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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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thomas Nichols of Natick

On Monday I quoted a Connecticut newspaper report of the arrest of “one Thomas Nichols, a Molatto,” in Natick on suspicion of planning an uprising of enslaved people.

What do we know about Nichols? He appears in the Natick vital records on 17 Dec 1766, listed as a “transient.” He married “Patiance Ferrit” of that town, which was originally a community of “praying Indians” but was in transition to become yet another English-dominated farm town.

Patience Ferrit had been born in Milton in 1743. In Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-century Eastern Massachusetts, Daniel R. Mandell noted how her father Caesar Ferrit moved to Natick from Boston in 1751 “to live among his own Nation the aboriginal natives.” He brought his wife Naomi and four children born in Milton. The couple had three more children in Natick, as George Quintal detailed in Patriots of Color.

According to local chroniclers, Caesar Ferrit later claimed that only one of his grandparents was a Native American. The others were Dutch, French, and African. Ferrit said he himself was born in the Caribbean.

What’s more, Naomi Ferrit was of English extraction. She appears to be the Naomi Isaac who married “Cesar Ferre” in Dorchester in 1738, one of only a handful of marriages performed by a justice of the peace instead of a minister. There was even a local tradition that Naomi was the ward of “a wealthy gentleman in Boston” who employed Caesar Ferrit as a coachman. The young couple had fallen in love, this tale goes, and were forced to choose a poor life in Natick.

All those stories, some of which may even be true, testify to how the racial or ethnic categories that the laws set up were actually overlapping and fluid. The Native part of Natick was a refuge for families that crossed the society’s “color lines.” Did the Ferrits need to have ancestral roots in the Native nations of New England to live there?

By marrying Patience Ferrit, Thomas Nichols became part of that community. The couple had at least three children in Natick:
  • Isaac, born 1 June 1768
  • Ama, born 14 May 1770
  • Cherrity, born 23 July 1773
When their third child was on the way, the couple petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to be allowed to sell real estate. They needed permission to do so because Patience Nichols was listed as a Native American. On 19 Jan 1773 the legislative Acts and Resolves state:
A Petition of Thomas Nichols of Natick a free negro man Setting forth That he hath lately purchased a plantation in Natick, containing near eighty acres of Land with a dwelling house thereon and many good accommodations; that he has lately intermarried with one Patience Terry an Indian, native, of said Natick who had legally heretofore purchased the following tracts of Land, situate in said Natick, which Lands the Petitioner paid for, but the Deed was given in his Wifes name vizt. the first lot containing about forty acres, the second lot about eleven acres more or less, the third thirty five and the fourth lot between seventy and eighty acres; of which last mentioned tract the Petitioner claims only one sixth part That he is considerably in debt for the purchase of his plantation aforesaid and otherwise. And praying that he may be impowered to sell the four pieces of Land aforesaid, which lie scattering to enable him to pay his just debts and to purchase some Stock and Tools for his plantation aforesaid.
The legislature granted the couple permission to make that sale.

Thomas Nichols had thus gone from a “transient” new arrival in Natick to a property-owner, though his economic situation apparently remained precarious. And a little more than two years later he was locked up, accused of fomenting unrest.

TOMORROW: What was the evidence for those suspicions?


Cornelia H. Dayton said...

Six months after the marriage, Patience Ferrit Nichols could very well have come to Boston on a temporary errand or to work for several weeks. Robert Love's warnings contain this entry, dated July 22, 1767: Patience Nickols,came to town yesterday, last from Natick, “a free negro man's wife, she works at the tayler's traid,” is living now with Scipio Fairweather in Board Alley (Source: Suffolk File Collection, Suffolk File #87907, Judicial Archives, Massachusetts Archives, Boston)

J. L. Bell said...

Excellent info! Scipio Fairweather was presumably of African descent, suggesting a business network of people of color. Patience Nichols's departure from Natick during the farming season, leaving her husband, also suggests her sewing skills were more lucrative than what she could do in Natick.