J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2021

“If he could get there he should be Free”

From 19 Aug 1771 to 9 September, an advertisement from John Hunt appeared in the Boston Gazette and the Boston Evening-Post.

Hunt (1716-1777) was a prosperous farmer in Watertown, a local trader and former town representative to the Massachusetts General Court.

His house, demolished in 1935, appears here courtesy of the Watertown Public Library and Digital Commonwealth.

The advertisement read:
Ran away from John Hunt of Watertown, on Tuesday last, a Negro Man named Prince, a tall streight Fellow, walks with a small Hitch. He is about 33 Years old, has been used to farming Business, is a handy Fellow on most Accounts, talks pretty good English.—Had on when he went away a striped Jacket, a Frock & Trowsers almost new.—

His Design was to get off in some Vessel so as to go to England, under the Notion if he could get there he should be Free.

Whoever takes up and secures said Fellow so that his Master receives him again shall be well rewarded for their Trouble.

He carried with him a good Pair of Deerskin Breeches.

All Masters of Vessels are cautioned against carrying off said Servant, as they would avoid the Penalty of the Law.
Hunt had advertised for escaped workers twice in the 1740s, once guessing his quarry would head for part of New England where he had lived before. But this man Prince had a more ambitious idea of reaching Great Britain and liberty.

This was two years after Customs officer Charles Steuart had left Boston with his enslaved manservant James Somerset. But it was months before Somerset tried to escape in London, leading to what in 1772 became a landmark court case over slavery in England.

This advertisement indicates that the “Notion” that a slave could “go to England” and “be Free” was circulating in New England even before the Somerset legal case confirmed, by some readings, that idea.

Noting this advertisement in the Massachusetts Historical Review, Antonio T. Bly declined to guess at why Prince believed he might be free in England. But once John Hunt was announcing it in the newspapers, the idea must have spread even wider than before.

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