January 4

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

Jan 4 1770 - 1:4:1770 New-York Chronicle
New-York Chronicle (January 4, 1770).

“To be SOLD … A Healthy likely Negro.”

When the new year began in 1770, colonists in New York had access to four newspapers printed in their bustling port city. Hugh Gaine published the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury on Mondays, the same day that James Parker circulated the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. On Thursdays, John Holt distributed the New-York Journal. Commencing in May 1769, Alexander Robertson and James Robertson released a new issue of the New-York Chronicle on Thursdays. All four newspapers carried advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children, who comprised a significant portion of the population. According to the New-York Historical Society, “As many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. … Almost every businessman in 18th-century New York had a stake, at one time or another, in the traffic of human beings.” Gaine, Parker, Holt, and the Robertsons certainly had a stake, generating revenue from advertisements offering enslaved people for sale and from notices describing those who escaped, the advertisers hoping that colonists would recognize, capture, and return “runaways” for a reward.

This advertisement seeking to sell a “Healthy likely Negro Wench, about Thirteen Years of Age,” appeared in the January 4, 1770, edition of the New-York Chronicle. As in so many other advertisements of this type, the seller did not include their name but instead instructed interested parties to “enquire of the Printers.” When they acted as information brokers in response to such enquiries, the Robertsons and other printers became even more enmeshed in the slave trade.

Yet the Robertsons ceased offering such services, not necessarily out of any moral compunction but instead because the New-York Chronicle closed down. The January 4 edition is the last known issue and, quite probably, the last issue of that newspaper. The newspaper did not survive an entire year, but the printers still managed to play a role in facilitating the slave trade in the colony. This advertisement offering a thirteen-year-old girl for sale ran on the final page of the January 4 edition. The New-York Chronicle helped to perpetuate slavery until the newspaper’s very end. New Yorkers then had one less place to insert advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children, but the disappearance of the New-York Chronicle likely made little difference in that regard. Three other newspapers continued to publish those advertisements, further embroiling colonial printers in maintaining and bolstering the slave trade. Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury tended to carry the most advertisements concerning enslaved people, but the others published them as well. As the 1770s dawned in New York, none of the city’s newspaper printers refused such advertisements and the fees associated with them.

May 29

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

May 29 - 5:29:1769 New-York Chronicle
New-York Chronicle (May 29, 1769).

“A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of … negroes.”

Colonists who read any of the newspapers published in New York in the late 1760s were likely familiar with John Coghill Knapp and the services he provided at the “Scrivener, Register, & Conveyance Office.” The attorney frequently inserted lengthy advertisements in multiple newspapers simultaneously. When Alexander Robertson and James Robertson launched the New-York Chronicle in May 1769, Knapp was one of the first to place an advertisement in their new publication. Indeed, when the Robertsons distributed their first issue on May 8 it included one of Knapp’s advertisements; the same advertisement appeared each week for the remainder of the month and beyond.

The inclusion of Knapp’s advertisement meant that the Robertsons and the New-York Chronicle were enmeshed in the slave trade as soon as the publication commenced. Among the many services he provided, Knapp consistently advertised slaves for sale or otherwise acted as a broker for clients seeking to find buyers for enslaved men, women, and children. In his advertisement in the inaugural issue of the New-York Chronicle, he advised readers that “A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of estates for sale either in land, houses, or ground to build on; negroes, and white servants time; to which purchasers may have fee access.” In other words, he invited readers to visit his office to peruse the listings of enslaved people for sale, neatly organized in a register along with real estate and indentured servants.

Print culture, especially newspapers, played an important role in shaping politics during the revolutionary era, spreading information about the imperial crisis and various modes of resistance adopted throughout the colonies. As a result, printers and the press have long been recognized as agents of liberty and the patriot cause. Depicting the press solely as a progressive instrument, however, misses an important part of the story of the American founding. Advertisements that offered enslaved people for sale or offered rewards for those who had escaped in hopes of achieving their own freedom also testify to the power of the press yet demonstrate that it did not always serve the ideals of liberty for all who resided in the colonies. Even as the press became a significant tool advocating the cause of freedom for some colonists, it helped perpetuate the enslavement of others.

May 17

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

May 17 - 5:17:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (May 17, 1769).

“HANDCUFFS and CHAINS … and sundry other Stores proper for the African trade.”

The business of slavery was apparent throughout the Georgia Gazette and other colonial newspapers in the 1760s, especially in the advertisements. While some newspapers certainly published more advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children than others, none excluded such content. From New Hampshire to Georgia, advertisements looking to buy or sell slaves or capture those who managed to escape from colonists who held them in bondage appeared among the other advertisements in the public prints. Even if they were not slaveholders themselves, colonial printers facilitated and profited from the trade in enslaved men, women, and children.

Even more so than usual, this was the case for James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, in the May 17, 1769, edition. In addition to the sorts of advertisements that ran week after week in his newspaper, this issue included an advertisement promoting supplies for slavers involved in “the African trade.” Some of these goods could have been sold to purchasers involved in a variety of endeavors, such as the “FORTY IRON BOUND PUNCHEONS” (or barrels) and “a TON of GUINEY RICE.” Yet the other items offered for sale were not so prosaic: “HANDCUFFS and CHAINS,” “SIX SOLDIERS MUSKETS,” and “FOUR CARRIAGE GUNS.” These were not merely supplies for transatlantic voyages; they were tools of violence and subordination required for trafficking in human cargo.

Elsewhere in the same issue auctioneers Ewen and Bolton advertised a “NEW NEGROE WENCH,” a woman who was not “country born” in Georgia or elsewhere in mainland North America. In another advertisement, William Coachman described “SARAH, a tall Guiney wench” who had escaped a month earlier. Both had survived the middle passage from Africa to the American colonies. As women, they were less likely than their male counterparts to spend the voyage in “HANDCUFFS and CHAINS,” but, at the very least, they most certainly saw other captives so restrained during the ordeal. Both had been subject to the violence of the slave trade and ongoing exploitation upon arriving in Georgia.

All of that was part of a system that played a significant role in sustaining newspapers like the Georgia Gazette. Eleven advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children ran in the May 17 issue, making Johnston complicit in “the African trade.” The advertisement for “HANDCUFFS and CHAINS” and other equipment for participating in the transatlantic slave trade did not make the printer any more complicit. Instead, it underscored the depravity of the enterprise that appeared so prominently in the pages of his newspapers week after week.