Miss Betty Cooper may not be “well known” to modern historians, but the ad claims that she was “well known” in Revolutionary-era Boston.
In the years before the American Revolution, Boston newspapers routinely advertised the sale and recapture of enslaved people alongside news of Massachusetts’ resistance to British rule. In these ads, enslavers provided descriptions of fugitives in order to assist slave catchers in returning them to bondage.
One 1771 advertisement sought the recapture of an enslaved person known by two names: Cato and Miss Betty Cooper:
RAN away from his Master John Sober, Esq; on Monday the 8th of April Inst. a Negro Man Servant, named Cato, formerly owned by Mr. William Cooper of Boston, and well known by the Name of Miss Betty Cooper; — Whoever takes up said Negro, and will bring him to the Subscriber shall have TWELVE DOLLARS Reward, and all necessary Charges Paid. JOHN SOBER, Boston, April 12, 1771.
Miss Betty Cooper may not be “well known” to modern historians, but the ad claims that she was “well known” in Revolutionary-era Boston. So well known, in fact, that John Sober did not bother to include the routine description so common to eighteenth-century runaway advertisements: details about the fugitive’s body, clothing, and background that might help identify them to slave catchers.
In the absence of a physical description, Sober defined Miss Betty Cooper by her two starkly different names. The masculine Cato carries the irony of classical names like Caesar, Scipio, and Pompey that white enslavers commonly bestowed on enslaved people. In contrast, the feminine Miss Betty Cooper resists both the name and the masculine gender imposed earlier in the advertisement. It also includes a gendered honorific that demands the same respect as Sober’s own Esq[uire].
The surname Cooper connected Miss Betty Cooper to one of the most prominent Patriot families in Boston. Her erstwhile enslaver, William Cooper, was a respected member of the city’s Sons of Liberty who served as Town Clerk from 1761 until 1809. It was his job to conduct the public business of the town, keeping the official records and informing the populace of laws and regulations. His name appears in Boston newspapers thousands of times, usually in announcements about tax policy, town meetings, and resolutions regarding Boston’s resistance to British authority. Sometime between 1769 and 1771, William Cooper sold Miss Betty Cooper to John Sober, an Oxford-educated sugar planter who enslaved 200 people on his Barbados plantation.
This single advertisement, written by an enslaver for the purpose of recapturing a fugitive, cannot make Miss Betty Cooper well known to twenty-first-century historians. It does not tell us how she defined her own identity, how she related to her various communities, or even what she wore. It does, however, suggest a gender expression that resisted the binary, body-based categories of European colonizers. Many enslaved people were born into societies whose gender categories did not match European expectations. Captives brought this diversity with them through the Middle Passage, and colonial records everywhere from the Portuguese Inquisition in the sixteenth century to the New York City trial of Peter Sewally/Mary Jones in 1836 preserve partial stories of African-descended people who transgressed Euro-American gender boundaries in ways that can be understood both within a larger transgender historyand in the specific context of Black resistance to colonizer’s ideas about gender.
Did Miss Betty Cooper understand herself as part of a similar lineage? Did her resistance to being known as Cato spring from a more individual imperative? How would she have described her own gender? This ad does not say. But it does suggest that a different sort of anti-colonialism may have co-existed with the Sons of Liberty in 1770s Boston. Miss Betty Cooper, fugitive from slavery, was well known by that name.
Originally published by NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, 11.28.2018, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.