May 8

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

May 8 - 5:8:1770 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (May 8, 1770).

“Negro Boy … can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.”

Advertisements concerning several enslaved men and women ran in the Essex Gazette and the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on May 8, 1770.  A notice in the latter offered for sale a “NEGRO FELLOW who is a good Sawyer and Caulker.”  On the same page, another advertisement sought to sell an enslaved woman who “is a very good Sempstress.”  In the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, Massachusetts, an advertisement for a “Negro Boy, 20 Years old,” indicated that the young man “can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.”  These enslaved people each possessed specialized skills beyond agricultural labor and domestic service.  Advertisements that described enslaved men and women published in newspapers from New England to Georgia testified to the range of skills they acquired and the many contributions they made to commercial life and economic development in the colonies.

Although historians of early America have long known this, misconceptions of enslaved men and women working solely in the fields and in plantation houses have deep roots in the popular imagination … and in the education many students receive before enrolling in college-level history courses.  Such misconceptions have proven stubbornly difficult to dislodge.  When I invite students to work as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project in my various courses, they most frequently express surprise at two aspects of slavery in early America:  that it was a common practice throughout the colonies rather than confined to southern colonies and that enslaved people had far more occupations than agricultural labor.  Yet the misconceptions are so ingrained that even after being introduced to evidence to the contrary, some students continue to resort to those misconceptions as their default understanding of the experiences of enslaved people.  Correcting this is an iterative process.  Students have to be exposed to this information multiple times.  Sometimes I have to ask them if they would like to reformulate statements they make in class or in written work in order to take into account the evidence they have examined in advertisements and other primary sources, gently nudging them to embrace what they have learned and disregard their prior misconceptions.  Working as guest curators on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project facilitates the process of reimagining early America and learning about the many and varied experiences of enslaved people rather than relying on misconceptions that circulate in popular culture.  As guest curators, students encounter advertisement after advertisement describing enslaved people as artisans or otherwise highlighting their specialized skills.  That evidence is much harder to overlook than if I presented them with a couple of representative advertisements.  Similarly, scrolling through the Slavery Adverts 250 Project feed and seeing advertisement after advertisement is intended to have the same effect for both students and the general public.  Advertisement after advertisement in that feed mentions the skills possessed by enslaved men and women, making it difficult to maintain assumptions to the contrary.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Georgia Gazette (April 19, 1769).

“ABOUT TWENTY-ONE VALUABLE PLANTATION SLAVES.”

On April 19, 1769, Benjamin Fox put an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette to sell a plantation. The advertisement boldly stated “ABOUT TWENTY ONE VALUABLE PLANTATION SLAVES.” I was curious about the lives of plantation slaves and learned more from the Understanding Slavery Institute sponsored by several museums in Great Britain. According to the Understanding Slavery Institute, “plantations depended on skilled slaves – masons, joiners, coopers, metalworkers – to keep factories, fields, equipment and transport prepared and functioning. The needs of the wider slave community were served by other vital workers: cooks, nurses, and seamstresses.” However, other slaves were very skilled in agriculture. Those slaves were responsible for more important decisions on the plantation. They were sometimes responsible for determining when sugar cane was ready for harvest or when tobacco leaves were ideal for picking or “how best to pack, load, and transport the commodities grown on the plantation.” Slaves had occupations and could be traded and sold from plantation to plantation as their services were required.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Although this particular advertisement did not, other advertisements concerning enslaved men and women often listed their skills or occupations. As Matt indicates, enslaved artisans contributed far more than labor to colonial commerce. Their involuntary contributions also included their skill and expertise.

Consider the advertisements that ran in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette earlier in the same week as this advertisement from the Georgia Gazette. One offered to sell a “Valuable NEGRO MAN” … who was “well qualified for a gentleman’s servant, or as a waiter in a tavern.” Another advertisement described an enslaved man who was “a very good GARDINER.” In both instances, they skillfully accomplished tasks beyond agricultural labor in the fields on plantations.

