October 3

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

Oct 3 - 10:3:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (October 3, 1769).

“A Likely Negro LAD.”

Nathan Frazier’s advertisement for “a very good assortment of Fall and Winter GOODS” ran once again in the October 3, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. The shopkeeper promoted those goods by proclaiming “a single article of which has not been imported since last year.” In other words, his merchandise arrived in the colonies prior to the nonimportation agreement going into effect. He had not violated the agreement; prospective customers who supported the American cause could purchase from him with clear conscience. A new advertisement appeared immediately above it: “To be SOLD, A Likely Negro LAD, about eighteen or nineteen Years of Age, works well at the Cooper’s Trade, and understands working in the Field or Garden.” This produced a striking juxtaposition for readers, moving from an advertisement that contributed to the perpetuation of slavery to one that implicitly asserted the rights of Anglo-American colonists and defended their liberty against encroachments by Parliament. In the era of the imperial crisis that culminated with the American Revolution, colonists unevenly applied demands for liberty.

That these advertisements appeared in a newspaper published in Salem, Massachusetts, underscores that slavery was practiced throughout British mainland North America rather than limited to southern colonies. The proportion of the population comprised of enslaved men, women, and children was certainly smaller in New England than in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but enslaved people were present, enmeshed in daily life, commerce, and print culture in the region. Fewer colonists in New England enslaved Africans and African Americans, but even those who did not themselves own slaves still participated in networks of commerce and consumption that depended on the labor of men, women, and children held in bondage. Consider another advertisement that ran in the same issue of the Essex Gazette. Richard Derby, Jr., hawked “Choice Jamaica SUGAR, RUM, ALSPICE, GINGER, and COFFEE.” Colonists in New England consumed products cultivated by enslaved laborers in the Caribbean and imported to mainland North America. They were part of transatlantic networks of production and exchange that included the slave trade as an integral component. The economies of their colonies and their personal consumption habits were deeply entangled with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

The progression of advertisements in the October 3 edition of the Essex Gazette – from “Choice Jamaica SUGAR” to “A Likely Negro LAD” to “Fall and Winter GOODS” imported the previous year – tells a complicated story of the quest for liberty and the perpetuation of enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. Any narrative that focuses exclusively on the patriotism exhibited by Nathan Frazier in his efforts to support the nonimportation acts tells only part of the story so readily visible in the advertisements that appeared immediately before Frazier’s notice.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (July 4, 1769).

“RUN away … two Negro Boys named GUY and LIMEHOUSE.”

American colonists engaged in a variety of resistance activities in response to new legislation passed by Parliament with the intention of better regulating the vast British Empire in the years after the Seven Years War concluded. Colonial legislatures passed resolutions asserting the rights of American and submitted petitions encouraging Parliament to reconsider. Merchants and shopkeepers organized nonimportation agreements, disrupting commerce as a means of achieving political goals. Extending those efforts, consumers boycotted goods imported from Britain. Many colonists also expressed their political views by participating in public demonstrations, some of them culminating in violence. The colonial press chronicled all of these efforts, contributing to the creation of an imagined community from New England to Georgia. Print culture played an important role in creating a sense of a common cause for many colonists.

Yet white colonists were not the only ones thinking about liberty and those were not the only means of seeking freedom. Enslaved Africans and African Americans did not need newspaper reports about petitions, nonimportation agreements, and public demonstrations to inform them of the ideals of liberty and the meaning of freedom. Many engaged in their own acts of resistance, seizing their own liberty by escaping from bondage. Such was the case for “two Negro Boys named GUY and LIMEHOUSE.” Late in the winter or early in the spring of 1769, these two young men decided to make their escape from Ralph Izard’s plantation. For weeks, Izard ran advertisements in South Carolina’s newspapers, including in the July 4, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. He offered a reward of ten pounds each for the capture and return of Guy and Limehouse, instructing that they should be delivered “to the Warden of [t]he Work-house in Charlestow[n].”

Other than their names (presumably names bestowed on the young men by their enslavers), Izard provided little information about the young men. He described them as “Boys,” but did not offer even an approximation of their ages. Izard indicated that he had purchased Guy and Limehouse from William Drayton, but did not report how much time had elapsed between that transaction and their escape. For at least a couple of months, the young men experienced freedom, though they likely never felt secure. Guy and Limehouse’s stories, as told by Izard, were exceptionally truncated compared to the stories they would have told about themselves. Still, their determination to free themselves demonstrates that the spirit of liberty was not confined to white colonists aggrieved over the actions of Parliament.

That spirit of liberty, however, existed in stark contrast to the realities of enslavement during the imperial crisis, throughout the American Revolution, and beyond. Advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children who attempted to seize their own liberty highlight that paradox of the American founding. Many historians address the tension between liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution, both in projects intended mainly for their colleagues in the academy and projects intended to engage the general public. On July 4, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, the Adverts 250 Project seeks to add to that conversation by presenting the stories of enslaved people who made their escape from bondage at the same time that white colonists protested for their rights and freedom from figurative enslavement to Parliament. In addition to the stories of Guy and Limehouse, learn more about Caesar, advertised in the Providence Gazette on July 4, 1767, and Harry, advertised in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on July 4, 1768. Celebrations of Independence Day should acknowledge the complexity of American history and commemorate the courage and conviction of enslaved people who pursued their own means of achieving freedom in an era of revolutionary fervor.

