View the livestream here on bostonmiddlepassage.org
The dedication of Boston’s Middle Passage Port Marker will take place on Sunday
August 22, 2021 August 29, 2021 from 2:00 to 3:00pm on the east end of Long Wharf.
The ceremony will feature a land acknowledgement by Elizabeth Solomon, member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag and Assistant Director of Academic Affairs and Fellowship Programs at Harvard’s School for Public Health, as well as traditional balafon performance by Balla Kouyaté, poetry, and the reading of names of enslaved members of Boston’s oldest churches.
Brief remarks will be delivered by:
- L’Merchie Frazier, Director of Education & Interpretation at the Museum of African American History (MAAH)
- Dr. Vivian R. Johnson, Professor Emerita of Education at Boston University
- Leon Wilson, President & CEO of the Museum of African American History (MAAH)
- Michael Creasey, Superintendent of the National Parks of Boston
- The Honorable Byron Rushing, fmr. Massachusetts State Representative (‘83-’18)
The Middle Passage and the U.S. Navy in the Nineteenth Century
by Cameron Boutin and Jordan Barnes
In this essay, Boutin and Barnes examine the ambivalent stance taken by the U.S. following the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, despite the continuation of enslaved labor within the country. They compare the mixed enforcement record of the U.S. Navy to that of Britain’s in terms of finding and capturing ships illegally engaged in transported captured African people across the Middle Passage.
Included in this discussion is the resistance of those on the ships to their forced migration, with the Amistad serving as a key example. Although the ship was seized near Long Island, New York, the ship docked in Connecticut (where the subsequent trial took place), in part because slavery was still legal in that state and Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, who had captured the ship, hope to claim the human cargo as his property under maritime salvage laws. For more on the Amistad, see our Resources page.
The Horror Made Illegal:
Laws put a legal and theoretical end to certain practices – such as the international trade in enslaved Africans, who for several centuries were subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. The United States abolished the international slave trade in 1808 and Great Britain had abolished it in 1807. Yet these laws abolishing the international slave trade were only as good as their enforcement by Great Britain and the United States, which was often sporadic, and the illicit nature combined with rising profits made conditions on slave ships even more wretched and fatal.
The process of abolishing, enforcing, and prosecuting the international slave trade after 1807 and 1808 was quite uneven, and for the decades between the abolition of the international slave trade and the abolition of slavery itself, Africans continued to endure the Middle Passage between Africa and the United States. Both the United States and Britain committed to ending the slave trade, but their unique situations led to vastly different results. In the U.S., the enforcement of the acts that banned the slave trade and condemned it as an act of piracy fell to the navy, which faced political and practical problems that prevented it from committing fully to the prosecution of the trade and the freeing of enslaved Africans.
Between 1807 and 1820, the Congress passed several acts in an attempt to find a legal solution that discouraged the illegal trade and provided effective enforcement. In March of 1807, Congress passed a law to close the slave trade, setting the next nine months as the period for traders to close their operations. The established penalties affected the various elements of the slave trade. Slavers, suppliers, and buyers all faced fines up to $10,000 and jail time as well as the forfeiture of slaves and ships. In 1818, a new statute was passed that lowered fines to $5,000 and imprisonment to no more than seven years. This alteration did not reflect new views of the trade as less heinous but rather brought the punishments into the typical range of the era. In the most influential legislation since 1807, Congress passed new laws in 1819 that condemned the enslavement of people through its provisions for returning enslaved people to Africa and setting rewards for rescues. This stands in contrast to earlier laws that focused merely on the suppression of an illegal trade. To facilitate these new goals, the law authorized the President to send “armed vessels of the United States, to be employed to cruise on any of the coasts of the United States … or the coast of Africa.” This new intent behind prosecution of illegal slave trading became more explicit when slavery was made an act of piracy, the worst crime on the sea, by Congress in 1820.1)
These pieces of legislation required constant enforcement on the seas. Trade in slaves was lucrative prior to the abolition and became more so once the United States officially shut it down. The United States deployed the African Slave Trade Patrol Squadron to the West Coast of Africa in 1819. Its presence for the next two decades was sporadic, however, due to rotations and the small number of ships in the U.S. Navy.2)
The Squadron failed to make any major captures during this time. This lack of captured slave ships, however, was not an accurate representation of the amount of illegal trade being conducted. In contrast, the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was quite successful during this period. In 1828-1829, the HMS Black Joke successfully took eleven slave ships, a fraction of the overall accomplishments of the Royal Navy. Further proof of the endurance of the Middle Passage lies in accounts of ships taken over by slaves themselves. Most famously, the slaves on board the Cuban schooner Amistad seized the ship on July 1, 1839, and ordered the captain and crew to sail the ship back to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the U.S. brig Washington apprehended the Amistad off of Long Island, New York. On one level the Amistad trial documents testified to the illegality of the international slave trade. A court summary of the enslaved Africans’ experiences, for example, emphasized the “unlawfullness” of their capture and sale:
That on or about the 15th day of April, 1839, they were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly, and wrongfully, by certain persons to them unknown, who were there unlawfully and piratically engaged in the slave trade between the coast of Africa and the island of Cuba, contrary to the will of these respondents, unlawfully, and under circumstances of great cruelty, transported to the island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for that purpose.3)
In terms of enforcement, however, the capture, sale, and trafficking of African people was not as illegal as the court summary insisted. The very fact of the trial, and the presence of the captive Africans who spoke there, revealed that the Middle Passage had not ended. The summary’s repeated insistence of the “unlawfulness” of each step in the captives enslavement, sounded hollow against the very evidence of slave trading that it provided.
The United States Navy was entirely ineffective at stopping ships like the Amistad, the slave trade, and the Middle Passage until 1842 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed. Previously, the British Royal Navy stopped U.S. ships suspected of carrying slaves as part of its efforts to suppress the slave trade. This was a major point of contention with the U.S. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the issue by establishing a much more permanent American naval contingent off the coast of Africa to assist in the enforcement of the abolition of the international slave trade.4)
After years of not actively being involved in combating the international slave trade, and thus allowing thousands of slaves to suffer during the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the United States began to once again suppress the illegal commerce in the 1840s. Despite the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the U.S.’s renewed commitment to maintain a naval patrol near the coast of Africa, issues relating to the Navy’s leadership contributed to the Middle Passage’s continued existence. Matthew Perry, the commander of the African patrol, was a native of Rhode Island and connected to families with histories of slaveholding. Since his home state’s prosperity had been partly built on the commerce in slaves, Perry was inclined to turn a blind eye to the illegal trade. Perry was almost as keen to prevent the British from inspecting ships with United States flags as he was to abolish the trade.5)In a letter sent in September, 1843, Perry wrote: “I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged in several years.” 6)An order dispatched to Perry’s eventual successor, Admiral Charles Skinner, further reflects that the Navy’s commanders were more concerned about protecting international commerce than saving Africans from the horrors of slavery by ending the illegal trade. Skinner was told that “the rights of our citizens engaged in lawful commerce are under the protection of our flag. And it is the chief purpose, as well as the chief duty of our naval power, to see that those rights are not improperly abridged.”7)
Even though the leaders of the U.S. Navy were not wholeheartedly dedicated to stopping the slave trade, the American ships patrolling the African coast began to show some effectiveness in their suppression efforts and several vessels transporting slaves were captured. One notable slaver that was seized was the Spitfire, a New Orleans vessel that was captured on the Pongo River in Guinea in March, 1845 by the naval warship Truxton. The Spitfire may have only been a relatively small craft, but it crammed 346 slaves in its hold and intended to sell them in Cuba. Henry Bruce, the commander of the Truxton, reported that “between [the Spitfire’s] decks, where the slaves were packed, there was not room enough for a man to sit, unless inclining his head forward; their food was half a pint of rice per day, with one pint of water. No one can imagine the sufferings of slaves on their passage across, unless the conveyances in which they are taken are examined.” 8)Bruce’s report clearly demonstrates that the Middle Passage was as nightmarish an experience in the nineteenth century as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Confined to extremely tight quarters in the dark depths of a ship and given little food or water would have inflicted severe and potentially irrevocable physical, emotional, and psychological harm on the enslaved men and women.
