March 3

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

Mar 3 - 3:3:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 3, 1770).

“TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy, smart, NEGROE BOY.”

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project chronicles how newspaper advertising contributed to the perpetuation of slavery during the era of the American Revolution.  Every day the project identifies, remediates, and republishes advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children originally published in British mainland North America 250 years ago that day.  In so doing, the project seeks to undo the forced forgetting of enslavement throughout the thirteen colonies that became the United States, especially northern colonies that became free states through immediate or gradual emancipation in the decades following the Revolution.  Newspaper advertisements demonstrate that slavery was part of everyday life in colonies from New England to Georgia during the first three quarters of the eighteenth century.  Readers regularly encountered notices about enslaved people in the public prints, just as they encountered enslaved people in public and private spaces.

Consider the March 3, 1770 edition of the Providence Gazette.  It contained two advertisements that sought to sell enslaved men, women, and children.  The first announced that an unnamed enslaver wished to sell a “Likely, healthy, smart NEGROE BOY” who had been “in the Country nine Months.”  Presumably he survived the Middle Passage from Africa or transshipment from the Caribbean to arrive in Rhode Island in the summer of 1769.  The anonymous advertiser assured prospective purchasers that the enslaved youth was “Sold for no Fault” other than “Want of Employ.”  In other words, the enslaver did not have enough tasks to keep the “NEGROE BOY” busy and wished to recoup the investment.  The second notice focused primarily on a farm “TO BE LETT” and eventually sold in Smithfield.  Henry Pacet advertised more than the farm “with some Stock thereon.”  In a nota bene, a device deployed to draw particular attention to important information, he announced that he would rent or sell “several Negroes of both Sexes,” if tenants or purchasers wished.  They need not have been part of the deal.  Pacet and prospective buyers would determine whether any of the enslaved men and women would remain on the farm.  Those men and women, reduced to commodities, did not have a say.

Along with an array of other sources, newspaper advertisements demonstrate that slavery was not merely a southern phenomenon.  Enslaved people lived and labored in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England in the era of the American Revolution.  Although historians and other scholars are well aware of their presence, too often the general public has “forgotten,” perhaps all too conveniently, that enslaved people were part of the fabric of everyday life and commerce in New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

January 25

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

Jan 25 - 1:25:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (January 25, 1770).

“A new Non-Importation Agreement.”

“A Likely Negro Man and a Wench.”

The first two advertisements that appeared in the January 25, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal tell very different stories about the era of the American Revolution. The first addressed efforts to resist the abuses of Parliament, the figurative enslavement of the colonies. The second offered a Black man and woman for sale, perpetuating their enslavement rather than setting them free. That one advertisement followed immediately after the other testifies to the uneven rhetoric of the era as well as the stark tension between liberty (for some) and slavery (for many) at the time of the nation’s founding.

The first advertisement called on the “Signers of the Agreement relative to the Traders of Rhode-Island” to meet and discuss how to proceed in their dealings with the merchants in that nearby colony. The trouble arose when Rhode Island did not adhere to nonimportation agreements adopted throughout the rest of New England as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. In response, merchants, shopkeepers, and others in New York decided that they would no longer engage in trade with their counterparts in Rhode Island, broadening the nonimportation agreement to include fellow colonists who acted contrary to the interests of the colonies. When New York received word from Newport of “a new Non-importation Agreement, lately come into at that Place,” those who had ceased trade with the colony met to reconsider once the merchants there had been brought into line.

The second advertisement presented “A Likely Negro Man and a Wench,” instructing “Any person inclining to purchase them” to enquire of the printer. The unnamed advertiser described the enslaved man and woman as “fit for a Farmer, or any private Family” and offered assurances of their health by noting that they “both had the Small-Pox and Measles” so would not contract those diseases again. The advertiser added a nota bene asserting that the man and woman treated no differently than commodities were “Both young,” one more attempt to incite interest from potential buyers. The anonymous enslaver opened with advertisement with an explanation that that Black man and women were “To be sold, for no Fault, but Want of Cash.” In other words, they were not disobedient, difficult to manage, or ill. The enslaver simply needed to raise some ready money; selling the man and woman provided a convenient means of doing so.

