Looking for the Work of Slavery in Local Newspapers
Newspaper advertisements provide information about some of the skills enslaved blacks acquired during their servitude, but (it is important to remember that ) different types of advertisements contain information that reveals much about the motivations of the white slave owners placing them. Ads for the sale of slaves reflect the owners’ desire to move property and they convey as much about the market as they do about the skills that could have been claimed by the African Americans themselves.
Runaway notices, on the other hand, often convey judgments of slave owners with regard to the character and psyche of enslaved persons. The rewards offered tell us about the perceived value the owner places on the self-liberated individual. They offer more visual physical details; about height, identifying features and attributes such as scars, unusual gaits or mannerisms. A different set of skills is depicted, as well. Advertisements for the sale of slaves include almost no details about artistic or performative talents, but runaway notices include intriguing details not included as a tribute to the individual, but in hopes of calling the attention of other whites to the escaped slave attempting to blend in among the free blacks in a given place.
In the summer of 1809, one Poughkeepsie resident sought to appeal to the broadest market, offering “a healthy negro wench” of 21 who “will suit in town or country, can spin, and do all kind of house work.”
Indeed, the market demanded that female slaves from as young as 13 years old be “acquainted with” or “understand” — “all kinds of housework.” An early variation on the theme was published in the Country Journal at Poughkeepsie in 1786:
Based on the ads published in and around Poughkeepsie during the period of gradual abolition, “every other kind of housework” was shorthand for the two broad categories of kitchen work and general house work. Kitchen work included cooking (or in one case, cookery), baking and washing. Some ads characterize the woman’s cooking as ‘good,’ as above, or ‘plain,’ as in a 1796 advertisement for one of Henry G. Livingston’s female slaves, whose skills made her, in Livingston’s view “well calculated for a tavern.”
On the general housework side, the main activities mentioned in sale notices are sewing, spinning, knitting, washing, ironing and clear-starching. Some ads mentioned a familiarity with the care of children or “family work” as well. Additional skills not directly associated with the kitchen side of the housework or the general maintenance of the house include an understanding of the operation of a dairy, “country work,” or in the case of one 22 year old female slave, the experience of having “been brought up in the farming line of business.”
Poughkeepsie’s John Forbus uses more specific, if less sales-friendly language, in his ad for a 40 year old who, “having lived nearly all her life time with farmers…is well acquainted with the management of cows.” He conveys her general housework skills and testifies, albeit weakly, to her honesty: “She is a good washer, ironer and scrubber and is not known to be dishonest,” before closing his pitch with the incentive that the “price will be low.”
Determining the intended significance of the detail in another ad that a “healthy and strong” 19-year-old “was brought up with a good Dutch farmer” may have been a challenge even in 1797, but the seller also assured potential purchasers that the young woman understood “sewing, spinning, knitting, washing, ironing, &c…and is handy at all kinds of house work.”
Aside from this largely gendered skill-set, slave owners – and potential purchasers – seem to have been concerned with the strength, constitution, health, sobriety and honesty of female slaves. These terms are the most commonly employed, but other descriptors such as stout, active, smart, sound and capable also appear. William A. Duer of Rhinebeck Flatts in northern Dutchess may have been attempting to highlight the exceptional sobriety, honesty and health of his “Negro Girl, of twenty one years, well acquainted with country work” by warning off those looking for a bargain: “To prevent unnecesaary trouble,” his ad concludes, “the price is 150 dollars.”
The work of men in sale notices was likewise gendered, and the language employed quite generic, with many men advertised as having been “bred to the farming business,” “able to do all kinds of farming work,” or some variation on that theme. Before the harvest of 1809, Hachaliah Bailly of Somertown in Westchester advertised his 22-year-old black male slave as “a good Farmer,” promising that “any person wishing to purchase, may have him a while on trial,” before paying the price of £100.
John Forbus, whose forty-year-old female slave “well acquainted with cows” he had offered for sale in 1804, advertised at the same time a “likely Negro Boy, fifteen or sixteen years of age” who “understands farming business and the care of horses” and “is also a good horse servant having been employed as such for some time.”
From September of 1792 to January of 1793, Philip J. Schuyler, gentleman of Rhinebeck, advertised in the Poughkeepsie Journal his desire to purchase a “faithful, steady, single young NEGRO MAN, of any age between 16 and 20 years, who can be well recommended, has been accustomed to farm business, and the care of horses,” specifying that “he will be demanded a short time on trial.” One wonders whether his interest was piqued by the advertisement that ran in the same newspaper a month later for the “likely NEGRO BOY, about 12 years of age, healthy and active,” who “would suit any gentleman for a domestic Servant, and is well acquainted with the care of horses,” but would “be sold cheap”.
