April 28

Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Connecticut Journal (April 26, 1771).

“RUN-AWAY … a Negro Man named CUFF … Three Dollars Reward.”

“TO BE SOLD, A Negro Man … expert at all husbandry Business.”

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project demonstrates the ubiquity of advertisements about enslaved people in newspapers published throughout the colonies, testifying to the presence of slavery in everyday life from New Hampshire to Georgia.  Although historians have long been aware of the extent of slavery in northern colonies and states from the seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century, the general public, including students, largely conceives of slavery as confined to southern colonies and states.  From experience incorporating the Slavery Adverts 250 Project into early American history courses for college students, I have witnessed countless expressions of surprise that so many advertisements ran in newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania and that the subjects of those advertisements represented only a small fraction of the enslaved men, women, and children in those places.

Even in New England, every newspaper published in the late 1760s and the early 1770s disseminated such advertisements, generating revenues that made those publications viable enterprises.  During the period of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution, the same newspapers that spread the word about abuses perpetrated by British soldiers quartered in the colonies and Parliament scheming on the other side of the Atlantic also carried advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children.  The vast majority of those advertisements fell into two main categories:  some presented enslaved people for sale and others described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return.  Most of these advertisements ran in newspapers published in Boston, the largest port city in New England, but they also appeared in newspapers printed in towns in Connecticut, New-Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

For instance, the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy published advertisements about enslaved people, though not with the same frequency or in the same numbers as Boston’s newspapers.  In general, the Connecticut Journal featured far less advertising of all sorts than its counterparts in larger towns, but published the same kinds of notices, including advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, and advertisements about enslaved people.  The April 26, 1771, edition featured two advertisements about enslaved men.  An anonymous advertiser described an unnamed man in his mid-twenties as “expert at all husbandry Business, healthy, spry and ingenious.”  Interested parties could purchase the young man, but they needed to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information.  In such cases, printers facilitated sales in their newspapers and acted as brokers beyond the printed page.  In the other advertisement, Edward Hamlin of Middletown offered a reward for capturing Cuff, who had “RUN-AWAY” earlier in April.  That fugitive seeking freedom was also in his mid-twenties.  He spoke “good English” and played the fiddle.  Hamlin described Cuff’s clothing and “narrow Face” to aid readers in identifying him.  The printers collaborated in turning their press into an instrument of surveillance targeting all Black men that readers encountered.

These two advertisements in the Connecticut Journal were representative of the thousands of advertisements about enslaved people disseminated via colonial newspapers every year in the era of the American Revolution, a substantial number of them published in New England.  Slavery in those northern colonies has largely disappeared from public memory, but it should not be overlooked or forgotten.  Only in grappling with this difficult history can we tell a more complete story of America’s past that will allow us to better address the challenges we face in the present.

February 15

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

New-London Gazette (February 15, 1771).

“Wanted, a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work.”

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project seeks to identify, remediate, and republish every advertisement about enslaved men, women, and children originally published in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago each day.  The number of advertisements included in the project varies from day to day depending on which newspapers happened to have been published 250 years ago that day.  For instance, yesterday the Slavery Adverts 250 Project featured sixty-one advertisements that ran in eight newspapers on February 14, 1771.  Today the project republishes only one advertisement, a notice seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work,” that ran in the February 15, 1771, edition of the New-London Gazette.

That advertisement tells a story just as important to understanding the history of enslavement in America as the dozens of advertisements from other newspapers the previous day.  Most people would not be surprised to learn that the vast majority of advertisements from February 14 ran in the Maryland Gazette, South-Carolina and American General Gazette, South-Carolina Gazette, Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, and William Rind’s Virginia Gazette.  That some of the advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Journal, newspapers published in colonies less often associated with slavery, likely comes as a greater surprise to many people.

The same goes for the advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.  In the colonial and revolutionary eras, slavery was part of the everyday life and commerce throughout the colonies, including New England and the Middle Colonies.  Readers expected to encounter advertisements about buying and selling enslaved people when they perused newspapers, including colonists in Connecticut who read the newspaper printed in New London.  They also expected to read notices describing enslaved people who liberated themselves, advertisements that encouraged all readers to engage in surveillance of Black people in hopes of identifying so-called runaways and claiming rewards for participating in capturing and returning them to bondage.  The advertisement in the New-London Gazette instructed anyone with more information about “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” to “Enquire of the Printer.”  Timothy Green, printer of the New-London Gazette, facilitated the slave trade in print and by conversing and corresponding with enslavers.  Publishing such advertisements also generated revenues for his newspaper.

A solitary advertisement about an enslaved woman appeared in the colonial press 250 years ago today, but that does not diminish its significance.  It was one of thousands disseminated in colonial newspapers in 1771, each of them perpetuating slavery and generating revenues for printers.  While the majority ran in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, a significant minority appeared in newspapers in New England and the Middle Colonies.  No eighteenth-century would have been surprised to see an advertisement for “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.

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.