One advertisement addressed a widespread movement to use commerce as a political tool to prevent the colonies from being enslaved by Parliament. The other depicted the continued enslavement and disregard for a “Negro Man and a Wench” not entitled to the same liberty that white New Yorkers claimed for themselves. The colonial press, in collaboration with colonists who placed newspaper notices, maintained and even bolstered the contradictory discourse contained in the two advertisements.

October 3

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

Oct 3 - 10:3:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (October 3, 1769).

“A Likely Negro LAD.”

Nathan Frazier’s advertisement for “a very good assortment of Fall and Winter GOODS” ran once again in the October 3, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. The shopkeeper promoted those goods by proclaiming “a single article of which has not been imported since last year.” In other words, his merchandise arrived in the colonies prior to the nonimportation agreement going into effect. He had not violated the agreement; prospective customers who supported the American cause could purchase from him with clear conscience. A new advertisement appeared immediately above it: “To be SOLD, A Likely Negro LAD, about eighteen or nineteen Years of Age, works well at the Cooper’s Trade, and understands working in the Field or Garden.” This produced a striking juxtaposition for readers, moving from an advertisement that contributed to the perpetuation of slavery to one that implicitly asserted the rights of Anglo-American colonists and defended their liberty against encroachments by Parliament. In the era of the imperial crisis that culminated with the American Revolution, colonists unevenly applied demands for liberty.

That these advertisements appeared in a newspaper published in Salem, Massachusetts, underscores that slavery was practiced throughout British mainland North America rather than limited to southern colonies. The proportion of the population comprised of enslaved men, women, and children was certainly smaller in New England than in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but enslaved people were present, enmeshed in daily life, commerce, and print culture in the region. Fewer colonists in New England enslaved Africans and African Americans, but even those who did not themselves own slaves still participated in networks of commerce and consumption that depended on the labor of men, women, and children held in bondage. Consider another advertisement that ran in the same issue of the Essex Gazette. Richard Derby, Jr., hawked “Choice Jamaica SUGAR, RUM, ALSPICE, GINGER, and COFFEE.” Colonists in New England consumed products cultivated by enslaved laborers in the Caribbean and imported to mainland North America. They were part of transatlantic networks of production and exchange that included the slave trade as an integral component. The economies of their colonies and their personal consumption habits were deeply entangled with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

The progression of advertisements in the October 3 edition of the Essex Gazette – from “Choice Jamaica SUGAR” to “A Likely Negro LAD” to “Fall and Winter GOODS” imported the previous year – tells a complicated story of the quest for liberty and the perpetuation of enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. Any narrative that focuses exclusively on the patriotism exhibited by Nathan Frazier in his efforts to support the nonimportation acts tells only part of the story so readily visible in the advertisements that appeared immediately before Frazier’s notice.

September 29

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

Sep 29 - 9:29:1769 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (September 29, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD … a NEGRO MAN, that understand the Rope-making Business.”

“What can we learn about the experiences of enslaved people and the history of slavery in America from newspaper advertisements?” This is a question that I regularly pose to students in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery and Freedom in America, and Public History classes when I introduce them to the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and explain that they will serve as guest curators. John Clapham’s advertisements in the September 29, 1769, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette illustrate one of the primary objectives of the project. It usually takes most students by surprise.

First, they are astounded to discover advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children in newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Like many Americans, they are most familiar with a narrative that places enslaved people in the antebellum South in the nineteenth century, but they do not initially realize the extent that slavery was an institution in every colony in the eighteenth century. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project forces them to grapple with the number and frequency of these advertisements as they examine dozens of newspapers from the era of the American Revolution. If I were to present Clapham’s advertisement from the New-Hampshire Gazette in class, some students might not appreciate the magnitude, instead dismissing it as extraordinary. When they examine for themselves all the newspapers published in the colonies in late September and early October 1769, they discover that other advertisements concerning enslaved people appeared in other newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, Connecticut Courant, the Connecticut Journal, the Essex Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, the Newport Mercury, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Chronicle.

