GUEST CURATOR: Mike Butkus
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … A Negro Man, named SAUL … and a [Woman] named CHARLOTTE, with a Male Child.”
This advertisement is interesting because it shows us how slave owners viewed their slaves during the era of the American Revolution. The advertiser gave physical descriptions of Saul and Charlotte. He also mentioned that Saul spoke “very proper English,” making a distinction between him and the many slaves criticized for not speaking “proper English.” The advertiser uses the term “wench” to describe Charlotte. That the dehumanization of female slaves specifically.
This advertisement also included details about Saul and Charlotte’s experiences. They did not escape on their own. They took their baby, “a Male Child … about eight Months old,” with them. This may have been the determining factor for them to “RUN AWAY” from the advertiser. They probably did not want their baby to grow up to the same fate that they did.
The rewards for Saul, Charlotte, and their baby are also interesting. The amount offered for Saul was ten pounds, while Charlotte and the child were together listed at ten pounds. It makes sense that Saul had a higher reward than Charlotte because he had a valuable skill. He was a cooper, a barrel maker, and Charlotte was a seamstress. Saul’s skill was probably more lucrative for the advertiser, even though she was “an extraordinary seamstress.”
According to Arlene Balkansky, “The vast majority of those who escaped or attempted to escape enslavement in America were never well-known.” Instead, the “only record we have for many are fugitive slave ads,” like this one for Saul, Charlotte, and their baby.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Mike and his fellow guest curators in my Revolutionary America class had several responsibilities. Each of them compiled a digital archive of newspapers from a particular week in 1772, examined those newspapers to identify advertisements that belong in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, composed the tweets distributed via the project’s Twitter feed, and wrote an essay about what they learned about slavery in the era of the American Revolution from the work they did as guest curators. In addition, each guest curator selected an advertisement to feature on the Adverts 250 Project. Most chose advertisements for consumer goods and services, but I also approved advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children.
Doing so gave guest curators like Mike an opportunity to examine one advertisement in greater detail than was possible in the tweet about that advertisement. Mike composed tweets for more than sixty advertisements, but each tweet was limited to 280 characters. Each had to include the tagline that explained one of the purposes of the project (“Colonial newspapers contributed to the perpetuation of slavery”), an illustrative quotation, and a citation that listed the newspaper and date. The length of the tagline and citations (especially for advertisements from newspapers with longer titles) required Mike and other guest curators to select the most salient details to include in the quotations, but that also meant that they could not include everything of significance.
In choosing this advertisement about Saul, Charlotte, and their child to feature on the Adverts 250 Project, Mike had an opportunity to examine their experiences in greater depth. He noted some of the aspects of Saul and Charlotte’s experience that consistently appeared in advertisements about enslaved people who liberated themselves published in the eighteenth century. Enslavers often commented on linguistic ability, as the advertiser did in noting that Saul spoke “very proper English.” Advertisements about enslaved people also document that they possessed a variety of skills and pursued all sorts of occupations. Saul and Charlotte, a cooper and a seamstress, were not unique; newspaper advertisements reveal that countless enslaved men and women pursued occupations far beyond agricultural labor. Perhaps most importantly, these advertisements provide glimpses of how enslaved men and women thought about their experiences, though that certainly was not the intention of the enslavers who placed these notices. As Mike notes, offering their child a life outside the confines of bondage may have convinced Saul and Charlotte to liberate themselves when they did.