The U.S. Navy’s success in capturing the Spitfire and several other slaver ships, such as the Pons, which was carrying 896 slaves when it was seized in 1845, led to the African naval patrol being strengthened in order to further increase its proficiency. However, the fact that the American warships needed to continue to hunt down and capture slaving vessels signified the persistence of the illegal slave trade. The Navy’s patrol ships did not only target vessels that were specifically carrying enslaved people at that time. The U.S. naval forces seized ships that contained evidence of regular slave trading activities, including paperwork indicating involvement in the illegal commerce or the actual physical restraints and other items employed to confine slaves. One type of document that both signified a vessel’s ties with slave trading and the continued existence of the Middle Passage was the ship manifest which recorded detailed lists of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic, such as the manifest from a craft bound for Mobile, Alabama in 1844.
An example of the Navy capturing vessels carrying evidence indicating slave trading is the Martha, a large ship from New York that was seized by the naval vessel Perry in June 1850 near Ambriz, Angola. The Martha’s captain attempted to escape the Navy’s justice by throwing his desk containing documents on the ship’s slaving transactions overboard, but it was soon recovered and the naval officers discovered other evidence of slaving practices. The captain of the Martha ultimately “admitted that, had it not been for the interruption, he would have taken on board 1,800 slaves that night.” 9)The capture of the Martha was later depicted in an illustration because it was such a major success for the African naval patrol and saved a large number of people from being subjected to a life of slavery.
Navy ships continued to patrol the African coastline throughout the 1850s, but nevertheless the illegal slave traffic could not be completely suppressed and Africans still were forced to endure the Middle Passage. Even when slavers were captured by the naval patrol, not all of the enslaved people managed to survive and enjoy a life of freedom. For example, the naval ship Saratoga boarded the Nightingale of Boston at St. Thomas in January 1961 and found that she had 961 slaves on board and was expecting more. 10)The Saratoga seized the slaver ship and freed the slaves, but by the time that the liberated people were transported to Liberia, 160 of them had died from fever. The Middle Passage claimed the lives of Africans in both directions of the route, both from Africa to the Americas and from the Americas to Africa. Besides those liberated slaves who died at sea, others must have suffered from the same sickness. Additionally, the entire shipload of former slaves found themselves delivered to a region of Africa that was not necessarily anywhere near their original home, providing them with new hardships to face.
The outbreak of the American Civil War later in 1861 ended the operations of the African naval slave patrol, since essentially all of the Navy’s ships were utilized to blockade the Confederacy. In the approximately 40 years that the Navy patrolled the waters west of Africa, they captured more than 100 suspected slavers. 11)However, compared to the efforts of the British, whose West Africa Squadron was always much larger than the American contingent and captured hundreds of slavers, the American contribution to ending the illegal slave trade was minimal. Even those men who were arrested for engaging in slaving were rarely convicted or punished in any significant way. Rather than focusing on suppressing the illegal traffic, the U.S. was more concerned with using its naval forces in tasks such as protecting international commerce and participating in military conflicts. In an era in which the international trafficking of slaves was supposed to have been eradicated, tens of thousands of Africans were subjected to the harsh and life-threatening conditions of the Middle Passage, in no small part due to American policies and practices.
“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 9 May 2014.( Accessed 24 July 2015.)
“Anti-slavery Operations of the US Navy Images from Publications in the Navy Department Library.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 23 April 2015. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)
Carozza, Davide. “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University. 19 April 2014. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)
Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.
Foote, Andrew H. Africa and the American Flag. New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1854. Internet Archive.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)
Howard, Lawrence Cabot. American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara. Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989.
Hugh, Thomas. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
“Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of the Historian.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)
“Teachers’ Resources: The Slave Trade.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)
- See Also: “Teaching With Documents:The Amistad Case Answer of S. Staples, R. Baldwin, and T. Sedgewick, Proctors for the Amistad Africans, to the several libels of Lt. Gedney, et. al. and Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, January 7, 1840.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)
|1.||↑||“The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The U.S. Constitution and Acts,” New York Public Library, 2007, http://abolition.nypl.org/print/us_constitution/.|
|2.||↑||“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 9 May 2014, http://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/heritage/banners/battle-streamers/african-slave-trade-patrol.html.|
|3.||↑||“The Slave Trade,” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/slave-trade.html.|
|4.||↑||“Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of the Historian. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/webster-treaty.|
|5.||↑||Thomas Hugh, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 727.|
|6.||↑||Matthew Perry quoted in Hugh, The Slave Trade, 727.|
|7.||↑||Secretary of the Navy John Mason quoted in Lawrence Cabot Howard, American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara (Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989), 118.|
|8.||↑||George Francis Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), 272.|
|9.||↑||Hugh, The Slave Trade, 762.|
|10.||↑||Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving, 274-276.|
|11.||↑||“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.”|
By Lincoln Mullen
Lincoln Mullen is an assistant professor at George Mason University‘s Department of History and Art History. While finishing his doctorate at Brandeis University, he created this map and piece on the spread of slavery in the United States following the War of Independence. Reposted with the permission of the author/copyright holder, the article below was originally posted to Dr. Mullen‘s blog (12 May 2014) with a revised version appearing on the Smithsonian Magazine‘s site (15 May 2014).
We selected this for our first post because it illustrates the movement of slavery in the United States as a national issue, not limited to the Southeast. The information is based on census data, which means that in the case of New England states, when they go “blank,” this signals that no slaves were counted in the census. In Massachusetts, slavery was legally abolished in 1783 through the court’s interpretation of the new state constitution established three years earlier. As we add more posts to this site, we will discuss the colonial history behind this moment. For the fully interactive version of the map, go here.
Mapping the Spread of American Slavery
In September of 1861, the U.S. Coast Survey published a large map, just under three feet square, titled a “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States.” Based on the population statistics gathered in the 1860 census, and certified by the superintendent of the Census Office, the map depicted the percentage of the population enslaved in each county.
The map showed at a glance the large-scale patterns of slavery in the American South: the concentrations of slavery in eastern Virginia, in South Carolina, and most of all along the Mississippi. It also repaid closer examination, since each county was labeled with the exact percentage enslaved. The map of slavery was one of many thematic maps produced in the nineteenth century United States. As Susan Schulten has shown, this particular map was used by the federal government during the Civil War, and it was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s.1
Though such thematic maps, in particular of slavery, have their origins in the nineteenth century, the technique is useful for historians. As I see it, one of the main problems for the historians’ method today is the problem of scale. How can we understand the past at different chronological and geographical scales? How can we move intelligibly between looking at individuals and looking at the Atlantic World, between studying a moment and studying several centuries?2 Maps can help, especially interactive web maps that make it possible to zoom in and out, to represent more than one subject of interest, and to set representations of the past in motion in order to show change over time.
I have created an interactive map of the spread of slavery in the United States from 1790 to 1860.3 Using Census data available from the NHGIS, the visualization shows the population of slaves, of free African Americans, of all free people, and of the entire United States. It also shows those subjects as population densities and percentages of the population.4 For any given variable, the scales are held constant from year to year so that the user can see change over time. You can use the map for yourself, and I’ve also written briefly about what the map shows below.5 Historians have of course often made use of maps of slavery, in particular maps based on the Census, in support of their arguments. What I’ve tried to do in this interactive map is make it possible for users (including me) to explore the census data in support of making historical arguments.6
The first thing to observe is that slavery spread more than it grew. The population of slaves in 1790 or 1800 was already very high compared the maximum population levels.7 In fact, in Charleston County, South Carolina (one of the counties with the highest populations of slaves) the number of enslaved people in 1860 was only 63% of what it had been in 1840. This is not to say that the total number of slaves in the eastern seaboard states did not go up over time. But the number of enslaved people in a particular place did not grow at anything like the rate of free people in the north. The free population in the north both grew in the same place and spread to the west. The slave population had a different dynamic. It grew in intensity in places around the Chesapeake bay, even as slavery was gradually abolished in the North. But primarily the slave population spread to the fertile crescent of lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and most of all to the Mississippi River valley. Below you can see two animations of the density of the slave population and the density of the total population (keep in mind that the scales are different). What you see in these maps is the spread of slavery through the domestic slave trade.8 You also see the origins of the sectional crisis in the continual expansion of slavery.
