Posts Tagged ‘historical slavery’

Unspoken in the materials I quoted in my post on American slaver vessels last month was the inference that perhaps some of the slavers involved in the slave trade after the international treaty theoretically prohibited it were falsely flying American flags because of the United States’ lack of signing the treaty allowing slaver patrol crews to board American vessels looking for signs of the vessel being a slaver. While not explicitly stated in those materials, it was a very real concern of the slaver patrols.

To wit (my transcription of a printed letter):

Cyclops, off Ambuz, April 17, 1850.

Sir: I consider it my duty to bring under your notice a conversation that I had the honor of holding with Commander Levin M. Powell, commanding the United States ship-of-war “John Adams,” relative to the recent captures which have been made by some of the cruisers under your orders on the southwest coast of Africa of Brazilian vessels, which have attempted to evade search by presenting false American papers and hoisting American colors on meeting a British cruiser.

Commander Powell began by stating to me that he was not desirous, in this conversation, of referring to past captures, but that now an American vessel-of-war was stationed on the southwest coast of Africa, he desired to make some arrangement or have some agreement between the respective cruisers on all further occasions of our meeting vessels bearing the emblem of our respective countries, but producing, in the individual boarding captain’s opinion, no just right to wear it, and he would suggest that for the future, should a vessel be boarded by any of our cruisers presenting, in our opinions, false American colors, and that on our doubting the nationality of the vessel, and informing the master that our duty was, doubting his nationality, to send him to an American officer for further scrutiny, that should the said master, (should the vessel be an illegal trader, and employed in the slave trade, or fitted to be so employed,) for fear of the consequences, (the law of the United States inflicting death of any of its subjects convicted of being engaged in the slave trade,) destroy the fraudulent American papers, and immediately present Brazilian ones, and direct a Brazilian ensign to be hoisted, that we, the British officers, should not seize such vessel as a Brazilian slaver, although we see she is fully equipped for the slave trade, and is delivered over to us as Brazilian, but that we ought to detain such vessel, on the grounds that false papers were first presented to us to evade search, and either give such vessel up to the American cruiser, if present on the coast, if not, to be sent to an American port for adjudication. …

From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from April 17, 1850), pp. 5-6

This excerpt was followed by the British author asking the government for advice, including a hypothetical situation wherein American and British slaver patrol cruisers together encountered “a strange vessel.” The first part of the letter particularly struck me because it suggested that the American Commander Powell assumed: 1) that American law was so strong and so well enforced on this subject that anyone confronted with the possibility of being subject to it would immediately simply give up any charade; 2) that the person, upon giving up, should not be subject to the law which had terrified them into confessing.

Accompanying this printed letter was another British letter on the subject (again, my transcription of a printed document):

… in order to maintain cordial and friendly co-operation between the officers of the British and United States navies respectively engaged in the suppression of the slave trade; and I stated that her Majesty’s government derived the sincerest gratification from the proofs … of the efficiency of the steps taken by the United States government to prevent the abuse of the United States flag, for purposes of slave trade …

… her Majesty’s government consider it a general and acknowledged principle of international law, that the nationality of a vessel must be determined, not by the flag which may be hoisted from time to time at her masthead, but by the papers which prove her ownership; and upon this, issued those instructions to which Commander Fanshawe refers, for the guidance of her Majesty’s naval officers engaged in the suppression of the slave trade, ordering such officers to board any suspected vessel and to require the production of her papers, whence arise the questions mooted by the commander of the United States cruizer “John Adams.”

It appears to her Majesty’s government that the proper course to be pursued would be that, if a vessel so boarded should produce American papers, and the master should persist in asserting her American character, and if, nevertheless, there should be grounds either for suspecting her to be engaged in slave trade, or for supposing her papers to be false, the vessel should be delivered over to the nearest United States naval officers. But, if the master should disclaim American nationality, or if the United States officer should, on examining the papers, find them to be false, then, and in either of those cases, the vessel should remain in, or be given back to the charge of the British officer, to be dealt with by British courts according to the real character of the vessel.

This proposed arrangement is founded on the presumption that the courts of the United States could not deal with a vessel detained for slave trade unless she was United States property. And that if a slaver were to be sent for trial to the United States, and it should appear on trial that she was not an United States vessel, the court would acquit her for want of competence in the case.

