November 15

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (November 12, 1772).

“NED, a Mulatto Fellow belonging to me, intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon generated significant revenue for the Virginia Gazette by publishing advertisements about enslaved people.  The November 12, 1774, edition, for instance, carried fourteen such advertisements.  Five of them presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale.  The remainder concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves by running away from the colonizers who held them in bondage.  Four of the advertisements provided description of fugitives seeking freedom and offered rewards for their capture and return, including one about Edith who escaped from her enslaver “upwards of two Years ago.”  Jailers published four other advertisements in which they described Black men “COMMITTED” to their jails and called on their enslavers “to pay Charges, and fetch [them] away.”

The final advertisement also concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves, but it did not document an attempt already made.  Instead, Giles Samuel, Sr., sought to preemptively foil any plans made by Ned, “a Mulatto Fellow belonging to [him].”  The enslaver confided that he had “great reason to believe” that Ned “intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.”  Samuel believed that Ned had been working toward that goal by “endeavouring to obtain a Pass” in order that he “may pass for a Freeman” and make good on his escape.  In response, the enslaver made a declaration that appeared in many advertisements that described enslaved men and women who liberated themselves: “I hereby caution all Masters of Vessels from carrying him off at their Peril.”  By “Peril,” Samuel did not mean that Ned posed any danger but rather that the enslaver would invoke laws designed to punish anyone who assisted enslaved people in liberating themselves.  Colonizers understood something that the phrase “liberating themselves” does not fully capture.  Black men and women who liberated themselves by running away and remaining hidden or beyond the reach of their enslavers often did so with the aid of family, friends, and others in extended communities.

That made some enslavers all the more vigilant.  Samuel suspected that Ned already had a plan in motion.  Rather than wait for the enslaved man to run away and then run advertisements, Samuel issued a warning to anyone who might aid him in acquiring a forged pass or leaving the colony.  In so doing, he deployed the power of the press to maintain his authority over the enslaved man, one more factor that worked to the advantage of enslavers in the era of the American Revolution.

September 17

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 17, 1772).

“ISAAC, an outlawed Mulatto Fellow … absconded from this Place.”

Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette regularly carried advertisements that described enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from their enslavers in the 1770s.  The September 17, 1772, edition was no exception.  It included six such advertisements, offering rewards for the capture and return of the Black men who made their escape.  Two other advertisements described suspected fugitives seeking their freedom who had been committed to jail until the colonizer who purported to own them could “prove his Property, and pay Charges” or expenses for detaining them.

Some of those advertisements described communities and relationships among enslaved people, asserting that those who liberated themselves received assistance from others.  W. Johnson, for instance, suspected that Isaac, “an outlawed Mulatto Fellow” who absconded in July, was “harboured by Colonel John Snelson’s Negroes … among whom he has a Wife” or “by his Brother, John Kenney, a Mulatto Slave belonging to Mr. Thomas Johnson.”  Johnson believed that Isaac moved “from one Refuge to another,” making use of the “Variety of Clothes” and the “likely gray Mare” he took with him.

Like many enslaved people who liberated themselves, Isaac was “rather plausible and insinuating” when others questioned him or engaged him in conversation.  Johnson warned that Isaac would tell convincing tales to alleviate suspicion that he was the “outlawed Mulatto Fellow” described in the newspaper.  Even worse than being clever enough to succeed in such deceptions, Johnson declared that Isaac was “stubborn, and inclinable to be impudent” when “in Liquor.”  That may have been one of the reasons that the advertisement made a different request of readers compared to most others of the genre: “TWENTY POUNDS to kill, or THREE POUNDS to take.”  Johnson was less interested in recovering Isaac than in eliminating him, his influence, and his example.

Almost every enslaver who placed newspaper advertisements wanted enslaved people who liberated themselves returned, offering rewards for their capture and threatening legal action against anyone who aided them.  Relatively few escalated the stakes to killing fugitives seeking their freedom.  While chilling to modern readers, Johnson’s advertisement encouraging the murder of Isaac likely did not seem especially extraordinary to readers in the 1770s.  That it appeared in the public prints alongside advertisements for patent medicines, real estate, lost livestock, and consumer goods and services suggests that colonizers sanctioned such measures of dealing with recalcitrant enslaved people, even during the era of the American Revolution.

August 5

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (August 5, 1772).

“Probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”

Jem, a “Mulattoe SLAVE,” made his escape during the night of July 15, 1772, liberating himself from Thomas May in Elk Forge, Maryland.  In his efforts to capture Jem and return him to enslavement, May ran an advertisement in which he described Jem as a “cunning ingenious fellow” who “probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”  Jem possessed several skills that may have helped him elude May, but those skills also made him even more valuable to the enslaver.  In addition to being able to read “pretty well” and speak Dutch, Jem was a “good workman in a forge, either in finery or chafery, can do any kind of smith’s or carpenter’s work, necessary about a forge, [and] can also do any kind of farming business.”  May also described the clothes that Jem wore when he liberated himself.  No doubt Jem would have offered other details had he been given an opportunity to publish his own narrative.  Even in Jem’s absence, May exerted control over his depiction in the public prints.

Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote (August 4, 1772).

May also made decisions about how widely to disseminate advertisements describing Jem and offering “FIVE POUNDS REWARD” for capturing him.  His advertisement appeared in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on August 5.  Of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time, those had the longest publication history.  That likely gave May confidence that those newspapers circulated to many readers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.  Apparently, however, he did not consider that sufficient.  May was so invested in capturing and returning Jem to enslavement at the forge that he also placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on August 8 and the Pennsylvania Packet on August 10.  Considering the skills that Jem possessed, May probably thought it well worth the fees to place notices in all four English-language newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time.  He even took advantage of the translation services that Henry Miller, printer of the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, offered to advertisers in a nota bene that appeared at the bottom of the masthead.  May’s advertisement describing Jem ran in that newspaper on August 4, further increasing the number of colonizers who might read it, carefully observe Black men they encountered, and participate in capturing the fugitive seeking freedom.  Thomas May expended significant money and effort in attempting to re-enslave Jem, using the power of the press to overcome the various advantages Jem sought to use to his own benefit.

July 4

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

Providence Gazette (July 4, 1772).

“RAN away … a Negro Man Servant, named CAESAR … sometimes pretends to be free.”

On July 4, 1772, American colonizers did not know that on that day just four years later the Continental Congress would declare the independence of a new nation.  They did know that for the better part of a decade they experienced an increasingly turbulent relationship with Great Britain.  Following the empire’s victory in the Seven Years War and the expulsion of France from North America, the George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  In it, the king decreed colonizers were not to settle west of the Appalachians.  Instead, he reserved that territory for the crown’s new Indian subjects.  Colonizers felt betrayed.  They fought and died to gain access to that land, but the king chose favor the Indians who allied with the French.  After the war, Parliament sought to regulate trade more systematically, imposing first the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Acts a few years later.  Colonizers responded with protests of various sorts, including boycotts of imported goods.  In addition, Britain quartered troops in American cities.  On March 5, 1770, some of those troops fired into a crowd in Boston, killing several people.  Colonizers continued to protest, sometimes resorting to violence.  On June 9, colonizers in Rhode Island boarded and burned the Gaspee, a British customs schooner, when it ran aground in Narragansett Bay.

Throughout this period, colonizers discussed their rights and demanded their freedom.  They did so in the town square, in taverns, in coffeehouses, in newspapers, and in petitions.  Simultaneously, enslaved people liberated themselves throughout the era of the American Revolution.  Black men and women “RAN away” from their enslavers rather than endure bondage.  Caesar, “a Negro Man Servant” enslaved by “Mrs. Payson, Widow,” in Woodstock, Connecticut, liberated himself in June 1772.  He “RAN away” at the same time that word spread about colonizers striking a blow against Britain by burning the Gaspee.  The Providence Gazette carried Caesar’s story, at least a truncated version of it as written by enslavers and their accomplices, in an advertisement that ran for several weeks, including on July 4.  That notice described Caesar, “a Fellow well made, about 5 Feet 8 Inches high, between 50 and 60 Years of Age, his Hair grey, speaks tolerable good English,” and offered a reward for his capture and return.  In so doing, the advertisers encouraged colonizers to participate in the surveillance of Black men they encountered to determine if any of them matched the description in the newspaper.  They also threatened legal penalties for anyone who assisted Caesar, warning that “All Persons are hereby strictly forbid to entertain or employ the above described Negro, as they would avoid being prosecuted with the utmost Rigour of the Law.”

The advertisement also mentioned that Caesar “sometimes pretends to be free.”  As colonizers proclaimed that they deserved freedom from British oppression and participated in protests of various sorts, Caesar determined that he was done pretending.  He did not need a Declaration of Independence to assert his freedom.  Instead, he declared independence by refusing to remain enslaved in Woodstock.  He was one of countless enslaved men, women, and children who liberated themselves in the eighteenth century.

