September 19

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

Sep 19 - 9:19:1768 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (September 19, 1768).

“ABSENTED himself … a negro fellow named BROMLEY.”

Throughout the summer of 1768 Thomas Shirley inserted the same advertisement in all three newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina. Dated June 8, Shirley’s notice had two parts. In the shorter first portion Shirley described a yawl either “DRIFTED or STOLEN from the Brigantine Prince-of-Wales, Thomas Mason, Master.” He offered a “TWO DOLLARS reward” for its return. In a much lengthier second portion Shirley described Cyrus and Bromley, two enslaved men, who had “ABSENTED themselvesfrom the Schooner Mary, John Doran, Master.” Shirley did not suspect that the runaways had stolen the yawl but instead reported that he suspected “they went off in a Canoe for Ponpon, where Bromley has a wife who belongs to William Harvey.” Shirley provided approximate ages and heights for both fugitives. He also noted that Cyrus “has both his ears cropt” and “his cheeks branded,” likely as punishment for prior acts of disobedience. The enslaved man must have earned some notoriety in the area. Shirley determined that he was “so well known as to need no further description.” As for Bromley, Shirley indicated that he sometimes went by the name Chippenham and “speaks good English.” He concluded by offering rewards for the capture and return of the runaways as well as rewards for information leading to the conviction of anyone who provided them assistance.

That advertisement appeared for the last time in early September. Starting with the September 19 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, a much shorter notice replaced it. Shirley no longer advertised the missing yawl or the infamous Cyrus, but he continued to seek the capture and return of Bromley. He offered a little more information to help readers recognize the fugitive, noting the clothing he wore when he made his escape: “a seaman’s jacket, trowsers and check shirt.” Shirley also stated that Bromley was “well known in Charles-Town and Winyaw, having sailed a considerable time with Captain Henry Richardson.”

What promoted theses revisions to an advertisement that ran for nearly three months? Had Cyrus been captured? Did Shirley receive information indicating that Cyrus was somehow beyond his reach? Had something else happened that caused Shirley to cease advertising Cyrus? The new advertisement no longer mentioned Bromley’s wife in Ponpon. Why not? Had she undergone so much interrogation and surveillance that Shirley determined that his assumption that Bromley would make his way to her was a false lead? What kinds of experiences did she have after her husband and an accomplice fled from Shirley? Perhaps the slaveholder placed too much emphasis on Bromley’s possible attempt to seek refuge with his wife. In the new advertisement he acknowledged that Bromley previously experienced a fair amount of mobility when hired out as a sailor with Captain Richardson. That may have given Bromley more room to maneuver and make good on his escape rather than placing his wife in greater danger by drawing her into a conspiracy.

Like every other runaway advertisement, this one tells a truncated story filtered through the perspective of the slaveholder who composed and placed the notice in the public prints. Unlike most other runaway advertisements, this one provides a second chapter, yet it still raises as many questions as it answers. It does confirm that Bromley continued to elude Shirley, at least for the moment, but it does not definitively reveal anything more about Cyrus or Bromley’s unnamed wife.

September 14

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

Sep 14 - 9:14:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 14, 1768).

“A negroe fellow called CATO … and his wife JUDY … had a written license … to come to town.”

James Bulloch’s advertisement concerning an enslaved man and woman who tricked him into issuing them a pass so they could hire themselves out in Savannah for a month and then ran away became a regular feature in the Georgia Gazette in 1768. Dated July 6, it first appeared in the July 13 edition. It then ran every week, with the exception of August 3, for the next six months, making its final appearance on January 4, 1768, in the first issue of the new year. Overall, Bulloch inserted this advertisement in the Georgia Gazette twenty-five times. It would have been impossible for regular readers to remain unaware of Cato and Judy’s subterfuge and flight, but Bulloch published the notice often enough that even those who read the Georgia Gazette only occasionally were likely to encounter the story of the runaway cooper and laundress.

