on attracting both subscribers and advertisers, but it also depended on other services provided at the printing office.  Printers served as information brokers.  The newspapers they distributed accounted for only a portion of the information in their possession.  They frequently disseminated via other means, including letters and conversations in printing offices, information that did not appear in print, especially when advertisers did not include all the particulars in their notices but instead asked readers to “enquire of the printer.”  In some cases, they made introductions, putting those who made inquiries in contact with advertisers.  On other occasions, they supplied additional details.  Either way, they acted as brokers, not only brokers of information but also brokers who facilitated sales.

When Hall published an advertisement for a “House Lot in Marblehead” and a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man” that told readers they could learn more “by applying to the Printer,” he became a real estate broker and a broker in the slave trade.  Jordan E. Taylor has recently examined “enquire of the printer” advertisements published throughout the colonies and new nation in the eighteenth century, demonstrating that Hall was not alone.[1]  Taylor identified more than 2100 unique “enquire of the printer” advertisements offering enslaved people for sale.  Printers from New England to Georgia actively participated in the slave trade, both by publishing advertisements about enslaved people and by acting as a broker for “enquire of the printer” advertisements.  As Taylor argues, “Print culture was inextricable from the culture of slavery, just as print capitalism was slavery’s capitalism.”


[1] Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer:  Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies:  An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323.