September 9

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

Sep 9 - 9:9:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 9, 1767).

“My apprentice Patrick Nihell will make his escape.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, runaway advertisements were one of the most common types of notices inserted in newspapers. Slaveholders advertised runaway slaves. Masters advertised runaway indentured servants. Husbands advertised runaway wives. Military officers advertised runaway soldiers who had deserted. Masters advertised runaway apprentices. For people in subordinate positions, for people who were often exploited by others, running away from those who exercised power and authority over them was a means of attempting to remedy their situation.

Some of these advertisements appeared more frequently than others. Advertisements for runaway slaves and runaway servants were most common, though their proportion varied from region to region based on how extensively the local economy depended each type of labor. Newspapers in the Chesapeake and Lower South disseminated many advertisements for runaway slaves, but far fewer advertisements for runaway servants. Their counterparts in the Middle Atlantic regularly featured many of both types of advertisements, though careful quantitative analysis would likely reveal that advertisements for runaway servants significantly outnumbered advertisements for runaway slaves in that region. In New England, on the other hand, advertisements for runaway slaves appeared only occasionally and less frequently than advertisements for runaway servants.

Husbands advertised runaway wives throughout the colonies. Not surprisingly, newspapers in the largest urban ports – Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia – had the highest concentration of such advertisements, corresponding to the size of their populations, yet such notices also appeared in newspapers published in smaller towns. Advertisements for runaway soldiers were the least common, but readers also encountered them in newspapers throughout the colonies.

Finally, advertisements for runaway apprentices ran in newspapers in every region of colonial America, but tended to be most heavily concentrated in those regions that had higher numbers of indentured servants rather than slaves. In running away, abused apprentices sought to escape mistreatment by their masters. In today’s advertisements, Thomas Lee, Jr., updated the standard format for such advertisements. His apprentice, Patrick Nihell, had not run away, but their relationship had apparently deteriorated to the point that Lee suspected Nihell would “make his escape.” In anticipation, Lee preemptively warned “all masters of vessels and others” not to assist Nihell in any way if he did attempt to abscond. He concluded by threatening anyone who colluded with the apprentice “may depend to be prosecuted to the utmost rigour of the law.”

March 4

GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney

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

Georgia Gazette (March 4, 1767).

“Five Pounds Sterling Reward. RUN AWAY … NEGROE MAN, named DAVID.”

This advertisement for a runaway slave named David provides a brief description of his appearance, including special features like the holes in his ears and the blanket, hat, and pair of “cheque trowsers, and an old cheque shirt” he took when he escaped. Slaves’ appearance was crucial to advertisements seeking their capture because clothing was one of the most important means of identifying people in the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Runaway slaves attempted to disguise themselves through altering or changing their clothes when possible.

Charmaine A. Nelson recently discussed the use of clothing in runaway slave advertisements. The amount of control slaves had over their appearance varied, and while David may not have had much choice in the clothes he possessed he still could have attempted to change his appearance after escaping his master. Nelson draws attention to David Waldstreicher’s arguments regarding the importance of describing slaves’ appearance and clothing in runaway advertisements, along with “trades or skills, linguistic ability or usage, and ethnic or racial identity.” Nelson also focuses on the case of a runaway woman named Cash, whose description included clothes she owned and that she presumably produced.

It’s depressing to realize that at a time when ideas of liberty and democracy were taking root in the American consciousness, people were also callously trampling on other humans’ attempts to gain freedom and prosperity.

For more information see “Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care” at The Junto.



Thomas Lee’s notice offering a reward for David included all four of the most common types of descriptions in runaway advertisements identified by David Waldstreicher.[1] Sam has already investigated the clothing David took with him. Lee also implicitly remarked on David’s trade or skills when he mentioned that the enslaved man fled “from the subscriber’s brick-yard.” He explicitly incorporated linguistic ability (“can speak no English”) and ethnic identity (“of the Gambia country”). This notice was one of nineteen runaway advertisements printed in newspapers throughout the colonies during the week of February 26 through March 4, 1767. Most deployed some or all of these common means of describing runaways.

From the clothes that David wore to his height to the “large hole in each year,” Lee provided means for identifying the fugitive slave according to his physical features, but doing so required surveillance by readers of the Georgia Gazette. In order for runaway advertisements to be effective, colonists needed to scrutinize black bodies – carefully, actively, and constantly. Using text rather than images, runaway advertisements put the bodies of Africans and African Americans on display in the pages of newspapers, but this effect was not limited to print. Such advertisements demanded that readers take special notice of any and all black people they encountered, especially any not previously familiar to them. Such advertisements required close inspection of black bodies as readers compared published descriptions to the flesh-and-blood people who stood before them. As a result, runaway advertisements targeted specific individuals, but they potentially affected all black people subject to being sized up by readers on the lookout for fugitives.

Readers of the Georgia Gazette grappled with only one runaway advertisement in the March 4, 1767, issue. However, other runaway advertisements had appeared recently in previous issues, including one for Maria that ran for six months. Such descriptions would have become very familiar to readers who encountered them week after week. Often multiple runaway advertisements appeared in any given issue of the Georgia Gazette. As a result, readers could mentally conjure up an assortment of mental images of various runaways whenever they encountered unfamiliar Africans and African Americans. Print furthered the display and examination of black bodies in colonial and Revolutionary America.


[1] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 248.

April 4

GUEST CURATOR:  Maia Campbell

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 4 - 4:3:1766 Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary
Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary (April 3, 1766).

“Indian Corn, new Rice, Pitch and Tar, – and a great Variety of English Goods.”

My curiosity was caught by this advertisement because of the “Indian Corn.” At first, I thought that the Indian corn could refer to some sort of trade between Native Americans and the English settlers. However, upon further research I found it referred to the type of corn. Indian corn, or maize, was popular in Massachusetts especially because it was easy to grow there. Native Americans farmed and harvested it, using all parts of the corn, not only for food, but for making items such as baskets and hats as well.

Maize was indicative of an earlier relationship between the Massachusetts colonists and Native American tribes. The Indians helped the colonists in growing corn as the English found that their crops, such as wheat, were not very suitable to the new climate. In a sense the Indian corn is still a representation of trade, but it was an exchange of knowledge from the Native Americans to the English settlers.



I appreciate how Maia identifies an exchange of knowledge as a precursor to the exchange of goods – “Indian Corn” in particular – envisioned in this advertisement. The evolving foodways of Africans, indigenous Americans, and Europeans that were part of the Columbian Exchange included trading knowledge about cultivation, preparation, and uses of a variety of new foods.

For English colonists, “new Rice” was an equally unfamiliar crop. Along with tobacco and indigo, many people recognize rice as a staple crop grown in the Chesapeake and Lower South. Slaves provided the necessary labor on rice plantations, enriching their masters in the process. Yet enslaved men and women contributed more than just their labor, significant enough in its own right. Africans were much more familiar with rice cultivation than Europeans. Enslaved Africans provided the experience and expertise growing rice that allowed European colonists to establish profitable plantations.

The first two items listed in this advertisement, “Indian Corn” and “new Rice,” both underscore that Europeans who ventured, settled, and traded throughout the Atlantic World depended on indigenous peoples, Africans and Native Americans, to supply knowledge about the foodstuffs that became part of their commerce and cuisine.