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.

Dan Harper said...

I'm going to argue one very minor point, based on a piece of historical evidence that is not widely available: that Naomi Isaac was of Native descent.

The tradition that Naomi was the ward of a rich man in Boston dates from an 1875 publication. (See Quintal's notes. N.B.: while Qunital states that Naomi was a White woman, the quotation he gives from that 1875 publication does not say she is White.) I'm inclined to give little weight to this 1875 evidence. So let's look at another possibility.

The Town Clerk's records for Dorchester state that "Mr. Justice Williams" officiated at the marriage of "Cesar Ferre" and "Naomi Isaac" on 7 Feb. 1737.

Several months earlier, on Sept. 19, 1736, the records of the church in Cohasset show that one Naomi Isaac, identified as an Indian, "owned the covenant" or became a member of the church. (We still have that record book here in the archives of First Parish in Cohasset, where I serve as minister.) Obviously, just having the name "Naomi Isaac" doesn't mean this is the same woman. Nevertheless, there are reasons why this Naomi Isaac would be a plausible marriage partner for Caesar Ferre.

Let's start with the question -- Why would she have gone from Cohasset to Dorchester so soon after joining the church? There are many possibilities; she may have been a servant to or slave of a well-to-do White household who removed to Dorchester. Or with declining economic possibilities for Indians in Cohasset, she may have left to seek her fortune elsewhere (by the 1790 U.S. Census, there were no non-White people left in Cohasset; the Native population of Cohasset probably reached zero by the mid-eighteenth century). So here are two very plausible reasons for someone of Native descent to leave Cohasset.

Assume that Cohasset's Naomi Isaac was in Dorchester by 1737. The marriage of a Native Naomi Isaac to Caesar Ferrit makes more sense than the marriage of a White Naomi Isaac. Further, if the Native Naomi Isaac were a dependent servant or slave of some rich Boston family, that could be a kernel of truth in the 1875 tradition that Naomi was the "ward" of a wealthy Boston gentleman.

If we look at the 3 pieces of historical evidence we have -- Caesar Ferrit was of Native descent and fought at the Battle of Lexington in 1775; Cesar Ferre and Naomi Isaac were married in Dorchester in 1737; Naomi Isaac owned the covenant of the church in Cohasset in 1736 -- we can't be sure that any of these persons are connected. BUT if I'm evaluating the various possible interpretations of the evidence, I'm inclined to believe an interpretation saying that a woman of Native descent married a man of Native, African, and European descent, a man who later went on to serve in the Natick militia.

This becomes an interesting argument, mostly because of the way the later history of Native people in New England has been covered over or ignored. This story is also of interest because women of any race are so often left out of the historical record in the eighteenth century. (In fact, interpreting the evidence to claim that Naomi was White may turn out to be another case of erasing a Native woman from the historical record.) So whether it's completely provable or not, I think it's worth telling a story (not "the story," but "a story") of Naomi Isaac as a Native woman who became Christian in Cohasset, married Caesar Ferrit in Dorchester, moved to the praying town of Natick about 1750, and who may well have lived long enough to see her husband fight at Lexington on April 19, 1775.