January 20

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

Virginia Gazette [Rind] (January 17, 1771).
“A mulatto man slave named AARON, who brought suit against my father, Henry Randolph, in the General Court.”

Some historians and other scholars describe eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements about enslaved people who liberated themselves the first narratives of enslavement, though they acknowledge that those advertisements were not penned by enslaved people themselves.  Such advertisements document stories of resistance when read counter to the purposes of the enslavers who wrote them to encourage surveillance of Black people with the goals of identifying enslaved people who liberated themselves and returning them to bondage.  Filtered through the perspectives of enslavers who shaped the narratives, these advertisements told incomplete stories.  Still, these so-called runaway advertisements collectively testify to widespread resistance among enslaved people throughout the colonies.

The story of “a mulatto man slave named AARON” is among those countless incomplete narratives that almost certainly would have included different details had it been written by the enslaved man rather than his enslaver.  John Randolph placed an advertisement in the January 17, 1771, edition of William Rind’s Virginia Gazette to advise the public that Aaron had “RUN away” the previous June.  From Aaron’s perspective, however, he continued his quest for freedom by other means.  Randolph reported that Aaron previously “brought suit against my father, Henry Randolph, in the General Court, for his freedom.”  Aaron appeared before the court as Aaron Griffing.  Randolph did not explain the significance of the surname.  Notably, the enslaved man did not identify himself using the last name of his enslaver.  Randolph stated that “the suit was determined … in my father’s favour” even though “many of [Aaron’s] colour got their freedom [from] that court,” perhaps indicating that other enslaved “mulatto” men and women successfully sued for their freedom.  Even though he appeared in court as Aaron Griffing, Randolph suspected that he “may change his name” to improve his chances of remaining undetected and “endeavour to pass for a freeman.”  From Aaron’s perspective, no passing was involved.  He liberated himself after the court refused to do so.

Randolph’s advertisement included other information that Aaron might have described in more detail … or avoided altogether … had he told his own story.  For instance, Randolph declared that Aaron has been “marked on each cheek I, R, the letters very dull.”  The circumstances that led to the enslaved man bearing the initials of John Randolph (or another enslaver?) on his face may have been a significant motivation for liberating himself … or it may have been a story too painful for words.  Whichever may have been the case, Randolph’s advertisement survives today as a testament to Aaron’s courage and conviction to liberate himself.  It reverberates with meaning unintended by the enslaver who wrote and disseminated it a quarter millennium ago.

November 3

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

Providence Gazette (November 3, 1770).

“RUN away … a Negro Man Servant, named Pomp.”

Like all newspapers published in colonial America, the Providence Gazette ran several sorts of “runaway” advertisements.  These included notices about indentured servants and apprentices who departed from their masters before their time of service concluded.  Other notices described enslaved people who seized their liberty, offering rewards to readers who captured them and returned them to bondage.  Husbands also turned to the public prints to place notices about disobedient wives who “eloped” from them.  Unlike the advertisements for indentured servants, apprentices, and enslaved people, these did not seek the return of wives to their husbands but instead warned that the aggrieved spouse would no longer pay debts accumulated by their absent wives.  The subjects of these notices were uniformly depicted as the transgressors, yet the advertisements implicitly testified to discord and exploitation perpetrated by the advertisers.  Runaways exercised one form of power available to them as they sought to improve their circumstances.

The various kinds of runaway advertisements promoted a culture of surveillance in early America, enlisting colonists to scrutinize the bodies, clothing, and comportment of people they encountered.  In particular, such notices focused attention on people who, at a glance, appeared to belong among the ranks of the lower sorts.  The November 3, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette featured an advertisement concerning Pomp (or Pompey), “a Negro Man Servant,” who escaped from his enslaver.  Aaron Waitt described Pomp’s age, physical characteristics, including a scar on his forehead, clothing, and linguistic ability, noting that he “speaks good English.”  Waitt resided in Salem, Massachusetts, and also placed notices in the Essex Gazette, the newspaper published in that town.  Yet he apparently traced Pomp as far as Rhode Island, asserting that he received reports that the fugitive seeking freedom boarded the Free Mason when it sailed from East Greenwich to New York and Carolina.  Waitt used the public prints to encourage surveillance of Black men while targeting Pomp far beyond the towns in the vicinity of Salem. No matter the distance that Pomp put between himself and his enslaver, he had to be wary about encountering colonists who had seen the advertisements that described him and offered rewards for his capture and return.

September 9

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

Sep 9 - 9:9:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 9, 1767).

“My apprentice Patrick Nihell will make his escape.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, runaway advertisements were one of the most common types of notices inserted in newspapers. Slaveholders advertised runaway slaves. Masters advertised runaway indentured servants. Husbands advertised runaway wives. Military officers advertised runaway soldiers who had deserted. Masters advertised runaway apprentices. For people in subordinate positions, for people who were often exploited by others, running away from those who exercised power and authority over them was a means of attempting to remedy their situation.

Some of these advertisements appeared more frequently than others. Advertisements for runaway slaves and runaway servants were most common, though their proportion varied from region to region based on how extensively the local economy depended each type of labor. Newspapers in the Chesapeake and Lower South disseminated many advertisements for runaway slaves, but far fewer advertisements for runaway servants. Their counterparts in the Middle Atlantic regularly featured many of both types of advertisements, though careful quantitative analysis would likely reveal that advertisements for runaway servants significantly outnumbered advertisements for runaway slaves in that region. In New England, on the other hand, advertisements for runaway slaves appeared only occasionally and less frequently than advertisements for runaway servants.

Husbands advertised runaway wives throughout the colonies. Not surprisingly, newspapers in the largest urban ports – Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia – had the highest concentration of such advertisements, corresponding to the size of their populations, yet such notices also appeared in newspapers published in smaller towns. Advertisements for runaway soldiers were the least common, but readers also encountered them in newspapers throughout the colonies.

Finally, advertisements for runaway apprentices ran in newspapers in every region of colonial America, but tended to be most heavily concentrated in those regions that had higher numbers of indentured servants rather than slaves. In running away, abused apprentices sought to escape mistreatment by their masters. In today’s advertisements, Thomas Lee, Jr., updated the standard format for such advertisements. His apprentice, Patrick Nihell, had not run away, but their relationship had apparently deteriorated to the point that Lee suspected Nihell would “make his escape.” In anticipation, Lee preemptively warned “all masters of vessels and others” not to assist Nihell in any way if he did attempt to abscond. He concluded by threatening anyone who colluded with the apprentice “may depend to be prosecuted to the utmost rigour of the law.”