Caesar Phelps

Caesar Phelps lived as a slave at Forty Acres, the home of the Phelps family, for only six years, but leaves in his stead a crucial document in to the history of slavery in the Connecticut River Valley—a letter, in his own voice. Caesar arrived at Forty Acres in March of 1770 at the age of 18, after Charles Phelps purchased him from William Williams in New Marlborough, Vermont close to the home of Charles’ father. [1] While living at Forty Acres, he suffered numerous health problems, especially with his hand, which became frozen and later swollen, rendering it unusable. [2] His relationship with Peg, the one other slave living at Forty Acres, is unclear, but Charles Phelps Sr. noted that he showed a clear change in mood for the worse once she left Forty Acres in 1772. Charles Phelps sold her to a man in Bennington, Vermont, so that she could be united with her new husband. Charles later intended to sell Caesar in Boston, possibly because of his disability, but Caesar remained at the farmstead until 1776.  Charles’ father, Charles Phelps Sr., wrote to Charles asking if he could take Caesar, offering Caesar an opportunity to make money for himself in a maple syrup business-- most slaves in the Connecticut River Valley were able to collect a small income for themselves by completing work for other families, which allowed them to make minor purchases such as clothing.

 Bill for the sale of Caesar, 1770

Bill for the sale of Caesar, 1770

 However, the burgeoning military conflict in the area prevented Phelps Sr.’s plans from coming to fruition. In 1776, Charles Phelps sent Caesar in his place to fight in the Continental Army. It was common for white men, when called up to serve in the army, to send their slaves as a substitute. Though salves would receive the same wages as their white counterparts,  they were required to give half or more to their owner. Caesar, however, wrote to Charles in September of 1776, complaining that he had not received his wages. His letter reads:

Sir I take this opportunity to Enform you that I dont Entend to Live with Capt Cranston if I can helpit and I Would Be glad if you Would Send me a letter that I may git my Wagers for I have not got any of my Wagers and I Want to know how all the Folks Do at home and I desire yor Prayers for me While in the Sarves and if you Determin to Sel me I Want you Shud Send me my Stock and Buckel. So no more at Present But I remain your Ever Faithful Slave

Sezor Phelps [3]

 Caesar's letter to Charles Phelps, 1776

Caesar's letter to Charles Phelps, 1776

Though the letter is signed “Sezor,” it is highly unlikely that Caesar himself would have penned it. Some Northern slaveowners educated their slaves in order to have them read the Bible themselves, yet there are only a few documented cases of literate slaves in the North. In the surrounding area, slaves known to be literate include Pomp, Lucy, and Joshua Boston, owned by David Parsons, Ebenezer Wells, and Eleazar Porter (Moses Porter’s uncle, Charles Phelps’ great-uncle-in-law), respectively. [4] However, there is no record of any slaves living at Forty Acres being literate. Caesar may have employed the help of a fellow private to write this letter, yet it is still poignant, written in his own words. The “stock and buckel” Caesar requests would have been his neck stock and buckle, a clasp that held a tightly wrapped piece of fabric around the neck. [5] They would have been some or all of the possessions he would have been able to own-- slaves were able to purchase small items like this, usually with the exchange of labor. [6] Unfortunately, historical records of Caesar stop after this letter. Whether he died at Ticonderoga, returned to Forty Acres to find that he had been sold, or gained his freedom, we do not know.

Notes:

[1] Bill for sale of Caesar, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 4 Folder 15,  Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

[2] Elizabeth Porter Phelps Diary Entry, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 8 folder 1 (quoted Carlisle p. 65)

[3] Letter from Sezor (Caesar) Phelps to Charles Phelps, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 4 Folder 12, Amherst College Archives and Special Collection

[4] Romer, pp. 184, 64, Judd, pp. 313 (quoted Carlisle p. 84)

[5] Philbrick, p. 337

[6] Romer, pp. 92, 100, 116.

Sources:

Carlisle, Elizabeth. Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres. New York: Scribner. 2004.

Judd, Sylvester, 1789-1860. History of Hadley, including the early history of Hatfield, South Hadley, Amherst and Granby, Massachusetts. Northampton, Printed by Metcalf & company, 1863.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. New York: Viking. 2017

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Boxes 4 and 8, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Romer, Robert H. Slavery in the Connecticut River Valley. Florence, Massachusetts: Levellers Press. 2009.