Colonial Worcester County and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
materials funded: film, large-format camera tripod, film holders, luster print paper
The traditional land of the Nipmuc Nation, known as Worcester since its incorporation in 1722, is a place I have called home since 2015. However, historically for some people living in Worcester County, this was not a choice. The early settlements of Massachusetts have a history of slavery and indentured servitude through participation, trade, and commerce. The economy was built using enslaved Black and Indigenous labor. Colonial Worcester and the County cannot be separated from this history.
As the City of Worcester celebrates 300 years, Tercentenary 2022, how do we change the way the history of Worcester and Worcester County are taught to acknowledge the ties to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade? With this question in mind, I explored the history of the County using a large format 4x5 camera and primary sources (gravestones, vital records, church records, wills, bills of sale, freedom seeker ads, slave narratives, and account books) to deepen my own knowledge of the complicity of colonial Worcester County with the enslaved economy.
While this project focuses on the 17th and 18th century, the County must also grapple with the fact that our 19th century industrial systems (some lead by white abolitionist individuals) profited from enslaved Black Southern labor. The many local shoe and hat businesses sold their goods to oppressive systems and Southern plantations while growing wealth in Worcester County towns and prominent residents.
In his TED Talk, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University, cites Regie Gibson, a literary performer and educator, when he asks “Why do we avoid confronting hard history?” He says, “Gibson had the truth of it when he said that our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia. Nostalgia. We love stories about the past that make us feel comfortable about the present. But we can't keep doing this.”
How do we ensure what we are teaching in schools is history and not nostalgia? How can we encompass all the perspectives and sit with the complexity and discomfort of our own local history?
About the artist
Scarlett Hoey (b. 1990) is a photographer living and working in Worcester, Massachusetts. She received a BFA in Photography and Art History from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Born in Brisbane, Australia, and raised outside of Boston, USA, her life straddles the two cultures. She uses a large format camera to create photographs that explore the topics of people, identity, and history.
She is inspired by the work of Tracey Moffatt, Titus Kaphar, Kara Walker, Mark Klett, Nona Faustine, Jill Ker Conway, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. When she is not photographing, you can find her wandering halls of galleries, historic homes, museums, and cemeteries.
Scarlett Hoey, The Massachusetts Slave Census (1754), digital inkjet print, 11" x 14”, 2022, $300
The 1754 Slave census documents at least 88 people who were enslaved in the County. While we will never know the true extent of how many people were enslaved in Worcester County, colonial documents do show that many of the enslavers in our region held positions of influence, wealth, and power in their communities.
Governor Moses Gill of Princeton, Judge John Chandler, and Sheriff Gardiner Chandler of Worcester were enslavers who held civic roles in the County.
Many church leaders performing the baptisms and marriages of enslaved people were enslavers themselves; including Reverend Humphrey of Athol, Reverend Goss of Bolton, Reverend Prentice of Grafton, Reverend Harrington of Lancaster, Reverend Frost of Mendon, Reverend Whitney of Petersham, Reverend Eaton of Spencer, Reverend Parkman of Westboro, and Reverend Webb of Uxbridge.
Enslavers in the region also held military titles: Captain Daniel Henchman of Worcester, Captain Samuel Willard of Lancaster, Captain Nathaniel Allen of Shrewsbury, Captain Lyon of Leicester, Captain Thomas Cheany of Dudley, and Captain Stephen Maynard of Westboro.
Merchants such as Aaron Lopez of Leicester were also enslavers (view Former Site of Leicester Academy). Additionally, farmers and others of more modest station were also enslavers in the County existed as evidenced in the 1754 Slave Census.
While many enslavers were white men, women were also enslavers in Worcester County. Enslaved people were listed in wills as chattel and inherited by family members, including daughters and wives. An enslaved person is listed as a “Servant for life” to Widow Sanders in Westminster in the 1771 Tax Census. Dido, a 22 year-year old Black woman was a freedom seeker listed in a runaway advertisement placed by Margaret Tufts of New Braintree in a 1783 edition of The Massachusetts Spy. Before his precedent setting court case, Quock Walker was enslaved by Isabel Caldwell of Barre (Rutland District) who had inherited him from her husband (view Former Site: Courthouse).
