January 20

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

Jan 20 - 1:20:1768 New-York Gazette Weekly Post-Boy
New-York Gazette Extraordinary (January 20, 1768).

“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.

October 8

GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley

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

Georgia Gazette (October 8, 1766).

“WENT AWAY from the subscriber about a week ago, AN INDENTED IRISH SERVANT MAN.”

This advertisement caught my eye because my ancestry is Irish. My father came to Boston in 1956. As with many Irish immigrants across time, he did not come with much money.   His aunt who lived in Boston sponsored him, and he had to work very had in the carpenters union to get to where he is now. Jeremiah Herrington, the “INDENTED IRISH SERVANT MAN” in this advertisement from the Georgia Gazette, made a similar journey for Ireland to North America.

In terms of culture and climate, Georgia was a big difference from what Jeremiah was used to in Ireland. Slavery had been banned in colonial Georgia until 1750, so indentured servitude was another way to get laborers during early years of settlement in the colony.

This advertisement had also been placed the week before on October 1, and not taken down. This leads me to believe that Joshua Vaughan had not heard from his Irish servant or any subscribers of the Georgia Gazette.   This could have meant that Herrington as still on the run.   Runaway advertisements were very popular in colonial newspapers; unfortunately, at the time owning a person was very common and desensitized. Missing servants and slaves were noticed quickly and often times if not found reported. If returned to their masters they were often punished. In some colonies, such as Virginia, masters could punish runaways with death if they were repeat offenders.



Elizabeth has chosen an advertisement that provides an important corrective to some of the research she and her classmates are doing this semester. In addition to guest curating the Adverts 250 Project for a week, each student in my colonial America class is also curating the newly established Slavery Adverts 250 Project on Twitter. Regular visitors here know that all of the advertisements from that project are republished here in a daily digest.

In designing that project, I chose to focus exclusively on slaves in colonial America, excluding other sorts of unfree laborers, such as indentured servants and convict servants. In part, I wanted to keep the project focused rather than risk becoming too diffused. In addition, modern Americans continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery in our culture, politics, and economics every single day; we are rather confronted with a legacy of indentured servitude that challenges us in the same way.

From a practical standpoint, I knew that the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would be an experimental collaborative research effort with my students. In launching something new like that I wanted to start off relatively small and leave room to expand at a later time, if the project worked out. As an instructor, I knew that the project needed to be self-contained and manageable for undergraduates who were studying colonial America for the first time and who were new to using digitized primary sources to conduct independent research. To test the viability of the project, I gathered all the slavery advertisements for a single week several months ago. In the process, I determined that the scope in terms of research, effort, and time was an appropriate substitute for the essay assignment the project replaced on the syllabus.

Still, I have questioned my decision because featuring slavery advertisements exclusively tells only part of the story of unfree laborers in early America. Each student submits hard copies of all the newspapers printed in colonial America during his or her week as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. I carefully skim through them to confirm that all the advertisement they have highlighted belong to the project as well as flag any that they might have missed. In the process, my students and I have encountered significant numbers of advertisements for indentured servants (and a smaller number for convict servants), both for sale and runaways. Such advertisements were especially common in newspapers published in Philadelphia and New York in 1766.

I stand by my decision to focus exclusively on advertisements concerning slavery for the class project, but that does not mean that our conversations in class exclude other forms of unfree labor, nor does it mean that the Adverts 250 Project cannot examine advertisements for indentured servants and convict servants in colonial America. This week Elizabeth has examined and advertisement for each.

July 3

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

Jul 3 - 7:3:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (July 3, 1766).

“A number of English and Irish MEN and WOMEN SERVANTS.”

A few days ago I featured an advertisement for human cargo, a ship carrying two hundred African slaves that had just arrived on the James River in Virginia. I noted that such advertisements did not appear in newspapers published in New England or the Middle Atlantic where the demand for enslaved labor was significantly lower.

That did not mean, however, that those regions of English settlement did not welcome other vessels with other sorts of human cargo. This advertisement from the Pennsylvania Journal reported that a shipment of English and Irish indentured servants had just arrived in New Castle, Delaware. The partnership of Carsan, Barclay, and Mitchell emphasized that the indentured servants they “Imported” practiced a variety of trades and possessed a variety of skills: “shoemakers; periwig makers; farriers; coachmen; tobacco spinners; dyers; scowerers; shearers; linen, worsted, yarn, broad cloth, stocking, tape and girth webb weavers; breeches makers; glovers; miners; butchers; country carpenters; a number of laborers.”

