J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Caesar Robbins and “Our Wood-Lot”

Following yesterday’s posting about fundraising to preserve the c. 1780 Caesar Robbins house in Concord, here’s an anecdote about Robbins that Franklin B. Sanborn quotes in his biography of Henry David Thoreau.

It comes from another writer, whom I haven’t been able to identify, describing the fine qualities of the man who owned the large property beside Robbins’s lot, Humphrey Barrett (1752-1827):

The following acts of his life make apparent some traits of his character. A negro, by the name of Caesar Robbins, had been in the habit of getting all the wood for his family use for many years from Mr. Barrett’s wood-lot near by him; this being done with the knowledge and with the implied if not the express consent of the owner.

Mr. Barrett usually got the wood for his own use from another part of his farm; but on one occasion he thought he would get it from the lot by Caesar’s. He accordingly sent two men with two teams, with directions to cut only hard wood.

The men had been gone but a few hours when Caesar came to Mr. Barrett’s house, his face covered with sweat, and in great agitation, and says, “Master Barrett, I have come to let you know that a parcel of men and teams have broke into our wood-lot, and are making terrible destruction of the very best trees, and unless we do something immediately I shall be ruined.”

Mr. Barrett had no heart to resist this appeal of Caesar’s; he told him not to be alarmed, for he would see that he was not hurt, and would put the matter right. He then wrote an order to his men to cut no more wood, but to come directly home with their teams, and sent the order by Caesar.
Several details in this story match what’s in other anecdotes about African-Americans in rural New England published in the nineteenth century. We have the simple, emotional black man, referred to by his first name. In contrast, we see the magnanimous white man in calm control—and he gets the honorific “Mr.” at every reference. All no doubt reassuring for white readers.

Of course, in the decades around 1800 when this incident most likely took place, no one was more aware of power differences than Robbins—he’d navigated in white-dominated society all his life. It’s only logical that he would act deferential towards Barrett when he needed something, while nonetheless pushing his claim to that wood.

And in this story, Robbins got what he needed.

(Picture above of a Walden Woods Red Maple from American Forests Historic Tree Store.)

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