For other stories of enslaved people liberating themselves originally published on July 4 during the era of the American Revolution, see:

June 20

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

Providence Gazette (June 20, 1772).

“A Negro Man Servant, named CAESAR … sometimes pretends to be free.”

If readers perused the June 20, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette from the first page to the last, the first advertisement they encountered concerned “a Negro Man Servant, named Caesar” who “RAN away” earlier in the month.  On behalf of Mrs. Payson, a widow in Woodstock, Connecticut, Paul Tew placed a notice that described Caesar, offered a reward for his capture and return, and threatened anyone who assisted him with prosecution.  That advertisement appeared immediately below a short news article about a spinning bee that took place in Barrington, Rhode Island, a few days earlier.  Even as John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, celebrated the industriousness and patriotism of “a Number of Ladies” who participated in safeguarding liberty by producing linen yarn as an alternative to imported textiles, he disseminated an advertisement that sought to deprive Caesar of his liberty.  The revenue Carter generated from that advertisement helped to make coverage of the spinning bee possible.

Tew provided an extensive description of Caesar that included his age, physical characteristics, linguistic ability, and clothing.  He invited colonizers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island who read the Providence Gazette, whether or not they were enslavers themselves, to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine if anyone they saw or met matched the description in the newspaper.  Tew encouraged colonizers to take note of the appearance, comportment, and speech of Black men, judging for themselves what constituted “speak[ing] tolerable good English.”  Complicity in perpetuating slavery extended beyond Tew, the widow Payson, and the printer of the Providence Gazette to include readers who scrutinized Black men and, especially, those who confronted and detained anyone they suspected of being Caesar.  Tew reported that Caesar “sometimes pretends to be free,” but even being free did not protect Black men and women from inspection and harassment by colonizers accustomed to slavery as part of everyday life, even in New England, during the colonial era.

June 14

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 11, 1772).

“From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772, he appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins.”

In the spring of 1772, James Eppes, the jailer in Charles City, placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform Hardin Perkins that he imprisoned “a Negro FELLOW, who says his Name is Tom.”  This notice demonstrates how closely some colonizers read and remembered the runaway advertisements that regularly appeared in early American newspapers.  In addition to Tom stating that he “belongs to Mr. Hardin Perkins of Buckingham,” Eppes surmised “From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772” that Tom “appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins, as he exactly answers the Description.”  That earlier advertisement described Tom as “about forty Years old, of the middle Size, and has an impediment in his Speech.”

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 5, 1772).

Tom managed to elude capture for about nine months.  Perkins reported that Tom liberated himself in August 1771, not long after the enslaver purchased him.  Perkins suspected that Tom was “lurking about Williamsburg” and offered forty shillings to anyone who “secures the said Negro, or gives me such information that I may get him again” or five pounds to anyone who delivered Tom to Perkins.  According to Eppes, Tom was “COMMITTED to Charles City Jail” on May 10.  Eppes did not mention where Tom spent his time during his nine months of freedom or the circumstances of his capture.  Like other advertisements offering rewards for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves, this one told only part of the story.

That Eppes matched Tom to an advertisement that ran in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette two months earlier suggests that the jailer carefully read the runaway advertisements and kept newspapers on hand for at least several months so he could review the notices and consult them for similarities when imprisoning Black men and women.  Newspapers played an important role in the infrastructure of returning enslaved people who liberated themselves to those who purported to be their owners or masters.  Printers disseminated the information, followed by jailers and others creating archives to aid in the capture and return of fugitives who sought freedom.

May 20

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

Pennsylvania Packet (May 18, 1772).

“RUN AWAY … a Negro Man, named PETER.”

This advertisement testifies to both the mobility of enslaved people who liberated themselves by fleeing from their enslavers and the efforts of enslavers to capture and return to bondage fugitives seeking freedom.  Peter, “a Negro Man … of a yellow complexion,” escaped from Patrick Simpson’s plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, in the late spring or early summer of 1771.  Nearly a year later, an advertisement describing Peter ran in the Pennsylvania Packet.  The dateline in the advertisement indicated that it had originated in New York, not Charleston.  Hallett and Hazard, merchants who presumably operated on behalf of Simpson, informed readers that they would receive “TEN DOLLARS REWARD” for apprehending Peter and securing him “in any [jail] in Pennsylvania or New-Jersey” and notifying local agents in Philadelphia or Princeton.

