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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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Another Mystery of Nero Faneuil

The likelihood that George Washington’s cook Hercules took his first owner’s surname and went by Hercules Posey in New York brought back thoughts about how another black man might have negotiated slavery and freedom in the early republic.

Last month I highlighted the name of “Nero Funels” on a 1777 Massachusetts anti-slavery petition. I posited that this was a phonetic spelling of Faneuil, and that the same man as Nero Faneuil was involved in two Boston burglaries in 1784.

One of the witnesses in those trials was Nero Faneuil’s wife Flora. Two other witnesses were surnamed Hitchborn (or a variation on that name):

  • Prince Hitchborn, almost certainly given that first name as an enslaved child, was at Nero and Flora Faneuil’s house in November 1784.
  • Elite young lawyer Benjamin Hichborn testified to Nero’s character.

That suggests some link between the Nero Faneuil and the Hitchborn household in the North End.

Boston town records state that on 20 Apr 1780 Nero Williams of Roxbury and Flora Hitchburne, “free negroes,” were married. I haven’t found any record of the marriage of Nero and Flora Faneuil. Nor have I found any other mention of Nero Williams. To be sure, there were other black men named Nero and other black women named Flora, but I haven’t found any other married couples with those names.

So here’s one possible reconstruction of Nero Faneuil’s life. He was either born into slavery or enslaved by a member of the Faneuil family, and used that family’s surname when signing the anti-slavery petition in 1777.

The Revolution sent different members of the white mercantile Faneuil family in different directions:
  • Benjamin Faneuil, Sr., had become blind and lived in retirement with his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and George Bethune, in the part of Cambridge that became Brighton.
  • That man’s sons Benjamin, Jr., and Peter were Loyalists, moving to Canada and elsewhere during the war and thus at risk of losing their Massachusetts property.
  • Pierre Benjamin Faneuil, a francophone cousin, came to Boston from Saint-Domingue with the hope of raising a regiment of French Canadians to support the Continental cause, but died of illness in 1777 before accomplishing anything.

Nero Faneuil might have belonged to any of those households in 1777 and then been sold to someone named Williams in Roxbury by 1780. Joseph Williams was a big farmer in that town, for example. If so, town authorities might have listed Nero with the surname Williams in 1780 in the record of his marriage to Flora Hitchburne.

In 1783, Massachusetts’s high court ruled slavery unenforceable. By the following year Nero Faneuil was a free man in Boston married to a woman named Flora. Was he also Nero Williams, having reverted to using the Faneuil surname?

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