Most of my students grew up in New England or neighboring states. They confess that the presence of slavery in the region was not part of the narrative they encountered, whether in school curricula or in their communities. That allowed them to dismiss slavery not only as part of distant past but also as something that occurred somewhere else, not in the places they call home. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project helps them to reconsider the past and achieve a more complete understanding of the tensions between liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. I’ve learned from experience that it is not nearly as effective to present a selection of advertisements I have carefully culled to make specific points. Instead, my students integrate the history of slavery into their narratives of the eighteenth century much more effectively when they have the experience of examining dozens of newspapers from the period themselves.

September 8

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

Sep 8 - 9:8:1769 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (September 8, 1769).

“A Negro Girl, between 2 and 3 Years of Age.”

In the late 1760s, the Connecticut Journal, published in New Haven by Thomas Green and Samuel Green, carried significantly less advertisements that most newspapers printed elsewhere in the colonies. Such was the case for some of the newspapers from smaller towns. For instance, the September 8, 1769, edition of the Connecticut Journal contained only four advertisements. The printers placed two of those advertisements themselves. In one, they announced “A Plan of Exercise, fro the Militia of the Colony of Connecticut” for sale at their printing office. In the other, they promoted two tracts concerning religion, one that would be available soon and the other already in stock.

The other two advertisements merit particular notice. Both offered enslaved people for sale. One described “a healthy, strong NEGRO FELLOW, 22 or 23 Years old” who had “had the Small-Pox” and thus was not at risk of contracting it again. The other listed “a likely Negro Wench, aged about 23 Years” and also “a Negro Girl, between 2 and 3 Years of Age.” Nicholas Street, the colonist who held them in bondage, described the woman as “strong and healthy,” not unlike the “NEGRO FELLOW” in the other advertisement, and specified that she was “well-skilled in all Business suitable for a Wench.” He did not indicate the relationship between the woman and the girl, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions about whether Street compounded the violence being done by separating family members. He certainly did not express any compunction about selling the woman and girl separately.

Advertisements were an important source of revenue for printers. Paid notices made newspapers viable ventures; they funded the circulation of the news far and wide during the era of the American Revolution. Advertisements concerning enslaved people, whether offering them for sale or seeking the capture of those who attempted to seize their liberty by escaping, accounted for a significant portion of the paid notices that made it possible for printers to continue publishing newspapers. These two advertisements in the Connecticut Journal are especially striking because they represent the only advertising revenue the Greens accrued for the September 8 edition. Even in New England, enslavement was enmeshed in print culture. The two served as bulwarks for each other. Newspapers perpetuated slavery through the frequent publication of advertisements concerning enslaved people, while the advertising fees collected from enslavers contributed to the continuing operations of every newspaper published in colonial America.

March 22

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

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

Georgia Gazette (March 22, 1769).

TO BE SOLD … ONE NEGROE GIRL.”

This advertisement from the Georgia Gazette talked about selling an enslaved person, “ONE NEGROE GIRL.” Newspapers from the southern colonies constantly had advertisements for selling enslaved people in the 1760s. So did many newspapers from northern colonies, but they did not have as many advertisements about enslaved people as the southern newspapers. This advertisement shows that Matthew Roche, the provost marshal, offered to sell a girl that was “seized” from James Lambert because he could not pay his bills, which meant anything that he owned, including human “property,” could be taken away. The girl that was seized had her whole life changed, especially if she had any family or friends who were not sold with her. This advertisement does not give a description of what the girl was like or anything about her features or her skills. It shows that Roche did not give her any identity and only cared that she was property.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Zach comments on the number of advertisements concerning enslaved people that ran in newspapers in the southern colonies in the 1760s. Indeed, this advertisement for “ONE NEGRO GIRL” was not the only one concerning enslaved men, women, and children in the March 22, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. A total of ten such advertisements, spread over three of the four pages, appeared in that issue.