Human cargo in the form of indentured servants did indeed arrive in other regions. Still, it is important to note that while the existence of indentured servants could be bleak their experiences differed from enslaved Africans in a variety of ways. Although indentured servants were sometimes tricked, most made the voyage to the American colonies voluntarily, unlike enslaved Africans. Many sought new opportunities, especially in the Middle Atlantic colonies, a region sometimes called “the best poor man’s land.” Indentured servants signed contracts, which offered them some protections and also set a limit to their time of servitude. Unlike slaves, indentured servants knew that their situation was temporary rather than permanent.

The “MEN and WOMEN SERVANTS” who arrived in New castle at the end of June 1766 may have experienced some trepidation, but they might have also experienced some hope. They had successfully crossed the Atlantic and a new life awaited them, a life they anticipated would, eventually, be better than the one they left behind in England or Ireland. The enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia just a few weeks earlier did not exercise the same choices or have the same hopes for a better future.

April 14

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

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

Apr 14 - 4:14:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (April 14, 1766).

This advertisement is not for goods or services, but instead a runaway advertisement. William Darlington hoped that someone would find his twenty-six-year-old “Irish Servant Man, Named CONNOR O“ROURK”. He went on to describe the servant’s physical features, which brings up the fact that missing person advertisements from the eighteenth century could not actually feature a photo of the missing person. You can probably understand the limitations that this posed. Today’s society is often very visual, but in the eighteenth century it was common for advertisements to not have any visuals to accompany them.

The Irish man in the advertisement was an indentured servant, whose labor was owned by the man who put out the advertisement. The concept of indentured servitude is that an individual or an individual’s family member agrees, through the signing of a contract, to give a person’s labor (and personal freedoms) over to a “master” for a certain period of time, in which the servant was to provide service, which would help pay off a debt. During the seventeenth century, the Virginia Company was responsible for founding indentured servitude as a means of payment for transportation of those who could not afford to pay for their own way to North America. Colonial indentured servitude and the slave trade were both forms of labor in which individuals could not choose to stop working for their master. This means that they were also not allowed to leave their master’s location, meaning that many indentured servants and slaves who went missing had attempted to escape the limitations of their conditions by running away.

For a lesson designed to introduce middle school students to indentured servitude and slavery, check out this link from Teaching American History in South Carolina.



Indentured servants are part of my world. Not literally, of course, but to me they are a familiar part of the American colonial experience and the past that has unfolded into the present. I sometimes forget just how foreign the past can be to others who do not spend as much time in the eighteenth century as I do. The differences between then and now manifest themselves in so many different ways, from something as mundane as the long S in eighteenth-century texts (which I no longer notice, but the guest curators brought to my attention earlier this week as a challenge they encountered in just reading advertisements and other parts of the newspaper for this project) to entire systems of economic and social organization that structured everyday life and interaction in the colonies.

Systems of unfree labor – slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeships – fall into that latter category. They offer potent evidence of change over time. We live and work in a much different world today than our eighteenth-century ancestors. Our memories of that world have faded unevenly. From our readings (from the excellent Slavery and Public History) and discussions about slavery in our Public History course throughout the semester, we have reached the conclusion that most Americans are aware that slavery existed at some point in the American past, but, for the most part, they do not know much about slavery and its impact on slaves and slaveholders or the major political, social, and economic contours of American history.

Anecdotally (based on both everyday conversations and nearly a decade of teaching), it seems that the average person on the street knows even less about other forms of unfree labor, including indentured servitude. (Even the program I am using to compose this passage does not recognize “unfree” as a real word. Scholars of early America use it regularly, once again demonstrating that we sometimes live in a very different world.) As other scholars have noted, all too often people imagine a stark divide between European settlers and enslaved Africans in colonial America, not realizing that many of the “lower sorts” among European colonists were exploited for their labor and (temporarily) belonged to masters. We may not know all of the details of Connor O’Rourk’s story – why he became an indentured servant and why he chose to run away from his master – but, as Kathryn notes, both slaves and indentured servants sought freedom by running away. Many students are surprised to learn that indentured servants existed at all. Their presence certainly complicates the story of the colonial experience.