Figure 4: An animation of density of the total population from 1790 to 1860. Notice that population in the north both grows in place and spreads westward. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]Another observation to make about slavery in the United States is what an extraordinarily high percentage of the population was enslaved. The majority slave populations of the Chesapeake, the South Carolina and Georgia coast were soon duplicated in the majority slave populations of the Mississippi River valley.
Figure 5: An animation of the percentage of the population enslaved from 1790 to 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]A striking way to see the importance of slavery is to look at a map of the total free population: a photo negative, if you will, of slavery. When looking at the density of the population that was free, large swathes of the South appear virtually depopulated. (Perhaps this is what a history book looks like that fails to take includes slaves?)
Figure 6: The population density of all free persons in 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [PNG]Finally, the dynamics of the free African American population looked more like the free white population than the slave population. The Free African American population seems to have primarily settled along the Eastern seaboard and especially in the cities of the northern United States. Free African Americans were almost entirely excluded from most of the deep South, except the cities.
Figure 7: An animation of the free African American population from 1790 to 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]
Historians have long used maps of slavery to advance their arguments.9 I hope this map finds some use in making more arguments about the history of slavery, and especially for helping students to grasp the big picture of the “peculiar institution” which made the nation “half slave and half free.”10
- See Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), especially chapter 4 on slavery and statistical cartography. Also see the book’s companion website, which includes many images of maps of slavery.↩
- For one discussion of the problem of scale, see David Armitage and Jo Guldi. “Le Retour de la longue durée: Une perspective anglo-saxonne,” Annales, in press. Whatever the reason for the blockbuster success of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it’s worth noting that the book is primarily a longue durée history of the structure of capital.↩
- I am grateful for suggestions from Yoni Appelbaum, John Hannigan, and Caleb McDaniel, who each looked at the map in development, though they will each find more things they wished were different.↩
- You might think of the visualization as 88 maps = 8 decades ✕ 11 variables.↩
- The map represents a lot of data, and I have not been able to make it snappy enough for my satisfaction, particularly for mobile devices. Hence the animated GIFs below.↩
- Of course there is far more to the history of slavery than just the Census data, which alone cannot answer any of the interpretative questions that historians have asked.↩
- This is remarkable given that in the Revolution many slaves escaped to or with the British army.↩
- Steven Deyle writes, “I believe it is safe to conclude that between 1820 and 1860 at least 875,000 American slaves were forcibly removed from the Upper South to the Lower South, and that between 60 and 70 percent of these individuals were transported via the interregional slave trade.” Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 289.↩
- Perhaps I will provide a few examples in a future post.↩
- From Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech: “Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.”↩
Northeastern University’s Public History of Slavery
Featured Project I:
by Aubrey Butts, Lindsay Day, and Kerry McDonough
Northeastern University in Boston has one of the oldest Public History programs in North America. Students are prepared to work in museums, historical societies, social activism and more through a diverse curriculum. Their education includes theory and fieldwork, along with an emphasis on the digital humanities.
After decades of experiences as a historian and cultural resources manager for the National Park Service in Boston and Lowell, Dr. Martin Blatt joined the program as Professor of the Practice in History and Director of Public History Program. In Spring 2015, his graduate course Public History of Slavery (Hist 7250) called on students to address the challenge of telling the histories of slavery in public history venues. Their final assignment was to research and present one of the many stories of slavery in New England in a way that would engage and educate a wide audience.
After reviewing submissions from the course, we have selected a few to feature on the site.
Our first curation by Lindsay Day, Aubrey Butts, and Kerry McDonough is an interactive map using Omeka’s Neatline that leads viewers through the life of Phillis Wheatley up until the publication of her first volume of poems.
For more on Wheatley’s later life, including her travels to London, see Vincent Carretta’s biography, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, as well as our list of resources at the end of our Virtual Walking Tour of Slavery and Revolution in Boston.
“Boston African American National Historic Site Massachusetts.” National Park Services. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.“Biography for Dr. Martin Blatt.” Northeastern University. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.Butts, Aubrey, Lindsay Day, and Kerry McDonough. “Locating Phillis Wheatley.” NEU Public History. May 1, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015. Caretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. UGA Press Website. n.d. Access July 15, 2015Kugler, Emily and Katherine Stevens. “Virtual Walking Tour of Slavery and Revolution in Boston.” BostonMiddlePassage.org. January 2015. Access July 15, 2015.
“Lowell National Historical Park Massachusetts“National Park Services. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.
“M.A. with Public History Concentration” Northeastern University. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Omeka.org George Mason University.n.d. Access July 15, 2015.
Scholars’ Lab. Neatline.Org. University of Virginia Library. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.
Expanding 17th and 18th Century Sources
Rev. David A. Pettee
The following bibliography includes a list of sources that attempt to highlight the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and also identify individuals and provide information about the lives of enslaved Africans in New England beginning in the mid-seventeenth century – especially in the Boston area. After slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783, succeeding generations of those who profited from it seemed to forget that slavery had ever existed, preferring instead to downplay the role that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade had played in the development of the economy in Boston and in New England culture. Despite the historical amnesia, primary and secondary source records were kept that often provide unexpected detail regarding the slave trade and the significant presence of enslaved Africans (and indigenous peoples) in Boston and in Massachusetts from the mid-seventeenth century through the end of the eighteenth century.
Selected Primary Source Records
Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than two hundred Massachusetts towns and cities compiled their vital records. The publications were often referred to as the “Tan Book” series because of the color of the covers. These volumes combined town records, church records, private records, gravestone inscriptions and newspaper articles. The Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 cover the time period from about 1620 to the end of 1849, with some death records after 1849. Separated out and included at the end of many books are the births, marriages and death dates of ‘Negroes’ often with names.
Reference to slaves can often be found in probate records, specifically in inventories and wills of slave owners in Massachusetts. Microfilm of the following records can be found at www.Familysearch.org, at the Massachusetts Archives and at the New England Historic Genealogical Society:
Barnstable County, Probate Records, 1685-1789
Essex County, Early Probate Records, 1635-1681
Essex County, Probate File Papers, 1638-1881
Hampshire County, Probate File Papers, 1660-1858
Middlesex County, Probate File Records, 1648-1871
Norfolk County, Index to Probate Records, 1793-1900
Plymouth County, Probate File Papers, 1686-1881
Suffolk County, Index to Probate Records, 1636-1893
Worcester County, Index to Probate Records, 1731-1881
Worcester County, Probate File Papers, 1731-1881
William M. Sargent’s Maine Wills 1640 – 1760 (Maine was a province of Massachusetts until 1820.)
Across Massachusetts, many town and/or city histories were written in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which sometimes include references to slaves and/or Negroes. A visit to local libraries will often find a rare book or history room that can be visited. In addition, there are many family genealogies that have been prepared about early founders of Massachusetts that occasionally make reference to slaves. The New England Historic Genealogical Society contains the largest repository of Massachusetts genealogies in the country, although www.familysearch.org also has an extraordinary collection of family histories.
Select Massachusetts Archives Records
The Massachusetts Archives holds the official records created by Massachusetts state government from 1629 to the present.
1754 Massachusetts Slave Census, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, MA.
In 1754, Governor William Shirley ordered each town and city in Massachusetts (and also Maine, since Maine was still part of Massachusetts) to complete an enumeration of all slaves, both male and female, over the age of sixteen. In total, the records of 119 towns have been preserved with a total of 2,720 slaves counted. In 1754, the City of Boston reported 989 slaves, 647 males and 342 females.