Six of those advertisements offered enslaved people for sale. Similar to the advertisement placed by the provost marshal, one advertisement for a “PUBLICK VENDUE” or auction promoted “ONE NEGROE GIRL” for sale. It listed her, however, among a variety of commodities put up for bids to settle the estate of Captain David Cutler Braddock, including “A PARCEL RAW DEER SKINS” and “some BEES-WAX.” Other advertisements sought to sell several enslaved people at once, though that would not have been any less disruptive to their lives and their relationships since there was no guarantee of being sold together. One brief advertisement offered “ FEW NEGROES belonging to the Estate of Martin Fenton.” Another estate notice included “ABOUT TWENTY-ONE VALUABLE PLANTATION SLAVES” along with “A STOCK OF CATTLE.” Henry Yonge also announced an auction, leading with “ABOUT FIFTEEN VALUABLE PLANTATION AND HOUSE SLAVES” before listing furniture, livestock, corn, and other provisions. Due to his own declining health, another advertiser aimed to sell his plantation, including “About THIRTY LIKELY NEGROES.” To make them more attractive to prospective buyers, he noted that “amongst them is a very good Bricklayer, a Driver, and two Sawyers.” Many of them were “fit for field or boat work.” The rest were “fine thriving children.” Like the “NEGRO GIRL” to be sold by the provost marshal, all of those children and the other enslaved people offered for sale in these advertisements faced fates largely determined by those who held them in bondage.

Acts of resistance, however, were possible. Two of the advertisements about enslaved people reported on those who had escaped. Two men, Perth and Ned, had run away “some time ago.” Thomas Morgan suspected that they “went to Halifax in St. George’s parish, where they are well known.” Shand and Henderson once again ran an advertisement about Cuffy and Bersheba, who had been gone for more than a month, having made their escape on February 9. Two other advertisements, on the other hand, described runaways who had been captured. A couple, Sampson and Molly, had been “TAKEN UP … on the Indian Country Path, about 20 miles from Augusta.” They had an infant “about two months old” with them. The arrival of the child may have provided the motivation to abscond. The final advertisement described Michael, “A TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW.” He had been imprisoned in the workhouse in Savannah for several months following his capture.

As Zach notes, advertisements about enslaved people were indeed a “constant” feature in many newspapers in the 1760s, especially newspapers published in the southern colonies. In the same era that colonists decried their figurative enslavement by Parliament in the pages of those same newspapers they also placed and read advertisements that contributed to the perpetuation of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.

March 10

GUEST CURATOR: Luke DiCicco

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

Connecticut Journal (March 10, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD … A NEGRO MAN.”

This advertisement in the Connecticut Journal offered an African American man for sale because the slaveholder no longer had any use or “Employment” for him. One of the things that shocked me about this advertisement is that is says that the man is “employed” by the advertiser. Enslaved men and women were not employed; they were owned and set to work by people who called themselves their masters. “Employment” insinuates that someone was hired and wanted to do the job they were assigned, but that was not what happened with an enslaved person. Another shocking part of this advertisement is how easily Bernard Lintot transitioned from talking about selling “A NEGRO MAN” to talking about selling horses and harnesses. This type of talk might have been commonplace for the people in the eighteenth century, but its dehumanization shocks me in the twenty-first century.

As a history major, I know that slavery was still very much a common practice in New England in the 1760s, but the average person might be shocked by this because many people often think that the northern colonies never really were involved with slavery. However, as a result of gradual emancipation laws, slavery in Connecticut did not officially end until 1848 . Connecticut made some steps in 1784, when the state passed the Gradual Abolition Act. However, this only emancipated the children born into slavery and they were only emancipated after they reached the age of twenty-five. Abolition was sometimes a slow process in the northern states, as many states passed laws outlawing slavery but those laws were not always for immediate emancipation.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Luke uses this advertisement offering an enslaved man for sale to make an argument about the past that many people never knew, have forgotten, or would prefer to ignore. As we have discussed in our Revolutionary America class, the revolutionary era was a turning point for the practice of slavery in the new nation. The northern states made efforts toward fulfilling the rhetoric of the era by abolishing slavery, though, as Luke notes, some states opted for gradual emancipation that extended the practice well into the nineteenth century. In the southern states, slavery became further entrenched, especially as westward expansion opened new opportunities to create economies dependent on forced labor. Ray Raphael refers to these diverging trajectories as “a tale of two stories” that get manipulated through the selective use of evidence when presenting the history of the American Revolution and its repercussions to general audiences.[1]