From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from December 31, 1850), pp. 3-4

What a different window into history this offers, including the suggestion that Americans should not be given the responsibility for dealing with international slaver vessels because American courts could not handle such cases, and that British slaver patrols should only hand a vessel over to the Americans if the crew continued to insist that they were indeed Americans despite the claim seeming dubious. Having researched and blogged about the international incident involving the Douglas out of Duxbury in 1839, I imagined upon reading this that the reason the British even went that far in their suggestion was because of prior incidents like the Douglas being detained – better to err on the side of caution than to cause another international incident. But when I read further letters, I discovered that it wasn’t just past incidents but very recent complaints by the masters of American vessels – or as the published letters put it, “legal traders” – whose participation in international trade, possibly including the slave trade, was disrupted by patrols.

Weaving throughout these letters is the fact that slaver vessels of other nationalities were hoisting American flags and carrying false American papers because the American government had refused to sign the international treaty allowing patrol crews to board and search American vessels and continued to defend its citizens rights to legally participate in the slave trade as long as they were selling people to countries where it was legal to do so. The American government could have made all of this moot at any time by signing the treaty. But it did not.

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“Virtually all New Englanders” were anti-slavery by the 1820’s-1830’s, the speaker said, providing background information on John Quincy Adams’s anti-slavery petitions on the House of Representatives floor, eventually culminating in his stand against the Gag Rule. Widespread access to video and sound via the internet has allowed much more access to events than had been possible previously, and I had the talk on in the background on Thursday as I worked in my home office. This assertion made me stop in surprise. I think often of how successful the North was in its campaign to present itself as the all-abolitionist, always-slavery-free region during and after the Civil War, and to me this claim is a good example. Not only is it inaccurate, but it recasts actions like John Quincy Adams’s, and those of many much less famous Northerners, as being ho-hum: Of course John Quincy Adams presented anti-slavery petitions because everybody where he was from was anti-slavery; of course other individuals took stands against slavery because everyone was doing it. I thought, for example, of the mob that attacked and could have killed William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and the mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia after it had been open for just three days because anti-slavery speeches were being given at it by Angelina Grimké Weld and others. (Here is Angelina’s speech, given as a mob gathered outside, heckling her through the walls.) I thought, also, of the petitions from small groups of women to the Massachusetts legislature asking to secede in the lead-up to the Civil War, hoping that by removing their anti-slavery selves from the United States they could help stave off the war.

The night before I listened to that talk, I had attended Harvard Law School’s historian Daniel Coquillette’s talk on the first hundred years of the Law School at Royall House. The administration of Harvard Law School had actively recruited from the South, and because of this, they had a much higher percentage of Southerners than other Northern law schools before the Civil War, leading to many of their alumni being officers in the Confederacy, with West Point being the only other Northern school that graduated about the same amount of future Confederate leaders. Coquillette estimated in his talk that in the 1840’s 35% of the students at the school were from the Deep South. He explained that there were three main groups at the school:

  • Deep Southerners who were “very pro-slavery”
  • Cotton Whig Northerners, who were sympathetic to the Deep Southerners
  • Conscience Whig Northerners, who weren’t really pro-slavery but saw the best strategy as trying to contain slavery to its current locations (leading to such events as Bloody Kansas)

To put it mildly, this paints a different picture of Northerners than an assertion that all of them were anti-slavery. And while of course people at a law school are a tiny portion of the overall populace, many of them went on to become leaders who had regional or national influence. According to Coquillette, Charles Sumner had originally been considered the top person at the school to replace its head, but was told that his abolition wasn’t welcome there, and rerouted himself into politics instead.

In 1859 a newspaper editor, Charles B. Flood, and a US Marshal, Matthew Johnson, were using the Cleveland newspaper Daily National Democrat as their own bully pulpit to level political accusations outside of courtrooms. When John Brown was captured after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a letter addressed to Cleveland resident Mrs. Isaac Sturtevant was found on him, and the Daily National Democrat published the claim that she had known about and helped to fund the raid. Mrs. Sturtevant wrote a lengthy letter to the Democrat‘s competitor the Plain Dealer in response, which I reproduce partially below (my own transcription of a printed letter, including a few quirks of printing):

… In reply to the charge against me of having incendiary letters sent to my care, I would say if the editor of the Democrat knows any such letters to be incendiary, he knows more about their contents than I do. … As to the charge of being a working woman I acknowledge myself such, especially in the cause of human-freedom, and while my strength remains I shall aid it by such means as I may command. …