Other Black History Resources at the Massachusetts Archives
1771 town valuations (published in 1978)
Available for research at http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~hsb41/masstax/masstax.cgi
Massachusetts Archives Collection
Volume 9, Domestic Relations, 1643-1774
Divorce and abandonment records; materials concerning slaves, apprentices and family relations
Court Records Research – Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives is a separate state-level archives, that collects records from state, county, and local courts. The Judicial Archives has deposited a collection of microfilm of certain court records at the Massachusetts Archives. The Judicial Archivist can be contacted at:
Ms. Elizabeth Bouvier
Head of Archives
Supreme Judicial Court Archives
3 Pemberton Square, 16th Floor
Boston, MA 02108
The Suffolk Files
“The Suffolk Files contain the earliest file papers of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and its predecessors, the Court of Assistants and the Superior Court of Judicature (1620-1800). There are also some records of the county courts and the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace. The records contain cases not just from Suffolk County, but from Massachusetts and parts of Maine and New Hampshire. Extensive indices of every person, place, and subject, as well as date and calendar indices were prepared. Microfilm of the Suffolk Files and indices is available at the Massachusetts Archives.”
This is a remarkable effort to document every voyage that was part of the transatlantic slave trade from 1526 to 1866. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is available on-line, and is periodically updated as new information becomes available. The database includes searchable information on more than 35,000 transatlantic slave-trading voyages, including the names of some kidnapped Africans.
African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts (Massachusetts Historical Society)
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds some primary documents relating to slavery in Massachusetts. Three important resources include the Hugh Hall Account Book, 1728-1733 that includes the names of several slaves, and the Domestic Sale of Slaves, and the Lives of Individual African Americans before 1783, which includes several slave sales, including names. The site includes an index to all documents, https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=50 and a search engine.
Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Volume III, New England and the Middle Colonies, Elizabeth Donnan, Washington, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1930-35.
A fascinating and very comprehensive collection of material relating to the slave trade which originated in, or brought slaves to the Continental Colonies. There are occasional references to the names of slaves.
Dublin Seminar for New England Folk Like, Annual Proceedings, “Slavery/Antislavery in New England” 1647-1770 by Peter Benes, pages 12-30,
“Based on a study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Suffolk County probate records completed by Jane M. Benes in 1997 documenting the names and values of 1,762 Native American and African-American slaves inventoried in Boston households in the period from 1647 through 1770. The essay attempts to trace the disposition of these slaves after they were inventoried (through transfers of ownership, auctions, forced transportation and sale, and manumission.) It also attempts to trace the family ties and connections these slaves established while serving in white households and to reexamine the Boston slave owners’ attitudes towards these ties. The author concludes that little attention was paid to enslaved black families except as a way to control them or to use them to produce new slaves. Some slave-owning families deliberatively chose to acquire (and to dispose of) women slaves with a record of bearing children.”
“Crossing Borders: Slavery and Two New England Families,” Rev. David A. Pettee, New England Ancestors 9, nos. 5-6
An article that delves into a genealogical research involved in connecting two Newport, RI families joined by slavery between 1773 and 1803.
Early Boston newspapers, such as the Boston News-Letter and the Boston Gazette carried advertisements that involved the sale of enslaved Africans in Boston and Massachusetts. From 1719 to 1781, when advertisements stopped for good in the Boston Gazette, more 1,103 slaves-for-sale advertisements had been published. The Boston Public Library: Microtext Department, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA carry the Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876.
Slave-for-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781, Robert E. Desrochers, Jr., The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 3, Slaveries in the Atlantic World (Jul., 2002), pp. 623-664
Selected Books and Other Secondary Sources
Slavery in the North is a comprehensive website devoted to outlining the history of slavery in the Northern states.
African American Resources at the New England Historic Genealogical Society: A Selected Bibliography, NEHGS, Boston, 2010
A selected bibliography of African American resources within the Society’s collection that includes a helpful introduction to African American genealogical research.
A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England. The Choices Program. Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, www.choices.edu., June 2005
This curriculum “explores the effects of the trade in slaves and of slavery itself on the new Americans of the time. The unit helps students to understand how history, and the telling of history, affects us today.”
Notes on the General History of Slavery in Massachusetts, George Henry Moore, D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1866
One of the earliest general histories of slavery in Massachusetts published after the end of the Civil War that includes references to original acts and legislation specific to slavery.
The Negro In Colonial New England, Lorenzo Johnston Greene. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942
“This book shows the role of the Negro in colonial New England. Negro slaves were brought into the region in such numbers that they influenced the economical, political, social and religious institutions of their masters. The leading slave-trading colonies were Massachusetts and Rhode Island; Connecticut and New Hampshire played lesser roles. The main ports were Boston and Newport, but Salem, Kittery, Providence, Bristol, Charlestown, Middletown and New London were also connected with the trade. This book presents the social repercussions, slave occupations, crimes and punishment, the slave before the law, the slave family, relationship between master and slave, slavery and conversion and the free Negro. Also included is a summary, bibliography and the original full-name plus subject index. An appendix is included which shows the distribution of Negroes by states and counties, numbers of burials and baptisms, and a list of leading slave-holding families.”
Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998, Franklin A. Dorman.
The book includes the family histories of 20 African American families in Massachusetts, written in a genealogical format.
Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, Robert H. Romer, Levellers Press, 2009.
“In this first history of slavery in western Massachusetts in colonial times, Robert H. Romer demonstrates that slavery was pervasive in the Pioneer Valley in the 1700s, where many of the ministers and other “important people” owned black slaves. To show the role of slavery in the valley, Professor Romer presents a “snapshot” of slavery, choosing a moment (1752) and a place (the main street of Deerfield) to present detailed information about the slaves who lived in that place at that time – and their owners. Working largely from original sources – wills, probate inventories, church records, and merchants’ account books – he shows that slavery was much more significant than had previously been thought. Some twenty-five slaves belonging to fifteen different owners lived on that mile-long street in 1752. He emphasizes that these were individuals, some born in Africa, some born as slaves in New England, forced to live their lives as property, always subject to being sold away at the whim of an owner.”
Havard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History, by Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar, 2011 Sven Beckert and Katherine Stevens: http://www.harvardandslavery.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Harvard-Slavery-Book-111110.pdf
“In the fall of 2007, four Harvard undergraduate students came together in a seminar room to solve a local but nonetheless significant historical mystery: to research the historical connections between Harvard University and slavery. Inspired by Ruth Simmon’s path-breaking work at Brown University, the seminar’s goal was to gain a better understanding of the history of the institution in which we were learning and teaching, and to bring closer to home one of the greatest issues of American history: slavery. But no one sitting in that room on that beautiful late summer day had any idea what we would end. With much of the literature on Harvard’s history silent on slavery, it was unclear whether Harvard had any links to slavery, and if so, what they were.
“As the story that follows makes abundantly clear, the students’ curiosity in the face of the unknown and their impressive mastery of the arts of historical detection were rewarded with a treasure trove of findings, many of them disconcerting. The 32 students who participated in this initial and three subsequent seminars scoured Harvard’s archival records, drew countless published volumes from its library stacks, made careful inspections of our neighboring colonial graveyards, and carefully inspected Harvard’s oldest buildings. Much of what they found was surprising: Harvard presidents who brought slaves to live with them on campus, significant endowments drawn from the exploitation of slave labor, Harvard’s administration and most of its faculty favoring the suppression of public debates on slavery. A quest that began with fears of finding nothing ended with a new question—how was it that the university had failed for so long to engage with this elephantine aspect of its history?”
A Good Master Well Served: Masters and Servants in Colonial New England, 1620-1750, Lawrence William Towner, New York, 1998
This is a 1954 dissertation published posthumously as a book. Early American historians are finding connections between the bonded status of African American slaves, European indentured servants, convicts, and sailors. An excellent starting point for this inquiry is this neglected classic by Lawrence Towner, former head of the Newberry Library in Chicago and editor of the William and Mary Quarterly. This comprehensive study of the lives and experiences of bonded laborers in colonial Massachusetts demonstrates the full sweep of their work and aspirations. Towner analyzes the legal status of all varieties of black and white bonded laborers. He explores their living and working conditions and discusses the cultural significance of work in their lives. The book also addresses gender issues in bonded labor. The author’s approach provides a new understanding of the experiences of black and white workers in early America, and corrects a long-standing neglect of blacks in previous research.”
Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-century New England. William D. Piersen. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
“This book examines the development of an Afro-American subculture in eighteenth-century New England. Piersen concerns himself not with the machinery of slave control or the political and social disabilities of bondage, but with the processes of cultural change and creation from the black bondsman’s point of view. What was it like to be an African immigrant in colonial New England? What attitudes and assumptions underlay the Afro-American response to Yankee culture? What does the development within the confines of a predominantly white and ethnocentric New England of an Afro-American folk culture in religion, public rituals, folk arts and crafts, social mores, and daily behavior say about the creation of American culture?