Luke’s choice of advertisement, however, was anything but selective in a misleading manner. In addition to serving as guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project this week, he is also the guest curator for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. In fulfilling his responsibilities for the latter, he identified fifty-one advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children inserted in newspapers published during the week of March 10-16, 1769. Of those fifty-one advertisements, thirteen appeared in newspapers from New England or the Middle Atlantic, the colonies that became the (mostly) free states during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Two of the advertisements ran in New England newspapers, one in the New-London Gazette as well as the one Luke examined from the Connecticut Journal. Similar advertisements often appeared in newspapers from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. (Luke flagged one for a runaway “Negro Man Servant named Prince” that ran in more than one Boston newspaper, but I ultimately excluded it because the language did not make clear that that Prince was enslaved rather than a free black who had been indentured or otherwise attached to the household of the advertiser. This decision may have resulted in undercounting the number of advertisements for enslaved people appeared in newspapers in New England.) Among the other eleven advertisements, one ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, one in the New-York Journal, two in the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, and seven in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Some announced enslaved men, women, and children for sale, but others offered rewards for the capture and return of those who had escaped bondage in an era that colonists complained about their supposed enslavement by Parliament.

Overall, this means that when Luke considered the advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children he compiled for his week as guest curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project that he discovered that one out four – a significant minority – appeared in newspapers published in northern colonies. He used the prevalence of these advertisements to tell a story that all too often remains overlooked when we focus on the practice of slavery in nineteenth-century America but do not take into consideration the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even then, as Luke underscores in his comparison of gradual emancipation and immediate emancipation laws, slavery continued in some northern states into the nineteenth century, in stark contrast to the rhetoric of the revolutionary era.

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[1] Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2014), 215-216.

January 5

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 5, 1768).

“A Strong and healthy Negro MAN … addicted to be out of Nights.”

An advertisement in the January 5, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter offered a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN, about twenty Years old” for sale. The advertiser also proposed swapping the enslaved man “for a Negro Girl.” The notice did not offer many other details about the slave except to specify that he was “most suitable for the Country,” not because of any particular skills that he possessed but instead because he was “addicted to be out of Nights.” The anonymous advertiser implied that the enslaved man would be easier to manage when removed from an urban environment.

In that regard, this advertisement seeking to sell an enslaved man differed from most others that listed enslaved men, women, and children for sale. When describing why they intended to part with their human property, advertisers frequently declared that they were “for sale for no fault, but the want of employ” (as was the case in a notice that ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette on the same day). Other times advertisers reported that they were selling their possessions in advance of leaving the colony or provided other reasons that assured prospective buyers that the enslaved men, women, or children were not for sale because they were disobedient, disabled, or in poor health. This advertisement, on the other hand, did identify a fault, though one that could be managed in the right circumstances. In so doing, it offered a story of resistance not present in other advertisements that presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale.

Another category of advertisements concerning slaves regularly recounted stories of resistance. Advertisements for runaway slaves, as well as advertisements for captured fugitives who had been imprisoned, described their subjects in very different ways. Such advertisements purposefully adopted derogatory language, including adjectives like “cunning,” “artful,” and “bold” to report that runaways were intelligent, creative, and courageous. Advertisers offering slaves for sale avoided such disparaging characterizations or else risk scaring away buyers. The anonymous advertiser who wished to sell or exchange a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN,” however, apparently did not believe that he or she could avoid disclosing that the enslaved man was indeed sometimes difficult to control.

Read from the perspective of the enslaved man “addicted to be out of Nights,” this advertisement reveals an inquisitive young person who refused to be confined when a bustling port city offered so many possibilities for exploring and interacting with others outside of the supervision of the slaveholder. The friends and associates that he chose may have been as much a concern as his absence at nights. The unnamed “Strong and healthy Negro MAN” could have made a habit of departing in the evenings in order to be intentionally disruptive, fully realizing that such behavior inconvenienced and angered the slaveholder who perpetuated his bondage. That the advertiser did not sign the notice but instead instructed interested parties to “Enquire at Draper’s Printing Office” further suggests that the slaveholder did not want it widely known that he or she failed to exercise sufficient authority to keep the recalcitrant slave in check. Although advertisements for runaways categorically told stories of resistance, advertisements offering slaves for sale also sometimes related stories of resistance and challenges to the racial hierarchy in early America.

