SLAVERY WAS PART OF WINCHESTER HISTORY
By ELLEN KNIGHT ©
Note: this article was first written for Black History Month, 2000, and published in the Daily Times Chronicle, Winchester Edition, on Feb. 24, 2000.]
Because the North was free while the South was slave during the abolitionist and Civil War eras, we may forget the first two centuries of American history when the north was not free and when slavery was practiced here in Massachusetts, even, though rarely, in Winchester.
The African slave trade began in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 when some defeated Indians from the Pequot War in Connecticut were shipped to the West Indies. The return cargo in 1638 included cotton, tobacco, and Negroes, probably the first arrival of African-Americans in New England.
Slavery as a punishment, either for criminals or prisoners of war, was an accepted European practice. Thus, a number of Scots defeated in border wars with the English were shipped to America, and many Indians defeated in war (including Squaw Sachem's son Wenepoykin during King Philip's War) were sent to the West Indies.
The Body of Liberties, adopted in 1641, contained the following article on slavery: "There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authoritie."
Later commentaries disagree about this article and its successors, whether it made slavery lawful or not. Many individuals decried the practice. The General Court of the colony condemned what it called "the haynos and crying sinn of man stealing." In 1645 and 1646 it ordered that some blacks be sent back to Guinea, hoping to deter "such vile and odious courses, justly abhored of all good and just men."
Nevertheless, slavery continued. The number of slaves in Massachusetts was never as great as in southern states, perhaps because the agricultural system generally did not require large gangs of laborers and the use of indentured servants was generally adequate for extra labor. It is possible also that the Puritan ethic, while not condemning slavery entirely, may also have influenced a more benevolent attitude.
In New England, slaves were concentrated in seaports like Boston and other cultural/political centers. In 1676 the number in Massachusetts was said (by Edward Randolph) to be "not above 200." Gov. Dudley gave the number as 550 in 1708. But during the 18th century, the number ranged between 4,000 and 5,000.
The end of slavery in Massachusetts has been attributed to the ratification of the Constitution of 1780, a 1783 judicial ruling, and the 1788 outlawing of participation in the slave trade. Whatever the cause(s), at the time of the first federal census in 1790, the slave population was reportedly zero in Massachusetts.
Did the practice of owning slaves extend to Winchester soil? The answer is yes, but, apparently, just barely.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the territory now within Winchester boundaries was part of other towns, Woburn, Charlestown, and (after 1754) Medford.
These towns definitely had slaves. The largest concentration of blacks in Massachusetts was in Boston. Charlestown shared the same harbor and mercantile businesses that promoted the presence of slaves. Medford, Charlestown's neighbor across the Mystic River, had an important shipyard and was also positioned to share in the trades and practices of Boston.
While the histories of Winchester and Woburn are silent on the subject, Medford's written history addresses the topic of slavery. In 1754, according to Charles Brooks' History of Medford, there were 34 slaves held by 20 owners. Most owners had one slave. The largest slave-owner was Isaac Royall, with 12 slaves in 1754. The Royall's slave house, in fact, still exists, adjacent to the Isaac Royall House now maintained by Medford as an historic house museum.
The Medford or southeast section of Winchester was originally a land grant to Zachariah Symmes. His son William was the first to live there. There is no known indication that William or his heirs had slaves, though his sister Mary, who lived in Boston with her husband Thomas Savage, had "a Negro maid," bequeathed to her by her husband (in a will written in 1675 proved in 1682).
In 1715, Ebenezer Brooks bought some land from William Symmes and built a house near Symmes Corner. His grandson Ebenezer (brother of Gov. John Brooks) lived there and had a slave named Caesar, inventoried in his estate in 1781. With this one record slave-holding is established in Winchester territory.
West of Medford, Charlestown stretched north to Church Street through the early 19th century. The Charlestown or southwest section of Winchester included principally the Gardner farm (the original Increase Nowell land grant) and the former Squaw Sachem reserve. To date no record of the Gardners using slave labor has appeared. As of 1771, neither they nor any of their neighboring land owners were slave-holders.
Though farther removed from the seaport, Woburn also knew the practice of slavery. The story of one slave has been written in articles and at least two books. His name was Amos Fortune (1710-1801), and he was owned by Caleb Copeland, a weaver in Woburn and Ichabod Richardson, a Woburn tanner. After obtaining his freedom in 1769, Fortune bought three wives, in succession, out of slavery, and moved to New Hampshire.
When he left, there were still other slaves in Woburn. According to a tax valuation list of 1771 (two years after Fortune was freed), 17 Woburn households had among them 18 "servants for life."
Were any slave-owning household in South Woburn? The answer, after a preliminary look into the question, is maybe not. However, the possibility of Woburn slaves living or working within Winchester boundaries has not yet been ruled out.
For one reason, we do not yet have complete records of all Winchester residents in this early period. For another, ownership of slaves was not always recorded.
In at least one case, it is known that the northern part of a family which bridged both north and south Woburn had slaves. That family is the Wymans. One of the immigrant founders of the family in America, Francis Wyman (1619-1688), left "a Negro girl named Jebyna" to his wife in his will. Nearly a century later, four Wyman households in Woburn had one "servant for life" each. None of these apparently were in South Woburn; however, a check of one year does not rule out the possibility of South Woburn slaver-owners at other times.
There is evidence that indentured servitude was known among at least one generation of Converses (the family of the first house-builder). The will of Samuel Converse (1637-1669) includes a "man servant" as part of his estate. This is probably not an African slave, since he is not identified as a Negro and since a time period of "about a year" is specified in connection with this servant.
Opportunities for slavery in Winchester were not great. The area was sparsely populated through the end of the 18th century. In 1798 there were apparently only about three dozen houses within its area. Some of these houses were owned by families related to known slave-owners, but (until further research is conducted) one cannot say that the Winchester branches were slave-owners themselves.
As part of the Massachusetts Bay colony, the territory of Winchester shares in its history of slavery. On its own, Winchester's history is apparently close to non-existent. The end of slave ownership at the end of the eighteenth century produced no change in this area's culture or economy. The area was ready for the appearance of abolitionism in the 19th century.
SLAVE HOUSE - The birthplace of Gov. John Brooks, shown as sketched for the History of Winchester by W. H. W. Bicknell, was also the home of a slave named Caesar, who belonged to the governor's brother Ebenezer. The house formerly stood at Symmes Corner.