“On the face of it, the master class called the tunes and slaves danced the beat. Blacks who were taken into New England’s bondage were clearly engulfed in a pervasive, narrow-minded Euro-American society that had no interest in fostering Afro-American autonomy. The New England experience was often cruel, and the numbers alone suggest it was among the most unequal of black/white cultural contacts in the New World. Nonetheless, despite the strictures of bondage, the black Yankees of eighteenth-century New England created a sustaining folk culture of their own.”
African-Americans in Boston: More than 350 Years, Robert C. Hayden, Trustees of the Public Library City of Boston, 1991
References the people, events and places that have shaped African American history in Boston.
Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Amistad, 2008
“Merging comprehensive research and grand storytelling, Mr. and Mrs. Prince reveals the true story of a remarkable pre-Civil War African-American family, as well as the challenges that faced African-Americans who lived in the North versus the slaves who lived in the South.
“Lucy Terry, a devoted wife and mother, was the first known African-American poet and Abijah Prince, her husband, was a veteran of the French and Indian wars and an entrepreneur. Together they pursued what would become the cornerstone of the American dream—having a family and owning property where they could live, grow, and prosper. Owning land in both Vermont and Massachusetts, they were well on their way to settling in when bigoted neighbors tried to run them off. Rather than fleeing, they asserted their rights, as they would do many times, in court.
“Here is a story that not only demonstrates the contours of slavery in New England but also unravels the most complete history of a pre-Civil War black family known to exist. Illuminating and inspiring, Mr. and Mrs. Prince uncovers the lives of those who could have been forgotten and brings to light a history that has intrigued but eluded many until now.”
The Meaning of Slavery in the North, edited by Martin H. Blatt & David Roediger, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998
“Southern cotton planters and Northern textile mill owners maintained what has been called “an unholy alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” This collection of essays focuses on the central role of slavery in the early development of industrialization in the United States as well as on the interconnections among the histories of African Americans, women, and labor.”
To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice: The Life and Writings of Hosea Easton, edited by George R. Price and James Brewster Stewart, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1999
“How did racial prejudice originate and why has it been so deeply rooted in American culture? What have been the long-term effects of prejudice on the intellectual, communal, and psychological resources of African Americans? How might the nightmare of racial domination be truly brought to an end? Still pertinent today, these were among the key questions addressed more than a century and a half ago by Hosea Easton (1799–1837), an important yet long neglected activist and intellectual. A black minister from New England, Easton rose to prominence during the 1820s and 1830s by joining in the struggle of free African Americans to resist southern slavery and secure racial equality. From this experience he developed a deep understanding of the problem of “race” in the United States and became a trenchant critic of white supremacy and its devastating consequences. This volume brings back into print the only extended writings of Easton that have survived into our time: his insightful, almost prescient A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and the Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States, first published in 1837; and his passionate 1828 Thanksgiving Day “Address.” The book also provides a biographical portrait of Easton and his family, drawn from primary documents as well as secondary sources in the areas of biography, genealogy, and social history.”
Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860, Joanne Pope Melish, Cornell University Press, 1998
“Following the abolition of slavery in New England, white citizens seemed to forget that it had ever existed there. Drawing on a wide array of primary sources—from slaveowners’ diaries to children’s daybooks to racist broadsides—Joanne Pope Melish reveals not only how northern society changed but how its perceptions changed as well. Melish explores the origins of racial thinking and practices to show how ill-prepared the region was to accept a population of free people of color in its midst. Because emancipation was gradual, whites transferred prejudices shaped by slavery to their relations with free people of color, and their attitudes were buttressed by abolitionist rhetoric which seemed to promise riddance of slaves as much as slavery.
“Melish tells how whites came to blame the impoverished condition of people of color on their innate inferiority, how racialization became an important component of New England ante-bellum nationalism, and how former slaves actively participated in this discourse by emphasizing their African identity. Placing race at the center of New England history, she contends that slavery was important not only as a labor system but also as an institutionalized set of relations. The collective amnesia about local slavery’s existence became a significant component of New England regional identity.”
Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, Elise Lemire, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2009
“Concord, Massachusetts, has long been heralded as the birthplace of American liberty and American letters. It was here that the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War was fought and here that Thoreau came to “live deliberately” on the shores of Walden Pond. Between the Revolution and the settlement of the little cabin with the bean rows, however, Walden Woods was home to several generations of freed slaves and their children. Living on the fringes of society, they attempted to pursue lives of freedom, promised by the rhetoric of the Revolution, and yet withheld by the practice of racism. Thoreau was all but alone in his attempt “to conjure up the former occupants of these woods.” Other than the chapter he devoted to them in Walden, the history of slavery in Concord has been all but forgotten.
“In Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, Elise Lemire brings to life the former slaves of Walden Woods and the men and women who held them in bondage during the eighteenth century. After charting the rise of Concord slaveholder John Cuming, Black Walden follows the struggles of Cuming’s slave, Brister, as he attempts to build a life for himself after thirty-five years of enslavement. Brister Freeman, as he came to call himself, and other of the town’s slaves were able to leverage the political tensions that fueled the American Revolution and force their owners into relinquishing them. Once emancipated, however, the former slaves were permitted to squat on only the most remote and infertile places. Walden Woods was one of them. Here, Freeman and his neighbors farmed, spun linen, made baskets, told fortunes, and otherwise tried to survive in spite of poverty and harassment.
“Today Walden Woods is preserved as a place for visitors to commune with nature. Lemire, who grew up two miles from Walden Pond, reminds us that this was a black space before it was an internationally known green space. Black Walden preserves the legacy of the people who strove against all odds to overcome slavery and segregation.”
Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution, Joyce Lee Malcolm, Yale University Press, 2009
“A boy named Peter, born to a slave in Massachusetts in 1763, was sold nineteen months later to a childless white couple there. This book recounts the fascinating history of how the American Revolution came to Peter’s small town, how he joined the revolutionary army at the age of twelve, and how he participated in the battles of Bunker Hill and Yorktown and witnessed the surrender at Saratoga. Joyce Lee Malcolm describes Peter’s home life in rural New England, which became increasingly unhappy as he grew aware of racial differences and prejudices. She then relates how he and other blacks, slave and free, joined the war to achieve their own independence. Malcolm juxtaposes Peter’s life in the patriot armies with that of the life of Titus, a New Jersey slave who fled to the British in 1775 and reemerged as a feared guerrilla leader A remarkable feat of investigation, Peter’s biography illuminates many themes in American history: race relations in New England, the prelude to and military history of the Revolutionary War, and the varied experience of black soldiers who fought on both sides.”
The Black Timeline of Massachusetts: A History of White Supremacy in the Bay State, Tingba Apitda, The Reclamation Project, 2003
“The Reclamation Project’s Black Timeline of Massachusetts re-examines this lost part of history and brings this disturbing legacy front and center, for no people can understand the nature of the oppression they face today if they are blind to the history that created it.”
The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks, with Special Reference to the Boston Area, Tingpa Apidta, 1995, 2003
“Now for the first time, the fascinating historical threads of the Pilgrims, Puritans, Indians, and Black Africans have been woven into a gripping narrative in a new and informative book. Readers will learn the true account of the First Thanksgiving and find out about the Black Africans of colonial times who helped the Founding Fathers, the Abolitionists who held slaves and believed in the inferiority of the Black race, and the Black history behind many famous tourist attractions, monuments, and statues. This book includes photos, illustrations, and the largest list of Massachusetts slave owners ever compiled.”
Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts, Margot Minardi, Oxford University Press, 2010
“According to Margot Minardi in Making Slavery History, the history of the American Revolution taught in classrooms for generations, complete with a runaway slave as first martyr and an African poet as international celebrity, “owes as much to Massachusetts activists and historians in the nineteenth century as it does to Crispus Attucks or Phillis Wheatley themselves” (p. 12). Minardi embraces the framework of historical memory to revisit “the fundamental question of recent social history–‘who makes history?’”–including who disappeared, who reappeared, and what this meant for understanding ideology and identity in Massachusetts (p. 11). Over the course of five chapters, Minardi investigates stories about slaves and the founding of the country which were told and retold to fit the political as well as social motivations of the purveyor of each story. These include the often disguised or accentuated presence of blacks in paintings, the carefully choreographed memorial dedications, the vigilantly framed sensibility of Phyllis Wheatley, and the disappearance and resurgence of Crispus Attucks.”
Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm, Alexandra A. Chan, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2007
“Offering a rare look into the lives of enslaved peoples and slave masters in early New England, Slavery in the Age of Reason analyzes the results of extensive archaeological excavations at the Isaac Royall House and Slave Quarters, a National Historic Landmark and museum in Medford, Massachusetts. Isaac Royall (1677-1739) was the largest slave owner in Massachusetts in the mid- eighteenth century, and in this book the Royall family and their slaves become the central characters in a compelling cultural-historical narrative. The family’s ties to both Massachusetts and Antigua provide a comparative perspective on the transcontinental development of modern ideologies of individualism, colonialism, slavery, and race.
“Alexandra A. Chan examines the critical role of material culture in the construction, mediation, and maintenance of social identities and relationships between slaves and masters at the farm. She explores landscapes and artifacts discovered at the site not just as inanimate objects or “cultural leftovers,” but rather as physical embodiments of the assumptions, attitudes, and values of the people who built, shaped, or used them. These material things, she argues, provide a portal into the mind-set of people long gone-not just of the Royall family who controlled much of the material world at the farm, but also of the enslaved, who made up the majority of inhabitants at the site, and who left few other records of their experience. Using traditional archaeological techniques and analysis, as well as theoretical perspectives and representational styles of post-processualist schools of thought, Slavery in the Age of Reason is an innovative volume that portrays the Royall family and the people they enslaved “from the inside out.” It should put to rest any lingering myth that the peculiar institution was any less harsh or complex when found in the North.”
Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, Catherine Manegold, Princeton University Press, 2010
“Ten Hills Farm tells the powerful saga of five generations of slave owners in colonial New England. Settled in 1630 by John Winthrop–who would later become governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony–Ten Hills Farm was a six-hundred-acre estate just north of Boston. Winthrop, famous for envisioning his ‘city on the hill’ and lauded as a paragon of justice, owned slaves on that ground and passed the first law in North America condoning slavery. In this mesmerizing narrative, C. S. Manegold exposes how the fates of the land and the families that lived on it were bound to America’s most tragic and tainted legacy. Challenging received ideas about America and the Atlantic world, Ten Hills Farm digs deep to bring the story of slavery in the North full circle–from concealment to recovery.
“Manegold follows the compelling tale from the early seventeenth to the early twenty-first century, from New England, through the South, to the sprawling slave plantations of the Caribbean. John Winthrop, famous for envisioning his “city on the hill” and lauded as a paragon of justice, owned slaves on that ground and passed the first law in North America condoning slavery. Each successive owner of Ten Hills Farm–from John Usher, who was born into money, to Isaac Royall, who began as a humble carpenter’s son and made his fortune in Antigua–would depend upon slavery’s profits until the 1780s, when Massachusetts abolished the practice. In time, the land became a city, its questionable past discreetly buried, until now.
“Challenging received ideas about America and the Atlantic world, Ten Hills Farm digs deep to bring the story of slavery in the North full circle–from concealment to recovery.”
The House Servant’s Directory, Or, A Monitor for Private Families, Robert Roberts, first published in Boston, 1827, more recently republished by the American Antiquarian Society, Introduction by Jessica Harris, 2013
“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” Thus begins Robert Roberts’ The House Servant’s Directory, first published in 1827 and the standard for household management for decades afterward.
“It is remarkable for several reasons; It is one of the first books written by an African American and issued by a commercial press, and it was written while Roberts (ca. 1780-1860) was in the employ of Christopher Gore (1758-1827), a former senator from and Governor of Massachusetts.”
Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There, Harriet Wilson, originally published by George C. Bard & Avery, 1859, rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Vintage Books, 1983
“A fascinating fusion of two literary modes of the 19th century, the sentimental novel and the slave narrative, Our Nig, apart from its historical significance, is a deeply ironic and highly readable work, tracing the trials and tribulations of Frado, a mulatto girl abandoned by her white mother after the death of the child’s black father, who grows up as an indentured servant in 19th century Massachusetts.”
Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery, Margaret Ellen Newell, Cornell University Press, 2015
“In Brethren by Nature, Margaret Ellen Newell reveals a little-known aspect of American history: English colonists in New England enslaved thousands of Indians. Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery in 1641, and the colonists’ desire for slaves shaped the major New England Indian wars, including the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip’s War of 1675–76, and the northeastern Wabanaki conflicts of 1676–1749. When the wartime conquest of Indians ceased, New Englanders turned to the courts to get control of their labor, or imported Indians from Florida and the Carolinas, or simply claimed free Indians as slaves.
“Drawing on letters, diaries, newspapers, and court records, Newell recovers the slaves’ own stories and shows how they influenced New England society in crucial ways. Indians lived in English homes, raised English children, and manned colonial armies, farms, and fleets, exposing their captors to Native religion, foods, and technology. Some achieved freedom and power in this new colonial culture, but others experienced violence, surveillance, and family separations.
“Newell also explains how slavery linked the fate of Africans and Indians. The trade in Indian captives connected New England to Caribbean and Atlantic slave economies. Indians labored on sugar plantations in Jamaica, tended fields in the Azores, and rowed English naval galleys in Tangier. Indian slaves outnumbered Africans within New England before 1700, but the balance soon shifted. Fearful of the growing African population, local governments stripped Indian and African servants and slaves of legal rights and personal freedoms. Nevertheless, because Indians remained a significant part of the slave population, the New England colonies did not adopt all of the rigid racial laws typical of slave societies in Virginia and Barbados. Newell finds that second- and third-generation Indian slaves fought their enslavement and claimed citizenship in cases that had implications for all enslaved peoples in eighteenth-century America.”
This is a living document. If you have a source to add, please contact us using the form at the bottom of the page.
Local Libraries and Archives (Greater Boston Area)
- Boles, Richard J. People of Color Preliminary Finding Aid. Congregational Library & Archives, Boston, MA
Books on New England Slavery and African/African-American Communities
- Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Chan, Alexandra A. Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm (University of Tennessee Press, 2007) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Cromwell, Adelaide M. The Other Brahmins: Boston’s Black Upper Class, 1750-1950 (University of Arkansas Press, 1994) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (Ballantine Books, 2005) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Gerzina,Gretchen Holbrook. Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend (Harper Collins, 2009)Boston Public Library Catalog Link Also available as an ebook
- Greene, Lorenzo. The Negro in Colonial New England (Columbia University Press, 1942)Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Horton, James Oliver. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North (Holmes & Meier, 1979) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Lemire, Elise. Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) Boston Public Library Catalog Link Also available as an ebook
- Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Cornell University Press, 1998) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury 2014) Boston Public Library Catalog Link Also available as an ebook
General Books on the Middle Passage, Slavery, and Abolition
- Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Diouf, Sylviane A. Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies (Ohio University Press, 2003) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Johnson,Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Potkay, Adam and Sandra Burr, editors. Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas (Palgrave Macmillan, 1995) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Stephanie,Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Harvard University Press 2008) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Browne, Katrina, Producer/Director. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (Ebb Pod Productions, LLC, 2008) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
- Richardson, Judy, Producer. Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters (A&E; distributed by New Video: 2005) Boston Public Library Catalog Link
Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Inc.
