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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 6

Lesson Six
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) owned two.

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 and equal."


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