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, April 29, 2016

Reviewing Thomas Nichols’s Case

In late February 1775 a Massachusetts magistrate had Thomas Nichols of Natick, labeled variously a “free Negro” or “mulatto,” locked up for “enticing divers Servants [slaves] to desert the Service of their Masters.”

Nichols was still in the jail at Concord when the Revolutionary War broke out. He must have witnessed the British troops under Maj. John Pitcairn force their way into the jailyard to disable three large cannon that belonged to the town.

On 13 May, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety took up Nichols’s case. Its records say:
One Thomas Nicholas, a negro, brought before this committee on account of his suspicious behavior for some time past, having been examined, Resolved, that it be recommended to the council of war to commit said negro, until there be further inquiry into his conduct. . . .

Ordered, That Mr. Isaac Bradish, keeper of the jail in Cambridge, be directed and empowered to confine one Thomas Nicholas, negro, till further orders.
A week later the committee voted:
That Capt. Edward How, Ebenezer Cutler, and Nicholas, a black fellow, now under guard, be sent up to Congress for examination and trial, and Capt. White is appointed to attend Congress, with the above named persons.

Voted, That the general [Artemas Ward] be desired to furnish a guard for the occasion.
On that same day the Committee of Safety recommended against enlisting anyone but “freemen” into the Massachusetts army. There were multiple reasons behind that decision: ideological distaste for forcing slaves to fight in the name of liberty, potential complaints from slaveowners, and a lingering fear of unreliable troops. (The Massachusetts government didn’t decide to bar free black men from the ranks until shortly after Gen. George Washington’s arrival in July.)

On 22 May, a committee of the full Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Watertown, chaired by Edward Mitchell of Bridgewater, considered the evidence against those three jailed men. The decision on Thomas Nichols came last, and it was recorded this way:
Whereas Thomas Nicols, a negro man, hath been brought before this Congress, and there being no evidence to prove any matters or things alleged against him: therefore,

Resolved, That the said Thomas be sent to the Town or District where he belongs, and that the Committee of Correspondence, or Selectmen of said Town or District, take such care of the said Thomas, that he may be dealt with as they, in their judgment, shall think proper.

Ordered, That Captain [Caleb] Kingsbury be directed to appoint some persons to conduct the above-mentioned negro to Natick, agreeably to the foregoing Resolve.
So that was it. The slave conspiracy that had made the papers as far away as Norwich, Connecticut, and resulted in Nichols being jailed for almost three months had “no evidence” to back it up.

And even after that, according to Natick historian Horace Mann, the town “confined” Nichols at the tavern of Pelatiah Morse (shown above courtesy of the Historic Buildings of Massachusetts blog). Morse’s bill for the food he supplied to Nichols and his guard is the evidence for that, but I don’t know how long the confinement lasted.

TOMORROW: Nichols’s in-laws.

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