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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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Fears in Framingham and Elsewhere

Yesterday I quoted two Connecticut newspapers from March 1775 reporting on the detection of a slave conspiracy in Natick.

Such worries were nothing new. Back in September 1774, Abigail Adams had told her husband about a similar fear in Braintree:
There has been in Town a conspiracy of the Negroes. At present it is kept pretty private and was discoverd by one who endeavourd to diswaid them from it-he being threatned with his life, applied to justice [Josiah] Quincy for protection. They conducted in this way—got an Irishman to draw up a petition letting to the Govener telling him they would fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquerd, and it is said that he attended so much to it as to consult Pircy upon it, and one Liut. [?] Small [Maj. John Small?] has been very buisy and active. There is but little said, and what Steps they will take in consequence of it I know not.
Jason T. Sharples has found a deep tradition of such fears in British North America. The rumors would often take the same form: free blacks were tempting enslaved blacks, many masters and their families would be murdered all at once, blacks planned to burn the town…

The political and increasingly military tensions in Massachusetts in 1774 brought those fears to the surface again, alongside other, parallel rumors: that the British military planned to burn the town, that the provincial militia would raise 30,000 men and storm Boston, that the Crown would ship in thousands of French or Russian or Native soldiers. Most of those conspiracy theories were groundless.

People may have had their own doubts then, but they didn’t feel safe dismissing such dangers. Robert G. Parkinson just wrote about how such a worry affected people in Framingham as the war began:
Josiah Temple, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts (about fifteen miles south of Concord), published a book in 1887 on the town’s history. His recounting of what people remembered about the night of the Alarm was so different from the legend that he found it impossible to believe.

For four generations, the local story of the night of April 19, 1775, was that, as soon as the town’s militia marched north toward Lexington Green, a “strange panic” spread through Framingham. But that’s not what surprised the town historian, nor should it us. But what they said next certainly seems odd: “The Negroes were coming to massacre them all!” Some in the town, Temple noted, “brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.”
More specifically, Temple wrote that the “women and children” in two Framingham districts felt this fear, particularly Mehetable, “wife of Capt. [Simon] Edgell,” a slaveholder. Temple also said, “Nobody stopped to ask where the hostile Negroes were coming from; for all our own colored people were patriots.” Peter Salem, for example, was marching with Capt. Edgell’s company. A black trumpeter reportedly roused the town militia. But Framingham is right next to Natick, where a free black man named Thomas Nichols had been arrested for fomenting unrest.

A similar fear affected women who gathered for safety from the regulars at a home in Menotomy, according to the Rev. Samuel A. Smith’s 1864 history:
The report was spread abroad that the slaves were intending to rise, and finish what the British had begun by murdering the defenceless women and children. It excited great consternation, therefore, among the women gathered at George Prentiss’s upon the hill, when they saw Ishmael, a negro slave belonging to Mr. [William] Cutler, approaching the house. They thought their time had come, but one, a little braver than the rest, summoned up courage to ask, “Are you going to kill us, Ishmael?”

“Lord-a-massy, no ma’am!” said the astonished black. “Is my missis here?”
Since Ishmael had stayed behind to save the Cutler tavern from burning, he had cause to be annoyed as well as astonished. In 1780, Ishmael Cutler, then thirty-six years old, enlisted as a soldier. The next year, he paid the town poll tax as a free man.

COMING UP: Who was Thomas Nichols?


Jeanne Pickering said...

I've enjoyed the slave conspiracy series of posts very much!

Two small suggestions:

Abigail begins the letter as writing from the "Boston Garison". She starts the paragraph where she mentions the conspiracy "in Town" by relating that "Scot" has arrived and expected to find it "all peace and Quietness" as it was so at home. It seems more likely that she is referring to a fear of a conspiracy in Boston than Braintree. (Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 22 September 1774 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/)

Second, the "justice Quincy", to whom the fleeing informer had fled for protection, is more likely to be Edmund Quincy (1703-1788) who was also known as Justice Quincy and was a justice of the peace in Boston and Braintree. http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0291

An odd sort of "conspiracy" - to write an open petition to the Governor, the Council and the General Court. Two surviving petitions from May and June 1774 make no mention of an offer to fight. https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=55

The involvement of a renegade white person ("Irishman"), and the death threat are most likely add-ons as the original story spread through the rumor mill.

Again, great series. Thanks. Jeanne

J. L. Bell said...

You're right—Abigail Adams was more likely referring to rumors in the town of Boston than the town of Braintree. And that meant the justice of the peace was Edmund rather than Josiah. That would make it easier for British army officers to be (supposedly) involved since there weren't any such men in Braintree.

I don't think this rumor is connected, at least directly, to the petitions against slavery or the slave trade filed to the legislature. Those are usually said to be supported by some Patriots, such as James Swan and even Samuel Adams. The General Court had already voted against importing more enslaved people from Africa, a measure vetoed by the royal governor. Thus, elite white politicians from both sides could deploy the slavery issue against the other: either "you claim to support liberty but keep slaves" or "you claim to support liberty but preserve the slave trade."

There's no sign of an offer from local black men in the papers of Gen. Gage or (from what I've seen) Col. Percy. The rumor seems to have been founded in nothing more than white citizens' knowledge that enslaved people would prefer to be free.

Jeanne Pickering said...

Following up on my previous comment, on September 1, 1774, the Massachusetts Spy (page 2) reprinted an unsigned petition dated January 20, 1774, from enslaved Africans to His Majesty's Council and House of Representatives expressing their hope that their previous petition would be taken up in the new session. Perhaps the appearance of this petition started or added fire to the "conspiracy" rumors.

J. L. Bell said...

That 1774 petition had been supported by a legislative committee including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine, all future delegates to the Continental Congress. Royal governor Thomas Hutchinson had shut down the legislature before it could act, and then Gen. Thomas Gage had shut down the next legislative session even more abruptly. In printing the petition in September, the Spy, a radical Whig paper, appears to have been putting more pressure on the governor to reconvene the legislature for the sake of liberty, or at least to embarrass him for not doing so. That positioned the Whigs and their elected government on the side of liberty.

Discussion of the petition may have led in a very roundabout way to a rumor that the governor, not the Whigs, was promising slaves freedom. But I suspect that such rumors didn't need much to trigger that. In that same month, as I mention in my new book The Road to Concord, there was a rumor of a black man in Charlestown tipping the army off to where locals had hidden their cannon. I don't have any more evidence of that claim than what Abigail Adams wrote about. It just looks like the fear of an uprising of enslaved people was always hovering just below the surface, and it didn't take much at all for white people to start talking about one as if it were imminent.