Native Americans and African Americans, 1780-1820
by Susan McGowan
Many people, historians and the general public alike, have claimed that Native people have vanished as a culture, but the truth is that not only have they not vanished, but also they have left many tracks and connections to their culture. Where is the evidence? Tracks and connections may be nearly invisible unless we are made aware of how and where to look. Often the superimposition of a new culture on the site of an old one obscures and even erases entirely both cultural and physical traces.
In the Pocumtuck homeland, where the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts now sits, once stood dozens of wigwams, clustered in small hamlets, scattered over the 8,000 acres. The Native people moved around their homelands according to daily, seasonal, and ceremonial calendars even as they moved between homelands to visit kin and to exchange goods. The wigwams are gone, it is true, but the pathways remain in the form of roads that connect the same places; the difference is that the settlements are now composed mainly of Europeans.
Many of the place names given by the Indian inhabitants have remained even though many of us do not know the meanings of the words: Pocumtuck, Peskeompscut, Wequamps, Hoccanum, Connecticut, Nonotuck, and many more.
In the early days of English settlement, in the treaties made between the English and the Indians, in place after place the Natives caused clauses to be written reserving traditional rights for themselves. For example, "liberty of fishing in ye Rivers," "to hunt Deere and other creatures," "to gather walnuts, chestnuts, and other nuts on ye Commons." They obviously intended to stay close to their homelands or to insure their rights to visit. To exercise these rights, some Natives resettled nearby but often chose to become less visible by moving to less accessible settings - ridgetops and small upland valleys. As a result, their presence often went unrecorded; no Native Americans were identified as living in Hampshire County in the state census of 1765. They were either undetected or chose not to declare their heritage. Sometimes Natives intermarried with members of other cultures - English, African-American, Spanish - and their names, and perhaps their allegiances, were changed.
Many English settlers were not aware of this pervasive, yet almost invisible Native presence, perhaps because they expected that Indian peoples would paint their faces, clothe themselves in animal skins, and live in wigwams. On the contrary, Native people lived everywhere in Massachusetts, spoke English, and dressed in the English manner of the day, while keeping alive their traditions even as they sometimes submerged their identities.
A very tangible clue to the continued presence of Native people is the existence of splint baskets in homes and museums of the Connecticut River Valley. The baskets were traditionally assumed to be colonial, but are distinctively Indian in their forms, method of manufacture, and decoration. Made for kitchen use, home storage, and farm work, the splint baskets represent one way in which Native and non-Native peoples interacted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the baskets were sold or acquired through barter for personal use or resale; others were given as payment for services provided. Basket-making served as a desirable occupation and, for at least some Natives, the baskets, when exchanged as gifts, were a way for them to build and sustain connections with relatives who lived at a distance. Traveling and selling baskets were ways to reinforce connections to the past, to particular people, and to places. The baskets found a ready market among the English.
From the Selected Papers of Sylvester Judd's Manuscript for the History of Hadley, published in 1905, is the following passage:
There were about these towns when I was young, and sometime built a hut on the edge of the woods or an old field, and lived there, Indian and squaw and sometimes more. They were in Hadley... and made brooms, baskets, mats, and bottomed chairs - all done with wood made into splints. Mrs. Newton of Hadley born 1776 says Indians and squaws peddled brooms and baskets in Hadley when she was young and after. She does not recollect that white people made or peddled brooms.
We have established that Indian people continued to live in the area around Deerfield, but groups of Natives also came for visits to the Valley, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, some from as far away as Canada. And from the evidence, their visits included not only the sale of merchandise but also discussions with local residents. The following account is from Dr. Stephen West Williams (1790-1855), a physician in Deerfield:
When the tribe of Indians from Canada were here in 1837, Louis Watso, their doctor, gave me an account of the principal medicine plants which they used in their practice. He said that a plaster made by boiling this plant - kalmia augustifolia (narrow- leaf laurel) - to a salve, applied to the affected part, would cure the rheumatism.
And, also this:
When a company of Indians from Canada were in Deerfield, in the year 1837, I was much affected with palpitation of the heart, and they were much offended with me because I would not take one of their preparations which contained a large proportion of snakeroot (asarum canadense - wild ginger). They used it extensively in many complaints.
At times, visits from Native people warranted notice in the local newspaper. This article appeared on August 1, 1837 in The Gazette and Mercury, the Greenfield, Massachusetts paper. The local residents showed some fear, at first sight of the visitors, but experienced a feeling of acceptance as they began to understand the reason for their visit, and further realized that it was a visit and not a resettlement.
