Slavery in Colonial Sudbury and Weston: An Owl Pellet

Courtesy: Weston Historical Society

On November 18, the Weston Historical Society held an evening zoom program with Jane Sciacca, local historian and long-time resident of Wayland (which was once a part of Sudbury, in case you didn’t know), about the history of slavery in Sudbury and Weston. While Ms. Sciacca’s specialty has been Sudbury and Wayland, she explained that there were many similarities between Massachusetts towns in how slaves were treated, recorded and freed.

Here is the Owl’s summary of the hour-long program–to catch the entire detailed session, please check it out on Weston Media. Please know that any mistakes in the following summary are mine, and also there was much more available information on Sudbury, which I have largely left unsummarized as I’m about all Weston, all the time. Does Sudbury have an Owl? No idea.

Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1780, and several slaves successfully sued their masters to be released from enslavement in the following years.. In 1790, Massachusetts was the only state to report no slaves in its census. Reporting and having are two entirely different things, however, so there is some thought that there were still some “underpaid” laborers. While Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery, it was also the first to give legal sanction to it in 1641 by way of the “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” which grew in scope, allowing direct import of African slaves in 1644 and eventually revised in 1670 to allow the children of slaves to be enslaved for life. Little is known about slaves in Massachusetts before 1700, mostly because there are few records of the time. Folks were busy farming and churching and not journaling, apparently.

So why did Massachusetts need slaves when they were not able to year-round work a farm here in cold nasty New England? Slaves eat and have to have a place to sleep so were not an insubstantial cost item to the owners. New England folks had slaves for another reason–the area had many labor shortages so this was the only way to get the work done. Not all felt that way, however–Massachusetts native John Adams explained why he never had slaves, but others were hardly looked down upon for having them:

Courtesy: Jane Sciacca

The first evidence of a slave in Weston was a record of the baptism of a “Peter” in 1725 (most slaves only had first names, or at most the last name of the slaveowner). There was evidence of a Sudbury minister owning a slave, but there were no records of Weston ministers owning slaves. It is believed that slaves in New England were more skilled than plantation slaves–and many were taught to read so they could read the Bible. Some slaves could write–those Puritans were okay with all this. Unlike in the south, slaves mostly slept in their masters’ houses and many ate dinner with the family. It is believed that they were allowed to attend school, though segregated. In spite of this, they were considered property like furniture. Slaves in Massachusetts were allowed to own property–and one of the Weston slaves did own property in Weston.

New England slaves were allowed to have families…sort of. Because Puritans did not believe in sex outside of marriage, “marriage” for slaves was just sanctioned hanky-panky. Or so I will summarize it. Children of slaves could be sold–and those baddies over in Sudbury did indeed do that. Poor Phebey had to head over to Framingham at the age of two.

Courtesy: Jane Sciacca

In Weston “Jube” married an enslaved woman from another town, but they lived separately with their own families.

African Americans could be members of churches whether they were enslaved or not–there were 15 registered as baptized in Weston from 1725-1747. Three were later received into the church. Ms. Sciacca emphasized that church records are critical historical research.

In Weston, four tavern keepers during the Revolutionary War (from information in 1777) owned slaves: John Flagg (Flagg Tavern), Isaac Jones (Golden Ball), Josiah Smith (Josiah Smith Tavern or the JOSTice as I call it), and Jonathan Bullard (Bullard Tavern). All had one slave except Josiah who had two.

The will of Jonathan Bullard provided for his slave Coffey Peacock to be freed upon his death in 1778, which was before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. Peacock was invited to stay on at the Bullard Tavern as a free man. No one knows if he did, and if he were paid, or if he found another job.

Ms. Sciacca talked a litttle about the difficulty of researching slaves–during her 20 years of study, she has uncovered records of more than 50 “hidden” slaves in Sudbury, and she believes a similar amount may have been in Weston. In birth records, she found births noted for 32 Negroes. Most of the Negroes on this list were born enslaved. Census records and tax records are some of the best reserach items.

Tax and census records, Sudbury and Weston:

Courtesy: Jane Sciacca

People under 14 or over 45 were not counted, but it is clear that some families had a larger number of slaves than the officially-taxed one or two slaves. This is known because wills and inventories of estates often name a number of slave children.

In Weston, an inventory of property confiscated from Tory-leaning Elisha Jones of 22 Church Street at the start of the American revolution–the only property taken in Weston–showed a Negro on the property list who was then pressed into service for the “rebel forces.”

There is evidence in Weston that by the time of the American Revolution, the popular tide was moving away from slavery in Weston. This note by Samuel Philip Savage shows that his slave Jube Savage “left him”–he was freed– in April 1776.

Courtesy: Jane Sciacca

The presentation by Ms. Sciacca for the Weston Historical Society was fascinating–and makes the listener crave more information on the daily lives of these Weston (and Sudbury) residents. Some of the details will never be known–probably most. Is there enough to build a reasonable story? Yes.

In the spring of 2022, an exhibition will open at the newly-renovated Josiah Smith Tavern (you can read about the Owl’s recent tour here). While you learn about the history of the tavern, you will be walking where two slaves once walked, along with the family, friends and visitors to the old Tavern. For more information on that exhibition, please read the following, and consider supporting it financially:

History Under One Roof: The Evolution of the Josiah Smith Tavern

To celebrate the much-anticipated JST reopening in 2022, the Weston Historical Society is working on an exhibit “History Under One Roof: The Evolution of the Josiah Smith Tavern.” It will open in April as part of a town-wide celebration marking the completion of the Town Improvement Project and the JST Restoration. Watch this website for further details as they become available.

“History Under One Roof” will tell the story of taverns in Weston and display furniture and artifacts from the Jones family, who lived in the former tavern for three generations up to 1950. A timeline and informational panels will remain at the JST on a permanent basis.

Please consider donating to the Weston Historical Society to support this important exhibition.

JOSTice. Courtesy: Weston Historical Society

Leave a Reply