The Treatment of Slaves
New England had comparatively small numbers of slaves and they most often were owned by ministers, physicians, and merchant elites. Slaves primarily worked in their owners’ households or homesteads, and in many cases were integrated into family life, sharing quarters, meals, meetinghouse visits, and even entertainments such as musical revues, picnics, and holiday parties. Slaves living with their owners and associating with the owner’s family activities is a different pattern than occurred in plantation slavery in the southern colonies and the West Indies.1https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=58.
In New England slaves typically ate what their masters provided from their own fare, while plantation slaves were fed collectively on breadstuffs, corn meal, and salted fish. Slaves in poor health, however, who were unable to work, were everywhere considered a burden. In Massachusetts, towns passed legislation to avoid fiscal responsibility for the unemployed, the elderly, and the infirm, both slave and free. It was in an owner’s interest to sell a sick slave for any price, and to give old slaves their freedom, for by definition “servants for life” ultimately became an unwanted responsibility to their owners.
Manumission [being freed from slavery] in many cases thus placed freed men and women at risk, but some owners did take care of their “burdens”. For example, when Capt. Thomas Saunders of Gloucester—a wealthy privateer and master of the sloop Massachusetts during the French and Indian War—died in 1774, his estate was charged for boarding and clothing his slave Sambo for 208 weeks, when the old slave presumably passed away.2Probate Record: Saunders, Thomas (Capt.), Case #24781, April 3, 1774. Essex County, MA, Probate File Papers, 1638-1881, www.americanancestors.org.
Massachusetts towns, too, often provided for freed slaves who fell on hard times. Between 1797 and 1801 the “Settled Accounts of the Selectmen” of Gloucester record that when ex-slave Bacchus fell ill he was supplied with food—rice, sugar, pork, tea and coffee—as well as blankets, shoes, candles and medicine. When freedman Prince died, Gloucester furnished a shroud and a coffin and paid to dig his grave. The town paid Cornelius’s rent for two years, and when a young boy died the town tolled the bell for his soul.3Selectmen’s Settled Accounts, CCBV3 Box 44A & Overseers of the Poor Settled Accounts, CCBV3 Boxes 54A, B, C. City of Gloucester, MA, Archives.
The graves of families of freed slaves, such as members of the Freeman family who lived at 302 Essex Ave. (Wellspring House) may be found in Bray Cemetery in West Gloucester and in Clark Cemetery (behind the First Parish Burial Ground on Centennial Ave.).4https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Community/Bray-Cemetery-Gloucester-MA-246692009006569/.
Manumission and the Status of Free Blacks
In New England, aside from suing for freedom in the courts, slaves were often granted manumission for a variety of reasons, both humanitarian and economic.5Documented freedom suits in Essex County and elsewhere in Massachusetts included Adam v. Saffin (1703); Pricilla v. Nathan Simmons (1722); James v. Burnell (1735) (cited in Greene, The Negro, 295–296); Caesar (Mayhow) v. Goddard (1737) SJC 44243; Peter, deposition (1745) SJC 60349; Pompey v. Faneuil (1753) SJC 69970; Prince v. Bull (1763) SJC 84076; William Benson v. Joseph Collins (1764) SJC 147284; Slew v. Whipple (1765) SJC 131426; Oliver v. Sale (1765); Newport v. Billing (1768) SJC 157509; Margaret (Peg) v. William Muzzy (1770) SJC 147830; James v. Richard Lechmere (1769) SJC 147752; Swain v. Folger (1769) SJC 102427; Kate v. Moody Bridges (1769); Jude v. Daniel Hale (1769) (Newbury Court Records); (Slave) v. Stockbridge (1770) (Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 5th Series, 3 (1877): 392); Caesar v. Watson (1771) SJC 142381; Caesar v. Taylor (1772) SJC 132190; Caesar v. Greenleaf (1773) (Essex County Court of Common Pleas Court Records, 1766-80, vol. 5, p. 8); Bristol v. John Osgood (1773) (Salem Court Records); (Slave) v. Caleb Dodge (1774) (cited in Coffin, A Sketch, 241); Juno v. David Larcom (1774) (Salem Court Records); Cato v. Conant (1777) SJC 92584; Timon v. Peter Osgood, Jr. (1777) (Newbury Court Records); Prince v. Thomas Osgood(1778) (Salem Court Records); Brom and Bett v. John Ashley (1781) SJC 159966; Cloe Hale v. Nathaniel Hale (1782) (Newbury Court Records); Walker v. Jennison (1781) SJC 153101; Scipio Freeman v. Josiah Ober (1783) (Salem Court Records). Some of these cases are described in Slavery in Essex County (Essex Institute); Greene (1942), The Negro in Colonial New England; and Blanck (2007) The Legal Emancipations of Leander and Caesar: Manumission and the Law in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts, Slavery & Abolition 28 (2): 235-254. Slaves could win manumission by entering into formal contracts with their masters to serve them for a period of years in return for their eventual freedom, a form of indenture. For example, in 1779 Scipio Dalton of Gloucester entered into an indenture contract with his owner, Isaac Smith, a Boston merchant who in 1765 had purchased the Babson-Alling House at 245 Washington St. in Gloucester.6Add a Tooltip Text The contract stipulated that Dalton would be manumitted on June 20, 1781, “if he performs his service faithfully and cheerfully in the intervening two years.”7http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?old=1&item_id=728 Note that the agreement includes an addendum stipulating that Scipio Dalton must attempt to repay Smith or his heirs for any expenditures if they are forced by law to care for him in sickness or other infirmity after he is set free. This mitigating clause points to an underlying economic motive for the practice of manumission: to avoid liability for the health and welfare of ex-slaves. Concern about liability was such that a 1703 law required that no slave could be manumitted without the owner posting a £50 bond with the municipal government. The bond would ensure that a town could afford to feed, clothe, and shelter a former slave who became ill or incapacitated.8Greene, Lorenzo Johnston, 1942, The Negro in Colonial New England 1620-1776: 138.
