March 12

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

Mar 12 - 3:12:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 12, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD, (For no Fault, but on Account of her breeding fast) A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”

For several weeks in February and March 1768 John Lyon inserted an advertisement for a “healthy likely Negroe Wench” and “two male Children” in the Providence Gazette. He informed potential buyers that the woman could “do all Kinds of House-Work” and also implied that she was capable of various sorts of agricultural labor since she “has lived on a Farm.” Lyon was uncertain of her age, estimating it at “about 20 or 25 Years.” He provided even less information about the children, though if they were sons of the woman offered for sale they would have been fairly young.

Like many other slaveholders who placed advertisements when they wished to sell their human property, Lyon assured prospective buyers that he sold this woman “For no Fault,” though he did provide a slightly different variation on that phrase. When slaveholders asserted “no fault” they testified that they were not parting with slaves due to physical or temperamental deficiencies.   Presumably the woman in this advertisement was not particularly recalcitrant, disruptive, or disobedient. She was also “healthy,” though Lyon did not indicate whether she had previously survived small pox. That was often a selling point since it alerted prospective buyers that they did not need to worry about acquiring slaves only to lose them to a common illness.

Many slaveholders who stated that they sold slaves for “no fault” also added the phrase “but for want of employ,” signaling that they did not have sufficient tasks to assign to those slaves to justify continuing to provide them with food and shelter. Rather than setting them free, however, they aimed for a return on their investment by selling them. Lyon, however, offered a different clarification when he stated he sold an enslaved woman “For no Fault.” In this case, he decided to part with her “on Account of her breeding fast.” The unnamed woman had too many children too quickly as far as Lyon was concerned. Even if Lyon found this unmanageable, others who wished to profit from a steady supply of offspring would have considered this an advantage when purchasing the young woman.

Written from the slaveholder’s perspective, this advertisement obscures the experiences of the enslaved woman. In addition to deploying language that equated her with an animal – “breeding fast” – Lyon did not address the circumstances of her multiple pregnancies. Had the woman become pregnant voluntarily? Or had she been exploited for the sexual gratification of Lyon or other members of his household or the community, just as she had been exploited for her labor? Lyon placed the onus on the enslaved woman for having more children than he found convenient, but he did not acknowledge any possibility that she did not have any choice in whether she became pregnant. Like other enslaved women, she would have regularly found herself in situations in which she did not maintain ultimate power over her own body but was instead at the mercy of her master or other white men. Although this advertisement does not even offer the name of the “healthy likely Negroe Wench” it does suggest some of her experiences. It aids in excavating the history of enslaved women when considered in combination with other sources from the colonial era.

June 24

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

Jun 24 - 6:24:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (June 24, 1767).

“TO BE SOLD, A YOUNG, HEALTHY, and HANDY, NEGROE WENCH.”

Nine advertisements about enslaved men and women appeared in the June 24, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Four of them offered slaves for sale. Another sought not to sell an enslaved woman outright but instead to hire her out by the month. Readers could rent her services – washing and ironing – for less than purchasing a slave. The slaveholder continued to generate a return on an investment in human property. Three other advertisements warned against runaways and offered rewards for their capture and return. The final advertisement identified two runaways that had been captured and “Brought to the Work-house, ” where they were being held until their masters collected them.

As the image above demonstrates, seven of those advertisements ran on the final page of the issue. They accounted for approximately half of the content printed on the page. The other two notices similarly accounted for half of the space allotted to advertising elsewhere in the issue. This underscores that advertisements concerning slaves provided a firm foundation for other sorts of advertising in the Georgia Gazette. Revenues from these advertisements contributed to the continuation of the newspaper.

Most of these advertisements focused exclusively on slaves, especially those for runaways and captured fugitives. On the other hand, some that advertised slaves for sale did so in the midst of attempting to make other sales as well. For instance, one notice for an estate sale listed “HOUSEHOLD and KITCHEN FURNITURE” and “a SMALL STOCK of CATTLE, a GUN, a PAIR of PISTOLS, a SMALLSWORD, TWO WATCHES, a NEGROE BOY, a MAN’s SADDLE, &c.” The same advertisement also listed “TWO NEGROE FELLOWS, a PARCEL of BOOKS, and sundry other articles.” Undifferentiated from other possessions, the presence of slaves among an estate inventory soon to be auctioned further demonstrates that eighteenth-century consumer culture (and the print culture that bolstered it) operated firmly within a system that relied on the productive labor of enslaved men, women, and children and the ability to buy and sell them as easily as any other commodities.

April 11

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 11 - 4:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 11, 1767).

