Blacks and slavery

George Cadman’s 1718 will indicates that he owned a slave named James, whom he specified be freed after three and three-quarter years. Additional research has not revealed any personal information about James or whether he was present in the Cadman household during Elizabeth’s childhood, but he was probably not a native-born African, since he carried an English name rather than an African name or one of the classical names commonly given to newly arrived slaves (Piersen, 129). Why George Cadman chose such a specific time frame for James to be released from bondage—three and three-quarter years following the drafting of his November 1718 will—is unknown, but perhaps the specified time indicated when James was due to come of age or when a particular period of service had ended. In any case, from the time of George’s death until James obtained his freedom in the summer of 1722, he likely resided with Hannah Cadman.

It is unknown whether Elizabeth and William themselves acquired any slaves to help them with the running of the household or with William’s blacksmith business, although it is a distinct possibility. Their son George, a blacksmith like his father and his brother William and the inheritor of the Cadman farm, owned two slaves that we know of; his December 1762 will mentions Zip (who appears to have married the Indian woman Elizabeth David and become the father of Westport’s Charlotte White) and Vilot (likely the same woman who married Pero Snell in 1772). George, like his father before him, specified that Zip and Vilot should eventually obtain their freedom—in their case on March 25, 1766 (Rounds, 164). (Under the former Julian calendar, abandoned in 1752, March 25 would have been considered the start of the new year.)

Although the local vital records for the period are limited and date mostly from the eighteenth century, they do include listings for other people of color with the surname Cadman or White, which could indicate a family connection. For example, Job White, the “son of Tack, a Negro Man, and Dinah, a Negro woman,” was born in Dartmouth in 1738 and Robin Cadman, a “negro, of Portsmouth,” married Mary Slocum, a black woman of Dartmouth, in 1773.

A cursory review of the Dartmouth vital records also reveals that, like many coastal New England towns, people of color were a significant presence in the area during the colonial period. Most of these people would have been slaves, and some are specifically identified as such in the records. Included, for example, are entries for the marriages of Boston, a “Negro Man belonging to John Wilber of Little Compton,” to Susanna Jeffrey of Dartmouth in 1772; of Ceser Slocum, a “Negro man belonging to Christopher Slocum,”  of Dartmouth to Mary Prince, who is described as a “Mustte,” or someone of European and Indian or African descent, in 1775; and for the 1739 marriage intentions of Deborah Jeffery and Jeremiah Elisha, who ended up being unable to marry because the banns had been “forbidden by Joseph tucker the master of the said Jeremiah [E]lisha.” Although the racial background of Elisha and Jeffery were not specified, records for other members of their families note that they were Indian or black.

Although the black population of Dartmouth was not large in the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, it grew after 1720 with the expansion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Most Dartmouth slaves would have come to the area by way of Rhode Island, which dominated the trade until its abolition in 1808, sending more than 100,000  Africans into servitude (Grover, 43).) The black population in Bristol County, which was concentrated in Dartmouth and Taunton, more than quadrupled between 1754 and 1764—from 61 (approximately 34 of whom lived in Dartmouth) to 293; it then almost doubled between 1764 and 1776, from 293 to 585 (Greene, 82, 342; Piersen, 164). By the latter date, on the eve of the American Revolution, Bristol County actually had one of the highest concentrations of blacks in Massachusetts; although only 2.1% of the population, the number of blacks in urban Suffolk County was comparable, at 2.4% (Greene, 337).

Records that describe the individuals named as “mustees” or “mulattoes” demonstrate  that many local people of color were of mixed racial heritage: black and white, black and Indian, Indian and white. Although the rate of intermarriage between whites and blacks  or whites and Indians would have been low, marriages of local Indians and blacks— particularly black men and Indian women—seem to have been fairly common (Adams and Pleck, 16). In 1765, for example, Ceasor Russell, a “Negro” man, married an Indian woman named Juda Canaha; in 1767 Exeter, a “Mulatto,” married Zilpha Elisha, an “Indian woman,” and in 1773 Pompe Peckham (or “Peckcom”), a “Negro man,” married Pege Jennengs, a “Mustee woman.” Paul Cuffee, who himself married an Indian woman named Alice Pequit, was the product of such a union, as his father, Cuffee Slocum, was  of African descent and his mother, Ruth Moses, was a Native American. (The couple had married in 1746 after Cuffee Slocum had obtained his freedom from his former master, John Slocum of Dartmouth, who, according to historian Lorenzo Greene, was one of the leading slaveholders in colonial Massachusetts (199, 355).) As in other locations during the colonial period, a shared marginal status in the community—some Indians were themselves enslaved—likely led members of the two groups to socialize and form bonds (Greene, 200).

The Quakers as a group, while later known for their abolitionism, locally did not begin to officially question the practice of slavery until 1715, and didn’t actively oppose it until decades later (Lowry, 21). The local Baptist church, likewise, was not an early advocate for abolition, and did not actively oppose slavery until after the Revolution (McLoughlin, Soul Liberty, 146).

An incident occurring in Dartmouth in 1711 highlights community ambivalence about the subject of slavery, as well as the sometimes tragic position of local slaves. Included in the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting Minutes for that year is a complaint made against a Quaker woman named Abigail Allen for the “cruel & unmerciful beating or whipping [of] her [unnamed] negro man servant,” for which she was disowned by the meeting. Although the servant evidently died as a result of this abuse, Abigail Allen was readmitted to the meeting within three years’ time (Dartmouth Monthly Meeting Minutes index; Worrall, 156). Historian Arthur Worrall writes that this “case of brutality … may have contributed to a brief spate of activity between 1716 and 1720 by some antislavery Quakers,” which first became “a matter of record” in 1715, when the Rhode Island Monthly Meeting called for a cessation of the branding of slaves. That year the Dartmouth Monthly meeting, Worrall writes, “pressed the Rhode Island Quarterly Meeting to decide whether Friends should own slaves or participate in the trade. Monthly meetings queried on the subject gave differing answers, but it is significant that the replies of rural meetings indicated an opposition to slavery. Dartmouth and Nantucket monthly meetings … urged that slaveholding be terminated among Friends…. But influential Quakers in Rhode Island managed to bury the issue temporarily in the quarterly meeting, which decided to see what Friends elsewhere would do” (156).

It was not until the 1750s, spurred by a movement to purify the Quaker church led by British reformers, that American Quakers began to push for abolition. In 1760 the Dartmouth Society of Friends would not accept the contribution of Jedediah Wood “because he had not made satisfaction with the meeting after his sale of two Indian children“ (Worrall, 159–60, 161). The last black slave to be freed in Dartmouth was a man named Primus, who was manumitted by his owner, Isaac Howland, in January of 1777. The following month the last Indian to be held in bondage, a man named Hazzard, was freed by John Akin (Grover, 43).

Even after local blacks became free, they continued to hold a second-class status in society. In 1778, the town of Dartmouth could claim that there was included “no Negro, Indian or mulatto among their voters,” and although the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 did not exclude blacks from voting, “custom and tradition,” as Lorenzo Greene writes, “apparently still barred them from exercising the franchise” (302–03). That year Paul Cuffe and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the right to vote, after having initially refused to pay their income taxes, stating that taxation without representation was unconstitutional (Greene, 302 n.60.)

Paul and John Cuffe’s 1780 petition to the Massachusetts legislature for the right to vote stands as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the 1708 petition of Baptists and Quakers in support of their right to freedom of worship. It is ironic—and sobering—that local residents who advocated for religious liberty also supported the institution of slavery, but it also reflects the realities and complexities of the time period.