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[p. 118]

Slavery in Medford.

by Walter H. Cushing.
Slavery existed in Massachusetts almost from the first settlement of the colony, and was somewhat increased as a result of the Pequot war in 1637. The slaves in this instance were, of course, Indians. The chief source of African slaves, so far as their importation is concerned, was through trade with Barbadoes, a British island in the West Indies. Slaves purchased in Africa were sold chiefly in the West Indies and the Southern colonies; the balance came North.

The mainspring of the traffic was rum; and Brooks in his ‘History of Medford’ gives an extract from a captain's account-book showing balance between rum and slaves.

Very few whole cargoes, however, came to Massachusetts; and only a small number of ships from Boston engaged in the African trade. In 1703 a duty of £ 4 was imposed on every negro imported. Slaves were most numerous in Massachusetts about 1745; in 1763 the ratio of whites to blacks, the latter including many free negroes, was 45: 1.

When the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was drawn up in 1641, the question of slavery was treated as follows:

‘Art. 91. There shall never be any bond-slavery, villanage, or captivity amongst us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us.’

Commenting on this article, Palfrey, in his ‘History of New England,’ says: ‘Born of slave mother is not mentioned as cause of slavery; and in fact no person was ever born into legal slavery in Massachusetts.’

In the Constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, it is declared that ‘all men are born free and equal.’ [p. 119] This was the doom of slavery; and the interpretation of this clause in the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison settled finally the freedom of the negro in this State.

In proportion to its size Medford seems to have had a large number of slaves. Out of 114 towns returning the number of negro slaves Medford ranks 12th. In 1755 the number of slaves sixteen years old and upwards was 34, of whom 27 were males. There was no return from Charlestown; but the only other town in Middlesex county returning a larger number was Cambridge, which reported a total of 56.

One of the most valuable bits of statistics, however, relating to Medford is contained in the ‘Columbian Centinel’ of Aug. 17, 1822. It is entitled an ‘Account of the Houses, Families, Number of White People, Negroes & Indians, in the Province of Mass. Bay, taken in the year 1764 and 1765.’

Evidently a census had been undertaken and, as such inquiries were notoriously unpopular, it was either unfinished or at least not published. A copy of it came into the possession of the ‘Centinel’ and was published as an interesting source of local history. That portion relating to Medford is here given in full:

Houses.Families.Males under 16.Females under 16.Males over 16.Females over 16.Negroes.Total

The negroes thus constituted one-sixteenth of the population of the town in 1765. By way of comparison [p. 120] it may be added that in 1822 Medford had 1,474 inhabitants; in 57 years it had failed to double its population. As the ratio of whites to blacks in the colony at large was 45:1, it is seen that Medford had an unusually large negro population. So far as I have found records, a strong, able-bodied negro was worth, in 1700, about £ 18. In the inventory of Maj. Jonathan Wade's property appears the following asset:

5 negroes£ 97;

and elsewhere in his papers is the record: ‘2 negroes that died appraised @ £ 35.’ Still, it is impossible to generalize from such insufficient data. After the beginning of hostilities in 1775 Colonel Royall departed for Nova Scotia, and Dr. Tufts for a while managed his property. Under date of March 12, 1776, Royal writes: ‘Please to sell the following negroes; Stephen and George; they each cost £ 60 sterling; and I would take £ 50, or even £ 15, apiece for them.1 Hagar cost £ 35 sterling, but I will take £ 30 for her. I gave for Mira £ 35, but will take £ 25. If Mr. Benjamin Hall will give the £ 100 for her which he offered, he may have her, it being a good place. As to Betsey and her daughter Nancy, the former may tarry, or take her freedom, as she may choose; and Nancy you may put out to some good family by the year.’

The range of prices is here much higher, averaging about £ 40.

References to slavery in the Town-meeting Records are very few. The first is in the meeting of Aug. 18, 1718, when it was ‘Put to Vote whether every inhabitant of this Town Shall when they buy any Servant Male or Female Be obliged to acquaint and inform the Selectmen of Sd. Town for their approbation;’ the motion was carried. Inasmuch as a rather close [p. 121] scrutiny was made of all freemen who were newcomers into the town, it is not surprising that this was extended to include the servants.

Although the slaves were a small minority of the population, there was danger in allowing them to run at large; and, like other ‘property,’ if found straying abroad were, in a manner, ‘impounded,’ as the following vote of the town in 1734 discloses: ‘All Negroes Indians and Mulattoes—Servants That are found abroad without Leave and not on Their master's business shall be Taken up and whiped Ten Stripes on Their Naked back by any freeholder of This Town and be carryed To Their Respective masters and ye Said Master shall be obliged to Pay the Sum of Two shillings and Six pence in money To ye said Person That shall so Do.’