Census information is important as a document, but quantitative data cannot replace the qualitative understanding that each number represents an enslaved woman, man, and child.
Questions for Audience:
- How surprising is it to you to learn that the same people who were performing religious rites were enslavers in a state that had been partially founded by people seeking religious freedom?
- How do power dynamics show up in census records?
- Why do you think so many church leaders were enslavers in the County?
Scarlett Hoey, Proceedings of the Convention of Worcester (1779), digital inkjet print, 14" x 11", 2022, $300
Commerce connects Worcester County to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The 1779 Worcester County convention established prices for goods produced locally (butter, wheat, cheese, cyder) and globally (West-India Rum, sugar). New-England Flip, one of the drinks listed, was a combination of beer and rum combined with a thickener of eggs and sweetened with molasses or cane sugar. Slave plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, and other Caribbean Islands had boiling houses operating 24-hours a day to refine sugar cane and create molasses. Rum, molasses, and sugar were all commodities exchanged as part of the triangle trade.
In Boston’s Old North Church educational curriculum An Exploration of Trade, Production, and Slavery: Chocolate and the Old North, Dr. Jared Ross Hardesty, a historian from Connecticut College, believes
“That no chocolate sold in colonial Boston was free of connection to enslaved labor. … Chocolate-making was a laborious and time-consuming venture and many chocolate shops in Boston relied on enslaved labor. Advertisements for the sale of enslaved peoples in Boston are revealing of this fact. …. advertisements specifically note chocolate making as a skill. This would suggest that these enslaved people had a specialized ability and knowledge of chocolate production, making them an integral part of the chocolate industry in the colonies.”
Learn more about Old North, Cacao Smuggling, and Slave Trading in 18th C. America
Questions for Audience:
- Can you think of other examples where profits resulted from the labor of enslaved people?
- How have your views expanded on the goods or merchandise sold in colonial Worcester County stores? Did you know the connection of chocolate to the slave trade?
- A question from the Cotton Town exhibit at Maine Maritime Museum asks: “How can we measure the liability of ship captains who witnessed and profited from the slave economy, yet did not directly own enslaved people themselves? Looking back at history, at what point in history do we draw the line between ignorance and innocence?” How does this apply to shopkeepers and merchants in Worcester County?
Scarlett Hoey, Flora, Meeting House Hill Cemetery, Princeton Enslaved by Governor Moses Gill and Rebecca Boylston Gill, inkjet print on metal, 10" x 8", 2021, Not For Sale
Scarlett Hoey, Nero, Meeting House Hill Cemetery, Princeton Enslaved by Governor Moses Gill and Rebecca Boylston Gill, inkjet print on metal, 10" x 8", 2021, Not For Sale
Scarlett Hoey, Thomas, Meeting House Hill Cemetery, Princeton Enslaved by Governor Moses Gill and Rebecca Boylston Gill, inkjet print on metal, 10" x 8", 2021, Not For Sale
"FLORA, negro woman serv. to Hon. Moses Gill, June 13, 1778, a. 44”
"NERO, negro servant to Hon. Moses Gill, March 2, 1776, a. 39”
"THOMAS, negro servant to Hon. Moses Gill, Sept. 14, 1782, a. 89"
Flora, Nero, and Thomas were individuals enslaved by the Gill family and buried near the center of Meetinghouse Cemetery in Princeton, Massachusetts. The founders of the towns of Princeton and Boylston, along with a Governor of Massachusetts, have connections to these three enslaved individuals.
