July 13

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

Jul 13 - 7:13:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 13, 1768).

“A negroe fellow called CATO … and his wife JUDY … have not been seen or heard of.”

James Bulloch, a slaveholder, regretted trusting “a negroe fellow called CATO … and his wife JUDY.” The two took advantage of that trust, at least from Bulloch’s perspective, when they decided to run away after he had issued them a pass to go to Savannah. Cato and Judy, for their part, likely had little sympathy when it came to betraying the trust of a man who held them in bondage. Bulloch briefly told their story in an advertisement he inserted in the July 13, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette.

Cato and Judy were both skilled workers. Bulloch described Cato as “a cooper by trade” and Judy as “a washer-woman.” Cato had apparently practiced his trade in the colony’s largest port town; Bulloch indicated that he was “well known in Savannah.” That being the case, it may not have been difficult for Cato to find work when he wished, providing that Bulloch allowed him to participate in the hiring out system. Judy also possessed a skill often in demand, especially in ports. Hiring out his slaves accrued certain benefits for Bulloch, especially if he did not have sufficient work to keep them occupied. By hiring out the cooper and laundress, allowing them to seek their own employment for a specified period, Bulloch reduced his responsibilities for providing food and shelter. He also generated additional income since their wages belonged to him. Slaveholders who thought of themselves as generous sometimes gifted a small portion of the wages to the enslaved men and women who earned them, but usually little more than a token.

Bulloch apparently had no misgivings about this system, at least not as far as Cato and Judy were concerned. Perhaps they had cultivated his trust over time, anticipating when they might have an opportunity to make their escape. Bulloch issued he couple “a written license … to come to town, and thee to work for a month from the 13th day of June last.” He expected them to return after a month, with their wages to hand over to him. To Bulloch’s dismay, however, Cato and Judy “have not been seen or heard of since.” Apparently the couple did not make any pretense of arriving in Savannah and seeking work. Instead, they fled at the earliest opportunity in order for their disappearance to go unnoticed as long as possible, increasing their chances for making good on their escape. Bulloch eventually discovered the subterfuge and offered a reward for their capture and return.

Although filtered through the perspective of slaveholders, advertisements for runaway slaves present striking stories of survival and resistance by enslaved men and women. The same issue of the Georgia Gazette that first provided an account of Cato and Judy’s escape also included three other advertisements for runaway slaves: Pedro “of the Angola country,” who “has the upper part of his right ear cut off,” possibly as a disciplinary measure; Chloe, who “has her country marks on both her cheeks” and spoke little English; and Ben, who “has been for some time sickly.” The advertisements do not provide as much information about any of these fugitives, making it more difficult to reconstruct their stories. Still, these advertisements demonstrate that enslaved men and women did not meekly accept their fate but instead sought to change their condition.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1768 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (July 4, 1768).

“RAN away … a Mulatto Slave, named HARRY.”

July 4 is the day Americans celebrate their independence from Britain. It is a familiar story about campaigns of resistance to abuses by Parliament that steadily intensified and ultimately led to a revolution against the king, a revolution that created a new nation. In the Declaration of Independence the founders asserted “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founding generation, however, applied these ideals unevenly to various constituencies within the new United States of America. The American Revolution launched a struggle to achieve those ideals, a struggle that has unfolded over nearly a quarter of a millennium and continues to this day. As a nation, the United States has certainly made progress, but those ideals have not been universally achieved. Unfortunately, much of that progress has come under attack in the twenty-first century, making it clear that Americans must be vigilant in safeguarding not only their own liberty but also the liberty of others as they continue to strive to achieve those ideals endorsed in Independence Hall in 1776 and promulgated throughout the new nation.

As Americans once again tell the story of their independence today, consider another story of an American who seized his freedom in the era of the Revolution. Harry, “a Mulatto Slave … about 40 years of age,” ran away from Levin Crapper on September 13, 1767. More than nine months later he had not been captured or returned, prompting Crapper to place an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. According to Crapper, Harry possessed a variety of talents that would allow him to make a living on his own: “He was bred a miller, and understands very well how to manufacture flour.” Crapper also acknowledged, grudgingly, that Harry “understands the carpenter’s and mill-wright’s business middling well.” To offset those indications of his competence at those trades, Crapper accused the fugitive of being “much given to strong drink.”