On the other hand, the spiritual welfare of the slaves was not neglected. Before 1740 special seats in the meeting-house were provided; and at a Town meeting in 1741 it was ‘voted that Jonathan Watson with the advice of the selectmen do make sum more convenience for the negroes to sit in the meeting house.’ The same meeting, it is to be noticed in passing, declined ‘to make the School house more comfortable for the winter.’

In 1745 the question of straying negroes again came up. The vote of this year differs from that of 1734 in three respects: (1) a specific part of the day is named; (2) the punishment is not inflicted by the person finding the slave; (3) the money fine is omitted. The vote is as follows: ‘Any person of said Town That shall Se any Negro Servant belonging to Said Town from home after Nine of the Clock at night and if said Servant Cannot satisfy the person That meets or finds him from home The Negros name shall be returned to the Justyce the next morning and desire the Justyce to Send for the Said Negros master and order ye Negro to be whiped in the market place not exceeding Ten [p. 122] stripes unless the Said master Give Satisfaction.’ The phrase ‘give satisfaction’ may mean a money compensation or a satisfactory explanation; the latter I am inclined to regard as the intended meaning. Brooks says, ‘they [i.e., the slaves] were treated much after the manner of children.’ The statement is ambiguous. Did this law remind him of a curfew regulation?

The records of vital statistics contain frequent notices of slaves. Of these the most numerous are the deaths; the fewest are the marriages. As the master's name is given in many cases, these records also throw light on the question of slave-holders in Medford. About 40 deaths are recorded between 1745 and 1780. It is rather curious that three of Colonel Royall's slaves died within a year, at the outbreak of the Revolution. Perhaps they were heartbroken at his departure. A few entries are given here by way of illustration:

Peter, Son of Worcester & Flora, Negroes of Rev. Mr. Turell and Stephen Hall, Esq., Dyed Jan. 9, 1762.

Plato, a Negro Servant of Hon. Isaac Royall Esq., drowned June 8, 1768.

London, A Negro Man of the Widow Mary Bradshaw's Died Oct. 15, 1760.

Caesar, Negro Servant of Ebenezar Brooks of Medford and Zipporah negro Servant of Nathl Brown of Charlestown, married June 23, 1757.

As would be inferred, the number of slave owners was not large, and they were the leading men of the town: the Halls, Brookses and Willises, Dr. Simon Tufts, Rev. Mr. Turrell, and, above all, Col. Isaac Royall. This first Royall brought with him from Antigua a number of slaves and in 1737 petitioned that the duty on them be abated, but no further action than to lay it on the table was taken. He probably had at least fifteen at a time, and the ‘slave-quarters,’ so-called, have become an object of considerable historical interest. The entire number of persons holding slaves in the last half of the 18th century probably did not [p. 123] exceed thirty, the town records giving, indirectly, the names of twenty.2 Not that our ancestors believed it wrong; the names of Rev. Mr. Turrell and Deacon Benj. Willis would refute that. But economically it was unprofitable, and its ultimate extinction was doubtless the expectation of all who gave the subject any thought.

I have referred to Deacon Benj. Willis as a slaveholder. The following extract from his will may show the attitude of many masters towards those whom they held in service:

I Benj. Willis . . . for and in consideration of good will which I do bear toward my Negro Woman Cloe of said Medford . . . have given and Granted . . . unto the said Cloe Imediately after my Decease Sundry of my household goods, Namely, as followeth— Viz. my Heifer comeing two years Old. . . . also the Bedstead which she lays on and the little Bed which she says she Bought: also some Pewter (Viz.) two Pewter dishes & four Pewter Plates, one pint and one half pint Pewter Porringer, my smallest Iron Pottage Pot, two Iron Skillets, one pair of Andirons my Tin Still, the Spining wheel and—four chairs. [some chamber furniture] also I do give the said Cloe her Time and Set her Free Immediately after my Decease.

Benj. Willis October 5, 1767.

And the administrator of the estate of Benj. Willis credits himself:

by pasturing the deceased's negro woman's heifer, £ 4, 10s. by sundry clothes for negro man Prince, £35.

[p. 124]

Similar kind treatment is mentioned by Miss Wild in her article on ‘Medford in the Revolution’ in the case of Zachariah Pool, who left money in his will for the care of his slave, Scipio.

I have set forth, with little comment, the few brief facts relating to slavery in our town. Perhaps, on the whole, it is a matter of congratulation that the facts are so meagre. ‘Happy is the people whose annals are uninteresting!’

1 George had died the day before this letter was written.

2 Partial list of slaveholders: Capt. Caleb Brooks, Ebenezer Brooks, Samuel Brooks, Capt. Thomas Brooks,—Bishop,—Brown, Mary Bradshaw, Andrew Hall, Jonathan Hall, Jr., Stephen Hall, Benj. Hall, Hugh Floyd, Jacob Polly, Zachariah Pool, Isaac Royall, Dr. Simon Tufts, Rev. Mr. Turrell, Stephen Willis, Deacon Benj. Willis, Francis Whitmore.

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