Rev. Thomas Prince, town of Princeton’s namesake and a pastor of Boston’s Old South Church (1718-1758), and his wife Deborah Denny were enslavers. Church documents show Dinah, Lucy, and a third enslaved woman were part of the Prince household in the 1720s when their daughter Sarah was born. Sarah Prince remained in the family household until she married Moses Gill in 1759 at the age of 31.
Sarah Gill’s death in 1771 left Moses with more than three thousand acres of land from the Prince family. Moses later marries Rebecca Boylston, herself an enslaver. Flora and Jack were people enslaved by Nicolas Boylston and bequeathed to his sister Rebecca in his will on August 1, 1771. Flora is the second of the three “servants” to be buried in the Meetinghouse Cemetery.
It’s unclear but likely that Thomas, acknowledged as a “servant” and buried in the cemetery in 1782, was still enslaved when Judge Moses Gill was hearing the two civil trials that were part of the Quock Walker case (see Courthouse photo for additional information). The criminal trial (1783) overseen by Judge Cushing eventually helped establish the grounds for ending slavery in Massachusetts, although no law was specifically enacted.
By 1792 the Gill estate included: a large mansion house, a farmhouse, a coach house, a barn, and a shed. Moses Gill, a prominent and wealthy landowner, became Governor of Massachusetts in 1799. Ward Nicholas Boylston, namesake of Boylston, MA, and a nephew of Rebecca Boylston inherits much of the Gill land and wealth.
Questions for Audience:
- Why do you think Flora, Nero, and Thomas’s gravestones are located and marked with elaborately carved headstone in the Gill plot at the center of the cemetery when other enslaved people are often buried in unmarked graves or at the margins of burial grounds?
- For sites named after enslavers (Thomas Prince elementary school, Boylston Street) should there be a conversation about renaming them?
Scarlett Hoey, Othello, Center Cemetery, Harvard Enslaved by Henry Bromfield, digital inkjet print, 10" x 8", 2022, Not For Sale
“The faithful friend of Henry Bromfield / Came from Africa about 1760, / Died 1818. Aged about 72.”
Othello was an individual enslaved by Henry Bromfield in Harvard, Massachusetts. Othello is buried in the Harvard Center Cemetery in the northwest corner separate from the other graves. Enslaver Colonel Henry Bromfield (1727 – 1820) was buried in the Bromfield tomb in Kings Chapel, Boston. Bromfield was a Boston merchant who traded in damask fabrics, rum, ribbons, and spermaceti oil. Historians note his mansion in Harvard “was furnished throughout in the style then deemed the height of luxury.” After gaining his freedom, Othello continued living and working in the Bromfield household until his death in 1818.
In the year that Bromfield purchased his home, 1765, records show that there were at least 12 individuals of African descent living in Harvard. The History of Harvard (1894) by historian Henry Stedman Nourse notes “abundant traces of the existence of slavery in Harvard survive in record and tradition...” citing enslaved people in the town as early as 1735, three years after the town incorporated.
Questions for Audience:
- Do you think it is possible to be a “faithful friend” when an employer had previously owned you?
- Could Othello’s name be a reference to Shakespeare’s Othello, if so why?
Scarlett Hoey, Eden London, Old Centre Cemetery, Winchendon Revolutionary War Veteran Enslaved by Joseph Moores, Samuel Bond, William Williams, John M'Cluster, Joshua Holcomb, William Bond, Jonathan Stimson, Thomas Sawyer, John Ingersoll, Esq, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Partidge, Thomas Cowdoin, and Daniel Goodrich, digital inkjet print,10" x 8", 2022, Not For Sale
"Eden London Slave of Daniel Goodrich Enl. In rev war. Aug. 1776. Disch. Yet a slave 1779. Died Mar. 1810"
Eden London, a revolutionary war veteran, is buried near the rear wall in the northeast corner of the Old Centre Cemetery in Winchendon, Massachusetts. His grave was initially unmarked and was not decorated with the bronze Revolutionary War veteran’s marker until the 1970s. The 2004 National Park Service study Patriots of Color researched and prepared by George Quintal states that London enlisted in: “eight months’ service from Fitchburg (MA) on 10 May 1775…[served at] both Battles of Saratoga , spent the winter at Valley Forge [1777-78], …fought in the stifling heat at Monmouth (NJ),…served at West Point , ...and was discharged on 7 December 1779.”