While I have thus deigned to notice these charges against me, and this shameful and unjust attempt on the part of a public officer and a hireling editor, to bring reproach upon myself and husband, I wish to utter my protest against any and every effort of the kind. I deny the right of Marshal Johnson or editor Flood to pry into and bring before the public, the private doings of any of our citizens. If we have violated the laws of the land, the Government has pointed out a way and established tribunals whose especial business it is to investigate such violation. No honorable man would seek to prejudice the public against the accused. And it has guaranteed to every citizen, even to negroes and women, the privilege of a fair trial. But pray what chance has any one for an impartial investigation when the public mind is filled with false rumors and statements, as it has been of late by those two most unworthy officials, who have thus departed from their legitimate functions and have arrogated to themselves duties which in no manner belong to them. …

Am I amenable for such acts to the government at Washington and its petty officials stationed here? Or to the laws of Virginia, or its crazy executive, or its blood thirsty judiciary? who in their zeal to convict a person, as in the case of Mr. Brown make him guilty of twice murdering the same man ! Or to either of the political parties who in their strife for power ignore all the rights of individuals and seem to forget and wholly repudiate the plainest and dearest immunities which belong to us as private citizens, the right of private judgment and the liberty to act in harmony therewith. There is a system of espionage being established here which exceeds in servility the worst days of Democratic France. Slavery and the darkest features of the infamous system have obtained such a foothold here, that it would seem that we are not standing erect in the dignity of free men and women of Ohio but are cowering at the feet of the insolent slave power.

Men seem to forget to inquire what are the laws of Ohio–what does her Constitution guarantee to her citizens; but, what says the slave power? What does the Fugitive Bill demand? What of liberty is left us by the Dred Scott decision?

Now, for one, I utterly repudiate and abhor the requisitions of those laws. I would add, if indeed they are laws, I would disregard them. Any law, enactment, or custom which forbids me to aid suffering humanity wherever found, I utterly reject and despise. And I would thus publicly give notice to all the friends of oppression in every form, that I shall treat all such laws as a nullity, and if a grand jury can be found who will indict me for such disobedience, they are perfectly welcome so to do. I shall neither “flee to Canada” nor cease to do all that lies in my power to break down this unrighteous system of oppression, which is even here at the North, stifling every noble feeling or impulse of the human heart. …

[Plain Dealer issue of Saturday, 5 November 1859, page 2]

I can’t imagine anyone reading the above letter and still thinking that all Northerners were unified on the subject. But to say that there was unity is to erase the bravery of acts such as the publication of this letter.

I understand that generalizations are to some degree necessary when discussing wider history. However, I plead for people to be careful that generalizations do not wipe out the complexity of history nor the individual stories of individual people leading individual lives, be it in this era or any other.

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In October 1839, the Duxbury-Massachusetts-based brig Douglas was on its route from Havana, Cuba, towards what reports called “the port of the river Bras” on the coast of Africa, when it was stopped and boarded by some of the crew of the slaver patrol brigantine-cruiser HMS Termagant*. The crew inspected the ship’s papers and the passengers’ passports, insisted the hatches be broken open, ordered the American flag taken down, and seized the ship on suspicion of being a slaver.

This caused a furor, months of sporadic newspaper coverage, and a diplomatic incident.

The problem?

The United States hadn’t signed the international treaty allowing the patrols hunting for slavers to search ships for evidence that the ship was involved in the slave trade. Slaver patrol crews could not legally so much as board the deck of American vessels if they were not granted permission.

The Douglas purportedly became less sea-worthy, and three of its crew died on the return trip, which was from coastal Africa to Curaçao and then back to Havana. The United States blamed the Termagant‘s interference for these events.

The British government apologized multiple times, but the United States government was underwhelmed and sent a formal letter of protest. The British government proceeded to agree to provide compensation for the incident, and their staff upped their diplomatic-speak; to quote one of the letters published in a volume of Correspondence with the British Commissioners (following is my transcription of part of a published letter):

Her Majesty’s Government cannot be insensible of the strong desire which the Government of the United States, and the nation at large, feel in the complete annihilation of the African Slave Trade.

The course pursued for the last 30 years is best calculated to mark the feelings and opinions of the Government and people of the United States, in relation to a traffic, now properly regarded by most civilized nations as alike repugnant to justice and humanity, and which, in relation to the United States, is not the less so to all the dictates of a sound policy.

