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.1

Bray Cemetery in West Gloucester

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,
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.).4

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.”7 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:; also

As desirable as the idea of freedom was, manumission was not universally desired by slaves because of issues of economic security. For example, a family of slaves belonging to the Choates of Ipswich—Ned and Sabina and their seven children—rejected an offer of manumission in 1845 in their own perceived interests. “…Mr. Francis Choate gave them their freedom if they wished to take it, otherwise they were to be supported. They chose to remain with the family, and accordingly were cared for as long as they lived.”10Jameson, E. O., 1896, The Choates in America: According to early local historian Thomas Waters, whose interpretation reflects turn-of-the-twentieth century attitudes:

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.

In addition to introducing new challenges to self-sufficiency and security, manumission did not add much to civil liberties. In Massachusetts, even as slaves individuals had rights recognized in the courts. They could hold and dispose of some property, sign contracts, and keep wages for work done on their own time. They were also entitled to sue in court and receive trial by jury, legal counsel, and some legal protection. Although they were taxed as property of their owners, slaves were regarded legally as persons and as church members, although they were given segregated seating in the churches of which they were members.12
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.

Babson-Alling House at Grant Circle
Source: Gloucester Daily Times
According to Thomas Waters:

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:

Slaves could be manumitted as a reward for faithful service or on the authority of instructions in the last wills and testaments of their owners.15 For example, Deacon Matthew Whipple of Ipswich wrote in his will, “in Consideration that my Servant Plato has been a faithful Servant that after my Death and my Wife’s Death he shall be free.”16Felt, Joseph B., 1834, History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton:, p. 289. The 1768 will of widow Mary Gibbs, owner of property in Harbor Cove, Gloucester, stipulated that £25 was to go to any of her relatives willing to take her “negro servant named Sam, where he is willing to go”. Her “negro maidservant Flora” was to be set free with 13 shillings, four pence, plus her clothes, bed and bedding, while her “negro girl Chloe” was to live with her nephew Thomas Saunders III until she was 25 years of age and then was to be freed.17Probate Record: Gibbs, Mary, Case #10812, Feb. 27, 1769. Essex County, MA, Probate File Papers, 1638-1881:
Slaves could also be manumitted by purchasing their own freedom. In 1768, for example, Capt. Byles of Gloucester offered his slave Robin his freedom for the purchase price of £85 pounds. Robin duly purchased his freedom, and Capt. Byles evidently provided him with a place to live, for on March 1st of the following year he noted that as a free man Robin was to pay him rent at a rate of £24 a year.18Account Book of Capt. Charles Byles, 1751-1778. Cape Ann Museum Archives. Other examples of receipts in which slaves purchased their freedom are in Massachusetts Historical Society archives and other repositories of African American History.19
Finally, during the Revolutionary War period (1775-1783), manumission was granted in exchange for military service, by both the British and the Americans, often with some reimbursement to the slave owner in the form of acres of land. Around 5,000 blacks in the North fought for the Patriots, with many more fighting for the British loyalists. Loyalists often broke the promise of manumission, however, as they re-enslaved many blacks after Independence.20 Freedom was also offered for participation in the War of 1812.