Our people were thrown into a state of considerable emotion last Monday evening and Tuesday, by the encampment of a body of Indians from Canada, about twenty five in number who took up their lodging in the woods near the house of Samuel Picket, Esq. about three miles from the village. They Remained there until about four o'clock on Tuesday, when they passed through the village and went to Deerfield, where they encamped, and still remain. They appear to be comfortably well off for Indians, having several horses and wagons, and a goodly supply of blankets and buffalo robes. They are of the St. Francis tribe, descendants of Eunice Williams, daughter of Reverend John Williams, who, it will be recollected, was, with his family, carried captive when Deerfield was destroyed in 1704. One of the party, a woman of 86 years, the mother of the rest, is granddaughter to Eunice. They are very hospitably treated by the Deerfield people. We understand they will return to their homes, from which they have been absent nearly a year, by way of Albany.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black people lived in Deerfield as boarders and as landowners, slaves (until 1783) and citizens, whitewashers, gravediggers, and farmers. Some of them stayed here with their families after slavery was no longer an institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, while others came through looking for work and stayed only briefly. Whatever the reason, black people have made Deerfield their home throughout its history.
Although enslavement in western Massachusetts differed in many
ways from plantation slavery in the South - northern slaves were
often more included in the household routines, eating and working
with their white owners, had sleeping quarters within the house,
were taught to read and sometimes to write, and were baptized into
the church - slavery was a part of everyday life in the small New
England towns. In 1755 there were 2,674 Negro slaves in Massachusetts.
Eighteenth-century residents of Deerfield, Massachusetts were accustomed
to interacting with both slaves and free blacks. Both ministers
in eighteenth-century Deerfield, the Rev. John Williams and the
Rev. Jonathan Ashley, owned slaves. In a sermon given "to the
negros of Deerfield" by Reverend Ashley on January 23, 1749,
he pointed out how much better were their chances in a future life
than those of their masters and urged them, "for the glory
of God and the profit of their masters" they must toil on in
slavery in a "contented and thankful frame of mind." The
ministers were not the only Deerfield residents who owned slaves.
Between the early settlement and the 1780s fifty-five members of
the community were black slaves. Ens. John Sheldon, a farmer, owned
seven slaves when he died in 1732, and Ebenezer Wells (1691-1758),
another Deerfield farmer, owned two: Cesar, an adult male and Lucy
Terry, a girl of five or six when she was brought to Deerfield in
1730. Lucy, a storyteller in her older years, is believed to have
composed a poem, "The Bars Fight" after an Indian attack
in 1746 at a site south of the town of Deerfield known as the Bars.
Prominent citizen, Ebenezer Hinsdale, owned two stores, one in Deerfield
and one in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. His slave, Mescheck, was in
charge of one of the stores when Mr. Hinsdale was at the other.
Slavery was effectively ended in Massachusetts in 1783 with the
resolution of the Quock Walker case. The case, which went to court
in Worcester in 1781, involved a young black slave, Quock Walker,
who alleged he had been promised his freedom by his owner when he
reached the age of 25. The lawyer who represented his cause centered
his argument, not on the promise of freedom avowed by Walker, but
on the concept that slavery was contrary to the will of God. The
lawyer for the other side spoke of the Biblical recognition of slavery,
coupled with the good of slavery as a means of civilizing barbaric
peoples. In contrast, his arguments carried little weight with the
jury and Quock Walker was ruled to be free in 1783.
In the years after the Quock Walker case, restrictive laws against people of color began slowly to change: railroad transportation was integrated in 1842; interracial marriage was declared legal in 1843; the public school system became integrated in 1855. By 1838, abolitionists had founded 243 anti-slavery societies in Massachusetts and by the onset of the Civil War, with the influence of these societies, blacks in Massachusetts and the other New England states had more legal freedom than in almost any other region of the country. It is abundantly clear, however, that legal principles do not insure social realities; acceptance, respect, and opportunities for people of color were still uneven.
The census reports of 1790, 1800, and 1810 reveal that some of Deerfield, Massachusetts' black residents lived as boarders on the street and worked as servants or farm laborers. Others owned land and continued to live in the area for a number of years. Most members of the black community could read and write and the children attended the local schools. Gravestones in both Laurel Hill Cemetery and Mill River Cemetery mark the sites of burials of those from black families.
top of page