It is true that the American Government have declined to become a party in treaties with other nations for the suppression of the Slave Trade. Although repeatedly urged by Her Majesty’s Government to do so, the United States have been forced to decline all conventional arrangements, by which the officers of ships-of-war of either country should have the right to board, search, or capture, or carry into foreign ports for adjudication, the vessels of each other engaged in the Slave Trade. Indeed, it may be well doubted, apart from other considerations, whether the constitutional powers of the American Government would be competent to carry into effect those portions of the existing system, so indispensably necessary to give it the character of just reciprocity.

These objections on the part of the United States have been repeatedly and frankly made known to Her Majesty’s Government, and are doubtless well understood by the British Cabinet . . .

They cannot, however, consent that the provisions of the Treaties in force between Great Britain and other Powers for its abolition, and to which they are not a party, should be made to operate upon the commerce and citizens of the United States. It cannot but be apparent to Her Majesty’s Government that these Treaties are of a nature which cannot, and ought not, to be applied to the United States . . .

A. Stevenson, on November 13, 1840

Interestingly, part of the argument was that the United States did not have colonies like European powers did.

Some American newspapers picked up A. Stevenson’s letter and published it in full.

The British public, however, was more skeptical. The United States continued to refuse to sign the treaty, and by 1857 it was widely reported that most to all of the slavers still operating were flying the American flag, spurring the London Times to publish this on 25 May 1857, a piece also picked up by a number of American newspapers, and excerpted here (again, my transcription):

Cuba is now almost the only country which regularly imports large numbers of negroes, and to supply the plantations of this island most of the slavers which now pursue their odius trade are fitted out. As the Americans refuse to admit the right of search, the Slave-Trade, it is said, is now almost wholly carried on under their flag. Nay, unless statements publcily and repeatedly made be false, the greater part of the slave-carrying crafts are owned by American citizens, and fitted out at American ports; so, indeed, it is declared in a resolution adopted by a meeting held at Kingston, Jamaica, in February last. The feelings of the inhabitants were, no doubt, much moved by the conditions of the blacks liberated from the slaver which had been captured by the British vessel Arab; and this meeting, which passed strong resolutions on the subject of Slavery and the Slave-Trade, was the natural result.

We have no desire to echo any Protectionist opinions of the Jamaican politicians, yet, as we ought to give the slave-owners, both Anglo-American and Spanish, their due, it may be said that in the minds of great numbers of them this country, by its dependence on tropical productions, and consequently on slave-labor, has its share in whatever sin there may be in Slavery. If Manchester buys more than half the cotton of the United States, and we receive the sugar of Cuba and the coffee of Brazil, the fact is not without its effect on those who are on the look-out for arguments against us, and are willing enough to turn the discussion from their own inhumanity to our inconsistency in denouncing it.

The editorial brought to my mind American Senator Charles Sumner’s succinct phrasing “the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom,” tying Southern cotton produced by enslaved people to the Northern textile mills that processed and exported said cotton. Never doubt that there were Northerners who had a vested interest in slavery continuing in Cuba and elsewhere, including the Douglas‘s owner(s) in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and people in Providence and Boston, the cities from which two of the crew who died on the Douglas‘s return voyage hailed.


*The now-archaic meaning of Termagant is “an imaginary character of violent and turbulent character.”


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On Monday (August 25th), I attended a talk on the Middle Passage given by a National Park Service Boston African-American National Historic Site Ranger in the Great Hall at Faneuil Hall. In this historic location so tied to the American Revolution and which many presidents and other significant historical figures have visited, she discussed the Middle Passage from Africa to the Colonies of the Western Hemisphere as well as slavery in the Colonies in general and in New England and Boston in particular.

In 1637, the Desire was the first ship to leave the Northern Colonies with slaves (she said it was “somewhat unique” in that it carried slaves both directions). It carried Pequot prisoners of war to be sold in the Caribbean and picked up slaves for New England, returning to Boston in 1638 to sell them. The Desire‘s most likely landing spot was Boston’s town dock, which no longer exists. Long Wharf, completed by 1715, subsequently became the most common place to sell slaves. The handout included a number of quotes, one of which was an ad that ran in Boston newspapers in 1751 saying that parties interested in their cargo of “Five strong hearty stout negro Men, most of them Tradesmen…” could inspect it on the ship docked at Long Wharf in advance of the sale. The public sale was being held at the Bunch of Grapes, a tavern on King Street, and she emphasized that this showed how integrated slavery was in Massachusetts culture.