That was not the entirety of Harry’s story. Crapper also reported that Harry “has a free Mulatto wife, named Peg, and two children.” Of all the motivations that could have prompted Harry to make his escape, reuniting with his family was probably the most compelling. Even though Peg and the children did not depart at the same time as Harry, Crapper stated that he believed “they will endeavour to get together” and flee “to the province of East New-Jersey.” Crapper suspected that Harry had a forged pass that would aid him in his flight from the man who held him in bondage.

Thomas Jefferson had not yet penned the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” when Harry determined to make himself a free man. The Declaration of Independence had not yet been printed in newspapers throughout the colonies or read aloud in churches and town commons. Yet the Revolution had begun. Colonists had protested the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765 and celebrated its repeal in 1766. At the time that Harry made his escape in 1767 white colonists complained about their impending enslavement via the Townshend Act and other laws passed by Parliament. Harry knew something about enslavement. He had likely heard other colonists talking about liberty and the necessity of resistance to an oppressive Parliament. In that environment, he made his own choice to seize his freedom, for himself and for his family.

There are many stories to celebrate on Independence Day. Harry managed to remain free for at least nine months. Hopefully he and Peg and the children made it to safety and he eluded capture for the rest of his life. Harry’s story is one of determination and an individual commitment to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the era of the American Revolution, a story that deserves to be told and celebrated alongside so many of the familiar stories that so many already know so well.

May 14

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

May 14 - 5:14:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 14, 1768).

“RUN away … a Negroe Man Slave, named Sterling.”

Most of the advertisements in the May 14, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette had appeared in at least one previous issue, but Obadiah Sprague and Joseph Bucklin inserted two new notices. Both notified readers about runaway slaves, providing descriptions and offering rewards for capturing and returning them. A “Negro Man Slave, named Sterling” who “talks bad English” ran away from Bucklin. A “Negroe Man, named Barrow” who “speaks good English” ran away from Sprague.

Considered on their own, each of these advertisements testifies to the choices made by many enslaved men and women, even though their stories have been filtered through narrators who held them in bondage. Sterling and Barrow did not accept their lot; instead, they took action to gain their freedom rather than remain enslaved. Sprague suspected that Barrow might even attempt to board a ship and make good on his escape by putting as much distance between himself and his former master as possible.

Considered in relation to other items on the same page, these advertisements reveal juxtapositions in colonists’ understandings of liberty at the time of the imperial crisis that preceded the American Revolution. These notices concerning runaway slaves appeared immediately to the right of a poem, “On the FARMER’s Letters.” The ode honored John Dickinson, the pseudonymous “Farmer,” who had written a series of letters defending the colonies against abuse by Parliament in the wake of the Townshend Act. The letters had been reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies. The poem described the “Farmer” as “Liberty’s best Friend!” It concluded by proclaiming, “We love Britannia – but we will be free.” To modern eyes, such declarations seem starkly contradictory when positioned next to advertisements inserted expressly for the purpose of returning runaway slaves to bondage. Yet they reveal that most colonists did not think of their freedom in the same terms that they considered the condition of enslaved men, women, and children.

This contrast seems even more stark when taking into account the news item printed immediately above the poem. In a paragraph comprised of approximately the same number of lines of text, the printers reported on news that had just come to hand via “Capt. Winter, from Montserrat.” It told of an attempted slave revolt, one that required fifty soldiers from Antigua to put down. The narrative of events concluded with a gruesome description of the torture and execution of one of the insurrection’s leaders. With no transition at all, this tale gave way to the poem extolling the Farmer’s efforts to protect colonists’ liberty.

Most colonists held contradictory views when it came to their own liberty compared to the liberty of slaves. Barrow, Sterling, and other runaways, on the other hand, were not conflicted in their views on the matter. They did not need a series of letters from the “Farmer” to explain enslavement to them, yet some likely felt bolstered in their decisions to determine their own fates as they listened to debates about liberty that intensified during the imperial crisis. They likely also heard about the brutal measures taken to quell slave revolts, making their choice to escape from their masters all the more courageous for knowing the consequences that others faced when they engaged in acts of resistance.