More evidence about London’s life comes from the court cases of Winchendon v. Hatfield in the early 1800s. The towns disagreed on who should support London in his old age despite him being a revolutionary war veteran. His enslaver Daniel Goodrich would have received London’s bounty money and half of his wages during his latter three years of enlistment. As part of the proceedings, London’s previous enslavers names were listed, they were: Joseph Moores, Samuel Bond, William Williams, John M'Cluster, Joshua Holcomb, William Bond, Jonathan Stimson, Thomas Sawyer, John Ingersoll, Esq, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Partidge, Thomas Cowdoin, and Daniel Goodrich.
Questions for Audience:
- Were you aware that enslaved people fought in the revolutionary war instead of their owners? How does this change the way you think about people who fought for America?
- The court case between towns not wanting to support Eden highlights inequity in multiple ways; How do you think Eden’s life would have been different if he had been able to collect his whole wages from enlistment and generate his own wealth based on fighting for his country?
Scarlett Hoey, Former Site of Aaron Lopez’s Home and Store, Leicester Academy, Leicester, MA, digital inkjet print, 8" x 10", 2022, $300
The original Leicester Academy building was the house and store of Aaron Lopez, a Portuguese-Jewish Newport merchant, enslaver, spermaceti trader, and philanthropist. The building itself no longer exists. The original site was in downtown Leicester and near what is currently the Town Hall. Lopez emigrated from Lisbon to Rhode Island on October 13, 1752.
As one of the wealthiest men in Newport, his philanthropy included purchasing books for the Redwood Athenaeum and funding the Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in North America. Lopez also gave to the Synagogue a candelabra and laid the cornerstone on August 1, 1759. When Lopez died, Ezra Stiles, future Yale President and local Congregational minister, wrote that “[Lopez] was a Merchant of the first Eminence, for Honor & Extent of Commerce probably surpassed by no Mrcht. in America.”
Absent from this acknowledgment was his role as an owner or co-owner with his father-in-law, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, of ships that participated in at least 21 slaving voyages: Industry (1763), Spry (1764), Africa (1765), Betsey (1765), Sally (1766), Africa (1766), Charlotte (1767), Sally (1767), Hannah (1768), Mary (1770), Cleopatra (1770), Cleopatra (1770), George (1772), Ann (1772), Royal Charlotte (1772), Cleopatra (1772), Active (1773), Charlotte (1773) , Africa (1773), Cleopatra(1773), and Ann (1774).
When the British occupied Newport (1776-79), Lopez relocated his family along with the people he enslaved to Leicester. His house and store in Leicester were sold at public auction in 1783 after Lopez’s death.
Leicester Academy opened in June of 1784 with funds from prominent supporters, including a few individuals who were former enslavers: Moses Gill, Jeduthan Baldwin, and Isaiah Thomas. For the first two decades of the school (before a new building was built), students were taught in the rooms where Lopez and the enslaved people lived and worked. The school opened with three students and grew to over 75 pupils in this first building. Early students included Eli Whitney, Westboro-born inventor of the cotton-gin, and Ruth Henshaw Miles Bascom, teacher and portrait artist.
Questions for Audience:
- How do you feel about philanthropy as a form of recompense?
- How does a building’s history inform the present?
For more on Aaron Lopez explore the Rhode Island Historical Society papers and listen to The Irony of Aaron Lopez, the Merchant Prince of Newport
Scarlett Hoey, Former Site of the Gardiner Chandler Mansion, 478 Main Street, Worcester, MA, digital inkjet print, 8" x 10", 2022, $300
Gardiner Chandler’s mansion was torn down in 1867 to make way for new buildings downtown. The mansion was “described by a traveler, ‘as one of the handsomest which he had seen in the interior of the country.” According to Vital Records on “November 29th, 1767, the Rev. Thaddeus Maccarty married 'Cumberland and Dinah' negro servants to Gardiner Chandler.” Enslaved labor enabled many prominent colonial households to function, including some families in Worcester.