Another quoted newspaper ad (Boston Gazette, 10 June 1728) lists cargo being sold at Henry Caswall’s warehouse on Long Wharf, including “…Sooseys, Persians, Taffities, Ginghams, Long Cloths, Irish Linens of all sorts, Men & Women’s Worsted and Silk Hose, Powder, Cordage, Duck, Nails, Sweeds and Spanish Iron, with sundry other European and East India Goods, lately Imported, also Negro Boys & Girls, and Barbados Rum.” The rum, like the slaves, was an integral part of the Slave Trade Triangle that existed between the North American Colonies, Africa, and the sprawling sugar plantations of the Caribbean and South America. All told, she said there were about 1,000 ads regarding enslaved people in Boston in the 18th century.

The speaker stressed that statistics she was giving from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database were only slaves being sent directly from Africa, and that a good number were shipped from the Caribbean to North American Colonies, including New England. Overall, by far the highest number were sent to Brazil, with many more also going to the Caribbean and northern South America than to North America. However, the death rate was so much higher in the Caribbean and Brazilian plantations that many more slaves that were sent here survived, and slaves that were later shipped from the Caribbean to North America were often glad that at least this increased their chances of survival (she read some excerpts from slave narratives expressing these sentiments).

While there are classically thought of slave trade vessels, many types of ships were involved in the slave trade, from those ships built expressly for it to small schooners transporting small numbers of slaves. Her handout included a well-known diagram of a 1790-91 ship, also available several places online, such as at Wikimedia Commons. While the importation of slaves directly from Africa to the United States was outlawed in 1808, she stressed that there were workarounds, from importing slaves from the Caribbean (which she said was legal) to making illegal slave trade runs directly from Africa, as well as trading slaves born in the U. S. I did not realize that illegal runs were still being made from Africa until I started researching in 1800’s American newspapers, wherein I found incensed Northern newspaper reports of captured slave trade ships that had been trying to make it from Africa directly into Southern ports as close to the outbreak of the Civil War as the 1850’s, and I would imagine there were likely other slave trade ships that made it through undetected.

She said that in the 18th century, it is estimated that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 households in New England had one or more slaves. Most were clustered in/near coastal areas. (I want to note, in case you don’t already know, that a large percentage of the white colonists were also clustered in/near coastal areas, like the Native American tribes before them, so it would make sense that the slaves were too.) She said that it is also estimated that during the first half of the 18th century, the slave population of Massachusetts went from 1,000 to 13,000. In Boston the slave population was concentrated in the Copps Hill area, and “oppressive laws” included: a 9pm curfew; a law against carrying anything that could be mistaken for a weapon, including canes and sticks; a requirement for slaves to perform public works without pay.

She also discussed Cotton Mather and the smallpox inoculation method he learned from his former slave (I’m sorry, I didn’t write down his name and am not finding it in several minutes of searching, though I do note that many sites say the person was still Mather’s slave, which is not what the speaker said) and introduced to Boston in 1721. She did not note that it caused much controversy at the time (I’ve done a fair amount of my own reading on this subject). The speaker said that at that point smallpox was estimated to have a 15% fatality rate in Boston, while the inoculation method had a 3% fatality rate. There are a lot of places, online and offline, to read more about this subject. One starting point is Harvard University’s Contagion page on the 1721 epidemic.

She discussed Prince Hall and the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons of Boston, which he founded and which sent a lot of petitions to the legislature, and David Walker, an abolitionist born in North Carolina who moved to Boston and wrote the famous pamphlet Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America, which a brief survey on my part suggests a lot of webpages term “incendiary.” She noted that in the pamphlet he frequently used the terms “colored citizens” and “American citizens,” the latter meaning “white citizens,” illustrating how disenfranchised he felt from society. After he died in 1830, his friend Maria Stewart “took up his mantle,” and the speaker read quotes from one of Maria’s speeches to the African Masonic Hall in Boston.

She also discussed Paul Cuffe, an African-American whaling captain who was in favor of the colonization movement, where free African-Americans would return to Africa. A few Boston families went with him and stayed in Africa on one of his trips there. Coincidentally, two days before the talk I had seen the Magna Carta exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the only African-American I saw highlighted there was Paul Cuffe; a portrait of him on loan from the New England Historic Genealogical Society hung in the room with the 1215 document, and the label discussed Cuffe’s own petitioning efforts (amongst other things). Many whites who supported colonization did so for implicitly or often explicitly racist reasons, and many African-Americans were against it. One of them was Frederick Douglass, who had given an anti-colonization speech at Faneuil Hall in 1833 and whose bust was now above us in the Great Hall watching over the proceedings.