November 22

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

Nov 22 - 11:22:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 22, 1768).

“A negro fellow born in Jamaica, calls himself James Williams.”

An advertisement listing fugitive slaves who had been captured and “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” was a regular feature in newspapers published in South Carolina and Georgia in the late 1760s. The supplement that accompanied the November 22, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for example, included an advertisement that described three such runaways: Belfast, a “new negro fellow” who “has the mark of a shot on his left thigh, which he said was done by his master,” Jenny, a “negro wench of the Angola country … of a yellow complexion, with very small breasts,” and James Williams, a “negro fellow born in Jamaica” who had been “branded on his right shoulder.” The notice indicated where each had been “taken up” before being delivered to the workhouse.

Other details hinted at more complete stories that each captured runaway could tell. That James Williams identified himself by both first and last name, for instance, was notable. He certainly had not adopted the surname of Thomas Wheeler of Kingston, the man who currently held him in bondage. What circumstances had prompted Williams to adopt that surname? What meaning did it hold for him? Which experiences had shaped his life and convinced him to seize an opportunity to make an escape? According to the notice, Williams had been “hired to one Davis, first Lieutenant of the Sterling-Castle,” but he ran away when the ship was at Cape Fear. In addition to the brand on his shoulder, he also had “the mark of a shot just below his left knee, which he says was done at the siege of the Havanna” near the end of the Seven Years War. The brief description of James Williams in the “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” notice was an incomplete narrative of his life, as was the case for both Belfast and Jenny.

These truncated narratives stood in stark contrast to the poem, “To LIBERTY,” printed immediately to the right. Charles Crouch, printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, presented one notion of liberty for his readers to consider as colonists grappled with their deteriorating relationship with Parliament. Probably quite inadvertently, Crouch provided a companion piece with the “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” notice. Most likely very few readers acknowledged the juxtaposition, in part because white narrators framed the experiences of runaway slaves. Given the opportunity to tell their own stories, Belfast, Jenny, and James Williams would have advanced their own understandings of liberty. Enslaved men, women, and children did not need poets or printers to teach them any lessons about what it meant to be free. Through the act of running away, they testified that they already understood.

March 26

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

Mar 26 - 3:26:1768 New-York Journal Supplement
Supplement to the New-York Journal (March 26, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD, A Likely young Negro Girl.”

John Holt published the New-York Journal on Thursdays in 1768. According to schedule, he distributed a standard four-page issue on Thursday, March 24. A two-page supplement filled mostly with news and a limited number of advertisements accompanied that issue. Two days later, Holt distributed an additional two-page supplement on Saturday, March 26. He explained that it contained “Articles left out of last for Want of Room,” apparently items that either could not wait for inclusion the following week or that would crowd out more recent news if held that long. The March 26 supplement consisted almost entirely of news items. One advertisement appeared at the bottom of the final column on the second page.

That advertisement offered a “Likely young Negro Girl about 13 Years of Age” for sale. It stood in stark juxtaposition to the remainder of the content of the supplement. Holt devoted four of the six columns to news from Boston, including several editorial pieces reprinted from the Boston-Gazette. One reprinted letter, signed “A TRUE PATRIOT,” warned that the colonists “soon will find themselves in chains” if they did not “support their own RIGHTS, and the Liberty of the PRESS” in the face of abuses by Parliament. Another correspondent, “POPULUS,” underscored that there was “nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as FREE PRESS.” The press played such an important role that “it is ever watched by those who are forming plans for the destruction of the people’s liberties, with an envious and malignant eye.”

In addition to these editorials, Holt inserted a circular letter “written by the hon. the House of Representatives” in Massachusetts “in the last Session of the General Assembly and sent to the respective Assemblies on the Continent.” In it, that body expressed “their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the parliament; that the acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements on their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those acts, grant their property without their consent.” In other words, colonists in Massachusetts objected to taxation without representation. Holt amplified their sentiments by reprinting their letter for readers in New York and its hinterlands.

All of this discussion of freedom of the press and theories of constitutional liberty took place alongside an advertisement for a “young Negro Girl.” The revenues generated from that advertisement contributed to the dissemination of the arguments voiced by “A TRUE PATRIOT,” “POPULUS,” and the assembly of the “Province of MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.” As white colonists fretted about their liberties, they also perpetuated a system that enslaved a “young Negro Girl” and countless others, holding their bodies in bondage even as they lamented potential challenges to their own speech. Resistance led to revolution as the imperial crisis intensified over the course of a decade, but many colonists were inconsistent in their conceptions of liberty and applying them to all who resided in the colonies. Even as they challenged Parliament to recognize their “natural constitutional right” colonists continued to purchase and peddle slaves from New England to George. The evidence for each appeared side-by-side in the pages of their newspapers.