May 14 - Slave Revolt 5:14:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 14, 1768).

March 2

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

Mar 2 - 3:2:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (March 2, 1768).

“Any person that may bring me his head, hand, or foot, after that time, shall be rewarded.”

To one extent or another, each newspaper advertisement concerning slaves testified to a horrific system of bondage, but Joseph Gibbons’s notice concerning Limus, a runaway, exhibited even greater brutality than most. In several consecutive issues of the Georgia Gazette, Gibbons presented a proposition for the fugitive: “If the said Limus will return to his duty in ten days he shall not be whipped, but if not, any person that may bring me his head, hand, or foot, after that time, shall be rewarded.” Most slaveholders called on others to assist in the capture of runaways, promising rewards for the safe return of their human property. They did not usually mention any consequences the runaways might eventually endure. Gibbons, on the other hand, did not reserve inflicting punishments on Limus as his sole domain. Instead, he encouraged the dismemberment or even murder of the runaway.

That Gibbons extended an alternative to this ruthless punishment indicates that he expected that Limus had some sort of access to information that appeared in the colony’s only newspaper. Why attempt to strike a bargain that if Limus “will return to his duty in ten days he shall not be whipped” unless he believed that some combination of reading and conversation would eventually transmit his terms to the runaway? The merciless threat of rewarding “any person that may bring his head, hand, or foot” after the deadline had passed also would have worked more effectively if Gibbons anticipated that Limus would become aware of it. These stark choices were designed to terrorize and persuade the fugitive to return of his own accord, but they depended on overlapping networks of white and black colonists spreading news via print and word of mouth. Even though the vast majority of slaves were not literate, they still had means of acquiring and sharing news in early America. Even though white colonists may not have always been aware or attempted to downplay how much slaves knew about the contents of newspapers, some of them did acknowledge that slaves did indeed have access to information that appeared in the public prints.

January 28

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

Jan 28 - 1:28:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (January 28, 1768).

“Committed as a Runaway … 8 11.”

In most instances it is impossible to determine what happened as the result of advertisements for runaway slaves or captured fugitives. Some runaways likely made good on their escapes, but the odds were stacked against them. Many slaveholders likely reclaimed their human property after seeing notices that they had been committed to jail or the workhouse, though the dates in those advertisements sometimes indicated that inmates remained for weeks or months without an owner collecting them.

In the case of “a well set Negro Man, who calls himself James Gale” who had been thrown in jail in Orange County on suspicion that he was a runaway, however, the notations inserted into the advertisement by the compositor suggest that the notice had its intended effect. Gale’s master likely claimed him shortly after the advertisement first appeared in the New-York Journal on January 28, 1768.

Consider the notation at the conclusion of the advertisement: “8 11.” These numbers appear unrelated to the content of the advertisement. Instead, they indicate which issues of the newspaper needed to include the advertisements. The “8” referred to the first issue that contained the advertisement, “NUMB. 1308,” published on January 28, 1768. The “11” referred to when the compositor should discontinue the advertisement, removing it from “NUMB. 1311” scheduled for publication on February 18. The notation indicates that it was slated to run in three issues, numbers 1308, 1309, and 1310.

Examination of other advertisements from the January 28 issue suggests that this was indeed the case. Mark Feely, an attorney, placed an advertisement for his legal “WRITINGS” that also featured the notation “7 10.” This advertisement originated in number 1307 and ran in the next two issues, but did not reappear in number 1310. Similarly, an advertisement announcing the auction of a “Corner House and Lot of Ground” had a notation that read “8 12” on the final line. As expected, it first ran in number 1308, continued for the next several issues, but disappeared with the publication of number 1312.

That being the case, the advertisement concerning the suspected runaway being held in jail in Orange County should have been in the three issues indicated by the notation “8 11.” However, it only ran for two weeks. Why? James Gale’s owner most likely became aware of the advertisement and made arrangements for the fugitive’s return quickly enough that John Hudson, the sheriff who placed the notice, requested that the printer discontinue it. This unfortunate conclusion demonstrates the power that print played in policing black men and women in eighteenth-century America.

