What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … a Mulatto slave.”
The digitization of historical sources has made them much more widely accessible to scholars and the general public. Anyone with an internet connection, for instance, can access this advertisement from the September 14, 1769, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made the entire issue, along with hundreds of other newspapers published in Williamsburg from 1736 to 1780, available via their Digital Library.
These sources, however, sometimes obscure portions of the past even as they provide greater illumination for other parts. Everyday use damaged some sources even before they found their way into an archive or library. Others have suffered the ravages of time. Poor photography has contributed to the illegibility of some digital surrogates.
Consider today’s featured advertisement. At a glance, readers can identify it as an advertisement for a runaway thanks to the mostly legible first two words as well as the muddy outline of a woodcut depicting a fugitive. Although such woodcuts most often accompanied advertisements about enslaved people who escaped, they sometimes appeared in notices about indentured servants and convict servants. Readers with experience examining similar advertisements might spot the word “Mulatto” on the second line and then reasonably extrapolate it to “Mulatto slave.” Most of the rest of the advertisement is illegible, except for the name of the advertiser at the end. Who was the slaveholder who sought the return of an enslaved person who attempted to escape from bondage? Thomas Jefferson.
Like most other eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, especially runaway advertisements, this notice ran for multiple weeks. Sometimes this allows readers the opportunity to read the same advertisement in another issue, but in this case other insertions are not much more legible. Jefferson’s advertisement first ran on September 7. Look for it near the top of the third column on the third page. A portion of the page was cut out at some point. What remains of Jefferson’s advertisement is only partially legible, but not his name on the final line. The advertisement ran again on September 21, the first item in the final column on the final page. The digital image of this insertion is more legible; an experienced reader could carefully transcribe most of the advertisement. The advertisement is accessible, but not easy to read. This time the fault appears to lie with poor photography rather than the vagaries of time damaging the page.
Due to the prominence of the enslaver who sought the return of his human property, this advertisement has been transcribed and made widely available by the National Archives. The presentation includes the complete text, but not an image, of the advertisement. Other content from the September 14 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, including an advertisement for “sundry SLAVES” to the right of Jefferson’s notice, remains inaccessible via digital surrogates. Other extant copies may be much more legible, but readers who rely on digitized sources do not have ready access to those. Digitization of historical sources helps to tell a more complete story of the past, but the digitization does not necessarily make any source readily accessible.