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, January 04, 2013

“A Negro servant Man, belonging to Major Robert Rogers”

There’s an old joke in academic science that the authors of a paper believe the theory it puts forward but know the data is really crap. In contrast, all their colleagues believe the data and think the theory is crap.

I was reminded of that knee-slapper while reading the third of the three eighteenth-century papers in the 2012 issue of the Massachusetts Historical Review: Antonio T. Bly’s “A Prince Among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited.”

Prof. Bly recently published a compendium of newspaper advertisements titled Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century New England. That’s part of a larger project he calls the Inter-Colonial Runaway Slave Database, based on about 5,000 ads printed from Massachusetts to South Carolina between 1700 and 1789.

His paper includes some of the data from that study, and the findings are quite interesting. He can chart when people were most likely to flee slavery in Massachusetts, peaking in summer and in their twenties. He can document the rise of “Country born” and “Mulatto” escapees in the second half of the century. He can show that runaways in Massachusetts were more likely to be described as speaking English well than people in Pennsylvania, and far more than people in Virginia and South Carolina. Many more female escapees appeared in ads from South Carolina. There was a spike in Pennsylvania ads relative to the enslaved population during the 1760s.

But this paper starts with the nominal goal of deducing more about a particular man who escaped from New Hampshire in 1760, an effort that gets off on the wrong foot and never recovers. That man is described in a notice in the 28 Apr 1760 Boston Post-Boy signed by James Rogers which began like this:
RAN-away from the Widow Rogers of Rumford, in New-Hampshire, about a Month ago, a Negro servant Man, belonging to Major Robert Rogers, named Prince, of a middling Stature, about 30 Years of Age, has had the Small-Pox, looks very serious and grave, and pretends to a great deal of Religion.—

Since his Departure, he has sold most of his Cloaths, and now is but meanly dressed; he was in the Service the last Year, and has offer’d to inlist sundry Times, pretending himself to be a Free-man: He was lately taken up, but by his insinuating Discourse made his Escape again.
There’s a lot to be picked out there, but I think the paper sails right past the crucial starting-point. Bly writes of Prince, “In all likelihood, he fought alongside his master, who had been an officer in the militia. Had he seen Major Rogers fall in battle?”

No, he hadn’t, because Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire was the founder of the famous Rogers’ Rangers, later the captor of Nathan Hale and a Loyalist exile until his death in 1795. His life is quite well documented. At the time this advertisement was placed, Maj. Rogers was commanding soldiers at Crown Point, New York, and his younger brother James, a captain, was recruiting more men. That’s why, even though the major was Prince’s master, his relatives were handling the search for him.

It might be possible to find the will of Rogers’s father James to determine if he had owned Prince years before. It does seem likely that Prince accompanied Rogers in the previous year when the major’s men destroyed the Abenaki town of St. Francis. We also know that Rogers and his eventually estranged wife Elizabeth had enslaved servants when they lived in Portsmouth in the later 1760s, including a youth captured at St. Francis.

We even have another data point about Prince. In the 22 Nov 1762 Boston Post-Boy James Rogers ran another ad:
RAN away from me the Subscriber at Londonderry, in the Province of New Hampshire, on the 18th of September, a Negro Man Servant named Prince about 40 Years of Age, about 5 feet 5 inches high, speaks good English, had on when he went away a green Coat, blue plush Breeches, diaper Jacket, several pair of thread Stockings with him; he looks very serious and grave, and pretends to be very religious: He is the property of Major Rogers and has been several Years to the Westward, and pretends to be free.
Aside from aging ten years in two, this appears to be exactly the same man, returned and gone again. (There’s supplemental data about black soldiers in Rogers’s company in yet another ad, in the 30 July 1759 New-York Mercury, describing an African man named Jacob who claimed to have earned his freedom by serving for three years. Did Prince feel he was entitled to the same status?)

Instead of spotting that clue and following it up, Bly theorizes based on little evidence. He treats the widow Rogers as the author of this ad even though James Rogers signed it and his mother was hundreds of miles away. One paragraph says that Prince left “with nothing but an additional suit of clothes,” and the next that he had “gone off with quite a bit of clothing”; the ad isn’t specific either way. Bly suggests that Prince was “a gifted orator,” but that’s a different skill from “insinuating Discourse.” He concludes that Prince’s ability to move within New England society meant he must have been born here, but there are examples of Africa-born captives learning to maneuver well.

Almost a full page of the essay and two pages of notes are devoted to the idea that Prince’s parents might have been inspired to give him that name by the “Election Day” celebrations documented in New England from about eleven years after his birth. But I see no evidence that Prince was born in America, that his parents raised him, that they saw such a celebration, that they had the freedom to name him, that the term “prince” was linked to those festivities, &c.

The paper even acknowledges another escapee named Prince, from Watertown’s John Hunt in 1774. Prince was, in fact, a fairly common name among New England slaves, probably chosen by white owners with the same sarcasm that inspired them to name so many other baby boys Caesar, Pompey, and Scipio. (A study by Gary Nash shows that African-Americans in Philadelphia swiftly dropped those names in the generation after emancipation.)

After those four pages of conjecture, Bly’s paper settles down to a much more solid examination of the information to be found in runaway-slave advertisements. There are still occasional odd glitches, like citing a 1675 law about periwigs in the context of an ad from 1767, when fashions in hairdressing had completely changed. One detail I didn’t see discussed is “country marks,” or facial scarring and dental mutilation characteristic of some west African cultures (PDF download). Perhaps those were rare in New England, though Bly quotes a 1714 ad for a man who had “lost his Fore-upper Teeth.”

So in the end I had strongly mixed feelings about this paper. I was impressed by the data and would have been happier with much less theorizing. I hope Bly uses the Robert Rogers lead to draw a more grounded profile of the man named Prince.

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