October 1

GUEST CURATOR:  Carl Allard

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 1, 1771).

“RUN-AWAY … a negro man named JACK.”

One part of the mission of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project is to understand the lives of enslaved people through information gathered from “RUN-AWAY” advertisements. In late September 1771, an enslaved man named Jack liberated himself by running away from Meyer Moses, a colonist who bore the name of the biblical figure who liberated the enslaved Israelites yet ironically sought to return Jack to bondage. This advertisement not only details the fascinating biography of Jack, but also remains a testimony to hope. Jack’s escape, a struggle against immense opposition, runs parallel to what we know of his medical history. The ad states Jack was, “much pitted in the face with the small pox, one of his feet frost-bitten.” According to Elizabeth Fenn, medical data from that era suggests the mortality rate of smallpox was quite high; if the hemorrhaging pustules overlapped, one stood a 60 percent chance of dying.  Certainly, Jack’s self-liberation was just the latest in a series of struggles that he had overcome. The advertisement reveals that Jack “speaks good English.” This skill, as David Waldstreicher notes, might have been a powerful tool to secure passage on a ship, as the advertisement stated Jack planned on doing.[1] Waldstreicher also observes that self-liberated people, such as Jack, were often self-fashioning. Clothing choice, such as the “soldier’s coat” Jack wore, was central to the success of enslaved people pursuing freedom, allowing them to try to blend in as free.[2]

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

For the next three months, the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project will feature work undertaken by students who enrolled in my Research Methods: Vast Early America course at Assumption University in Spring 2021.  Required of all History majors in the spring of their junior year to prepare them to pursue their own projects under the direction of a faculty mentor in the capstone seminar in the fall of their senior year, Research Methods focuses on important skills:  accessing and interpreting primary sources and understanding and evaluating secondary sources.  Students complete an historiographical essay for their final project in Research Methods, but throughout the semester they complete smaller projects that help them develop their skills.

To that end, I invite my students to serve as guest curators for the digital humanities projects I have created.  As guest curator, Carl Allard, the author of today’s entry, was responsible for navigating four databases of digitized eighteenth-century American newspapers to create an archive of issues originally published between September 26 and October 2, 1771.  From there, he selected an advertisement to feature on the Adverts 250 Project.  He conducted research to identify secondary sources beyond those we examined in class and then drafted a short entry.  I reviewed that draft and offered suggestions for revisions.  Carl then set about editing and resubmitting his entry.  As he worked on his entry, he also made contributions to the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, composing the tweets to accompany the advertisements that appear on the project this week.  He selected a key quotation from each advertisement and inserted a citation that included the name of the newspaper and publication date.  Throughout the process, he adhered to filename conventions and other methodologies not usually visible to readers and followers but imperative for the behind-the-scenes production of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  As a result, his classmates, my research assistant, and I could all easily access and consult data Carl contributed to the projects as we each completed our own duties in presenting them to the public.

Each student whose work will be featured in the next three months developed the same skills and made similar contributions.  In that regard they were not merely students but junior colleagues who assumed significant responsibilities in the ongoing production of these digital humanities projects.  They did not simply learn about the past; instead, they spent the semester “doing history” as they prepared to once again “do history” this semester in their capstone seminar.  I very much appreciate the hard work and dedication of each of the guest curators from my Research Methods class.

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[1] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 259-260.

[2] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways,” 253.

September 22

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 19, 1771).
“It is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen.”

During the era of the American Revolution, newspapers from New England to Georgia carried advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away.  The first of those advertisements appeared almost as soon as colonial printers began publishing newspapers at the turn of the eighteenth century.  In the process of using the press to regain their human property, enslavers sometimes revealed details of other measures used to deny Black men and women their freedom.

Such was the case in an advertisement that Archibald Campbell of Norfolk placed in the September 19, 1771, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette.  Campbell lamented that Tom “ABSCONDED from my Service” and likely headed to Williamsburg “to lay Claim to his Freedom.”  Prior to making his escape, the enslaved man served aboard ships and “has been used to the Sea.”  Tom may have had papers that testified to his freedom, but Campbell asserted that those papers were not what they seemed.  The enslaver noted that Tom “was born in the Island of Bermuda, in my Mother in Law’s Family, and given to my Wife when a Child.”  A particular practice in Bermuda explained how Tom may have acquired freedom papers.  “Owners of Vessels” there “generally man them with their Slaves,” Campbell declared, “and it is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen, in Case they should be taken by the Enemy.”  In that case, they could not be confiscated as contraband.