In the course of describing a plantation for sale, yet another advertisement also listed “about thirty likely NEGROES,” many best suited for working in the fields but some possessing other valuable skills. They included “a very good bricklayer, a driver, and two sawyers” along with seventeen considered “fit for the field or boat-work.” In addition, John Matthews once again ran an advertisement that had appeared for months. He sought to sell both a plot of land and an enslaved laundress. He also mentioned that he “hath not yet sold his negro Shoe-makers” and could thus supply customers with boots and shoes “as usual.” Matthews had previously attempted to sell those shoemakers, placing advertisements in Charleston’s newspapers for months. He proclaimed that “they have done all my business for nine Years past, and are at least equal to any Negroes of the Trade in this Province.” Matthews stated that he intended to “decline Shoemaking,” but his advertisement suggests that he supervised skilled enslaved artisans rather than making any shoes himself.

Considering advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children collectively, along with other sources, reveals the broad range of skills they possessed and occupations they followed in eighteenth-century America. While many did indeed labor in the fields on plantations, a significant number worked in diverse settings at various occupations that required specialized skills.

December 22

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

Virginia Gazette [Rind] (December 22, 1768).

“A SCHEME of a LOTTERY.”

Bernard Moore did not specify why he set about “disposing of certain LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS” when he published “A SCHEME of a LOTTERY” in the December 22, 1768, edition of William Rind’s Virginia Gazette. Whether he planned to leave the colony or needed the funds to settle debts or some other reason, Moore aimed to raise a guaranteed £18,400 through the sale of lottery tickets rather individual sales of “LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS” or an auction that may not have raised the same revenue as the lottery. Of the 124 possible prizes, real estate and livestock comprised the majority, but a total of fifty-five enslaved men, women, and children accounted for the prizes for thirty-nine winning tickets.

Approximately half of Moore’s advertisement listed those men, women, and children held in bondage, describing their relationships and their skills. In some instances Moore intended to keep family members together as a single prize. Such was the case for a “Negro man named Billy, … an exceeding trusty good forgeman” and “his wife named Lucy, … who works exceeding well both in the house and field” as well as a “Negro woman named Rachel … and her children Daniel and Thompson.” Moore separated other families. One prize consisted of a “Negro man, Robin, a good sawyer, and Bella, his wife,” but not their children. “A negro girl named Sukey, about 12 years old, and another named Betty, about 7 years old; children of Robin and Bella” constituted a different prize. Barring some stroke of luck, parents and children would be separated on the day of the drawing.

As the descriptions of Billy, Lucy, and Robin indicate, Moore owned enslaved workers who possessed a variety of skills beyond agricultural labor. Many of them worked in the “forge and grist-mill” also offered as a prize. Moore included these descriptions of their abilities: “a very trusty good forgeman, as well at the finery as under the hammer, and understands putting up his fire,” “a fine chaferyman,” “an exceeding good hammerman and finer,” “an exceeding good forge carpenter, cooper, and clapboard carpenter,” “a very fine blacksmith,” and “a very fine master collier.” Moore also acknowledged gradations of skill level, describing other colliers as “very good” or “good.” Other workers possessed skills not necessarily related to operating the forge, including “a good miller,” “an exceeding trusty good waggoner,” “a good carter,” “a good sawyer,” and “the Skipper” of a flat-bottomed boat.

Moore described a community, though his “SCHEME of a LOTTERY” and his treatment of enslaved men, women, and children as prizes for the winners did not acknowledge it. Indeed, good fortune was not the lot for the twenty-eight men, fourteen women (including the pregnant Pat), and thirteen children. Other sorts of advertisements concerning slaves typically described only one or a few individuals, but the extensive list of names, ages, relationships, and skills in Moore’s notice about his lottery sketched an entire community. Moore intended to raise funds, but he unintentionally produced a document that aids subsequent generations in uncovering the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children who had far fewer opportunities than slaveholders to tell their own stories.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR:  Anna MacLean

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 19, 1768).

