March 12

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 12 - 3:12:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 12, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD, (For no Fault, but on Account of her breeding fast) A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”

For several weeks in February and March 1768 John Lyon inserted an advertisement for a “healthy likely Negroe Wench” and “two male Children” in the Providence Gazette. He informed potential buyers that the woman could “do all Kinds of House-Work” and also implied that she was capable of various sorts of agricultural labor since she “has lived on a Farm.” Lyon was uncertain of her age, estimating it at “about 20 or 25 Years.” He provided even less information about the children, though if they were sons of the woman offered for sale they would have been fairly young.

Like many other slaveholders who placed advertisements when they wished to sell their human property, Lyon assured prospective buyers that he sold this woman “For no Fault,” though he did provide a slightly different variation on that phrase. When slaveholders asserted “no fault” they testified that they were not parting with slaves due to physical or temperamental deficiencies.   Presumably the woman in this advertisement was not particularly recalcitrant, disruptive, or disobedient. She was also “healthy,” though Lyon did not indicate whether she had previously survived small pox. That was often a selling point since it alerted prospective buyers that they did not need to worry about acquiring slaves only to lose them to a common illness.

Many slaveholders who stated that they sold slaves for “no fault” also added the phrase “but for want of employ,” signaling that they did not have sufficient tasks to assign to those slaves to justify continuing to provide them with food and shelter. Rather than setting them free, however, they aimed for a return on their investment by selling them. Lyon, however, offered a different clarification when he stated he sold an enslaved woman “For no Fault.” In this case, he decided to part with her “on Account of her breeding fast.” The unnamed woman had too many children too quickly as far as Lyon was concerned. Even if Lyon found this unmanageable, others who wished to profit from a steady supply of offspring would have considered this an advantage when purchasing the young woman.

Written from the slaveholder’s perspective, this advertisement obscures the experiences of the enslaved woman. In addition to deploying language that equated her with an animal – “breeding fast” – Lyon did not address the circumstances of her multiple pregnancies. Had the woman become pregnant voluntarily? Or had she been exploited for the sexual gratification of Lyon or other members of his household or the community, just as she had been exploited for her labor? Lyon placed the onus on the enslaved woman for having more children than he found convenient, but he did not acknowledge any possibility that she did not have any choice in whether she became pregnant. Like other enslaved women, she would have regularly found herself in situations in which she did not maintain ultimate power over her own body but was instead at the mercy of her master or other white men. Although this advertisement does not even offer the name of the “healthy likely Negroe Wench” it does suggest some of her experiences. It aids in excavating the history of enslaved women when considered in combination with other sources from the colonial era.

February 13

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Feb 13 - 2:13:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (February 13, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD … A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”

The pages of colonial newspapers regularly featured black women, including the unnamed “healthy likely Negroe Wench” that John Lyon advertised for sale in the February 13, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. These women appeared either as commodities to be bought and sold or as fugitives who seized their own freedom in an era that white colonists debated the meaning of liberty within the British Empire.

As a result of their bondage and the complicit role the eighteenth-century press played in maintaining systems of unfree labor, black women were more likely to appear in the public prints among “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic” than white women. News items sometimes mentioned notable women. Female shopkeepers occasionally placed advertisements, but not in proportion to their numbers in the marketplace. Widows affixed their names as executrixes and administrators to legal notices when they settled the estates of their deceased husbands. English, Irish, and other women of European origins were often the subject of advertisements for runaway indentured servants, especially in newspapers published in New York and Pennsylvania, but throughout the colonies black women – both Africans and African Americans – achieved an unsettling prominence among the paid notices inserted in newspapers. Barely a day passed in the 1760s that at least one newspaper did not feature at least one advertisement about one or more enslaved women and girls.

Those advertisements help to reconstruct the history of black women in early America, even though the advertisements provide only truncated stories. Consider the “Negroe Wench” from today’s advertisement. Even though she could “do all Kinds of House-Work” well enough that her master found “no Fault” with her efforts, Lyon decided to sell her “on Account of her breeding fast.” In other words, the unnamed woman had too many children too quickly. Yet the advertisement does not reveal anything about the woman’s relationships with others in the household or the community. Who was the father of her children? A fellow slave or a free black man? A member of the Lyon household? John Lyon himself? This advertisement quite likely chronicled a sexual relationship that was not consensual, even though the wording places the blame on the unnamed woman for “breeding fast.” What of the “two male Children” also offered for sale? Were these children the unwanted result of the woman “breeding fast”? If so, did Lyon sell them with their mother or separate the family? The advertisement hints at the experiences of an unnamed enslaved woman yet reveals precious few details. In broad strokes, it paints a picture of the experiences of countless enslaved women in early America.