In this case, that maneuver might have backfired, but Campbell worked to prevent it.  Campbell suspected that Tom, “who went to Sea from that Island when a Boy” either “had one of those Passes given to him by his then Master” or more recently “got Possession of one that belonged to some other Negro.”  Given the circumstances, any pass that Campbell produced to demonstrate his freedom was not a legitimate pass but instead a legal subterfuge.  At least that was how Campbell wanted others to treat any document that Tom displayed to “lay Claim to his Freedom” in Williamsburg. Campbell insisted that a pass that seemed to benefit a Black man should not be used for that purpose because the original intention was that it protect the interests of his enslaver instead.  When it came to achieving his freedom, Tom faced the injustice of the context in which the pass was written potentially outweighing what the actual words on the page promised.  Despite his courage and conviction, the deck was stacked against him.

August 16

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

New-London Gazette (August 16, 1771).

“Ran away … a Negro man slave named BOSTON.”

An enslaved man known as Boston was determined to seize his liberty in the summer of 1771.  He escaped from his enslaver, Caleb Humastun of Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 1.  Just over a week later, Boston was captured in Lyme, the town where his former enslaver, Ezra Selden resided.  Perhaps he had ventured there to visit family or friends.  Perhaps he intended to encourage or assist family or friends in freeing themselves as well.  Humastun did not concern himself with such details in the advertisement he placed in the August 16 edition of the New-London Gazette.  Like every other “runaway” advertisement, it relayed events from the perspective of the enslaver rather than the enslaved.  Whatever Boston’s motivation for heading to Lyme, he ended up “hand cuff’d” upon being captured.  That, however, did not prevent him from making his escape, freeing himself a second time.

Humastun cautioned that “Whoever shall take [Boston] up … take care he don’t again escape,” but returning the enslaved man to bondage required more than merely confining him physically “in any of his Majesty’s [jails]” or elsewhere.  Colonists seeking the reward Humastun offered first had to identify and capture (again) the fugitive seeking freedom.  Humastun warned readers against allowing Boston to fool them, noting that he was “pretty talkative, flattering,” and would use those qualities to “tell any story to deceive, so as to prevent being secured.”  In other words, Boston was smart enough to convince others that he was not a runaway, though Humastun, like other enslavers who resorted to placing advertisements in the public prints, turned positive attributes into accusations when it came to describing Boston.  He had not been able to maintain order when it came to keeping Boston laboring in Waterbury, so he instead exercised what power remained to him by shaping the narrative to his own liking when he published an advertisement in the New-London Gazette.  Doing so allowed Humastun to regain some of the authority he lost when Boston liberated himself.  In the end, Humastun’s advertisement revealed more about the enslaver and his insecurities than it did about the formerly enslaved and his reasons for returning to Lyme.

August 2

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

Connecticut Journal (August 2, 1771).

“Run-away … a Molatto Fellow named BEN.”

On July 20, 1771, Ben, an enslaved man, liberated himself from Isaac Woodruff of Waterbury, Connecticut.  Two days later, Woodruff penned a runaway notice to appear in the Connecticut Journal and submitted it to the printing office operated by Thomas Green and Samuel Green in New Haven.  The advertisement appeared in the next issue, published on July 26, and then again in the next two issues on August 2 and 9.  By the time the advertisement first ran, Ben had eluded Woodruff for nearly a week.  That may have been enough time for Ben to put considerable distance between himself and the man who intended to re-enslave, especially if he managed to find work aboard a ship departing for a faraway port.  Woodruff suspected that might be the case, stating that Ben “has been used to the Sea, and tis supposed he will endeavour to get on board some Vessel as soon as possible.”

