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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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Vassalls’ Pension and Tonight’s Lecture in Medford

On 17 June 1858, an anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Massachusetts Historical Society held a special meeting at the house of member Henry W. Longfellow. Members shared some documents about the first owner of that house, John Vassall.

Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw recalled a case from early in his legal career that started when the state confiscated that property because Vassall was an absent Loyalist:
The estate having been confiscated by the Government because its owner was a Tory, when the commissioners were putting it up for sale, an old colored man, a slave, who had long served in the Vassal family, stepped forth, and said, that HE was no Tory, but a friend of liberty; and having lived on the estate all his life, he did not see any reason why he should be deprived of his dwelling. On petitioning the General Court, a resolve was framed, granting Tony a stipend of twelve pounds annually.

About 1810 (after Tony’s death), Cuba, his widow, went to the State Treasurer to get her stipend; but it was found that the resolve did not include herself. Mr. Shaw, then a member of the House, presented her petition for the continuance of the grant. It met with favor, and the annual sum was voted to Cuba during her natural life.
Shaw’s extemporaneous recollection wasn’t completely accurate, and reflects the dismissive racism of his time (referring to Tony and Cuba Vassall only by their first names), but it’s impressively close. The Massachusetts legislature responded to Tony Vassall’s petition by voting to pay “the sum of twelve pounds in specie, or a sum in bills of credit equivalent, to the said Anthony” each year.

Tony Vassall died in 1811, receiving obituaries in the Boston Repertory and Columbian Centinel. His widow Cuba petitioned for the pension to continue, and on 28 Feb 1812 the legislature granted her $40 per year. But she died only a few months later.

Tonight I’ll discuss the lives of Cuba Vassall and her mistress Penelope (Royall) Vassall at their first home in Massachusetts, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. Later they lived on “Tory Row” in Cambridge; Penelope was John Vassall’s aunt and neighbor, and in the early 1770s Cuba was his property. I’ll discuss how the Revolution disrupted those old relationships and sent both women off on new paths. That talk starts at 7:30. Admission is free for members, $5 for non-members.

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