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.

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.

May 9

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

May 9 - 5:9:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 9, 1767).

“Assortment of English and India GOODS, at his Shop at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY.”

Jonathan Russell ran a shop “at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY; on the West Side of the Great-Bridge, in PROVIDENCE.” As I compiled today’s entries for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project I debated whether Russell’s advertisement should be included. Two other notices in the same issue of the Providence Gazette explicitly sold slaves, “A Negro Woman, who understands all sorts of houshold Work” and “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy … fit for either Town of Country,” but Russell’s advertisement did not promote the sale of slaves.

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project casts a wide net when it comes to including notices that mention slaves. Most of the advertisements fall into three main categories: slaves for sale, runaway slaves, and captured slaves. Enslaved men, women, and children, however sometimes found themselves the subjects of other sorts of advertising. Rather than sell slaves, some masters preferred to hire them out. Others mentioned the role slaves played in commercial ventures, such as Lewis Johnson’s help wanted notice seeking “AN OVERSEER who understands the BUSINESS of STAVEMAKING, to take charge of a few negroes employed in that way” in the Georgia Gazette (May 6, 1767). Some provided evidence of the presence of enslaved people in everyday life in the colonies, such as Robert Murray’s notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette (May 8, 1767) offering to return a “PLAIN gold RING” upon the owner “paying for this advertisement, and giving something to the negro who found it.”

Russell’s advertisement for “his Shop at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY,” however, does not refer to an actual person or to any humans treated as commodities that he attempted to sell. Yet “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY” drew meaning from the context of transatlantic commerce that included the slave trade and the production of “indigo, rum, melasses, sugar, rice,” and other goods produced by enslaved men, women, and children and transported to Russell’s and other shops throughout the Atlantic world. Slaves lived and toiled in Providence. Many merchants from the city and other ports in Rhode Island made their livings, at least in part, by participating in the slave trade. In his own fashion, Jonathan Russell also exploited black bodies for his own benefit when he adopted “the sign of the BLACK-BOY” as the device to mark his location and identify his commercial enterprises. Accordingly, I have included his advertisement in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 18 - 4:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 18, 1767).

“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”

I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.

Apr 18 - Census
Rhode Island Census for 1774 (Newport: Solomon Southwick, 1774).  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.

On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.

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.

August 21

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

Aug 21 - 8:21:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (August 21, 1766).

“A Parcel of healthy SLAVES, men, women, boys, and girls.”

This advertisement reveals a hidden history of slavery that has been largely forgotten in the United States, forgotten because it is both convenient and comfortable to overlook, forgotten because it disrupts familiar narratives about when and where Americans traded slaves and owned enslaved men, women, and children. In particular, the slave trade and the presence of slaves are associated with colonies in the Chesapeake and the Lower South. Most people tend to think of those colonies that became the northeastern United States as territories that never practiced slavery or profited from the slave trade.

This story has not been completely overlooked. Many historians of early America have devoted their careers to uncovering and examining the histories of both the presence of enslaved peoples in northern colonies as well as the networks of trade and commerce that inextricably tied northern colonies and their economic welfare to participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In addition to the work of these specialists, other historians have increasingly integrated slavery in the northern colonies and states into the larger narrative of American history they include in their publications for fellow scholars and in the course content they deliver to students. Many public historians have also sought to address slavery conscientiously and responsibly in their efforts to present the past to audiences beyond traditional classroom settings.

Yet it seems fair to continue to describe this as a hidden history, an intentionally overlooked history. The students who enroll in my early American history courses every year are more likely than not to assume that slavery was not a part of the New England experience. In a variety of forums, public historians report that they regularly encounter visitors either unaware of the history of slavery in northern colonies or willfully resistant to acknowledging its existence alongside the stories they want and expect to be told.

Today’s advertisement, however, makes clear that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were indeed part of everyday life and commerce in places other than Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Today’s advertisement announced that “A Parcel of healthy SLAVES, men, women, boys, and girls” were “Just imported, from the river Gambia” and would be “sold upon low terms, by James and William Harvey, merchants” in Philadelphia. Even in Pennsylvania, “The quality of the slaves from the abovementioned river, is so well known, that nothing further is necessary to recommend them.” In other words, colonists in the north had a more than passing awareness and familiarity with slaves and the transatlantic slave trade.

The advertisement does not mention that this “Parcel of healthy SLAVES” consisted of 100 men, women, and children. Nor does it mention that 120 had been loaded on the Ranger off the coast of Africa, but twenty had died during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Those numbers come from other sources that have been compiled at Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Those sources also reveal that the Ranger sailed directly from Africa; it did not make stops in other American ports. These men, women, and children were always intended for sale in one of the northern colonies, not any of the colonies in the Chesapeake or Lower South that operated on a plantation economy.

Today’s advertisement is just one piece of evidence, but it is not the only piece. Slavery was a significant part of the colonial experience throughout the colonies, not just in the southern colonies. It is part of American history that cannot be overlooked, at least not if we want to be honest and truly understand the past that has led to the present.