What prompted Simpson to believe that Peter might have made it to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or any of the neighboring colonies?  The advertisement described him as a “sensible, plausible fellow” and indicated that he spoke “very proper E[n]glish.”  Peter may have been able to pose as a free man as he made his way north, especially if it was obvious from his speech that he was “country born” rather than “new” from Africa.  When Simpson could not locate Peter in South Carolina, he might have suspected that he made his way to another colony.

In his attempt to capture and once again enslave Peter, Simpson enlisted the aid of both local agents and the general public.  Hallett and Hazard in New York, Peter Wikoff in Philadelphia, and Peter Gordon in Princeton all assisted Simpson, but the advertisement also called on others to engage in surveillance of Black men they encountered to assess if any of them matched the Peter’s description.  That meant observing their physical characteristics, their clothing, and their comportment as well as assessing their speech.  John Dunlap, the printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, also aided Simpson, earning revenues when he published the advertisement.  Capturing Peter was not simply a local matter, one confined to newspaper notices published in South Carolina and readers in that colony.  Instead, Simpson relied on an extensive apparatus as he sought to once again deny Peter his liberty.

April 2

GUEST CURATOR:  Brian Looney

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

Maryland Gazette (April 2, 1772).

“RAN away … a Mulatto Man Slave called Stephen Butler.”

Advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who freed themselves by running away were common in American newspapers before and after the American Revolution. This advertisement describes Stephen Butler, “a Mulatto Man Slave” who knew that the system was morally wrong and never stopped trying to break it.  Leonard Boarman, the advertiser, stated that Butler worked as a carpenter and “has been pretty well known as a Runaway for these 30 Years.”  He also said that Butler would try to “make his Escape” if anyone caught him.  Boarman knew that Butler was committed to living as a free man.  Many other enslaved people also ran away from their enslavers before and after the colonies fought a war for independence.  That caused Congress to pass legislation to enforce the return of enslaved people. George Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, further strengthening the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution.  Freedom meant different things to different people during the era of the American Revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Brian has chosen an advertisement that delivers a very rich narrative about “a Mulatto Man Slave called Stephen Butler.”  Boarman claims that Butler “RAN away” from his plantation, but he also suggests that Butler lived independently for three decades.  Butler possessed several skills that may have allowed him to earn a living away from Boarman’s plantation.  He “works at tight coopering, sawing and Wheel-work” and “is by Trade a Carpenter.”  Those skills likely helped him to forge relationships with colonizers who cared more about the contributions he could make to their community than whether an enslaver claimed Butler as his property.

Boarman indicated that very well may have been the case.  He claimed that Butler “has so great a Correspondence” or interaction “amongst many white People, that he never was once taken only by myself.”  Apparently other colonizers accepted Butler as a free man and even aided him in evading Boarman.  The enslaver declared that Butler “has confessed to me and many others where he has been harboured and whose Houses he resorted.”  In addition, Butler “has worked for several by Stealth,” putting his skills as a carpenter to good use.  Boarman declined to name those who had previously assisted Butler, but also threatened that if he could “make Proof either against white or black” accomplices then he would “proceed against them as the Law directs.”

Indeed, the law assessed penalties on anyone who assisted fugitives seeking their freedom.  Butler and others often relied on extended communities to aid them in liberating themselves and maintaining their freedom, but that did not prevent the state from imposing measures intended to return them to enslavement.  As Brian points out, the U.S. Constitution included a Fugitive Slave Clause that Congress later strengthened with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  Such legislation endangered people like Butler who managed to integrate into communities as free men and women, putting the power of the state behind the demands that enslavers like Boarman made in newspaper advertisements and legal documents.  This advertisement tells an incredible story of resistance in the face of many challenges presented by both aggrieved enslavers and a legal system that privileged enslavement over freedom.

November 12

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 12, 1771).

“RUN-AWAY … six Angola negro men.”

“LIBERTY … excellent Accommodations.”

In the fall of 1771, John Edwards and Company sought freight and passengers for the Liberty, soon departing Charleston for Bristol.  In an advertisement in the November 12, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Edwards and Company promised “excellent Accommodations” for passengers.  Two aspects of the advertisement helped draw attention to it:  the name of the ship, “LIBERTY,” in capital letters and a large font as well as a woodcut of a ship at sea.  Wind seemed to fill the sails and unfurl the flags, suggesting a quick and comfortable journey.  The advertisement for freight and passage aboard the Liberty appeared two notices below another advertisement that also incorporated a woodcut.  That image, however, depicted an enslaved man on the run.  He seemed to move in the opposite direction across the page in relation to the ship adorning the advertisement for the Liberty, testifying to the very different conceptions of liberty among enslavers and enslaved people in South Carolina in the era of the American Revolution.