She also discussed a number of things on which I did not take any notes and do not remember in detail to be able to recount properly here. I do not believe she mentioned that Faneuil Hall was partially financed with money from the slave trade, as its builder Peter Faneuil was a slave trader as part of his merchant business. There is a blog post about it here and the same site has a more general post on Massachusetts slavery here that covers some of the same things that were discussed in the talk as well as some different things. Slavery in the North has a Massachusetts slavery page here and a Massachusetts emancipation page here.

I thought her talk was very well-done and it was pretty well attended for a talk held during the daytime on a weekday without much publicity surrounding it. It included the largest percentage of African-Americans I believe I’ve ever seen at any of the many talks/events/conferences I’ve attended on history, genealogy, and related subjects, and every question and comment after the talk was from an African-American audience member. I think this shows that the local audience is there if you present a subject that is of interest to African-Americans and let them know about it. (I’ll continue to hold out hope that local genealogical event organizers will do this someday…)

The talk was the first event in what the NPS and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project [note: at time of posting, their site seems to be down] hope to be a year of area events leading up to the unveiling of a Middle Passage Marker in Boston next August 23rd, UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition; Boston will be the 11th American port to get a marker. (August 23rd is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition because it was the start of the Haitian Revolution; see here for more info.) They also plan to eventually erect a permanent monument to the Middle Passage and the area’s slaves near the original beginning of (now much shorter) Long Wharf.  Many locals and most tourists do not realize that slavery used to exist here and that the slave trade used to happen here, and in addition to honoring the enslaved people who went on the Middle Passage, the NPS and the Project hope to help raise awareness of this. The Middle Passage Project aims to eventually have a marker at every port that was a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If you are interested in helping them with a project already underway or starting one in your port, please contact them. They hold ceremonies of remembrance in locations involved in the slave trade as well as adding markers at ports.

I blogged earlier this year about Roco and Sue, two slaves that bought their freedom from my ancestor’s brother, John Pynchon, in inland Massachusetts. I find that it is common for genealogical researchers of colonial New England to either not realize there were slaves here or to assume that only the wealthiest families had slaves. I think that the estimate mentioned earlier in this post that 1 in 10 to 1 in 4 families – 10% to 25% – are thought to have owned a slave in 18th century Massachusetts shows that this is not necessarily accurate. While most people did not own several slaves like John Pynchon did, many families owned one or two slaves. If you are researching a free family/individual and not accounting for this possibility in your research, you may be missing the opportunity to learn more about your ancestors’/relatives’ lives and to help document a slave’s life for posterity and for that slave’s possible living descendants.

An excerpt from the 1700 Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of Susanna Byram of Bridgewater

An excerpt from the Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of my ancestor Susanna Byram of East Bridgewater (proved in 1700), wherein she grants freedom to her two slaves in between discussions of legacies for her granddaughters: “I give To miriam Negro maid hir freedom at my decease & on[e] homemade hood I give To Tom negro man Ten Shillings mony & his freedom At my Decease if hee be Thirty Years of age & if not hee Shall Secure[?] with my Son Nicolas biram Till he is Thirty yeares of age & then be free” (Plymouth County probate case file #3511; image courtesy of FamilySearch.)



There is a project underway through Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies that is indexing, transcribing, and digitizing slavery-related petitions to the Massachusetts colonial/state legislature. See the 2013 article about it in the Harvard Gazette, “Digitizing a movement: Harvard project covers thousands of 18th- and 19th-century anti-slavery petitions.”

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Roco and Sue lived in Springfield, which was in Massachusetts Bay Colony and then in Massachusetts Colony, where they were slaves of John Pynchon, the magistrate who made an appearance in my 52 Ancestors post on Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman. John Pynchon died with the largest estate of its time in Western Massachusetts, and like many wealthy European colonists of his day, he owned slaves. Like later work on the enslaved in Southern states, most of what can be gleaned about slaves in early Massachusetts has to be pieced together from the records of whites. Roco was owned by John Pynchon by 1672, when Roco and fellow Pynchon slave Harry were two of the people working on building the first sawmill in Suffield, a town a short distance downriver from Springfield. According to Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865, 2nd edition (p. 2), Roco was a very unusual slave in owning at least 60 acres of land by 1685 though still a slave; there is no citation listed, so I am not sure yet what the source was. So far I haven’t found a reference in the deeds, but many deeds in what was then Hampshire County were recorded belatedly in this time period, so that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t one.