Woodruff solicited the aid of readers of the Connecticut Journal, encouraging them to engage in surveillance of young Black men in order to identify “a Molatto Fellow … of a Copper Complexion, about 17 Years of Age” with “a black bushy Head of Hair.”  Woodruff also noted that Ben “speaks good English and is addicted to swearing” to aid readers in determining if any of the Black men they encountered might be the fugitive from enslavement.  To encourage their collusion in the endeavor, he offered a reward for “Any Person that shall take up said Fellow, and return him to his Master or give notice where he is.”

In publishing the advertisement, Woodruff embarked on what he hoped would become a community effort to return Ben to bondage.  Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers, were already complicit, providing Woodruff space in their newspaper and accepting payment for the advertisement.  They ran the notice on three occasions, but then continued to collude with other enslavers.  The first item on the first page of the August 16 edition, the first published after the last appearance of Woodruff’s advertisement offering a reward for the capture and return of Ben, was an advertisement about “a Negro man slave named BOSTON” who, like Ben, had liberated himself.  The Greens were not unique when it came to publishing such advertisements in their newspaper.  Printers from New England to Georgia generated revenues from notices about enslaved people.  In the process, they played a significant role in the perpetuation of slavery during the era of the American Revolution.

May 24

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

Connecticut Journal (May 24, 1771).

“RUN away … a Negro Man named GLASGOW.”

Near the end of April 1770, Dover, an enslaved man, liberated himself from Nathaniel Sperry of New Haven.  As the anniversary of Dover making his escape approached, Sperry turned to the public prints to seek assistance in capturing Dover and returning him to bondage.  To that end, he placed an advertisement in which he described Dover and offered a reward in the Connecticut Journal.  On the night of May 7, 1771, another enslaved man, Glasgow, liberated himself from John Treat of Milford.  On the same night, “a Negro Man named ABEL” liberated himself from Gideon Platt, Jr., also of Milford.  Abel and Glasgow may have worked together to outsmart their enslavers and increase their chances of successfully escaping from their enslavers.  Platt and Treat placed separate advertisements in the Connecticut Journal, perhaps unaware of any possible connection until their notices appeared one after the other in the May 10, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Journal.

All three advertisements ran for three consecutive weeks, but their format shifted during that time.  On May 10, all three appeared in a single column on the final page.  The following week, however, the printers had more content than space, so they improvised by placing the advertisement about Abel in the left column on the second page and the advertisements about Dover and Glasgow in the right margin on the third page.  Since the type had already been set for these advertisements, the printers simply divided them into several columns that ran perpendicular to the other text on the page. Doing so conserved time and effort while also making using of available space since the printers had to make only one small revision, placing the town and date on the same line as John Treat’s name.  For the final appearance in the May 24 edition, all three advertisements returned to the regular columns, each of them reconstituted to their original format (save for the minor change to Treat’s advertisement about Glasgow).

Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Gazette, minimized the amount of effort required to run the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow for three consecutive weeks.  They adopted a common strategy of printing in the margins, a practice that tended to their own interests as entrepreneurs seeking to maximize revenues while reducing expenses.  In the process, they demonstrated their commitment to serving their customers by publishing notices submitted to their printing office, including notices about enslaved people who liberated themselves.  The Greens could have delayed publication of the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow by a week, as other printers sometimes did when they had more content than space.  Instead, the Greens invested additional effort in publishing descriptions of the men, even as they conserved their own resources.  Reconfiguring the advertisements twice, even if not starting over on setting type each time, testified to their willingness to give customers access to the power of the press as a means of encouraging surveillance of Black people with the intention of capturing of enslaved people who liberated themselves.

May 10

Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy (May 10, 1771).

“RUN away last Tuesday Night, a Negro Man named GLASGOW.”

“RUN away last Tuesday Night, a Negro Man named ABEL.”

Sometime during the night of May 7, 1771, Glasgow, “a Negro Man,” made his escape from his enslaver, John Treat of Milford, Connecticut.  Three days later, Treat published an advertisement in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy.  He provided a description that included Glasgow’s age, height, and clothing.  Treat also offered a reward for “Who ever shall take up and return said Negro.”  Like so many other enslavers, Treat proclaimed that Glasgow had “RUNaway.”  From Glasgow’s perspective, no doubt, he had instead liberated himself.

