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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 6

Lesson Six
Student Essay: Slave Life in 18th Century Deerfield, Massachusetts

Although Deerfield never had a large population of enslaved African Americans at any given time in the 18th century, a number of residents did own men, women and children, starting at least as early as the 1680’s. Slavery was simply considered to be part of life in New England. Deerfield's residents must have been used 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 forty "servants for life" from the 17th through the late 18th centuries. The most prominent Deerfield families owned slaves. The Reverend John Williams (1664-1729) owned five slaves; the next minister, the Reverend Jonathan Ashley (1712-1780) owned three, and yeoman farmer Ebenezer Wells (1691-1758) owned two.


In New England, plantations like those in the southern colonies were rare, although there were some in certain parts of Rhode Island, for example. Male slaves in cities worked either in specialized trades or were involved in the shipping industry. Inland, where small farms dominated, it was common for white masters and African American slaves 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 rare in the North. Although most enslaved African Americans lived with their masters, this did not mean that they were treated equally, however. They usually did not dine at the same table. Sleeping space might be a corner of the kitchen or in the attic. Slaves often attended religious services with their masters but sat separately, usually upstairs in the gallery rather than in family pews. Throughout the town, work, commerce, and daily life presented many opportunities for slaves to interact, communicate, and form relationships with one another. However, the personal, more private side of slaves' experience is difficult or even impossible for us to reconstruct.


In the household, enslaved women like Jenny (or Jin), who belonged to the Reverend Ashley, took care of the children, cooked the family's meals over the kitchen fireplace, washed and mended the clothes, cleaned the house, and worked in the kitchen garden. Lucy, who was purchased as a child by Ebenezer Wells, worked in his house and also at one of Deerfield's taverns.


Male slaves, like the majority of the men in Deerfield, Massachusetts were involved primarily in agricultural work. The Reverend Jonathan Ashley owned two male slaves, Cato and Titus. In February 1752, Ebenezer Barnard was indebted to Reverend Ashley for work performed by his slaves: "thrashing" by Titus and "working" by Titus and Cato. In 1756 another entry states: "4 days work of Titus." In addition there are mention of a "days work of Titus dunging in holes for planting," "a days work of Cato reaping oats," plus husking, mowing, picking corn, howing [sic] pulling flax, cutting stalks and other tasks.

Ashley loaned his two slaves to people in other towns as well as to those in Deerfield. In October 1759, Cato was loaned out to Sharp Caleb of Greenfield, Massachusetts [George Sheldon reveals that Mr. Caleb, born 1752, was part or wholly of Indian blood and was a skilled hunter as well as a carpenter and millwright]. A reference in June 1757 shows Cato doing work in Northampton for Samuel Dickinson.

Abijah Prince, a free black man in Deerfield, had an account with Reverend Ashley from 1756 to 1768. Ashley provided Prince with help in the form of Cato and Titus to thrash, to dress flax, to cut wood, to help with sugaring (February 1757). The two slaves also plowed and planted in the spring, mowed, thrashed, drained, and took up stalks in the fall. All the named tasks were agriculturally related.

The evidence above suggests that Abijah Prince had his own farm. Prince had married Lucy Terry on May 17, 1756, and they were living on land given to them by Ebenezer Wells at the end of his Lot 26. Lucy had been the property of Ebenezer Wells for sixteen years before her marriage to Prince. Prince, then, a free black and landowner, was using slave labor to run his farm by paying the slave owner, Reverend Ashley, for their use.

Prince paid his debts in cash in several instances, and by work in others. The work included "2 hours work mending fence," and a quantity of spinning by his wife.

A survey of account books in Deerfield indicates that at least seven slaves had personal accounts with local storekeepers. On most occasions, work, rather than cash or goods, was the method used to pay the debts. Cesar, who belonged to Timothy Childs, bought a pair of shoe buckles and a cap worth two shillings, fifteen pence, from Elijah Williams' store. Thomas Dickinson's slave, Ishmael, purchased stockings, rum, a pair of gloves, a pair of garters and a handkerchief. He paid his debt of fifteen shillings by "3 days work" and by digging a grave.

Titus and Cato, Ashley's male slaves, also appear in Elijah Williams' account book. Cato bought, in 1755 and 1756, knee buckles, shoe buckles, pipes, knives, buttons, and rum, in addition to "a small pamphlet" worth two pence, two farthings. The purchase of reading matter suggests that Cato was literate; this should not be a surprise since Ashley was known to have tutored both slaves and young men for the ministry.

Titus settled his account of the purchase of needles, three yards of gartering, and rum by a combination of payments: making a broom, bottoming chairs, a quantity of tobacco, and cash.

Salah Barnard (1725-1795) also sold sundries and included Abijah Prince as a customer in 1765. Abijah bought a bed and blankets, pork, beef, sugar, and rum. He paid to borrow a horse for "a day to harrow," and a "man and cattle to get hay.' Abijah's account was credited by planting, cutting wood, cutting tobacco, and "chores."

Dr. Thomas Williams gave credit to both Abijah Prince and Titus for medical supplies, potatoes, cash, and veterinary services. The two men paid their debts to the doctor by work: "ferriage," making mortar, reaping oats, picking apples, and cutting tobacco; and also with goods: yarn, flax, pigs, and a heifer calf.

The slave Mescheck was owned first by Reverend Williams and he is listed in inventories in 1729 as a part of the minister's estate. Mescheck was described as a "mulatto." When Abigail, daughter of the Reverend Williams, married the Rev. Ebenezer Hinsdale in 1730, Mescheck became her property. He became an important member of the Hinsdale family; Col. Hinsdale had a large mercantile business both in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, and in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Mescheck seems to have conducted the business at one place while his master was at the other. In 1752 Mescheck had a personal account at the store of Major Elijah Williams, which the account book shows was squarely settled.

The slave accounts show the same methods of payment - cash, goods, and services - and a similar time lapse from purchase to payment, as their white owners in 18th century Deerfield.

 

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