March 20


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.



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?

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.


[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.