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, April 05, 2014

The Will of Peter Fleet

Yesterday I mentioned an article by Samuel Eliot Morison that the Colonial Society of Massachusetts published in 1924. That article presented the transcript of a will written by Peter, an enslaved printer working for Thomas Fleet.

The original document was then “owned by Miss Mary Lincoln Eliot of Cambridge,” a descendant of Thomas Fleet. Morison, whose racial condescension is well documented (P.D.F. download; see page 55), described it as “written in a crude and semi-legible hand.” Which it might well be, but I’m not convinced Morison would have written any better if he’d been brought up in slavery.

Be that as it may, the will read:

Here Children I leave you some thing, that’s more than any Richest Master’s, Servant would leave to their Master’s Children considering what profit I have to my trade. Thomas Fleet jun Ten shillings and a pair of Buckles; but shall not wear them in three years from ye. time he has them. John Fleet—five shillings. Anne Fleet—five shillings. Elizabeth Fleet—five shillings. Simon five Shillings. Nathan Bowen junr. five Shilllings. Thomas Oliver five Shillings.

What little I had thought to give it to Molley; but thought her sister Anne would make a scuable, and take it from her; that made me continue [ADDENDUM, 3 Aug 2017: Caitlin G. DeAngelis reports this word looks more like “contrive” in the manuscript] so to do, &c.—There is more than enough, yet, left for Molley, because she is very good to servants.

Master and Mistres, I would not have you think that I got this money by Rogury in any thing belong’d to you or any body else, I got it honestly; by being faithful to people ever since I undertook to carry ye. Newspapers, Christmas-days, & New-years days, with contribution with gentlemen sometimes 3 pounds 10/s. and sometimes 4 pounds 10/s. and in ye. years 1743, 5 pounds I would Give you a true account; in my Box you may find a little cask with money, yt. I had when Mr. Wollington was here, I could say when Mr. Vaux was here, that I had some of his money, but I had so much dealing with a wench, yt: I don’t think that I have any of his money. One Way I and Love use to have when we had a great Work for ye. Booksellers, when money we use to have for to get Drink we kept it. I am not great Drinker Nor no Smooker, and I have a little more wit than I use to have formerly amongst ye. wenches.—You may find in my box a 3 pound Bill which I had for my Robin.

All that’s left is for Moley & Venis.

Boston, June ye. 2, 1743. Peter Fleet
The document was also signed by witnesses “Nathan Bowen Junr.” and “Thomas Oliver ye. 3.,” who had also been named as beneficiaries. Nathan wrote, “Sign’d Seal’d & deliver’d in presents of us, the abov Nam’d, & deliver’d to / N. Bowen junr.” Morison didn’t comment about whether that last line was any more or less “crude and semi-legible” than the rest.

Morison suggested that Bowen and Oliver were playmates of the Fleet children. The Thomas Oliver who grew up to be lieutenant governor was born in 1734, which makes him two years younger than Thomas Fleet, Jr., and one year older than John Fleet, so he could be a candidate. The most visible Nathan Bowen, Jr., of the time came from Marblehead, but perhaps he was in Boston for schooling or training.

What are we to make of this will? If Peter Fleet feared he was dying in 1743, those fears were unfounded: he lived long enough to inspire Isaiah Thomas’s attempts at woodcuts in the late 1750s, though he wasn’t listed as part of Thomas Fleet’s estate in 1759. Perhaps Peter Fleet was ill in 1743, or the “New Light” religious revival affecting Boston in the early 1740s had made him think more keenly about morality and mortality.

That said, another clue to this document’s purpose arises from doing the math. Peter Fleet had saved up some of the tips that subscribers to Thomas Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post had given him at New Year’s. In the most recent year those gifts totaled £5, and in other years they were over £4—considerable sums. (This document thus sheds an interesting light on those carriers’ verses I share every New Year’s.)

The will’s references to “Mr. Wollington” and “Mr. Vaux” might name journeymen printers who, arguably, should have shared in those tips. In fact, by law Thomas Fleet probably could have taken all that money in the same way that owners collected their slaves’ wages when they bound them to another employer. But Peter Fleet was at pains to argue in this document that he had come by that cash honestly.

By writing gifts to the Fleet children into this will—more than other slaves would give to their owners’ children, he noted—Peter Fleet may have been preserving his master’s good will and the greater part of his fortune for his own family. The specified bequests total to 40 shillings, or £2, and a pair of buckles. At the same time, Peter Fleet appears to have wanted to pass £3 on to “my Robin,” whom Morrison says was a son. And he leaves the residual of his saved-up cash to Venus, then an enslaved girl seventeen years old (a daughter?), and little Molly Fleet, “because she is very good to servants [i.e., slaves].”

Some authors have characterized this document as “obsequious,” but it may also have been a well-crafted attempt to preserve the private property Peter Fleet had been able to accumulate for his own family.

COMING UP: Peter Fleet the artist.

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