On 1 December 1687 John Pynchon noted in the Record of the County Court of Hampshire, “Roco and Sue my Negroes, Joined in Marriage.” Roco and Sue subsequently bought their freedom from John Pynchon on 20 October 1695:

Agreed with Roco Negroe . . . That for his & his wifes freedoms which is to be absolute upon his paying to me as followeth which is to say He is to pvide & allow or pay me Twenty five Barrels of good cleane pure Turpentine of 40 gallons to a Barrel & Twenty one barrels of Good merchantable Tarr: where of he is to pay wt he can next yeare by this time 12 Mo & I give him for the Rest the yeare after so that within Two yeares he is to pay the whole & he is Intirely discharged from me upon the reading of this . . .

Richard Blackleech, a free man of color who was a former slave of John Pynchon, witnessed the document.

Sue died in Springfield, recorded as “Su the negro,” on 24 January 1710/11. So far I have not been able to determine when or where Roco died and as far as I have reviewed, no one else seems to have located a death record for him either.

Sue's death in Springfield

Sue’s death is the middle entry here: “Su the negro was sicke & died. Jan: 24. 1710/11” (Scan courtesy of FamilySearch.)

A “Negro” named Roco had been examined by John Pynchon in private and then at the County Court in 1680 regarding a charge of fornication with a white woman, Margarite Riley of Springfield, and Roco is recorded as having said “that he had (upon the said Riley’s tempting him) the carnal knowledge of her body,” and the court sentenced him to pay a fine of three pounds or receive fifteen lashes. Margarite was sentenced to receive fifteen lashes herself, apparently at least partly as a deterrent to herself and others regarding “this Growing and provoking sin of whoredom and to restrain the like abhorend practices.” I am unclear whether this is the same Roco who subsequently married Sue, and as far as I have been able to find, no one else seems to know for sure either. Margarite had had a daughter “born out of wedlocke” shortly before her court appearance, on 6 July 1680; Margarite had been born in Springfield in February 1661/62, making her 18 when her daughter was born. Was the Roco who was brought before the court the child’s father? Nothing I’ve reviewed, from either then or now, even speculates as to this, so I don’t know. But regardless of whether Roco was the father, perhaps this event was part of why the court seemed to have so little patience with Margarite’s behavior.

Margarite Riley's daughter's birth record in Springfield

Margarite Riley’s daughter’s birth record was squeezed in between the birth records of two children born to married couples in Springfield: “Margarite Riley had a daughter born out of wedlocke July, 6th 1680” (Scan courtesy of FamilySearch.)

Everyone I have featured till now in my 52 Ancestors posts was a relative of mine; however, here my relative is the slave-owner, John Pynchon. Given the typical practices of New England slavery, Roco and Sue would have regularly interacted with whites in the Pynchon household while they were slaves. I think it is important for researchers to remember that many people in the North had slaves too. I also want to stress here that though this may seem like a short post for my 52 Ancestors posts, I chose Roco and Sue primarily because there is a lot more known about them than many other slaves in this time and place. As an example, as far as I have been able to determine, no one seems to even be sure of the given name of one of the slaves that John Pynchon owned when he died.



All the books listed below include at least one mention of both Roco and Sue.

The most invaluable book for understanding slavery in this area is Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts by Robert H. Romer (Florence, Massachusetts: Levellers Press, 2009).

For those researching families of color in Hampden County, Massachusetts, a fantastic resource is Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865 by Joseph Carvalho III, who published a second edition of the book in 2011 through the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This book includes families in colonial Springfield. I do want to stress checking the compiled information in this book against original records whenever possible.

As I mentioned in my post on Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman, an important work for anyone researching early western Massachusetts is Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1703): The Pynchon Court Record, edited with a legal and historical introduction by Joseph H. Smith (USA: The William Nelson Cromwell Foundation at Harvard University Press, 1961). The book is a mix of transcriptions, analysis, and information about the various legal procedures used at the time, and includes cases regarding both slaves and free people of color.

A second book on the voluminous records left by John Pynchon is The Pynchon Papers, Volume 2: Selections from the Account Books of John Pynchon, 1651-1697, edited by Carl Bridenbaugh and Juliette Tomlinson (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts in association with the University of Virginia Press, 1985). The account books of John Pynchon and his father William Pynchon were microfilmed and a few repositories in western Massachusetts have copies, but they are not available for inter-library loan, making this book a more realistic way for most people to access the information in John Pynchon’s account books.