Glasgow was not the only enslaved man in Milford who seized his liberty that night.  According to Gideon Platt, Jr., Abel also escaped from bondage on May 7.  Platt also resorted to placing an advertisement in hopes that other colonists would take note of Black men they encountered, scrutinize them to determine whether they matched the description in the newspaper, and, if they spotted Abel, “take up said Negro, and return him to [Platt], or send Word so that he may have him again.”  Platt encouraged readers to attend to age and physical characteristics, but he also reported that Abel “talks good English.”  Linguistic ability as well as appearance could help identify this fugitive from enslavement.

Platt’s advertisement describing Abel appeared immediately below Treat’s advertisement offering a reward for the capture and return of Glasgow in the May 10 edition of the Connecticut Journal.  While not definitive evidence, that Abel and Glasgow happened to depart on the same evening suggests that they may have worked together in seeking freedom, believing that cooperation increased their chances of outsmarting their enslavers.  If they were initially unaware of this coincidence when separately submitting their notices to the printing office, Platt and Treat almost certainly recognized the possibility when they saw their advertisements in the newspaper.

Just as both enslavers told a story filtered through their own perspectives when they stated that Abel and Glasgow had “RUN away,” they likely did not present an account of events that accurately related all of the details or gave Abel and Glasgow credit for coordinating their escape.  Though it was not their intention, Platt and Treat published short narratives that testified to the agency and perseverance exhibited by Abel and Glasgow.  Still, those narratives were incomplete and did not reveal the experiences of the enslaved men as well as if they had recorded their own stories.

April 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 1, 1771).

“At the Black Boy and Butt.”

Two advertisements in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured Black bodies on display, either as part of a device that marked the location of a shop or in the description of an enslaved man who liberated himself by fleeing from his enslaver.  In each instance, an advertiser laid claim to a Black body for his own purposes and benefit.

Jonathan Williams sold “Good Madeira,” other imported wines, and cider at his shop “in Cornhill.”  To help customers identify his business, Williams marked the location with a sign, “the Black Boy and Butt,” that depicted a Black child and a large cask.  Like other purveyors of goods and services who included shop signs in their advertisements, Williams presented an image intended to represent his business, a precursor to the modern logo.  In this instance, that image commodified not only wine through the depiction of the cask but also Black men, women, and children through the depiction of the “Black Boy.”  Both wine and enslaved Black people arrived in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies via networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic.  Colonial consumers very well knew that commerce depended in large part on enslaved labor and the transatlantic slave trade.  In placing a Black boy and a cask on display, Williams’s shop sign encapsulated that relationship.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (April 1, 1771).

Elsewhere among the advertisements in that issue, Hugh McLean of Milton provided a description of “a Negro Man, named Peleg Abby” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend said Runaway.”  According to McLean, Abby was “about 26 Years of Age” and “about Five Feet Six Inches high.”  To help readers recognize the fugitive who sought his freedom so they could return him to bondage, McLean also documented the clothes Abby wore when he departed and other clothes he took with him.  McLean placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but that version also included a generic woodcut of a Black man on the run.  The image helped draw attention to that advertisement at the same time that McLean asked readers to take careful note of the age, height, and clothing of all Black men they encountered in order to discern if any of them might be the enslaved man he sought to recover.

Black people were a common sight in Boston and its hinterlands in the colonial period on the eve of the American Revolution.  Descriptions of Black bodies, sometimes accompanied by nondescript woodcuts, were also subjects of interest in the public prints, frequently appearing in newspaper advertisements published in the bustling port city.  Their presence testified to the extent that both culture and commerce, even in New England, were enmeshed the transatlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the colonies.

November 28

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

Boston-Gazette (November 26, 1770).

“Stolen … a large Chesnut Canoe … taken away by Mr. Wait’s Negro.”

In the fall of 1770, Samuel Clark placed an advertisement about a stolen canoe in the Boston-Gazette.  That “large Chesnut Canoe, about 14 Feet long,” was connected to advertisements that appeared in newspapers in four colonies, though those notices were concerned with Pompey, also known as Pomp, an enslaved man who liberated himself, rather than a stolen canoe.

