What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“FOUR Years of a Mulatto Girl’s Time to be Sold.”
James Parker issued an Extraordinary issue of the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy on January 20, 1768, just two days after publishing the regular issue for the week. The printer explained that “Matters of Amusement and Speculation, as well as News by the Packet, crowding in upon us at this Juncture, we think it necessary to give this Second extra Gazette, in Order to be upon a Par with our Neighbours.” The Extraordinary consisted of two pages, compared to the four of the regular Gazette. In addition to the “Matters of Amusement and Speculation” and “News” received via recent arrivals in the port city, the Extraordinary also featured a list of the “PRICE CURRENT in NEW-YORK” and three short advertisements.
Those advertisements included one that announced “FOUR Years of a Mulatto Girl’s Time to be Sold.” The unnamed “Mulatto Girl” apparently was not a slave, despite her mixed heritage. That the advertiser sold four years of her time rather than selling her outright suggests that she was an indentured servant who would eventually gain her freedom once her indenture expired. Given that so many other mulatto men, women, and children were enslaved in colonial America, how had this come to happen? How had this mulatto girl escaped enslavement for life in favor of servitude for a fixed number of years?
Perhaps her mother was a free woman. Within a cultural and legal framework that specified that the status of the child followed the condition of the mother, it did not matter if the mulatto girl’s mother was white, black, or mulatto, nor did it matter if her father was free, enslaved, or indentured. If her mother had been a free woman at the time of the mulatto girl’s birth then the child would have been free herself. Financial considerations may have contributed to the decision to indenture the girl for a portion of her childhood and youth. Alternately, her mother may have been enslaved but managed to negotiate for the eventual freedom of her offspring. Securing an indenture for her daughter may have been a means of achieving gradual emancipation. Other circumstances may have shaped the mulatto girl’s experiences. The advertisement does not provide enough information to know for certain.
The notice appeared in an interesting context. What kinds of news did James Parker consider so pressing as to warrant an Extraordinary issue? The bulk of the supplement consisted of the seventh in the series of John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” that critiqued the Townshend Acts. Even though Dickinson recognized the authority of Parliament to oversee the empire, he argued that the colonies possessed sovereignty over their internal affairs. In particular, he stressed that Parliament overstepped its authority by imposing taxes on the colonies intended to raise revenues rather than merely regulating trade.
As many colonists asserted their rights and printers published letters and speeches that defended the liberty of the North American colonies, they also accepted various forms of unfree labor, including enslavement and indentured servitude. Those systems extended beyond just labor; slaves and indentured servants experienced unfree status in colonial society. Advertisements that promoted and reinforced slavery and indentured servitude appeared alongside impassioned appeals to liberty like Dickinson’s “Letters.” The revenues such advertisements generated for printers helped to fund the dissemination of newspapers that made stark calls for freedom from enslavement to the abuses of Parliament. That an advertisement for “FOUR Years of a Mulatto Girl’s Time” appeared alongside Dickinson’s “LETTER VII” demonstrated complex and contradictory understanding of the nature of liberty during the revolutionary era.