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I’m one of those historical researchers who reads the entire page of the newspaper when I find an article of interest, who reads the surrounding pages of a census enumeration, the entire county’s tax rolls, the whole parish register book. I find everything interesting! This week I was researching a particular historical story in newspapers and accidentally discovered this article:


Section 1 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

Like most Americans (I hope), I know about how widespread lynchings of African-Americans were in America. This headline startled me, though. As if lynchings weren’t bad enough, people were being burned at the stake by mobs, too – and then the events were being reported in what read to me as a rather chipper way (That scoundrel got what he deserved! Everyone helped! We had a grand time burning someone alive!) in newspapers around the country.

As someone who grew up in a Northern area where the Klu Klux Klan was still very active when I was a child, I have spent a fair amount of time as an adult researching white supremacy movements and violence in America in the antebellum, Civil War, and post-Civil-War periods, counterpoints to my interest in North American & British abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Reading historical summaries of the violence is horrific enough; here is a particularly chilling excerpt from David Grimsted’s excellent book American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998):

In the morning [in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855], the election went fairly quietly, though there was a knife fight between an Irishman and an American, both of whom eventually died, the Irishman in jail. In midafternoon things grew worse when Germans fired into some American election carriages, killing two men, and Know-Nothings [an anti-immigrant American political party] attacked and burned five or six German homes and a coffeehouse from which the shots apparently came. The Know-Nothing mayor dissuaded them from attacking the Catholic church. In the next few hours, random Germans were attacked, at least three fatally, and other homes and a brewery burned down. Irish in Ward Eight attacked three Americans, killing at least one, and Know-Nothings followed their retreat to a house, burned them out, and killed three. Another American death led to an attack on Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish homes, and some others, twenty in all, which were burnt. Patrick Quinn was shot and his body partly burned, and rioters beat victims fleeing the fire and, rumor declared, drove some Irish trying to escape back to a fiery death. The Know-Nothing police, inactive and maybe helpless in the shootings and burning of private property, protected the hated Louisville Times when a mob later threatened it. (pp. 233-34)

This came to be known as “Bloody Monday.” I’ve read some other accounts that claim that when the mob set buildings on fire, some of the people waited outside to shoot the people who tried to escape the fire; perhaps that is what Grimsted is referencing when he says “burned them out, and killed three.” Another Louisville mob would kill three slaves two years later.

In this climate of mob violence, it’s no wonder that people and events such as the Border Ruffians, the Bushwhackers & Jayhawkers, and the New York Draft Riots followed shortly before and during the American Civil War. And when the federal troops pulled out of the South when US President Rutherford B. Hayes (born 190 years ago yesterday) ended Reconstruction as part of a compromise to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, it’s no wonder that mob violence quickly escalated again.

Article, part 2

Section 2 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

But reading about the violence as recounted in a book like American Mobbing is completely different than reading about it first-hand in contemporary accounts. The subheadings in the second section (above), “HUNTING THE NEGRO” and “CAPTURED,” remind me starkly of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which turned every American into an accomplice to slavery, and which spurred many bounty hunters of escaped slaves to hunt in free states and some to enter Canada to hunt those that had escaped to full freedom there.

One of the most famous cases was centered on Oberlin, Ohio, the town of my alma mater, Oberlin College, which had attracted a lot of abolitionist teachers and staff who had left Ohio State University because they were unhappy with its slavery stance. Most commonly known today as “the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” there is now a lengthy digitized article about it, “When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town,” featuring much background information on tensions at the time. It is well worth a read for anyone even lightly interested in white American/African-American relations and/or the lead-up to the Civil War.

This specific article is noteworthy in part for what it does not say. The reporter writes, “Confronted with this evidence of his guilt, and charged with the crime, the scoundrel admitted that he had attempted . . .” As Grimsted notes in American Mobbing (p. 15), “Southern mobs always offered ‘proof’ of guilt which no one could doubt: victims were ‘whipped until they confessed’ . . .”

article on being burned at the stake, section 3

Section 3 (of 3) from an article on p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

No trial, not even a day’s wait: “Reed’s confession sealed his fate. It was decided that he should die at once. The majority insisted that he should be burned at the stake.” Even if Dick Reed was guilty (and I have no idea whether he was or not, and never will due to the way this proceeded), this is not the way justice should be carried out in an even marginally civilized society.

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