Manumitted individuals held the status of freedmen. In New England black freedmen and freedwomen occupied an intermediate and inferior status, however, between that of a white person and an indentured servant. Legally, their condition did not differ much from slaves and they were typically counted in censuses along with Indians and African slaves. They were not allowed to serve on juries or to vote in elections and their children could not attend public schools. Aside from rare apprenticeships in industries, ex-slaves found work only in domestic service, manual labor, and maritime trades such as rope maker, anchor smith, or ships’ carpenter. Many became seamen despite fears of being kidnapped on the waterfront or at sea and re-enslaved.21 They also worked as housewrights, shipwrights, sailmakers, printers, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, blacksmiths, stone masons, bakers, weavers, and goldsmiths.22
Proof of manumission was paramount, a kind of passport to safety, and such proof was often provided in a special document certifying that the carrier was a freed man. The Cape Ann Museum has in its collection a portion of such a writ, signed and dated 1777, in which Nathaniel Haskell of Gloucester certifies that his former slave Fortune is a freed man. “I remised released and set free this negro whose name is Fortune.”23Release of slave Fortune, Nathaniel Haskell, October 25, 1777, Box P15A File 10. Cape Ann Museum Archives.
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.
Even with a writ, with freedom came restricted economic opportunities and new personal risks. Freedmen nevertheless often became seamen, tradesmen, or landowners themselves, and some achieved a measure of independence, prosperity, and prominence.25 For example, in the early 1800s several free African Americans, the sons and grandsons of slaves, owned land on Cape Ann, most notably land overlooking Rafe’s Chasm and Norman’s Woe in Magnolia.26Sale of land at Kettle Cove, Robert Freeman to Cato Freeman, 1808. Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds Book 207, p. 203. Also: Sale of land on Western Ave., Gloucester, Hannah Honners to Scipio Dalton, 1806. Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds Book 178, p. 234. Among them were Cato Freeman, probably a grandson of Robin Freeman, and Scipio Dalton of the Gloucester Dalton family, (Exact relationship of Scipio to Thomas Sr. and Thomas Jr. is not known) who had been briefly indentured to Isaac Smith, the wealthy Boston merchant who had purchased the Babson-Alling house from William Allen in 1765.27Purchase of Babson/Alling house by Isaac Smith, Aug. 2, 1765. Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds, Book 113, p. 150:
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:
Cato was a seaman and Scipio a laborer and both were involved in the founding of the African Humane Society in Boston, which built the African Meeting House in 1808,29African Meeting House: provided aid to widows, and in 1835 helped to establish the Abiel Smith School for African American children at 46 Joy Street in Boston adjacent to the African Meeting House.30Hooton, James Oliver and Lois E., 2004, Slavery and the Making of America, p. 89.
Freed slaves sometimes acquired property by other means. For example, Mary Ellery Stevens of Gloucester stipulated that her slave Pompey Cummings was to be granted his freedom after her death and that he be given a place to live. Her son William Stevens in 1761 duly bought a piece of property on Governor’s Hill (today Beacon Hill in Gloucester) from Samuel Tarbox for £80 but sold it to Pompey as a freed man the following year for the same amount. Pompey, who became a mariner, subsequently married Rosanna Pernam of Ipswich and had four children, who inherited his house and land on Governor’s Hill.Samuel Tarbox to William Stevens, Sep. 12, 1761 and William Stevens to Pompey Cummins, Aug. 15, 1762, Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds Book 155, p. 69.; Vital Records of Ipswich, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, Vol. II (Marriages and Deaths), Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1910; Probate Record: Cummins, Pompey, Case #6729, July 28, 1783. Essex County, MA, Probate File Papers, 1638-1881,

