Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“To be HIRED for a Year, and delivered on New Year’s Day, FOUR Negro MEN, five young WOMEN, and a BOY.”
As the new year approached in December 1772, “FOUR Negro MEN, five young WOMEN, and a BOY” faced the prospects of their living and working conditions changing significantly, though they may not have been aware that was the case. Anne Blair took to the pages of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to advertise that she offered those enslaved people “To be HIRED for a Year, and delivered on New Year’s Day.” In other words, she did not seek to sell them to other enslavers but instead “rent” them, just as she offered a plantation in Prince George County “to be rented, for a Year, or Years.” Blair did not provide any additional details about the enslaved men, women, and boy. She did not list their skills or occupations, nor did she mention whether any of them were relations who risked separation upon being “HIRED for a Year.”
Blair was not alone in acting as an absentee enslaver who sought to collect the wages earned by enslaved people hired out to other colonizers. On the same day that her advertisement appeared in the Virginia Gazette, a notice about a “smart, sensible” enslaved woman, “Who is a good Sempstress, a plain Cook, and extreamly well qualified to do every Business about a House,” ran on the first page of the South-Carolina Gazette. The advertisement advised that the woman was “To be Sold, or hired by the Month.” The shorter term meant more flexibility for any colonizer who “hired” the enslaved woman. It did not take into account anything that she might think about the arrangement. All that mattered was the convenience of “her present Proprietor,” an anonymous advertiser who depended on the printers to act as intermediaries and brokers. That “Proprietor” stated that he wished to sell or hire out the enslaved woman only because “he has no Employment for her” in his own household.
Before, during, and after the era of the American Revolution, enslaved people faced upheavals in their lives beyond the buying and selling undertaken by enslavers. Many also experienced the hiring out system, an alternate form of extracting their labor while treating them as commodities rather than people. The early American press played a role in perpetuating those practices. Newspaper advertisements and the printers who published them facilitated various forms of buying, selling, trading, and hiring out enslaved people.