May 20

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

Pennsylvania Packet (May 18, 1772).

“RUN AWAY … a Negro Man, named PETER.”

This advertisement testifies to both the mobility of enslaved people who liberated themselves by fleeing from their enslavers and the efforts of enslavers to capture and return to bondage fugitives seeking freedom.  Peter, “a Negro Man … of a yellow complexion,” escaped from Patrick Simpson’s plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, in the late spring or early summer of 1771.  Nearly a year later, an advertisement describing Peter ran in the Pennsylvania Packet.  The dateline in the advertisement indicated that it had originated in New York, not Charleston.  Hallett and Hazard, merchants who presumably operated on behalf of Simpson, informed readers that they would receive “TEN DOLLARS REWARD” for apprehending Peter and securing him “in any [jail] in Pennsylvania or New-Jersey” and notifying local agents in Philadelphia or Princeton.

What prompted Simpson to believe that Peter might have made it to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or any of the neighboring colonies?  The advertisement described him as a “sensible, plausible fellow” and indicated that he spoke “very proper E[n]glish.”  Peter may have been able to pose as a free man as he made his way north, especially if it was obvious from his speech that he was “country born” rather than “new” from Africa.  When Simpson could not locate Peter in South Carolina, he might have suspected that he made his way to another colony.

In his attempt to capture and once again enslave Peter, Simpson enlisted the aid of both local agents and the general public.  Hallett and Hazard in New York, Peter Wikoff in Philadelphia, and Peter Gordon in Princeton all assisted Simpson, but the advertisement also called on others to engage in surveillance of Black men they encountered to assess if any of them matched the Peter’s description.  That meant observing their physical characteristics, their clothing, and their comportment as well as assessing their speech.  John Dunlap, the printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, also aided Simpson, earning revenues when he published the advertisement.  Capturing Peter was not simply a local matter, one confined to newspaper notices published in South Carolina and readers in that colony.  Instead, Simpson relied on an extensive apparatus as he sought to once again deny Peter his liberty.