Francis Yonge placed that advertisement to offer a reward for the capture and return of not just one enslaved man but instead “six Angola negro men” who had “RUN-AWAY” from his plantation at the end of October.  Yonge purchased the men a few months earlier, suggesting that they had only recently arrived in South Carolina and “cannot as yet speak English.”  Readers could also identify them by the clothing they wore, blue jackets and breeches made of “negro cloth” with their enslaver’s initials sewn “in scarlet cloth … upon the forepart of their jackets.”  Yonge selected the rough cloth for its low costs, not for its comfort.  Such callousness would have been familiar to the six men from Angola by the time Yonge outfitted them at his plantation.  After all, they had survived the Middle Passage on a ship that did not offer “excellent Accommodations” for its human cargo, unlike the Liberty that carried passengers from South Carolina to England.  As was so often the case in early American newspapers, advertisements that perpetuated the enslavement of Africans and African Americans appeared in stark contrast to other advertisements, editorials, and articles that promoted, in one way or another, the liberty that white colonists demanded for themselves.

October 24

GUEST CURATOR:  Katie Galvin

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

Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette (October 24, 1771).

“RUN-AWAY … a NEGRO MAN, named HECTOR … Also a Negro Man, named MAIDSTONE.”

This advertisement concerns an enslaved man named Hector, along with another enslaved man named Maidstone. Both men ran away from James Sinkler’s plantation.  Sinkler claimed that Hector was “supposed to be harboured at Mr. Boone’s plantation… where his Father and Mother reside.” This means that Hector was attempting to run away and return to his family and that they helped him by hiding him. Many enslaved people at the time were separated from family and friends during auctions or other sales. Sinkler said that Maidstone has been “lately purchased at the Sale of Mr. JAMES LE BAS Estate,” so he has been recently stripped away from his community.

Maidstone and Hector had experiences similar to many other enslaved people. According to Victoria Bissell Brown and Timothy J. Shannon, enslaved people often ran away for reasons more than the mistreatment from masters. Sometimes they were “trying to preserve a family that was being driven apart by a sale.”[1] Many enslaved people wanted to liberate themselves and reunite with their families.  Historians at the National Park Service’s Ethnography Program also state that “enslaved people ran away to reestablish marital and family ties or to protest changes in ownership or even to join prospective mates from whom they’ve been separated from.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

James Sinkler made a significant investment in his efforts to recover two men he enslaved.  Katie chose to examine his advertisement that ran in the South-Carolina Gazette on October 24, 1771, but that is not the only newspaper that carried Sinkler’s notice.  As guest curator for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, Katie also worked with Sinkler’s advertisement in the October 28 edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette and the October 29 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  Sinkler was so eager to recapture Hector and Maidstone that he placed notices in every newspaper printed in Charleston, increasing the dissemination of his advertisement and encouraging greater numbers of colonists to engage in surveillance of Black men to determine if they matched the descriptions that appeared in print.

By the time Sinkler’s advertisement appeared in those newspapers in late October, they had already been running for months.  As work has continued on the production of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, other guest curators and I have learned that Sinkler’s advertisements continued to appear well into 1772.  We have not yet determined when Sinkler discontinued them.  That the advertisements ran for so long suggests that Hector and Maidstone managed to elude detection and evade capture for quite some time.  They may have received assistance from family and friends in the places Sinkler suspected, but they may have gone in completely different directions than he imagined.  The same may have been true for Cudjoe, Jemmy, Rynah, Venus, and Dye, five enslaved people who fled from Peter Sinkler and James Sinkler on the last day of March in 1771.  The Sinklers thought that the fugitives seeking their freedom “intend for Ponpon, where they lately lived.”  If they did, no one there spotted them and attempted to claim the reward.  That advertisement also continued to run in October, more than six months later.

The archive includes many silences, including the fates of most enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves by running away from those who held them in bondage.  That advertisements about Hector and Maidstone ran for many months suggests that the men managed to make good on their escape.  At the very least, they were not recaptured quickly or easily.  The text of the advertisement offers insights into their experiences, but tracking it through multiple newspapers over an extended period helps to reconstruct a more complete story of what might have happened.  Even then, the silences in the archive prevail.

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[1] Victoria Bissel Brown and Timothy J. Shannon, “Colonial America’s Most Wanted: Runaway Advertisements in Colonial Newspapers,” in Going to the Source: The Bedford Reader in American History, eds. Brown and Shannon (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 50.