The Role of Free Blacks in the Anti-Slavery Movement

As freedmen and property owners many former slaves and descendants of slaves became active in the anti-slavery movement. As early as 1765, public opinion in New England began to strongly oppose slavery, and slaves were successfully demanding their freedom in the courts under Massachusetts laws. Free blacks worked to organize their communities to win freedom for slaves elsewhere and to bring the benefits of full citizenship to all African Americans. They built community associations that provided mutual support and a foundation for political action in the abolition movement.32
Free blacks and escaped slaves who had prominent roles in the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and nationally included Frederick Douglass, who visited Cape Ann, Sojourner Truth, David Walker,33The David Walker Memorial Project: Read his 1829 work, Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World at Charles Lenox Remond, William Wells Brown, and others. They became spokespersons for the anti-slavery movement, authors, and recruiters to abolitionist causes, and were members or speakers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. African Americans were united against slavery but divided on the issue of repatriation. Some supported the American Colonization Society’s goal of returning former slaves to Africa, an initiative supported by the free black Paul Cuffee and white educator Horace Mann. Others, such as Rev. Hosea Easton of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, were opposed. The creation of the West African country of Liberia in 1822 through the settlement there of 5,000 recaptured and liberated slaves was a consequence of the Colonization movement.34
Locally, Thomas Dalton [1794-1884], born free in Gloucester, became a wealthy entrepreneur and a prominent abolitionist in Boston.35African Americans in Antebellum Boston: He was the son of Thomas Dalton and Polly Freeman Dalton, also born free, who were married in Gloucester. Polly was the daughter of Cato Freeman of Beverly. The younger Thomas Dalton was married to Patience Young until her death in 1832 and then to Lucy Lew Francis between 1834 and her death in 1865. Both women were active lifelong participants with him in the anti-slavery movement. Thomas Dalton worked alongside Scipio Dalton (his peer and relation) and others to establish the African Humane Society,361819 Chap. 0068 An Act to Incorporate the African Humane Society develop mutual aid networks in black communities, protect black widows and orphans, provide economic and educational opportunities for African Americans, participate in anti-slavery celebrations and demonstrations, and even to integrate Boston schools.37Jacobs, Donald M., 1993, Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston (Indiana UniversitIy Press)
In 1825 Dalton joined the Freemasonry Lodge established by Prince Hall in Boston for African Americans and was twice elected Grand Master. Then in 1826 Thomas Dalton co-founded the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), the first such association in the United States, and became its president.38Massachusetts General Colored Association: Other black freemen involved in the association who became active abolitionists included William G. Nell, James G. Barbadoes, Coffin Pitts, John E. Scarlett, Hosea and Joshua Easton, Thomas Cole, Frederick Brumley, Walker Lewis, and John T. Hilton.39Cromwell, Adelaide M., 1994, Other Brahmins, Boston Black Upper Class (University of Arkansas Press), p. 39.
Dalton’s colleagues in the anti-slavery movement included his family, friends, neighbors, and business associates. For example, on Brattle Street in Boston, where Government Center is today and where Thomas Dalton owned and operated a clothing store, abolitionists Coffin Pitts, John P. Coburn, and Joshua Bowen Smith also had clothing stores or catering businesses.40 Coburn’s house was a station on the Underground Railroad. The Brattle Street businessmen were also members or sympathizers of the Boston Vigilance Committee, founded in 1841 to help escaped slaves, represent them in court, and protect them from being kidnapped and returned to slavery in the South.41Boston’s Reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law: Another co-founder of the Boston Vigilance Committee was William Cooper Nell, who also campaigned for equal rights for black schoolchildren in Boston.
In 1833 the MGCA was incorporated into the New England Anti-Slavery Society founded by the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator.42New England Anti-Slavery Society: Garrison was born in Newburyport and knew the noted abolitionist Grimké sisters of Newburyport. It appears that anti-slavery families, both black and white, were as interrelated and interconnected as the families of the slave owners. In 1844, the MGCA published Light and Truth by Robert Benjamin Lewis, the first “history of the colored race” written by an African American.43Lewis, Robert Benjamin. Light And Truth; Collected From The Bible And Ancient And Modern History, Containing The Universal History Of The Colored And The Indian Race, From The Creation Of The World To The Present Time. This book begins with pre-historic Ethiopians and attempts to incorporate Biblical history, Greco-Roman civilization, and Native American history into a history of “colored people”. The New England Anti-Slavery Society subsequently expanded into the American Anti-Slavery Society and many of its members were also active in the Temperance and Women’s Suffrage movements. Journalists in these causes included Elizur Wright Jr., editor of The Massachusetts Abolitionist, and others.44Lampe, Gregory P., 2012, Freedom’s Voice, 1818-1845, MSU Press.
Accounts written by free blacks about their experiences as slaves or fugitives, as well as dramatic fiction by white abolitionists, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, greatly fueled anti-slavery sentiment and contributed to the spread of abolitionism. One such account, Narrative of the Life and Travels…, published in 1853, was written by Nancy Gardner Prince about her experiences as a free black in Gloucester and about her family members both slave and free. She began by describing family origins and how her stepfather risked drowning to find sanctuary in a free state:

Excerpt from Nancy Gardner Prince’s Account:

I was born in Newburyport, September the 15th, 1799. My mother was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts — thedaughter of Tobias Worn-toh, or Backus, so called. He was stolen from Africa, when a lad, and was a slave of Captain Winthrop Sargent; but, although a slave, he fought for liberty. He was in the Revolutionary army, and at the battle of Bunker Hill. He often used to tell us, when little children, the evils of Slavery, and how he was stolen from his native land. My grandmother was an Indian of this country ; she became a captive to the English, or their descendants. She served as a domestic in the Parsons family. My father, Thomas Gardner, was born in Nantucket ; his parents were of African descent. He died in Newburyport, when I was three months old. My mother was thus a second time left a widow, with her two children, and she returned to Gloucester to her father. My mother married her third husband, by whom she had six children. My stepfather was stolen from Africa, and while the vessel was at anchor in one of our Eastern ports, he succeeded in making hisescape from his captors, by swimming ashore. I have often heard him tell the tale.