Slavery in Massachusetts:
- Beckert, Sven, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar. Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History (2011)
- Boston National Historical Park. “Lesson Plan: Patriots of Color at the Battle of Bunker Hill“
- Hall, Robert L. (Northeastern U) “Boston’s African American Heritage.” Footnotes: The Newsletter of the American Sociological Association (March 2008)
- Harper, Douglas. “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Slavery in the North. Online Resource (2003)
- Massachusetts Historical Society “African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts” Online Exhibit
- Mass Moments “First Slaves Arrives in Massachusetts Feb 26, 1638” Online Educational Resource (K-12)
Slavery in New England
- Rhode Island Historical Society 2011 NEH Summer Institute, “The Role of Slavery in New England Commerce, Industry, and Culture to 1860.” (2011)
- This also included video interviews. Ex. Joanne Pope Melish (U of Kentucky, author of Disowning Slavery)
- The Choices Program. “Slave Trade A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England Second edition” Print Educational Resource created by RIHS and Brown during NEH Summer Institute
- Rhode Island Historical Society. Lesson Plans: Slavery, Citizenship and Civil Rights Documenting Rhode Island’s People of Color
- Carocci, Max. “Written Out of History: Contemporary Native American Narratives of Enslavement.” Anthropology Today 25, no. 2 (April 2009): 15–20.
- Tracing Center. “Public History Programs: Resources for Interpreting Slavery.” (Accessed 13 May 2015).
- Yale Gilder Lehrman Center. “Remembering and Interpreting Northern Slavery.” End Slavery Now (blog) 25 September 2014
- Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (Brown University).Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom (brochure for exhibit at Iziko Museum in South Africa):
- Focuses on slave insurrections on three vessels including The Amistad, The Meermin, and The Sally
- John Carter Brown Library online exhibit: Slavery and Justice:
- New York Historical Society, Slavery in New York (2005-2006)
Digital History Projects:
- Slave Biographies Atlantic Database Network (Michigan State University)
- Landscapes of Slavery (University of Maryland)
- Lincoln Mullen’s Map of the Spread of US Slavery 1790-1860
- Legacies of British Slave Ownership (University College London)
- Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (Emory University)
Resources on the Amistad
In 1839, while en route between Cuban ports to sell enslave Africans, the Spanish vessel, La Amistad (“Friendship”), the captives revolted and overtook the ship. Seeking water and supplies, they dropped anchor near Long Island and were captured by the USS Washington. Although seized near New York, the Washington’s commander, Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, put in his claim of ownership under salvage laws for the Amistad’s holdings (including its human cargo), in Connecticut. New York’s plan of gradual emancipation (freeing all slaves born before July 4, 1799, while indenturing all children born afterwards as unpaid laborers until 25, if female, and 28, if male) they recognized 1827 as their year of final emancipation. In Connecticut, however, slavery was still legal.
The resulting case, United States v. The Amistad (1841), resulted in the freeing of the Africans on the ship, on the basis that their kidnapping and enslavement was illegal under the laws and treaties against the international slave trade, put in place by Great Britian, Spain, and the U.S. For more on the mixed record of U.S. and U.K. enforcement of those, see a guest post on this site by Northeastern University Public History graduate students, Cameron Boutin and Jordan Barnes.
For those in New England, there are multiple sites related to the ship and the case. A replica of the Amistad is docked at New Haven’s Long Wharf, and is part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places includes a list of sites related to the ship and the 1839 trail in its online exhibit Amistad: Seeking Freedom in Connecticut.
Other resources include:
- Rediker, Marcus. The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Verso 2012).
- Buba, Tony (director). Ghosts of the Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels. University of Pittsburg, 2014.
This film is a continuation of Rediker’s research from his 2012 book.
You can hear him discuss both these works in his 2013 Debra L. Lee Lecture on Slavery and Justice at Brown University’s Center for the study of Slavery and Justice: “The African Origins of the Amistad Rebellion”
- The National Archives includes the Amistad case in its “Teaching with Documents” resources. For more documents on U.S. slavery, see its section on “The Slave Trade.”
- Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom (brochure for exhibit at Iziko Museum in South Africa enter for the Study of Slavery.
This exhibit on slave insurrections focuses on three vessels, including The Amistad, and was organized by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. For more on the exhibit, see the CSSJ’s site.
A New England Family, a Plantation, and a Portrait
By Melissa Drake and Sarah Hudson
This piece reminds us of how U.S. slavery was an international network. Perhaps the most notable (and notorious) Rhode Islanders involved in the slave trade are the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island. From the documentary by DeWolf descendants, Tracing of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (which resulted in the foundation of the Tracing Center), Thomas DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, and Cynthia Mestad Johnson’s James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade, and more work is now being done on this part of Rhode Island–and the nation’s–history. Drake and Hudson build on this recent attention, while emphasizing an aspect of the family’s history that is not discussed as often: their role as absentee plantation owners in Cuba.
The painting of Noah’s Arc (the plantation in Havana) can be see at the DeWolf’s former home, Linden Place. In addition to regular tours of the house and grounds, the museum also holds monthly tours focused specifically on the family and region’s history of slavery.
Painting Northern Complicity:
The closest point between Cuba and the United States is ninety-four miles. Until recently, the travel restrictions and general hostilities between the two countries have made that distance seem much further. However, a picture is worth a thousand words, and an early nineteenth-century landscape portrait illustrates that Cuban slavery and North American complicity were more intertwined than one might assume.
Christopher Columbus claimed the Caribbean island of Cuba for the Spanish crown in 1492. The island had previously been inhabited by the Taino people, most of whom died from a combination of disease and exploitation shortly after his arrival. The island’s Spanish population, however, thrived. By the mid-seventeenth century, as many as 25,000 inhabitants and 5,000 slaves from mainland Central America and Africa may have lived in Cuba. One hundred years later, the island boasted more than 170,000 residents, including nearly 50,000 slaves. Most of those slaves cultivated tobacco, coffee, and sugar. They worked on plantations owned by Cuban-born elites and Spanish-government-sponsored enterprises. In 1762, the British attacked and occupied Havana, ending the state-controlled agricultural monopoly. European powers, including Britain and its North American colonies, finally had unrestricted access to Cuban trade—and they wanted sugar.
In 1762, Cuban sugar cane grew on 10,000 acres of land. By 1792, that number rocketed up to 150,000 acres. In order to cultivate more sugar, plantation owners required an ever greater number of slaves. Between 1774 and 1792, Cuba’s slave population nearly doubled, growing from 44,000 to 85,000. Those numbers continued to increase dramatically over the next thirty years, reaching its apex in 1862—370,000 souls. Some people inherited their enslaved status from their parents. Others arrived in Cuba by way of the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that we know as the Middle Passage.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a database that compiles information on more than 30,000 slaving voyages, 16,564 slave trading vessels— each transporting approximately 300 enslaved men, women, and children—sailed from Africa to various West Indies ports including Santo Domingo, Monte Christi, and, of course, Havana, Cuba. From 1514 to 1866, 4.2 million slaves, mostly men, made the 72-day journey. Of those 4.2 million, , 13%, or about 38 people per voyage, died at sea. Of those who managed to survive the Middle Passage, an estimated 600,000 went on the auction block in Cuba.
But who brought these slaves into Cuba, and who bought them once they got there? Slaving vessels sailing under the U.S. flag made more than 800 voyages from Africa to the Caribbean. From 1783 to 1808 alone, at least nine American slaving voyages carried around 900 enslaved people to Cuba. U.S.-born Cuban plantation owners likely bought some of them. As many as fifty North Americans kept slaves and plantations in the Cuban region of Mantanzas by the 1820s. A New Englander named Nathaniel Fellows, for example, owned three plantations and rented a fourth; more than 400 slaves labored between them. Another New England family, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island, owned several plantations and hundreds of slaves in Cuba. They also orchestrated some of the shipments that brought them there.
Based out of Bristol, Rhode Island, several generations of the DeWolf family actively participated in the slave trade. All told, between the years 1769 and 1820, the family funded eighty-eight slave-trading voyages, which brought approximately ten thousand Africans to the Caribbean and mainland America. The DeWolfs also owned several sugar and coffee plantations. More than one hundred slaves, ninety-seven of whom experienced the Middle Passage, labored on James DeWolf’s Cuban coffee plantation, Mary Ann. The Arca de Noé, or Noah’s Ark, plantation belonged to James’s nephew, George.
From 1810 to 1825, George, the quintessential absentee land owner, ran the plantation from his Bristol residence, Linden Place, where he also oversaw many other business ventures, including slave trading and privateering. However, a failed sugar harvest in 1825 and the ensuing economic fallout forced George to declare bankruptcy. He and his family fled Bristol under cover of night, seeking safe haven on their Cuban plantation. George lived until 1844, and it is likely that slaves at Noah’s Ark continued to produce sugar until well into the 1850s. This brings us to a modestly-sized painting, only about 10×14 inches, which now hangs in the Linden Place historic house museum.
