Slavery in New England

When I think of slavery in American history, my mind immediately thinks of huge plantations, set in the South, and the Civil War. I think of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. I even think of that border state, Maryland, as I’ve come across mentions of slaves in my research there.

Massachusetts had never crossed my mind, at least not until I found the will of of 8X great grandfather, Peter Hay, who lived a very long life – born in 1696 and died in 1790. Peter actually wrote his will in 1768. It’s pages and pages long, as he accumulated quite a bit of wealth during his lifetime and was called gentleman in the court record.

Buried in the item noting the legacy being given to his son David Hay I found:

for my son David Hay my Negroes my wearing apparrel my guns Sword Cyder Barrels. . . .

The Middlesex County, Massachusetts deed index doesn’t state what type of document is being conveyed and those I searched under Peter and David Hay’s names didn’t turn up any purchases or sales of enslaved people, so the Negroes remain nameless.

I made this discovery several years ago. However, even realizing that there were some enslaved people in Massachusetts and the rest of New England – including a few Native Americans – I had absolutely no idea how entrenched the early New England economy was on the slave trade. That will be a subject for future posts.

However, as I’ve lately focused my research on resources to place my ancestors in their social and cultural contexts, I have learned more about the odious and reprehensible fact that many early Massachusetts families depended on either trafficking in human lives or in buying/selling goods closely associated with the labor provided needed for those goods.

History is what it is and can’t be changed or undone, but I am disheartened knowing that a few of my ancestral families were part of the sordid business.

Back to Peter Hay for a minute. The History of Malden (Massachusetts) by Deloraine Pendre Corey, published in 1898, contains an entire chapter on poverty and slavery just in Malden.

Peter Hay is mentioned in the book, with a note that in 1760, he  sold a negro named Tom to Ezra Green. I find no document in the deed index for this, so I don’t know if this information was found in a court record or elsewhere. It’s plain to see, though, that Peter had several enslaved people in his household.

Job Lane is my 8X great grandfather. He died in 1697 in Malden. He, too, in mentioned in The History of Malden:

Job Lane acknowledged his indebtedness to John Leverett of Boston for the sum of £30 for a negro boy called mercury.

Another my ancestors is Joan Antrobus. Her first husband, Thomas Lawrence, was also my ancestor. She married (2) John Tuttle and they migrated from England to Massachusetts and then in the 1650s left the colonies to live in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, where they died.

While there is no evidence that they owned enslaved people, John had a few shady business dealings (which cause him to skedaddle to Ireland in the first place), but John and Joan’s son, Simon, is mentioned both in court records and in letters written by Joan Tuttle about his keeping money/goods to himself in Barbados. Barbados was a major port in the triangle trading zone of human slavery.

Although these are the only instances so far that I’ve come across involving my direct ancestors and their business choices, there are a number of 17th century Massachusetts surnames that are tied to human trafficking in one way or another. A few, like Pratt, Lynde and Bucknam, appear in my own family tree.

What I’ve also learned is that travel between New England and the Caribbean was much more fluid and common than I had previously understood. Whenever I came across mention of a New Englander who died in the West Indies, I wondered what he was doing down there that early in American history. Knowing what I do now about the early New England economy, I understand exactly why he was there.

More on the history of slavery in Massachusetts coming up later this week.



One thought on “Slavery in New England”

  1. Hello. I came across your wonderfully entertaining and informative website today during my own genealogy research. I want to thank you for how well you have organized your information. Also, your blog posts are really interesting reading, but I see no way to subscribe to your blog. How do I do that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.