TO BE SOLD … A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.”

In this advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Edward Oats announced that he intended to sell “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.” The slaves originally belonged to the estate of Mary Frost. This advertisement shocked me with how this group of enslaved men and women were characterized as merchandise to be purchased. In addition, the details associated with the process astounded me. Edward Oats wrote that “Twelve months credit will be given, paying interest, and giving approved security, the property not to be altered till the conditions are complied with.” This set of terms and conditions sounds comparable to buying furniture or appliances in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, I was intrigued with the advertisement because the author chose to incorporate the many skills held by individuals among this group of slaves. They included “sawyers, mowers, a very good caulker, a tanner, a compleat tight cooper, a sawyer, squarer and rough carpenter.” In the midst of my research I observed that slaves tended to be sold in parcels, or large groups, in the southern colonies more frequently than in the northern colonies. Often, the skills and talents of slaves were highlighted by newspaper advertisements as a method of attracting buyers, especially plantation owners. According to Daniel C. Littlefield in “The Varieties of Slave Labor,” eighteenth-century plantation owners “tried to maintain self-sufficiency based on the varied skills of their slaves.” Although the vast majority of African slaves were purchased specifically for agricultural work, enslaved peoples also found themselves performing a number of skilled functions to guarantee overall efficiency on plantations.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Although Edward Oats and the readers of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal had no way of knowing it, within a decade April 19 would become one of the most important days in American history. Seven years after the publication of this advertisement armed hostilities broke out between colonists and Britain at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, initiating a new phase in the imperial crisis and eventually resulting in the Declaration of Independence and a war that lasted the better part of a decade.

Americans continue to commemorate April 19 today.  In Massachusetts it is known as Patriots’ Day, a state holiday observed on the Monday that falls closest to April 19.  The Boston Marathon takes place on Patriots’ Day.  This year residents of Massachusetts received an extension on filing their taxes until Tuesday, April 17 because the traditional tax day, April 15, fell on a Sunday, followed by Patriots’ Day on Monday. Beyond Massachusetts, Americans have been celebrating the 243rd anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride and the battles at Concord and Lexington, though historians have turned to social media and other public history platforms to offer more complete and nuanced portraits of events than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow etched in popular memory in the poem he composed about the “midnight message of Paul Revere” in 1860.

In the midst of these commemorations of liberty and resistance to British oppression, Anna has chosen an advertisement that reminds us that freedom had varied meanings to different people in early America.  Edward Oats had seen the Stamp Act enacted and repealed, only to be replaced by the Declaratory Act and the Townshend Act.  If he read the newspaper in which he advertised “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES,” he had been exposed to news from throughout the colonies about efforts to resist Parliament by consuming goods produced in the colonies rather than imported from England.  He would have also encountered the series of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” outlining the limits of Parliament’s authority.

Even as white Americans grappled with these political issues, they bought and sold enslaved men, women, and children, often acknowledging the skills they possessed yet obstinately refusing to acknowledge their humanity.  These “SLAVES” and “wenches,” however, had their own ideas about liberty.  As other advertisements in newspapers throughout the colonies indicate, many slaves seized their freedom by running away from the masters who held them in bondage.  As we once again celebrate the milestones of April 19, this advertisement for “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES” reminds us to take a broad view of the revolutionary era in order to tell a more complete story of the American past.

March 20

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 20 - 3:20:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (March 20, 1767).

“BETWEEN sixty and seventy likely NEGROES … among whom are carpenters, coopers and sawyers.”

 

This advertisement said the slaves for sale included “carpenters, coopers and sawyers.” I had never heard of coopers or sawyers before so I decided to find out more about them. The job of a cooper was to make casks, buckets and other containers to store things. The sawyer worked in a saw mill. Daniel C. Littlefield states that in the 1700s plantation owners in South Carolina “expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled function required around plantations.”