In that regard, Bulloch’s advertisement did not differ from many other notices about runaway slaves in the Georgia Gazette and other newspapers printed throughout the colonies. The account of Cato and Judy’s escape appeared alongside other advertisements for runaway slaves that also ran for months at a time, including one about “THREE NEW NEGROE MEN, called NEPTUNE, BACCHUS, and APOLLO … and ONE STOUT SEASONED FELLOW, called LIMERICK” who ran away from a plantation near Pensacola, Florida, and were suspected of making way “through the Creek nation.” Bulloch and others made significant investments as they attempted to reclaim runaway slaves. In addition to the “reward of ten shilling sterling, beside all other necessary and common charges” that he offered for the capture and return of Cato and Judy, Bulloch financed an advertising campaign that lasted for six months.

Why did these advertisements cease on January 4, 1769? Had Cato and Judy been captured? Or had they successfully made their escape, at least for the moment, having used the “written license” they finagled from Bulloch to move freely and as far away as possible before he even realized they were gone? The slaveholder may have decided to cut his losses by suspending the advertisements. By then, however, colonists throughout Georgia and beyond would have been familiar with Cato and Judy’s story because they saw it repeated in the Georgia Gazette so many times. Even though the advertisements did not continue, the runaways were not safe. Bulloch had used the power of the press for months to encourage others to engage in the surveillance necessary to bring and end to Cato and Judy’s flight for freedom.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1768 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie & Dixon] (September 1, 1768).
“RUN away … Negro woman named GRACE … appears to be young with child.”

In many instances, newspaper advertisements for runaways may be the only documents that testify to the experiences of some enslaved men and women. Each runaway advertisement tells a story of someone who might otherwise have disappeared from the historical record, but these are only partial stories told by aggrieved masters rather than by the fugitive slaves themselves. Still, these truncated narratives allow us to reconstruct the past, granting insight into the thoughts and experiences of enslaved people even though they do not provide direct testimony.

Consider the story of Grace, described by James Johnson as “a likely Virginia born Negro woman … of a very black complexion.” When Grace ran away in early August 1768, Johnson placed an advertisement offering a reward for her capture in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. He provided a short biography, though it likely did not include the details that Grace would have chosen were she telling her own story about her life. The young woman had been born in Virginia, like most of the other enslaved men, women, and children advertised in the same the Virginia Gazette at the time she made her escape. She was not a “new negro” who had survived the Middle Passage from Africa and then transshipment within the colonies, but she had not always resided with the same master in the same town. Johnson reported that she ran away from Amelia, well inland, and would “endeavour to get on board some vessel in James river, or make for Hampton town” on the coast. Johnson was at least her third owner, having acquired Grace from James Machan who “said she had lived with Mr. Collier” near Hampton.

Johnson provided one other important detail about Grace, reporting she was “somewhat fat, middling large, and appears to be young with child.” Every fugitive had good reason for running away, but Grace may have had more motivation than others. She was probably aware that she could be separated from her child at any time. Another advertisement in the same issue listed several prizes in a lottery, including “a likely breeding woman named Agnes” valued at fifty pounds as one prize and “Agnes’s child, named Rose, 18 months old” valued at fifteen pounds as another. Mother and daughter were almost certain to be separated when the tickets were drawn and the so-called “Prizes” awarded. In addition to Agnes, the “Prizes” included another “likely breeding woman named Ruth.” Grace may not have fled merely to avoid being separated from her child. She may have been escaping sexual abuse and exploitation that led to her pregnancy, whether perpetrated by Johnson or others. In a society that treated her as a “likely breeding woman,” Grace may have been attempting to assert control over her own body and reproductive choices.

It is impossible to know for certain the precise reasons that Grace chose to run away or why she ran at the time she did, but Johnson’s advertisement suggests some likely possibilities. He did not acknowledge the abuses Grace may have suffered, but readers can fill in those silences by imagining Johnson’s narrative of the enslaved woman’s life had it been told by Grace herself.

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.