We know little about this painting, save that it belonged to George DeWolf and depicts his Cuban plantation.The painting therefore dates to the first half of the nineteenth century. We do not know who painted this “house portrait” either. Prior to the Civil War, amateur painters from plantation owners’ families often completed paintings of this type. George brought his wife and children to live on the Noah’s Ark in 1825, so perhaps one of them executed this portrait. Perhaps George’s daughter Theodora DeWolf Colt, who regained ownership of Linden Place in 1865, brought the painting back with her from Cuba. On the other hand, a member of the DeWolf family may have commissioned the work prior to 1825 with the intent of displaying it at Linden Place.
Regardless of how it came to be, the painting serves a dual purpose. Nearly two centuries after its creation, it reminds us that a Northern family owned hundreds of slaves in Cuba while residing in a state that began gradually emancipating its enslaved population in 1784. It illustrates that well into the nineteenth century that family’s economic livelihood depended upon a trade outlawed since 1808. The DeWolf family directly participated in the Middle Passage and slavery, transporting Africans to Cuba and beyond, all the while holding hundreds in bondage. The painting also provides a glimpse into how the DeWolfs, like other plantation owners of the American South and Caribbean, viewed their property—not just the land but also the enslaved humans.
In many ways, this painting exemplifies plantation painting prior to the Civil War; by the second half of the nineteenth century such landscapes took a distinct turn for the nostalgic. But before the abolition of slavery, plantation paintings had much more in common with European estate portraits. The painting’s style follows the European picturesque tradition, with the feathery brushwork, an emphasis on lush nature framing the foreground, and the hint of a stream running through the rolling fields. The picturesque contains both orderly and poetic elements, celebrating the natural landscape in conjunction with the progress of Western civilization. Though providing a nearly panoramic view, the physical labor necessary to run such a plantation remains largely absent. A few cattle and a single person, presumably a slave, are visually overwhelmed by the surrounding scenery; small and insignificant, they add a bit of variety to the foreground and little else. The painting places the house itself at a respectful distance, slightly to the side and up, as if the viewer must lift his or her head in order to gaze at it. Just behind the house, two gently smoking stacks of a sugar house peek out from behind, communicating that this is, specifically, a sugar plantation. All is peaceful. All is calm.
In essence, the estate portrait functions as an emblem of wealth. It serves as a visual record of the plantation owner’s prosperity and, due to the positioning of the house, central importance over everything around him. Whether this landscape portrait was exhibited in Linden Place prior to George’s move to Cuba, or was primarily displayed at Noah’s Ark itself, the painting would have served as a physical reminder of George’s authority and status as a landowner and, implicitly, a slave owner.
For all its picturesque tranquility, this plantation house portrait is hardly representative of how the Cuban landscape was peopled. Enslaved people made up more than 40% of Cuba’s population in 1827, two years after George’s arrival. In contrast, plantation portraits generally refrained from depicting the presence of slaves in any real capacity. What little is known about the daily life of the enslaved population of Cuba comes from the only two surviving narratives by Cuban slaves. Esteban Montejo, a Cuban slave born in the mid-nineteenth century, described the barracks, or barracóns, where the slaves lived:
All the slaves in barracoon. . . The barracoons were large, though some plantations had smaller ones: it depended on the number of slaves in the settlement. . . There were barracoons of wood and barracoons of masonry and tiled roofs. Both types had mud floors and were dirty as hell. (The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave)
Noah’s Ark surely contained slave quarters, and yet the numerous slaves and their “dirty as hell” barracks remain absent from the estate portrait.
John Michael Vlach, Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University, wrote extensively on American plantation paintings in The Planter’s Prospect. He argues that the lack of a black presence in this pre-Civil War period of plantation landscapes stems from a combination of aesthetic, class, and racial biases. He points out that on an artistic level, the British landscape tradition from which these paintings originated focused on the natural world rather than labor and people. Vlach goes on to suggest that the artists from whom plantation owners commissioned such paintings, or their artistically inclined family members, would have sought to flatter the patron and his family, centering them or representations of them, as the work’s focus. Contemporary proslavery rhetoric debased the slave population, making black figures unsuitable for portraiture. All of these elements of a plantation house portrait would also play into assuaging white anxiety about the large black population and the possibility of slave revolts. The primacy of the family over the landscape, through their house and the suppression of a black visual presence, provides “soothing propaganda” that reaffirms the family’s power and authority over both their land and human property.
To be sure, the Noah’s Ark landscape is not the only example of plantation portraiture from the period. For $15,000 one can even purchase a Cuban sugar plantation landscape purportedly painted by Charles DeWolf Brownell in the 1850s. Nor was Cuban slave and plantation ownership the only, or even the most prolific, way that Northern families involved themselves with slavery. In addition to their Cuban plantations, the DeWolfs were the largest slave trading family in North America. And they were not alone. Before the ban on the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, nearly 1,000 slaving voyages left mainland North America from Rhode Island ports—more than from any other state. After 1808, an untold number likely departed in secret.
Northern complicity in slavery extended beyond Rhode Island to the rest of New England and beyond the direct trafficking and enslavement of people to trades that supported the slave plantation economies in Caribbean islands like Cuba. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Northern colonies produced foodstuff and other goods for shipment to West Indies plantations, an exchange known as the provisioning trade. Many people are also familiar with the Triangle Trade: vessels transported New England molasses or rum to the African coast, merchants bartered their wares for slaves whom they sold in the West Indies and mainland North America. The shipping industry in cities like Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, flourished. Northerners benefited from American slavery too. Slaves toiled in New England fields, labored on docks and at sea, worked as drudges and artisans, and cooked, cleaned, and kept house until the second half of the eighteenth century. Even after Northern states made slavery illegal within their borders, business owners throughout the region continued to profit from slave labor. Thanks to the cheap cotton produced by slaves in the south, the United States textile industry in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts, prospered.
More than 375 years after the ship Desire arrived in Boston and unloaded the first recorded shipment of slaves to the regions, historical organizations—from the exhibits at Lowell’s National Park to Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, to the Tales of the Slave Trade Walking Tour offered by the Linden Place Museum—have begun acknowledging the myriad ways that Northerners promoted and participated in the institution of slavery. So too, have many individuals, including DeWolf descendants, begun to speak about Northern complicity. Several members of the DeWolf family, led by Katrina Browne, traveled from Rhode Island to Africa to Cuba, literally tracing their ancestors’ connection to the trade. The journey resulted in a documentary and a memoir about their experience and led to the founding of Tracing Center, an organization that, among other things, aims to “create awareness of the full extent of the nation’s complicity in slavery” (Tracing Center,) Some DeWolfs continue to speak and write on the subject, including James DeWolf Perry who recently co-authored a book on interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites.
A photograph of the ruins of Noah’s Ark, shot by Thomas Norman DeWolf, author, speaker,and Executive Director of Coming to the Table, closes this blog post. The photos stands in stark contrast with the portrait of Noah’s Ark, which continues to hang on the walls of Linden Place. But both share a legacy that has become part of a conversation that will continue for years to some.
Bergad, Larid W. The Comparative History of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Browne, Katrina. Trace of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Documentary film. Cambridge, MA: Ebb Pod Productions, 2008.
Chambers, Steven. “At Home Among the Dead: North Americans and the 1825 Guamacaro Slave Insurrection.” Journal of the Early Republic 33 no. 1 (Spring 2013): 61–86.
“Cuba and the Slave Trade,” Traces of the Trade. Accessed April 17, 2015.
DeWolf, Thomas Norman. Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.
Estimates Database 2009. Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed April 17,2015.
Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.
Mack, Angela D. and Stephen G. Hoffius, eds. Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.
Marques, Leonardo. “Slave Trading in a New World: The Strategies of North American Slave Traders in the Age of Abolition.” Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Summer 2012): 233–260.
Montejo, Esteban. The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Translated by Miguel Barnet. New York: Pantheon Books, 1968.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Vlach, John Michael. The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.