This made me question, what other jobs could be found on South Carolina plantations. Since the majority of the plantations in South Carolina were rice plantations, the major jobs on the plantation were creating dikes or levees and sluices and to maintain them. Slaves also had to keep animals away from the area. Other jobs included planting, weeding, and harvesting the rice.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Each eighteenth-century slavery advertisement tells an important story that demonstrates the scope of enslaved people’s experiences in early America, but some of them tell stories less familiar to my students (and the general public) than others. When Ceara selected today’s advertisement, I encouraged her to focus on the “carpenters, coopers and sawyers” prominently listed among the slaves offered for sale.

That enslaved men, women, and children were exploited for their labor comes as no surprise, but most students do not realize that slaveholders benefited from far more than just the labor of their labors. Instead, slaves contributed valuable expertise to plantations and the colonial economy more generally. Many learned specialized skills. Enslaved artisans plied their crafts on plantations in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but they also worked in urban centers throughout the colonies, north and south.

Advertisers often made special note of the skills their human property possessed, such as the “carpenters, coopers and sawyers” from today’s advertisement or the “FOUR very valuable NEGROES” advertised in the Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on March 17, 1767. Three of the four were considered particularly valuable because two were “good workmen at the cabinet-maker’s business” and one was “a good sawyer, and handles his tools so well in the coarser branches of that trade as to be capable of making a tolerable country carpenter.”

In some instances enslaved artisans were “hired out” for limited amounts of time, such as a “Negro Man, by Trade a Shoemaker” also advertised in the March 17 supplement. This practice granted slaveholders an even greater return on their investment by occupying the time of skilled laborers who might otherwise experience lulls in demand for their services on their own plantations.

I anticipate that Ceara will approach her responsibilities as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project with a more nuanced appreciation of the different kinds of labor and expertise described in the advertisements now that she has a better understanding that slaves contributed knowledge and expertise as well as physical labor to the cultivation of crops and the production of commodities in colonial and Revolutionary America.

 

September 16

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

sep-16-9161766-south-carolina-gazette-and-country-journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 16, 1766).

“A LIKELY young Negro Fellow, who is a good Ship-Carpenter and Caulker.”

As this advertisement vividly demonstrates, enslaved people contributed far more than just involuntary labor to the developing economies of the American colonies. The unnamed “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” offered for this sale in this advertisement was “a good Ship-Carpenter and Caulker” who possessed very specialized skills that could be gained only through training and experience. His work required knowledge of various materials and resources as well as proficiency with an assortment of tools. This “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” was an artisan in his own right, even if his master and other colonists did not accord him that status but instead chose to think of him as a laborer.

In addition to illustrating the expertise possessed by some slaves in colonial America, this advertisement also testifies to the relationship between print and slavery in the eighteenth century. My students recently read an article by David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways.”[1] Although Waldstreicher examined the Middle Colonies, advertisements like this one suggest that his arguments extend to other regions in British mainland North America. For instance, printers enjoyed financial gains thanks to slavery and the slave trade every time they included advertisements for runaways or seeking to buy and sell slaves in their newspapers. It was not necessary to own slaves or sell slaves to benefit from the enslavement of Africans.

Also note that this advertisement directs interested parties that “For farther Particulars, enquire of the Printer of this Paper.” Such maneuvers placed printers, rather than slave traders or auctioneers, at the center of some networks for buying and selling slaves. Printers often facilitated and oversaw the sales of enslaved men, women, and children. In addition, this advertisement did not name the seller or the slave. Waldstreicher points out that this allowed potential sales to remain secret from those who might be sold. Some slaves were literate and shared the contents of newspapers with their peers, but the absence of names meant that the “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” would not be tipped off about an impending sale and choose to avoid it by running away.

This short advertisement, only five lines, opens up a much broader world of colonial commerce, labor, and culture than might be readily apparent at first glance.

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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): 243-272.