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Eleven Names Project digs up history of slavery in New England

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Eleven Names Project digs up history of slavery in New England
Colonial-era tombstones in an Abington cemetery. PHOTO: WAYNE TUCKER

As the time of his death approached in 1783, prominent Abington resident Josiah Torrey may have been feeling generous. In his will, he granted freedom to two of the African Americans he held in bondage: Brister Gould, to be freed a year later at age 25, and an unnamed woman.

To Gould, he bequeathed 15 acres of land, but with an interesting stipulation: that he not alter or dispose of any of said land “without the advice and consent of my aforesaid Cousin Josiah Torrey upon any Consideration whatever, lest he should be beguiled and Deceived.”

Wayne Tucker, author of the Eleven Names Project. COURTESY PHOTO

The magnanimous dying gesture of a man grateful for his slaves’ service?

Wayne Tucker, who documents the transaction in the Eleven Names Project, his blog about enslaved people of Massachusetts, thinks not.

Tucker notes that Abington’s vital records show Brister Gould dying in 1823. While he left the land to his wife, Phebe, she appears a year later on the town’s pauper roles, indicating that either she was unable to sell the land or that the transfer may not have been approved by Torrey’s cousin Josiah, as stipulated in the will.

Tucker highlights Torrey’s cruelty to those he held in bondage, noting that he often beat a man named Cuff and made him wear an iron collar.

“Why, upon death, would a man of cruelty instruct his estate to emancipate Brister and his mother and grant him 15 acres?” Tucker questions.

When Tucker visited the land Gould inherited from the man who enslaved him, he found another wrinkle to the story: It consisted mostly of a swamp and was unfit for cultivation. He suspects the manumission was really a way the elder Torrey concocted to keep Gould in the employ of his family after slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts in 1783.

“As tempting as it is for some to find redemption in Brister’s manumission, I suspect that a further investigation into the material conditions of Brister and Phebe’s post-1783 life would show a narrative arc slouching towards sharecropping and bending away from redemption,” Tucker writes in his blog.

According to historian Jered Hardesty, slave owners in the Bay State weren’t all converted to the anti-slavery cause. Massachusetts residents sold more than 1,000 enslaved people to other states between 1760 and 1790, indicating that slavery for many didn’t end in 1783. Many others changed their arrangements to wage labor.

Tucker started the Eleven Names Project as a way to explore the history of slavery in Massachusetts.

“I wondered what I could find about my own ancestors’ connection to slavery,” he told the Banner. “We have this mythology in New England that it was extremely rare.”

What he found was that slavery was much more a part of Colonial Massachusetts life than is commonly thought.

An American Studies major at UMass Boston, Tucker says he was never trained in history. He’s worked for the U.S. Post office and in food service for the last decade. His entrée into history was his fascination with genealogy. During the pandemic lockdown, as he pursued that interest with increased time on his hands, he began researching slavery.

While there are several books written on slavery in New England, Tucker says recent advances in digitization of Colonial records have made possible greater advancements in research.

“We have digitized records that are indexed more than ever before,” he said. “A lot of stuff I would have had to go to a library or state archive to find, I could find sitting on my living room couch.”

While there were no censuses taken during Colonial times, by the Puritan laws that governed Massachusetts Bay Colony, every community was required to have a minister. Those ministers recorded births, deaths, marriages and baptisms in town ledgers. The records don’t include instances of enslavement, but probate records, which include wills, make enslavement explicit.

From his research, Tucker estimates that as many as a quarter of New England families owned slaves in the Colonial era. As the descendant of English colonists, Tucker says, he probably has a slaveowner in his genetic history.

“There’s no plausible way someone with my genetic background could say my ancestors had no contact with slavery,” he said. “People say, ‘My family descended from Pilgrims and Puritans so there’s little chance anybody had slaves.’ When you go back 10 generations, you have more than 1,000 ancestors. If it’s not a direct ancestor who owned a slave, it’s a brother-in-law or a cousin.”

Part of the reason slavery in New England was so well-hidden is because those who enslaved Africans and Native Americans often didn’t refer to them as slaves in their journals and letters.

Joseph Dudley, son of the Governor Thomas Dudley, for whom Dudley Square was named, enslaved an African named Brill whom he put to work as a coachman. While his name comes up in letters and other contemporary writings, the word slave does not.

“He is so integrated into the fabric of day-to-day life, they just refer to him as Brill,” Tucker says.

In Colonial records, the race and enslaved status of people of African and Native descent is rarely mentioned. Tucker notes that Josiah Torrey sent four of those he enslaved to war — three in the French and Indian war and one, Gould, in the Revolutionary war. Two who served in the French and Indian war met their death during that conflict.

Brister Gould’s daughter, Zerviah G. Mitchell, was a prominent 19th century
Native American rights activist.

While Brister’s wife, Phebe, lived in poverty following his death, their daughter, Zerviah Gould Mitchell, attained a level of prominence in 19th-century society as a Native American rights activist who petitioned the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs over unjust land transactions and published “Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy,” an 1878 work detailing the history of the Native American people in New England.

Mitchell’s book details the role Phebe’s mother, Lydia Tuspaquin, played as an amanuensis who recorded the history and goings-on of the Wampanoag tribe. Mitchell’s genealogical lineage goes back to Massasoit, the sachem who was a Wampanoag leader at the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival and includes several men who fought in the King Philip’s War, during which English colonists expanded their territory in New England.

Tucker’s blog posts detail his journeys through obscure records and well-known histories across the centuries. Among his takeaways is the realization that slavery was commonplace enough in Colonial Massachusetts that virtually every community had some exposure to enslaved African and Native American people.

“It would be impossible to disentangle the lives of people in Colonial New England and slavery,” he said.