“TO BE SOLD, A likely, healthy, Negro Boy”

Slave Sales in the North! I would like to highlight the location of this advertisement regarding a slave for sale: Providence, Rhode Island, a port city in one of the northernmost of the thirteen American colonies. When I initially saw that a Providence newspaper was advertising slavery, I felt very confused; my initial assumption was that slavery really did not exist all that much in the north, much less was advertised in newspapers. Upon further research, I discovered that slavery was very pivotal in colonial Rhode Island. By the mid 1700s, the time this advertisement was published, Rhode Island had the largest percentage of blacks in its population compared to other northern colonies.

Business was one of the reasons why there was a spike in slavery in Rhode Island. Local merchants participated in the flourishing transatlantic slave trade and benefited from trade with the West Indies, the source of rum and other goods. However, in the years after this advertisement Rhode Island saw a push for emancipation of slavery. Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara writes, “The state emancipated Revolutionary War soldiers in 1778, and the gradual emancipation law freed children born to slave mothers after 1784.”[1] Despite the business some hoped to continue, Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws in the spirit of the Revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Shannon expressed her surprise at learning that slaves lived and worked in northern colonies, that they were bought and sold and advertised in newspapers. She certainly was not my first student to experience such surprise. For my part, I was not surprised to find out about her surprise. Instead, I expected it because I am well aware of one of the most common misconceptions concerning slavery in early America. Most Americans tend to write history backwards when it comes to slavery. They know that slavery was a “peculiar institution” in the South in the decades before the Civil War. That leads them to erroneously assume that slavery was never practiced in northern colonies and states. Historians, however, with their attention to change over time, challenge that misconception.

When I originally designed the Slavery Adverts 250 Project as a companion to the Adverts 250 Project, I intended it to be a collaborative project undertaken with students in my classes. Rather than simply tell them about slavery in New England and the Middle Atlantic, I wanted them to discover its presence on their own as they engaged with primary sources. Rather than hearing an abstract presentation about the ubiquity of slavery throughout the colonies, I wanted them to see advertisements for slaves, such as today’s advertisement for “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy,” printed along side news and advertisements for various other sorts of commerce. I hoped that participating in the research process would cement their understanding of the scope of slavery in colonial and Revolutionary America.

Shannon and others have reported that was indeed the case. Consider the advertisement Shannon selected to examine today in the context of all the advertisements concerning slavery placed in American newspapers during the week of April 9-15, 1767. Two appeared in the Providence Gazette. Another two were printed in the New-Hampshire Gazette. A total of five were distributed among three newspapers printed in Boston. Another fifteen were inserted in newspapers in the Middle Colonies. Overall, twenty-one out of sixty-one advertisements concerning slaves printed during that week appeared in newspapers in northern colonies. Even though the total population of slaves in those colonies was small compared to the Chesapeake and Lower South, the advertisements provide striking evidence of their presence. Whether on a plantation or in an urban port, bondage was still bondage for the “Likely, healthy Negro Boy” in today’s advertisement.

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[1] Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2009), 4.

August 22

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

Aug 22 - 8:22:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 22, 1766).

“A Likely Negro Man about 30 Years of Age.”

Yesterday’s featured advertisement announced that the sloop Ranger had arrived in Philadelphia carrying a human cargo, a “Parcel of healthy SLAVES, men, women, boys, and girls” “from the river Gambia” who were soon to be “sold upon low terms.” I argued that although the number of slaves that resided in northern colonies did not approach those in southern colonies, the advertisement demonstrated that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were indeed part of society, culture, and commerce throughout all the colonies. Contrary to common misconceptions about the American past, slavery was not absent in the colonies that eventually became free states in the nineteenth century.

I concluded by noting that a single advertisement was one piece of evidence, suggestive but perhaps not sufficient documentation to be completely convincing. To that end, today I have selected a companion advertisement published one day later but hundred of miles further north in another colony. William Barrell wished to sell “A Likely Negro Man about 30 Years of Age.” He indicated that the unnamed enslaved man “will suit a Farmer.” These two advertisements are representative of the many similar ones inserted in newspapers published in cities in northern cities.

Advertisements for enslaved people – seeking to sell them or to buy them, warning against runaways or announcing their capture – certainly appeared in greater numbers in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but that does not mean that such notices in northern newspapers may be dismissed. This advertisement for “A Likely Negro Man” inserted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth (the most northern city with a newspaper in 1766 in what became the United States*), testifies to an accepted practice and part of everyday life. (*Halifax, Nova Scotia, founded less than two decades earlier, also had a newspaper. None of the issues from 1766 in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society include advertisements for slaves, though the commodities offered for sale were certainly part of the larger networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic and incorporated the slave trade.) Colonists in New England and the Middle Atlantic lived in a society that allowed for slavery. They encountered slaves regularly. Some owned or traded slaves. To assume that slavery was a southern phenomenon misconstrues the past.