Gardiner Chandler held civic roles over his lifetime (selectman, treasurer). In 1762 he became Sheriff of Worcester County and held that role for thirteen years. The Worcester Historical Museum notes in their Revolutionary Worcester website: “In the years prior to the political upheaval of 1774, the town of Worcester was governed by a small group of men linked by marriage and common interests. This group included the Paines, the Putnams, and the Chandlers. Of these the Chandlers were perhaps the most prominent.”
Gardiner Chandler was not the only family member to enslave people. The Massachusetts Historical Society collection holds a 1769 “bill of sale for an enslaved person named Dinah” who John Chandler, his brother, purchased from Andrew Boyd for the sum of £40. Judge John Chandler, the father, has a will (1762) that states Sylvie and Worcester are to remain enslaved in the family and they eventually are inherited by Sarah Chandler Paine. After manumission a Worcester Winslow was employed regularly by Dr. William Paine, an early supporter of the American Antiquarian Society. Account books also show Worcester Winslow being employed by Stephen Salisbury I, a merchant and Salisbury Mansion builder. Additionally, Dr. Paine has Worcester Winslow in service providing a variety of tasks and exchanging labor for funds: “Lent Worcester 13/ -to pay for his boots, to be repaid by labour.”
Questions for Audience:
- What are some of the ways we can acknowledge enslaved people and the places where they lived and worked? What does it mean when these places are erased from the landscape?
- Where is the line between perceived charity (re:“lent”) and being employed with fair wages?
Learn about revolutionary Worcester and the Chandlers at the Worcester Historical Museum's Revolutionary Worcester exhibit
Explore more about this topic in African Americans Making a Living in Early Nineteenth-Century Worcester by Philip Schneider
View John Chandlers’ 1769 Bill of Sale for Dinah enslaved person on the Massachusetts Historical Society website
Scarlett Hoey, Former Site of Worcester County Courthouse & Civil Trials of Quock Walker, Barre (Rutland District), digital inkjet print, 8" x 10", 2022, $300
digital inkjet print, $300
In the years leading up to the American Revolution numerous petitions requesting freedom were submitted by enslaved and free Black people in Massachusetts. On March 24, 1775, people of color in Worcester and Bristol counties petitioned the Worcester County Committee of Correspondence for legislation “to assist them in obtaining their freedom.” The committee responded by publicly saying they, “abhor[ed] the enslaving of any of the human race.”
Two Massachusetts court cases helped bring an end to slavery in Massachusetts. The cases were Brom & Bett v. John Ashley, Esq. (1781, Great Barrington), and a series of trials in Worcester relating to Quock Walker (Quock Walker v. Jennison (1781), Jennison v. Caldwell (1781), Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783)). In their collection, the Massachusetts Historical Society holds Judge Cushing’s legal notes pertaining to the trial (1783), as well as a summary:
“The jury found in favor of Walker, an enslaved person who ran away from his master, Nathaniel Jennison, in 1781. Walker's case rested on the fact that his former master had promised to free him at age 25, a promise which Jennison had ignored. Cushing went even further, writing that ‘there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.’ When the judge gave his instructions to the jury, he explicitly declared slavery incompatible with the new Constitution of Massachusetts.”
Even with the Walker and Bett cases, along with numerous other freedom suits, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution was not amended to prohibit slavery. Massachusetts did not act legislatively on slavery until February 7, 1865, when the state ratified the 13th amendment.
Questions for Audience:
- Why do you think the state did not take legislative action to change the state constitution following the Bett and Walker cases?
Learn more about the Quock Walker Cases from the Massachusetts Historical Society
Explore the PBS page about the Walker trials