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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Monday, April 27, 2020

Onesimus Mather in Freedom

It’s hard to find traces of the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather’s enslaved servant Onesimus after the minister grudgingly manumitted him in late 1716 or early 1717.

In some respects that’s good because it means the man didn’t have to return to his former owner for support and thus get mentioned in his diary. (Because the minister would have been all over that.) Nor was Onesimus ever recorded entering the almshouse.

According to Mather, Onesimus had a wife and children while still enslaved. There’s no official record of this marriage, however. We don’t know the name of the wife or of any surviving children.

The vital records of Boston show two black men named Onesimus marrying and having children in Boston in the 1720s, the decade after Mather’s manumission. One of those men could have been the minister’s former servant marrying again—or perhaps neither were. Puritans knew the name of Onesimus from a slave mentioned in the New Testament, so they reused it.

The Rev. Joseph Sewall married one Onesimus to a black woman named Jane at the Old South Meeting-House on 3 June 1725. That couple baptized a son named William in that church on 23 Apr 1728. It’s not stated if they were enslaved or free.

The other Onesimus is more likely to have been the man who worked for Cotton Mather because he went to the Mathers’ meetinghouse in the North End to marry. This man was described as a free Negro when the Rev. Joshua Gee married him to a woman named Hagar on 15 Feb 1727. Gee was then Mather’s colleague at the church. Cotton Mather died a year later.

[Assuming, that is, that the marriage did indeed happen in what we now call 1727. The published Boston town records suggest that was a New Style date. But if the marriage actually took place on 15 Feb 1728, that was two days after the Rev. Dr. Mather died—too close to be a coincidence.]

The Old North Meeting’s records show Onesimus and Hagar having three children baptized:
  • Onesimus on 22 Mar 1730.
  • John on 10 Oct 1731.
  • another Onesimus on 5 May 1734, and time Hagar is not on the record.
That indicates the first Onesimus died young, and Hagar might have died as well. As the minister’s diary shows, Onesimus had already lost one namesake son and perhaps another son before becoming free. Eighteenth-century parenting was full of sadness.

Twenty years later, in 1754, a “free negro” named Onesimus married a woman named Phillis, enslaved to Rachel Fessenden. Again, this could be the baby baptized in 1734 or it could be a completely unrelated man.

A more certain appearance of the Rev. Cotton Mather’s former servant appears in the Boston selectmen’s records of highway repairs. I’ll explore why that source exists in future postings. For this one, it’s necessary only to say that in some years the Boston selectmen made a list of all the free black men in town. As Eric Hanson Plass noted in his study of Boston’s early African-American community, this is as close as we have to a census of those men.

On 11 Nov 1725, the selectmen’s list included twenty-six Negro men, including one named “Onesimas." They were drafted for “Eight Days...in Clensing or Repairing the High wayes or other services for the Comon benefit.” Again, this could be either Onesimus who got married that decade.

Thirteen years later, on 13 Sept 1738, the selectmen drafted five men for one day’s work and sixteen men for two days. In the second group was “Onesimus Mather.”

This confirms that more than thirty years after being given to Cotton Mather, and more than twenty years after becoming free again, that man was still living freely in Boston. It’s also notable that he was using his old master’s surname, which of course carried great cachet in those parts. That’s why, even while I caution against assuming that ex-slaves adopted their former owners’ surnames, I feel comfortable referring to this free man as Onesimus Mather.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Great detective work as always, but a big "thumbs down" on the Assassin's Creed image of the Mather's meeting house with a big cross crowning the steeple. A big cross atop Mather's meeting house? Really?

Ben Jacques said...

Fascinating accounts of Mather and Onesimus, richly relevant to several topics: colonial slavery, the complex and varied relationships between masters and "servants," Puritan theology and Mather's patriarchal acceptance of the duty to convert slaves, and, of course, the social-medical aspects of dealing with plagues like smallpox. I read Kathryn Koo's insightful article in the Antiquarian, also more on the smallpox epidemics that devastated cities and towns every few years. I've also written about this in my column: The Preacher, the Doctor, and the Slave. Thanks so much for your blogs, research, and good writing.

Ben Jacques
Stoneham, MA

J. L. Bell said...

I hadn't looked closely at the steeple—thought it was the weathervane.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Ben Jacques. I couldn’t find your column online, but I presume it was in the Stoneham Patch?

Frankly, I was surprised by the attention that the story of Cotton Mather, Onesimus Mather, and the smallpox inoculation got, especially on Twitter, since many people have told that story well already. The one new detail I was trying to bring to the table was this scant evidence of Onesimus Mather's life after being enslaved. But the July 1716 juxtaposition of Mather's first letter on inoculation with this diary entry about disposing of Onesimus is just undeniably striking. He was clearly struggling to resolve an untenable master-slave relationship, and in the end he decided to return Onesimus's freedom, walking away rather than profiting or trying again (and probably failing) to impose his will.

Ben Jacques said...

FYI, my two-part column, "The Preacher, the Doctor, and the Slave," will appear in the Stoneham Independent on May 6 & 13. It should also be on Stoneham Patch.

J. L. Bell said...

Ah, that explains it!