June 14

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 11, 1772).

“From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772, he appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins.”

In the spring of 1772, James Eppes, the jailer in Charles City, placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform Hardin Perkins that he imprisoned “a Negro FELLOW, who says his Name is Tom.”  This notice demonstrates how closely some colonizers read and remembered the runaway advertisements that regularly appeared in early American newspapers.  In addition to Tom stating that he “belongs to Mr. Hardin Perkins of Buckingham,” Eppes surmised “From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772” that Tom “appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins, as he exactly answers the Description.”  That earlier advertisement described Tom as “about forty Years old, of the middle Size, and has an impediment in his Speech.”

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 5, 1772).

Tom managed to elude capture for about nine months.  Perkins reported that Tom liberated himself in August 1771, not long after the enslaver purchased him.  Perkins suspected that Tom was “lurking about Williamsburg” and offered forty shillings to anyone who “secures the said Negro, or gives me such information that I may get him again” or five pounds to anyone who delivered Tom to Perkins.  According to Eppes, Tom was “COMMITTED to Charles City Jail” on May 10.  Eppes did not mention where Tom spent his time during his nine months of freedom or the circumstances of his capture.  Like other advertisements offering rewards for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves, this one told only part of the story.

That Eppes matched Tom to an advertisement that ran in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette two months earlier suggests that the jailer carefully read the runaway advertisements and kept newspapers on hand for at least several months so he could review the notices and consult them for similarities when imprisoning Black men and women.  Newspapers played an important role in the infrastructure of returning enslaved people who liberated themselves to those who purported to be their owners or masters.  Printers disseminated the information, followed by jailers and others creating archives to aid in the capture and return of fugitives who sought freedom.

September 22

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 19, 1771).
“It is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen.”

During the era of the American Revolution, newspapers from New England to Georgia carried advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away.  The first of those advertisements appeared almost as soon as colonial printers began publishing newspapers at the turn of the eighteenth century.  In the process of using the press to regain their human property, enslavers sometimes revealed details of other measures used to deny Black men and women their freedom.

Such was the case in an advertisement that Archibald Campbell of Norfolk placed in the September 19, 1771, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette.  Campbell lamented that Tom “ABSCONDED from my Service” and likely headed to Williamsburg “to lay Claim to his Freedom.”  Prior to making his escape, the enslaved man served aboard ships and “has been used to the Sea.”  Tom may have had papers that testified to his freedom, but Campbell asserted that those papers were not what they seemed.  The enslaver noted that Tom “was born in the Island of Bermuda, in my Mother in Law’s Family, and given to my Wife when a Child.”  A particular practice in Bermuda explained how Tom may have acquired freedom papers.  “Owners of Vessels” there “generally man them with their Slaves,” Campbell declared, “and it is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen, in Case they should be taken by the Enemy.”  In that case, they could not be confiscated as contraband.

In this case, that maneuver might have backfired, but Campbell worked to prevent it.  Campbell suspected that Tom, “who went to Sea from that Island when a Boy” either “had one of those Passes given to him by his then Master” or more recently “got Possession of one that belonged to some other Negro.”  Given the circumstances, any pass that Campbell produced to demonstrate his freedom was not a legitimate pass but instead a legal subterfuge.  At least that was how Campbell wanted others to treat any document that Tom displayed to “lay Claim to his Freedom” in Williamsburg. Campbell insisted that a pass that seemed to benefit a Black man should not be used for that purpose because the original intention was that it protect the interests of his enslaver instead.  When it came to achieving his freedom, Tom faced the injustice of the context in which the pass was written potentially outweighing what the actual words on the page promised.  Despite his courage and conviction, the deck was stacked against him.