Slaveholder Israel Williams, for instance, was commander of a Hampshire County regiment defending western Massachusetts in both King George's and the French and Indian Wars. He was also a Hatfield Selectman, a state legislator, and a Hampshire County judge. His cousin, slaveholder Major Ephraim Williams Jr., was a military leader in the French and Indian War, and the founder of Williams College. Slaveholder William Williams was the minister of Hatfield for more than 50 years, from 1686 to 1741. Slaveholder Joseph Billings was a deacon of the church of Hatfield. Likewise, the “bills of sale” for their slaves were witnessed and signed by other Hatfield men of high standing – such as Oliver and Samuel Partridge and Elisha Wells.
We know very little about the slaves themselves, though. Where we know anything, it is hardly more than first names and ages, typically as noted in a bill of sale or a will passing ownership to next of kin.
Robert Romer, author of the book, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, notes on his website that he found some 21 slaves living on the Main St. of Deerfield in 1752—about 7% out of a population of 300. Did Hatfield have a similar percentage of slaves living and working here? Who were they?
That is why the few “bills of sale” and “notes in wills” that have survived become precious, because they are all we have to validate the lives of African American Hatfield residents forced to live as slaves. What follows are four bills of sale – all for children or young adults – the first and last from the “American Centuries” website of Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield (bill of sale links to come later). The middle two (plus the last), I found on Google Books, in Vol. 2 of A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts by George Sheldon, 1896:
The second is for a 9-yr-old boy named Prince, sold by Ephraim Williams to Israel Williams of Hatfield in late September, 1750:
For and in consideration of the sum of 225 pounds Old Tenor to me, Ephraim Williams Jr., well & truly paid by Israel Williams, Esq. of Hatfield, I do hereby assign, sell & convey to him a certain negro boy named Prince aged about 9 years, a servant for life to hold to him, his heirs against ye claims of any person whatsoever, as witness my hand this 25th day of September, [Anno Domi] 1750.
Eph Williams Jr.
The third is for a 16-yr-old girl named Blossom, sold by Hezekiah Whitmore of Middleboro to Israel Williams of Hatfield in late May, 1753, “To serve him, his heirs and assigns for and During ye full term of her natural life.”
And in the last, John Charles Jr. of Brimfield sells “my negro boy named J Romanoo, aged about 16 years,” to Major Ephraim Williams Jr. of Hatfield in February 1755, seven months before Maj. Williams would be killed leading a regiment in the French and Indian War.
He goes on to say that he is the rightful owner and that his slave shall now be the sole property of Ephraim “against the claim and challenge of any other person, and all Rightful Pretensions of his own, to Freedom, by any law or right whatsoever.”
How long did slavery last in our Valley?
Several Mass. court cases testing the validity of slavery took place nearly 30 years later, in 1783, finding against the slaveholders, but those cases did not make slavery illegal, according to Robert Romer. In fact, no attention was paid to them in any Massachusetts papers that he has found. Nor was there a definite time at which slavery ended, or became illegal, in Mass., he says, as slaves were taxed as property in the tax lists of 1784, and found in wills at least until the late 1780s.
In the will of Joseph Billings of Hatfield, for instance, set down May 6, 1783 – this from notes collected by an unknown researcher in a record book donated to the Historical Museum by the Whately Historical Society:
In it, he states it is his will that “Peter my negro man Servant shall be from and after my decease manumitted and set free – also the children of the said Peter [viz Jonah Peter. Elephalet & Amos] shall be manumitted and set-free as soon as they respectively shall reach the age of 21. In the meantime to be under the control of and detained in the immediate service of my cousins David and Silas.”
He adds that if any of his Negros should fall into poverty, then his cousins David & Silas should provide for them.
Bringing the hidden to light
We know so little about Hatfield’s role in this dark side of our country’s history, but we can start to find out. Going forward, the Historical Society in general, and those of us who work in the Historical Museum in particular, will try to learn more about the slaves who lived and worked here, and include their stories – along with the settlers, the soldiers and the waves of immigrants – as part of the history of our town.
A good start will be the first program of the Hatfield Historical Society for the coming year, when Northampton Historian Steve Strimer gives a presentation on “Slavery in the Connecticut River Valley.” Mr. Strimer is the co-founder of the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground Railroad Studies. His talk will take place Thursday, March 21, at 7:30 in the Church Parlors of the First Congregational Church of Hatfield, on Main St. Please join us.
If you’re interested in helping us research slavery in Hatfield, and/or have any documents or artifacts related to Hatfield slavery you’d be willing to loan or donate to the Historical Museum for an exhibit, please let me know!