Some runaway advertisements provide information about male slaves’ work experience. Richard Van Wyck and Coert Horton of Fishkill, for example, offered fifty dollars for their respective slaves, both named Will, who ran away together in the spring of 1802. They both are described as being “handy on a farm,” with the lighter-skinned man also familiar with “house-work.” Peter J. Luyster advertised in 1813 for the return of his 22-year-old “mulatto negro man, named Tom” two full years after he fled Luyster’s household in Fishkill. According to the ad, Tom, who “calls himself William Van Gaudus…was brought up on a farm, and is handy at house work,” but “is fond of being at taverns, and attending as a waiter, and is probably now in such employ.”
Skills other than house- or farm-work are referred to directly or indirectly in runaway ads, as well. Mink, at age 20, ran away from Henry Broadhead in Marbletown in Ulster County in the early summer of 1806 with an understanding of milling, and the ability to speak Dutch and English. Broadhead offered fifty dollars for Mink’s return.
Richard Boerum’s specification that “Masters of vessels, and all others are forbid harboring or employing” the runaway Dick in the spring of 1810, indicates that Dick may have had some familiarity with sailing or dock work.
One common feature of many slave sale advertisements are the sellers’ assurances that individuals are being sold for no fault, but only “for want of employ.”
Henry G. Livingston of Red Hook Landing adapted this formula using uncharacteristically blunt language.
Livingston, who owned 13 slaves in 1790, and would continue to have slaves in his household after moving to New York City at the end of that decade, would probably not have been eager to part with the “good tempered” 24-year-old black woman “capable of doing all kinds of housework, such as cooking, baking, washing, ironing, and clear-starching etc,” who also understood “the care of a dairy.” Livingston’s ad explained his reason: “She is sold for no other fault but her love of liquor,” adding helpfully that “in a family where she would not have access to it, she would be a valuable servant.”
Livingston, as a member of one of the wealthiest families in the region, was not motivated by strictly financial concerns, and so honest and straightforward language suited his purpose. For someone in a hurry to pull up roots, an everything-must-go approach and more creative language was needed. On May 1st of 1809, “intending to remove from this part of the country,” Poughkeepsie’s Archibald McLean offered “on low terms, a NEGRO WOMAN about thirty years of age, well accustomed to all kinds of house work, with her three children, fine healthy boys, from two to six years of age.” Almost as an afterthought, the ad continued: “Also, a small assortment of household furniture, very little used.” McLean, with his lease to think of, also pitched “at a reduced rent, the small snug house in which he now resides, belonging to Mr. James Winans.” Not content to stand pat at ‘snug,’ that close cousin of cozy, a term still associated with the New York real estate market, McLean further evoked the property’s “handsome view of the river, the garden ready made and well manured.”
This ad provides contextual clues as to the experience of the growing black family living in close proximity to Poughkeepsie’s Lower Landing, long known as Richard Davis’ Landing, where McLean’s landlord James Winans maintained a store along the river. Although Winans and his wife Hannah owned no slaves, their neighbor Richard Davis, who also kept a store and received goods from ships that sailed the Hudson from north and south, and from the islands, was a long-time slave owner. From census records, we know that Davis employed two slaves in 1790, five in 1800 and two in 1810, and also had a free black person living in his household in 1790 and 1810.
That Davis so consistently maintained ownership over other human beings is a testament to the profitability of the practice, especially given the negative experience he had with an enslaved man named Jack in the years immediately following the American Revolution. According to the Records of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, Col. Andrew Bostwick, Deputy Foragemaster-General during the war, who had been housed in the “Glebe & Parsonage at Poughkeepsie” from 1780 to 1783, turned his slave Jack over to the Church as partial payment for back rent. Davis, in turn, agreed to take the man from the church. Three years later, he submitted a bill to Christ Church’s vestry accounting for the losses he had incurred in the meantime.