September 20

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

Sep 20 - 9:20:1768 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (September 20, 1768).

TO BE SOLD … A Likely, strong, and remarkably healthy Negro Girl.”

The Essex Gazette commenced publication in Salem, Massachusetts, on August 2, 1768. The colophon at the bottom of the final page advised readers that it was “Printed by SAMUEL HALL, at his Printing-Office a few Doors above the Town-House; where SUBSCRIPTIONS, (at Six Shillings and Eight Pence per Annum) ADVERTISEMENTS, &c. are received for this Paper.” The first issue included half a dozen advertisements that Hall apparently solicited in advance of publication. Hall certainly included those advertisers in the message he addressed “To the PUBLICK” in the inaugural issue. He “return[ed] my sincere Thanks to every Gentleman, who has, in any Manner, patronized and encouraged my Undertaking.” Those first advertisers included an apothecary, a tailor, a shopkeeper, and a tavernkeeper. Each offered consumer goods and services to the residents of Salem and its environs.

Readers were accustomed to seeing those sorts of advertisements in the several newspapers published in nearby Boston as well as other newspapers that circulated in New England. They were also accustomed to seeing other sorts of paid notices, those that offered enslaved men, women, and children for sale or announced rewards for the capture and return of runaways slaves. It did not take long for advertisements for people reduced to commodities to find their way into the Essex Gazette. In issue “NUMB. 8,” only seven weeks after Hall distributed the first issue of the Essex Gazette, the first advertisement mentioning a slave appeared in the new publication, one of only six paid notices in that issue. In it, James Lee announced that he sought to sell a “Likely, strong, and remarkably healthy Negro Girl, between 11 and 12 Years of Age.” She would make a good domestic servant, already being “well acquainted with the Business of a Family” and knowing how to knit, spin, and sew.

Practically from the start of this new endeavor printer Samuel Hall was enmeshed in the business of human bondage. The success and continued publication of the Essex Gazette depended on those who “patronized and encouraged” the venture, including those who placed advertisements that generated revenue that sustained the newspaper. Even as the news items printed elsewhere in the Essex Gazette addressed questions concerning the “invaluable Rights and Privileges, civil and religious” of the colonists, advertisements contributed to the perpetuation of slavery in Massachusetts during the era of the American Revolution.

August 21

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

Aug 21 - 8:15:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (August 15, 1768).

“A likely new Negro Boy … just got clear of the Small-Pox.”

When he wished to sell an enslaved youth in the summer of 1768, James Roach turned to the pages of the Newport Gazette. He placed a brief advertisement that announced: “To be SOLD A likely new Negro Boy, about 13 Years of Age, fit to be put to a Trade, or any other Employment, just got clear of the Small-Pox.” Roach squeezed a significant amount of information into this short advertisement. In addition to identifying the approximate age of the unnamed youth he also revealed that the “new Negro Boy” did not yet possess any particular skills or training that might make him suitable for purchase by a particular master. Instead, he was “fit to be put to a Trade, or any other Employment.” With some instruction, a prospective buyer could put the enslaved youth to work on a farm, in a household, or in a workshop. Roach also made a nod towards the slave’s origins. That he was a “new Negro Boy” meant that he was an African who had survived the Middle Passage and transshipment within the colonies rather than an African American born in the colonies.

Furthermore, the reference to surviving smallpox was not inconsequential. It was a standard element in advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children, operating as a guarantee of sorts when it came to the health of those offered for sale. Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases of the eighteenth century, could only be contracted once. It did not discriminate; having survived smallpox then made people – whether enslaved or free – immune. In advising prospective buyers that the youth offered for sale “just got clear of the Small-Pox,” Roach assured them that this particular slave was a safe investment. Choosing to purchase the unnamed youth did not involve the risk that he might soon afterward become ill with smallpox and perhaps not survive. This small bit of medical knowledge served an important purpose, providing a safeguard on the buyer’s investment.