Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ISAAC, an outlawed Mulatto Fellow … absconded from this Place.”
Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette regularly carried advertisements that described enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from their enslavers in the 1770s. The September 17, 1772, edition was no exception. It included six such advertisements, offering rewards for the capture and return of the Black men who made their escape. Two other advertisements described suspected fugitives seeking their freedom who had been committed to jail until the colonizer who purported to own them could “prove his Property, and pay Charges” or expenses for detaining them.
Some of those advertisements described communities and relationships among enslaved people, asserting that those who liberated themselves received assistance from others. W. Johnson, for instance, suspected that Isaac, “an outlawed Mulatto Fellow” who absconded in July, was “harboured by Colonel John Snelson’s Negroes … among whom he has a Wife” or “by his Brother, John Kenney, a Mulatto Slave belonging to Mr. Thomas Johnson.” Johnson believed that Isaac moved “from one Refuge to another,” making use of the “Variety of Clothes” and the “likely gray Mare” he took with him.
Like many enslaved people who liberated themselves, Isaac was “rather plausible and insinuating” when others questioned him or engaged him in conversation. Johnson warned that Isaac would tell convincing tales to alleviate suspicion that he was the “outlawed Mulatto Fellow” described in the newspaper. Even worse than being clever enough to succeed in such deceptions, Johnson declared that Isaac was “stubborn, and inclinable to be impudent” when “in Liquor.” That may have been one of the reasons that the advertisement made a different request of readers compared to most others of the genre: “TWENTY POUNDS to kill, or THREE POUNDS to take.” Johnson was less interested in recovering Isaac than in eliminating him, his influence, and his example.
Almost every enslaver who placed newspaper advertisements wanted enslaved people who liberated themselves returned, offering rewards for their capture and threatening legal action against anyone who aided them. Relatively few escalated the stakes to killing fugitives seeking their freedom. While chilling to modern readers, Johnson’s advertisement encouraging the murder of Isaac likely did not seem especially extraordinary to readers in the 1770s. That it appeared in the public prints alongside advertisements for patent medicines, real estate, lost livestock, and consumer goods and services suggests that colonizers sanctioned such measures of dealing with recalcitrant enslaved people, even during the era of the American Revolution.