According to Davis’ account, during the winter of 1783 to 1784, Jack “proved to be onwell all winter & was not abel to do hard Labour” and “at times was under the Doctor’s hands and was very poorly clothed.” By September 1784, “Jack Run a way” causing Davis to spend £2 on hiring horse and paying expenses “for two men in Persut of him to Read hook,” in northern Dutchess, and then £5 “to a Jurney after him myself up to Bennington in the New Clames [Vermont] & true the New England towns.” While on the run, Jack had apparently “bin gilty Steeling a hors at Read hook & taken up in Connecticut with said horse by the Authority,” so Davis “tought best to ship him before our Laws tuck him in hand.” To “have him taken up” in Connecticut and for his “trubel & Expence for Irons & going Down with him,” he estimated costs of £10 and £3, respectively. For “his Expences in Goal at New York,” Davis added £0.16.0 and for “his cloathing while with me not less than £5.” Having decided that Jack was no longer worth the effort, he contracted with “Simon Scharmerhorn at New York” in the summer of 1786 to have Jack “shipt to Carrolina” where he was sold. Davis estimated his overall losses to be £45.14.4, of which he asked for half from the Church:
“I do appeal to the Vestry of Christ Church if my Directions from them was not to take Jack of Coll. Bostwick, that if their was a loss in taking him they would here it, as Coll. Bostwick sercumstances was looked upon bad. The Neagro’s carrector was bad, but it was tought best to take him, as the Vestry of Poughkeepsie was Impowered by the Fishkill Vestry to conduct this Business in particular with Bostwick. I think I have a Rite to Charge the above.”
In the years following this experience, Davis must have repeated this story to the black men and women he held as slaves in order to deter them from running, feigning illness or otherwise costing him time and capital, lest they be “shipt to Carrolina” like Jack. Any such warnings did not stop 25-year-old Gill, “a short stocky fellow” who ran away in early February of 1798. Whether the slim five dollar reward Davis offered for Gill’s capture resulted in his return to Poughkeepsie we do not know, but Gill must have cut an unusual figure across the Hudson Valley landscape wearing “a watch, a claret coloured coat, and brown cloth watch-coat lined with green baize.”
Advertisements for enslaved women and men offer few physical details, and those refer almost exclusively to size and strength. That one of the most evocative details appeared in an ad that ran for more than six months in 1790, when Ahasuerus Ellsworth of Pleasant Valley described as “large for her age,” a 13- or 14-year-old girl he hoped to sell, is a measure of the blandness of the physical descriptions in sale notices. For these physical and personal details, we need to look at runaway notices.
Notices of runaway women were rare relative to the number of those describing escaped men, but these manage to bring the individuals to life in ways even the most descriptive sale notice does not. Valentine Baker, who lived on Market Street close to the Poughkeepsie Court House, offered a reward of fifteen dollars in May 1798 for the return of 23 year old Rachael, whom he described as “short and stocky, leans forward when she walks, her visage long and unfriendly, speaks quick and hoarse,” adding that she “had on when she went away a blue homespun short gown, with long sleeves, a blue plain, and a blue pinstriped homespun petticoats, and a blue sun bonnet” before qualifying: “It is probable she may change her dress as she took off some wearing apparel which she borrowed.” Baker also provides information that may indicate her location for any reader hoping to collect the reward: “She was brought up in the neighborhood of Wapping[er]s Creek,”and previously worked as the slave of John Drake, Jr. from whom Baker “bought her in November” of 1797.
A notice that ran in The Albany Register in November 1812, provides information about the route that Fan and her infant daughter Diana may have followed in the two months following her departure from the household of an Albany businessman. Spencer Stafford offered ten dollars reward for the return of the 30-year-old woman who had “asked permission to visit her children in Schoharie county, which was granted her; but she took this method the better to succeed in her elopement,” and had since “been heard of in Hudson, Esopus, and lastly in Poughkeepsie.
In the search for hints about these individuals, it may be tempting to read some deception into the circumstances of those like “Diana Jackson a woman of Colour” who came before the Overseers on May 22, 1815 and whose circumstances were perhaps not unlike those of Fan and her daughter. Diana Jackson claimed to be a free woman who “was formerly a slave and was sold from one person to another until Lastly was sold to a Doctor John Taylor of Lansingburgh in whose services she became free after living with him about one year.” She explained that “her freedom papers are at Peter Van Loon’s in State Street Albany,” and that “she was born at New York…and came to Poughkeepsie town about a year ago; she has two children one named Janus aged 2 years and an infant about six days old. She is poor sick and unable to help her self and craves assistance from this town for support.” The Overseers ordered her “to Depart by the 1st Day June next and that” she be given some temporary relief in the meantime.” The reason for the comparison is not to claim that Diana Jackson and Fan, formerly the slave of Spencer Stafford, were the same individual, but to recognize that Fan would have been subject to the same kind of scrutiny in towns and cities across New York State.