When Pompey made his escape, Aaron Waitt, his enslaver, ran a series of advertisements in Essex Gazette, Providence Gazette, New-London Gazette, and New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  Waitt sought the assistance of newspaper readers in New England and New York in capturing and returning Pompey to bondage.  To that end, Waitt offered a description of the young man, including his approximate age, height, and clothing.  To help identify this fugitive seeking freedom, Waitt noted that Pomp had “a large Scar on one Part of his Forehead.”  The enslaved man, “a Leather-Dresser by Trade,” spoke “good English.”

Waitt knew something of Pompey’s movements.  He reported in his advertisements that Pompey had been spotted “on board the Sloop Free Mason, John Rogers, Master,” which departed from East Greenwich, Rhode Island, for New York and then the Carolinas on October 18.  Waitt suspected that Pompey would disembark in New York.  From there he could either remain in the bustling urban port or seek out other places to elude capture.  Waitt placed advertisements in newspapers published in both New York and Connecticut in anticipation of both possibilities.

Considered together, Waitt’s advertisements provided more information about Pompey’s means of liberating himself than most eighteenth-century newspaper notices about enslaved men and women who, from the perspective of their enslavers, “ran away.”  Yet Waitt’s advertisements document Pompey’s plans only after he made it to Rhode Island and continued his venture from there.  Clarke’s notice about a stolen canoe presents additional information about the initial portion of Pompey’s journey to freedom.  He conjectured that his canoe had been “taken away by Mr. Wait’s Negro of Salem,” referencing current events as reported in newspaper advertisements circulating at the time.

Although placed for the purposes of surveilling Black bodies and returning Black people to colonists who purported to own them, newspaper advertisements can also be used to reconstruct some of the experiences of enslaved people.  Pompey did not have an opportunity to record his own narrative in print, but, unintentionally, Waitt and Clarke told a story of a determined man who took advantage of various resources.  Pompey appropriated a canoe to put some distance between himself and his enslaver, then he boarded a ship heading to one of the busiest ports in the colonies to make it even more difficult for Waitt to lay hands on him.  Printers who published Waitt’s advertisements became accomplices in his endeavor, but in the process they inadvertently recorded the story of Pompey’s courage, ingenuity, and resistance.

November 9

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

New-London Gazette (November 9, 1770).

“Said Negro was seen on board Capt. John Rogers’s Sloop.”

When Pompey, an enslaved man, liberated himself by running away in the fall of 1770, Aaron Waitt enlisted the power of the press in his efforts to capture him.  Waitt initially placed advertisements in his local newspaper, the Essex Gazette, to alert residents of Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding area that Pompey had departed without his permission.  He provided a description, noting in particular that Pompey was about twenty-three years old, had a scar on his forehead, and wore a dark coat.

The advertisements in the Essex Gazette did not produce the results that Waitt desired, in large part because Pompey understood that mobility was one of the best strategies for freeing himself.  According to advertisements that Waitt subsequently placed in the New-London Gazette, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and the Providence Gazette, Pompey boarded “John Roger’s Sloop,” the Free Mason, “at East-Greenwich, in the Colony of Rhode Island” on October 18 and then sailed to New York.  Pompey apparently tried to place himself out of reach of his enslaver, but that only prompted Waitt to broaden the scope of his advertising to newspapers in other colonies.  When he did so, he added details to aid readers in identifying Pompey.  Waitt noted the enslaved man’s height and reported that he was “a Leather-Dresser by Trade” who “speaks good English.

Waitt’s advertisements in several newspapers published in New England and New York contributed to a culture of surveillance of Black men already in place in the colonies.  Advertisements for enslaved people who liberated themselves amounted to an eighteenth-century version of racial profiling, encouraging readers far and wide to scrutinize Black people when they encountered them.  Waitt and others asked colonists to carefully observe the bodies, clothing, and comportment of Black men and women to determine whether they matched the descriptions published in newspapers.  In the case of Waitt and Pompey, such efforts were not confined to one locality or media market but instead extended across an entire region as the enslaver inserted advertisements in multiple newspapers.

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.