Statue in Boston of Lincoln Freeing the Slaves
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If there is a sunny side to the history of slavery in Massachusetts, it is that by the end of the American Revolution, slavery had been abolished in the state. The state constitution, adopted in 1780, outlawed slavery and the 1790 Massachusetts census showed not a single household that included an enslaved person.
What took place in Massachusetts’ early history that caused slavery to become an accepted social practice in early New England?
Here is a synopsis of some of what I’ve learned about the concept of slavery and the practices of early colonial settlers.
Less than 20 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims, the first black enslaved people arrived in Massachusetts – by about 1638, to be more exact.
One man, Samuel Maverick of Boston, was one of the first persons in colonial Massachusetts to own enslaved people. Maverick was born about 1602 in England and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by 1624, becoming a wealthy land owner and owner/trader of enslaved people.
In 1635, he left for Virginia and spent a year there, returning to Massachusetts with two merchant ships. He was granted land on Noddles Island, which today is the location of Logan Airport.
Samuel Maverick is thought to have died about 1670, but in his lifetime, the bartering of enslaved persons became an accepted practice in Massachusetts and, eventually, spread to other New England colonies and towns.
There were two main factors at work here. First, the English settlers needed land, which meant displacing the Native Americans. Second, by the middle of the 17th century, New England needed a steady source of money coming in to build a robust economy.
A trade triangle between England/Europe, the West Indies and the colonies soon developed. Barbados was especially important among the Caribbean islands because of its sugar plantations, which required a lot of human labor the dangerous job of harvesting the sugar cane and turning it into the sugar that people wanted.
Massachusetts was able to supply lumber used to build merchant ships and then obtain European goods and the highly valued Barbados sugar. The economic well being of many Massachusetts families came to rely on this trade triangle.
Being enslaved was horrid anyway one looked at it. However, there were differences – not one better or worse – between slavery in the South and in New England.
New Englanders didn’t own large plantations so didn’t require the extensive amount of labor needed in the South or in the Caribbean. Therefore, there were far fewer slaves in the North. If a family had the means to have an enslaved person in the household, it often was just one or two.
There were no overseers in New England because they weren’t needed. Enslaved persons usually lived in the Massachusetts household with their owner’s family. Rather than toiling in the plantation sun of the South, they were clearing land, doing carpentry work, washing clothes and other grunt work chores. Hauling water from a well or river was hard work that the lady of the house often didn’t want to do. If they had a “servant” as the enslaved person was often called, that was a necessary chore that was assigned to the “help.”
Northern enslaved people often attended church with the rest of the townspeople. Remember, this is Puritan New England and everyone was expected to attend services on Sunday.
However, just as in the South, enslaved persons were forcibly removed from their homes, friends and families and sent far away across the sea. Just as in the South, enslaved people could be sold from owner to owner and again removed from friends and family. Lastly, enslavement was for life, aside from the rare circumstances where freedom could be purchased or manumission awarded through the permission or last will and testament of an owner.
For a time, Native Americans (often Pequots) captured in wars were then enslaved in Massachusetts. However, it was said that Indians were more surly and much less willing to submit to forced labor. In fact, they “had a habit of running away or killing themselves” rather than submitting to slavery as more than one account describes them.
Slowly, Massachusetts came to accept exporting the “difficult” Native Americans to the West Indies and, in turn, exchanged them for Africans brought to the Caribbean and then shipped north.
It is estimated that there were about 200 slaves in Massachusetts by 1675. Forty years later, there were an estimated 2,000 enslaved persons.
It is sometimes said that New England hid its involvement with slavery, but it seems to me that it was more like ignored and conveniently forgotten by the 19th century.
However, it wasn’t until the post-Civil War era that a number of New England town and county histories mentioned local slavery as a sad part of their past. They identified men and extended families who owned enslaved people and wrote about incidents in the past.
What is certain, though, is that our New England forefathers participation in and/or acceptance of the institution of slavery has been whitewashed right out of the version of American history taught to school children right up to the present day.