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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Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Database of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Petitions

Yesterday saw the official debut of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions. This online database is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Archives and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Center for American Political Studies, and Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Two years in the making, the collection offers views of 3,500 documents filed with the Massachusetts General Court from the 1600s to the 1800s. I saw a Twitter message saying that some of those petitions appears to have never been opened before being digitized.

Boston 1775 reader Nicole Topich, who worked on the project, alerted me to a number of items from the database relating to people discussed on this blog. For example, I’ve been passing on news about the identification of a young African-American portrait artist named Prince Demah. His mother Daphne appears in several documents because she was part of the estate confiscated from the Loyalist merchant Henry Barnes.

The state told the men it appointed to administer that estate to pay her from its earnings. The second of those men, Simon Stow, ended up suing his predecessor with the state’s encouragement. In June 1789 Stow complained to the legislature that he was still paying Daphne and thought she could live more cheaply in the countryside, but she was refusing to leave Boston. The legislature excused Stow from that responsibility. Two years later, Daphne petitioned directly, describing herself as having been “born in Africa,” “purchased by Henry Barnes, Esqr.,” and too old to support herself. The legislature authorized Joseph Hosmer to pay for her expenses on the state account.

Similar issues arose in the case of Tony (Anthony) and Cuba (Coby) Vassall, who had been enslaved to different members of the Vassall family in Cambridge. (As a child, Cuba had worked at the Royall House in Medford.) In 1780 the couple petitioned the legislature to be granted land from the John Vassall estate so as to support themselves. Tony stated that since the war began:
he and his family have since that time occupied a small tenement, with three quarters of an Acre of land, part of Mr. John Vassall’s estate in Cambridge and has paid therefor a reasonable rent, and all the taxes that were assessed upon him. . . .

the earlier part & vigour of their lives is spent in the service of their several masters, and the misfortunes of war have deprived them of that care & protection which they might otherwise have expected from them—

the land Your Petitioners now improve is not sufficient to supply them with such vegetables as are necessary for their family use, and their title is so precarious that they can’t depend on a continued possession of the same—

they might however promise themselves a tolerable subsistence by their industry & attention, if this Honble Court would grant them a freehold in the Premises and add one quarter of an acre of adjoining land to that which they now improve.
The following February, the legislature responded by voting Anthony Vassall a £12 annual pension but no more land. After his death, in 1811 the widow “Cuby” requested that the pension continue; her plea eventually succeeded, but she died the next year. Their son Darby, who reportedly met Gen. George Washington when he arrived at the John Vassall house to use it as his headquarters, lived long enough to sign a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law in 1861.

The database also contains digitized documents that don’t appear to have a direct connection with slavery. For instance, there are several petitions from Samuel Adams the wire-worker in the 1850s asking for compensation from the state for losses he sustained in the Shays Rebellion over sixty years before. They show Adams gathering pages of signatures in support of his cause, just as the opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law would do.

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