African-American Presence in Deerfield, Massachusetts
In New England, enslaved and free African Americans left few historical
materials for scholars to study. No diaries have been discovered;
few inventories exist; correspondence is lacking; only scattered
evidence in merchants' account books, church and legal records documents
their presence. Our knowledge of African American life and customs
in the early days of settlement often derives from white observers
who may have been unfamiliar with or uninterested in the African
heritage and the personal lives of the region's African-American
population. New England masters assumed that in training their African
servants they would simply replace African language, patterns of
behavior and beliefs with Yankee ones.
It is probable that more than three-quarters of New England's black
immigrants were African by birth. Some entered bondage as displaced
people - captives from the losing side of a battle or war. Others
were kidnapped by raiding parties of local slave dealers. While
most new slaves were advertised simply as "just arrived,"
many British slave traders of the 17th and early 18th centuries
obtained their human cargoes from the Senegambia region (present-day
Senegal and Gambia.)
Although Deerfield never had a substantial black population - African
Americans comprised no more than 2% of the total population - there
have been black people there from the time of the second permanent
settlement in the 1680s. Slavery as an institution was considered
a legitimate part of life in New England. Deerfield's white residents
must have been accustomed to interacting with black people on a
regular basis, on the street, at the meetinghouse, and in the stores
of local merchants and craftsmen. It has been calculated that the
population of Deerfield included fifty-five "servants for life"
from the 17th through the late 18th centuries. The most prominent
families in the civic and religious life of the community owned
slaves. The Reverend John Williams (1664-1729) owned five slaves,
John Sheldon (1658-c.1733) owned seven, the Reverend Jonathan Ashley
(1712-1780) owned three, and yeoman farmer Ebenezer Wells (1691-1758)
In New England, plantations were rare but not unknown, as, for
example, in the Narragansett region of Rhode Island. Male slaves
in cities worked either in specialized businesses or were involved
in the shipping and maritime trades. Inland, where small farms dominated,
it was common for white masters and enslaved African Americans to
work side by side during the day - the males working primarily outside
and the females involved in domestic activities indoors. It was
also common for them to retire to the same house at night; separate
slave quarters were far less common in the North than in the South.
However, although enslaved African Americans lived with their northern
masters, they usually did not dine at the same table. Sleeping space
might be provided in a corner of the kitchen or in the attic. Slaves
often attended religious services with their masters but sat separately
upstairs in the gallery rather than in family pews.
It was common for northern slaves to hold accounts in stores. Elijah
Williams ran a store in Deerfield in the mid-18th century and kept
an account book that listed each patron’s purchases and methods
of payment. Included in his records are numerous accounts for slaves
and several free African American.
Many enslaved people in New England were purchased as youths. This
practice reflected the assumption among New England masters that
juvenile slaves might not be immediately productive but could be
more effectively assimilated into the family unit. Southern plantation
masters, in contrast, wanted slaves of at least middle teenage years
who could be put to work immediately in the fields under the direction
of experienced hands. In the more intimate family servitude of New
England, slaves picked up a functional grasp of their masters' language
faster than anywhere else in the world. The new slaves did not necessarily
reject their African heritage, but they soon learned that if they
were to function comfortably in New England, they would often have
to conform, on the surface at least, to Yankee customs and habits.
For example, as one enslaved person remembered, "I had long
wished to be able to read and write, and for this purpose I took
every opportunity to gain instruction."
While family-based slavery speeded acculturation in New England,
such relationships in no way precluded the brutal conditions enslaved
men, women and children might encounter through cruel treatment,
overwork, and substandard living conditions. It was common to separate
children from their parents. Advertisements for Massachusetts slaves
who ran away from their masters offer evidence of active resistance.
In 1749, Joseph Barnard of Deerfield placed a notice in the Boston
Weekly Post-Boy offering a reward for the return of Prince,
who had run away from Barnard. The notice described Prince’s
appearance and items he took with him when he fled. It is not known
where Prince went, but he was back in Deerfield by the time of his
death in 1752.
The Reverend Jonathan Ashley of Deerfield claimed in a sermon that
slaves were servants by divine dispensation and that any attempt
to escape or any dissatisfaction with one's lot in life was to the
"damage of their masters but would also be to the dishonor
of religion and the reproach of Christianity." The Deerfield
parson's attitude was shared by many. In addition, Samuel Sewall,
who served as a member of the Governor’s Council in Massachusetts
from 1691-1725, wrote that African Americans were “poor silly
wretches” who could “seldom use their freedom well”.
Many whites viewed them as being eternal children in need of care
and guidance from European Americans.
Slavery died out slowly in Massachusetts and other New England
states. The American Revolution and the language of natural rights
and the essential equality of all people challenged longstanding
social, cultural and political assumptions. In 1781, Elizabeth Freeman
(“Mum Bett”) and an enslaved man named Brom successfully
sued for their freedom from Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts.
No Massachusetts statute was passed abolishing slavery, but Brom
and Bett vs. Ashley and other, similar court cases slowly ended
slavery in the state by ruling it unconstitutional under the Massachusetts
Constitution of 1780 that declared all men to be "born free
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