In the Commonwealth this bond law was in effect for only about a year, but the maintenance and care of elderly, infirm, and incapacitated former slaves remained a primary concern. Freeing such a slave was in the owner’s economic interest. The slave Robin, for example, was sold in 1747 by Dr. William Clark (a Harvard-educated physician) of Gloucester to Ebenezer Griggs of Dudley for five shillings (less than a dollar in today’s money). The bill of sale was endorsed as an indemnification that formally released Dr. Clark from fiscal responsibility for Robin’s care. The papers also contain Dr. Clark’s agreement with Ebenezer Griggs to take, keep, and maintain his “infirm Negro man Robin.”9Bower, Dolbeare Family Papers, Collections Relevant to African American History, Massachusetts Historical Society: http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0265; also https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?old=1&ft=End+of+Slavery&from=%2Fendofslavery%2Findex.php%3Fid%3D50&item_id=739.
Those who were liberated from slavery, most of whom have now passed away, having been educated in families where they had not been used to provide for themselves in youth, they knew not how to do it in age. Having been accustomed to a plentiful and even luxurious mode of living in the houses of their masters, they were uncomfortable in their new situation. They suffered, by the meanness of their lodging, and the insufficiency of their clothing, together with the severity of our winters, many infirmities and diseases. Those who served in families of the whites on wages, if steady and prudent, were the best fed, the best clad, and the most healthy; but many of those who had families of their own to support were oppressed with poverty and its attendant miseries.11Waters, Thomas Franklin, 1905, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, pp. 24-25.
The Annisquam Village Church, for example had a separate entrance for slaves: “A door on the north for the slaves, one on the western side with the pulpit, with its sounding board. On the eastern side was the gallery with two flights of stairs, one leading to the choir, the other to the slaves and paupers quarters.”
Eleven baptisms of Negro slaves were recorded in the Annisquam Village Church prior to 1780.13Quoted from an unpublished account of Charlotte Lane of Annisquam (1833-1925) in the possession of the Annisquam Historical Society, referenced in their Spring 2016 Journal (“Slavery in Annisquam” by David McAveeney.) A sounding board was a screen placed behind a pulpit to reflect forward and thus amplify the speaker’s voice.
Ipswich slaves married and their children seem to have grown up in the families of which they were members. They were assigned seats in the meeting house, were allowed to become communicants and enjoy all the privileges of church members. Their children were baptized. They were cared for in old age and were given Christian burial by those whom they had served. But they were only chattels. If the whim of the owner decreed, they were sold, and families were scattered. Eventually, they died or drifted away from the town, after they had received their freedom.14Waters, 1905: https://archive.org/details/ipswichinmassach00water/page/n6.
Fortune had been baptized in 1749 in Second Parish, West Gloucester, but nothing is known of him before or after that event.24Second Parish Meeting House was taken down in 1846; it was located near where Bray Street crosses Tompson Street, and the old cemetery is still there. The present-day West Parish Trinitarian Congregational Church United Church of Christ is at 488 Essex Ave. He may have been Fortune Freeman, who fought in the Revolutionary War. Whoever he was, this writ was proof of his free status and would have been invaluable to him.
Both Cato and Scipio had purchased land between 1806 and 1808 and were living in Boston when they sold their land to members of the Knowlton family in 1819.28Scipio Dalton to Jonathan Knowlton, Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds Book 219, p. 251 & Robert Freeman to James Knowlton, Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds Book 221, p. 125: www.salemdeeds.com.