January 26

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

Jan 26 - 1:26:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (January 26, 1768).

“She was with child when she went away.”

Every advertisement about a runaway slave tells a story of resistance and the struggle to claim the same liberty enjoyed by the slaveholder who placed the advertisement. Yet these advertisements contain much more. They often reveal family histories or suggest bonds of affection among enslaved men, women, and children. As much as slaveholders may have wished to pretend otherwise, such stories embedded in advertisements intended to reclaim their property testified to the humanity of men, women, and children held in bondage.

Consider Sampson and Miley. The two ran away from the same plantation at the same time, quite likely departing together. Alexander Kerr described both of them in an advertisement. Sampson, approximately thirty, was missing two of his front teeth. Miley, a “slender made wench,” may have been even more recognizable by her “yellow complexion” and the “country marks on her face.” In addition, she was “with child” when she ran away. Her pregnancy would only become more apparent until she delivered the baby. After that, caring for an infant would continue to distinguish her from other black women.

What was Sampson and Miley’s relationship? He may have been the father of Miley’s child. Perhaps they made a decision that as parents they needed to escape together rather than allowing their child to be born into bondage. Perhaps Sampson and Miley had been in a relationship that their master refused to recognize. Miley’s child may have been the result of sexual assault by their master or an overseer, in which case Sampson could have aided her escape as a means of providing more protection for both mother and child than he previously had been capable of providing for Miley. Perhaps Sampson and Miley were friends, siblings, or otherwise related. They may have determined that they had better chances to make good on their escape if they assisted each other.

Despite all the details included in the descriptions of Sampson and Miley, Alexander Kerr did not specify their relationship to each other. It simply may not have mattered to him. After all, the stakes were much different for him than for the fugitives. Kerr demanded the return of his property, but the pregnant Miley and her companion sought freedom for themselves and a child on its way. Unwillingly, Kerr’s advertisement for runaway slaves revealed bonds of affection that would extend to another generation upon the birth of Miley’s child. Unintentionally, he gave voice in print to the sincerest desires of slaves that he otherwise attempted to keep silent.

December 28

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

Dec 28 - 12:28:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (December 28, 1767).

“RAN-away … a stout Molatto Negro Slave.”

Step, “a stout Molatto Negro Slave,” ran away “from his Master Lieut. Mathew Caldwell” at the end of November in 1767. In his attempt to capture the fugitive, Caldwell made every effort in the public prints to alert his fellow colonists. He provided a description of Step, offered a reward, and warned others against assisting Step in any way. In addition to the reward, Caldwell pledged to reimburse “all necessary Charges” incurred in securing and returning the runaway slave. He publicized all of this information as widely as possible, inserting the notice in all four newspapers published in Boston at the time. On December 28, it appeared in the Boston Evening-Post, Boston-Gazette, and Boston Post-Boy. Four days earlier, the same advertisement ran in the Massachusetts Gazette. Considering the reward, expenses, and advertising, Caldwell made a significant investment in his search for Step.

This advertisement seems a stark contrast to many of the other paid notices and news items in Boston’s newspapers during the final months of 1767. All four newspapers published accounts of the town meeting at the end of October, noting the general discontent about an imbalance of trade between Britain and the colonies that contributed to an economic recession and scarcity of hard money. Bostonians voted to encourage production and consumption of local alternatives to imported goods. Other towns in Massachusetts and neighboring colonies then passed their own resolutions calling for increased local industry combined with nonimportation agreements. All of this coincided with resistance to the Townshend Act and new duties on certain imported goods. Advertisements for consumer goods and services reflected the concerns expressed at town meetings. Some advertisers underscored that they made certain goods or sold items produced locally. Other advertisers once again used the Liberty Tree as a landmark when listing directions to their shops.

Colonists in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England expressed concerns about infringements on their liberty and devised plans for resistance in 1767. They reacted to an imperial crisis that eventually resulted in the American Revolution. Step ran away from Caldwell amid ongoing public discussions about the meaning of liberty. He engaged in his own acts of resistance to unjust authority in the era of the revolution.