Finally Freedom: Peg and Zebulon at Forty Acres

 Receipt for purchase of Zebulon Prutt. 1745

Receipt for purchase of Zebulon Prutt. 1745

Zebulon and Peg were two slaves at Forty Acres who were fortunate enough to gain their freedom towards the end of their lives. Zebulon Prutt, known as Zeb, was the first slave to live at Forty Acres after being purchased by Moses Porter at the age of fourteen from Jerusha Chauncey. After Moses was killed at Bloody Morning Scout, a battle of the French and Indian War at Lake George, Zeb became the property of Elizabeth Pitkin Porter, Moses’ widow. He lived at Forty Acres until 1766, possibly fathering two girls, Roseanna, b. 1761 and Phillis, b. 1765 with Peg. Zebulon was also a freedom seeker; in 1766, he ran away from Forty Acres, prompting the family to place an ad in the Connecticut Courant calling for his recapture and his return. The notice reads as follows:

Run away from the Widow Elizabeth Porter of Hadley, a Negro Man named Zebulon Prut, about 30 years old, about five Feet high, a whitish Complexion, suppos’d to have a Squaw in Company: carried away with him, a light brown Camblet Coat, lin’d and trimm’d with the same Colour- a blue plan Cloth Coat, with Metal Buttons, without Lining- a new redish brown plain Cloth Coat, with Plate Buttons, no Lining—a light brown Waistcoat, and a dark brown ditto, both without Sleves—a Pair of Check’d, and a Pair of Tow Trowsers—a Pair of blue Yarn Stockings, and a Pair of Thread ditto—two Pair of Shoes—two Hats—an old red Duffell Great Coat. – Whoever will takeup said Negro, and bring him to Mrs Porter, or to Oliver Warner, of said Hadley, shall have Ten Dollars Reward, and all necessary Charges paid, by

 OLIVER WARNER

Connecticut Courant September 8, 1766 [1]

 

Notices like this one ran in every issue of the Connecticut Courant, Boston Gazette, and newspapers all over the North, usually listing in great detail the clothing and physical appearance of the slave. Zeb had taken extra pairs of trousers and waistcoats probably with the hopes of selling them and earning some money for his journey. As Oliver Warner did in this ad, rewards of five or ten pounds were typically offered, and the notices would occasionally warn readers not to “conceal or carry the said Negro, as they would avoid the Penalty of the Law.” [2]

Sometime after Zeb had fled, Elizabeth Porter had sold him to Oliver Warner for 50 dollars. Families were apt to sell slaves even when they were not physically present—Caesar Phelps, another slave at Forty Acres, even wrote to the Phelps family while he was stationed at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War pleading with them not to sell him. When Zeb was eventually recaptured and brought back to Forty Acres, he would have discovered that he was beholden to an entirely new owner, for better or for worse. With the strict laws in place, the tempting reward, and the publicity of his escape, Zeb had had the odds stacked against him. Indentured servants at Forty Acres seemed to have a better chance of finding freedom—in 1779,  two indentured servants ran away within a week, but no evidence shows that notices were placed in newspapers or that a search was put in place. [3] Zeb was fortunate enough to gain his freedom at the end of the 18th century, most likely in 1786 when Oliver Warner died, when it was becoming increasingly common for slaveowners to specify in their wills that their slaves should be freed or paid wages after their death. Zeb died a free man in 1802, and Elizabeth Porter Phelps made no mention that he returned to Forty Acres after his sale.

Peg was purchased by Moses briefly after the construction of Forty Acre and lived there until she was sold to Captain Fay of Bennington in 1772. This sale is unusual in that it seems that Peg had a personal say in it, as it sought to benefit her in a small but powerful way. Elizabeth wrote in her diary that Peg was sold along with “a Negro man from this town al for the sake of being his wife”. [4] This also raises the possibility that Peg’s husband is the father of Rose and Phillis. While Peg was still enslaved, she seemed to have gained some agency since she was sold with her husband to Bennington—she was lucky, as it was not uncommon for sales to split apart couples or tear parents from children. However, Peg was later repurchased in 1778 by Charles Phelps, Moses’ son in law and Elizabeth’s wife. Though many slaves were sold by ‘public vendue’ (at auction), it seems likely that both of these sales took place in private. In 1782, Elizabeth writes in her diary that Peg has “gone off free.” What exactly did that entail? It is possibly that she was manumitted, legally freed, as some older slaves were, though Peg at the time was only about forty. As well, in 1782 the ‘abolishment’ of slavery, which was really a gradual period in which the practice was phased out, was only just beginning. Peg even returned to Forty Acres a year later to help care for her granddaughter Phillis when she was ill with tuberculosis. It seems that something was different about Peg’s relationship to the Porter-Phelps family that allowed her choice in where she was sold, and eventually her own freedom.

Notes:

1.     Romer 44

2.     Romer 73

3.     Carlisle 84

4.     Phelps 129

 

Sources:

“African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts.” Massachusetts Historical Society: 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=55.

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

Diary of Elizabeth Porter Phelps, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 8 Folder 2, on deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

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.

Phelps, Elizabeth Porter. The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, edited by Thomas Eliot Andrews with an introduction by James Lincoln Huntington in The New England Historical Genealogical Register. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Jan. 1964.

Receipt of purchase of slave,  Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers Box 3 Folder 4 Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

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

Phillis, Rose, and Phillis: Slaves and Illness at Forty Acres

                             Phillis' chest

                           Phillis' chest

With the little records we have of slaves who lived at Forty Acres, it can be difficult to piece together the connections between objects in the house and the lives of those who were used to support the farmstead’s survival. The chest upstairs, known as Phillis’ chest, is central to one of the inescapable factors of life as a slave in the North: illness. Between 1775 and 1783, three young female slaves died at Forty Acres. The last of them, Phillis, died within the chest, as she was being nursed by her owner Elizabeth Porter Phelps.

Rose (1761-1781) and Phillis (1765-1775, namesake of the second Phillis born 1775) both died at age 10 with no specific illness attributed to them; Elizabeth mentions in her diary the months before each of their deaths that they had been “poorly.”  Funerals were held for both, as was common, though we do not know where they would have been buried. It is unlikely that a headstone or a marker would have been placed at their grave.

Elizabeth writes in her diary that Phillis (1775-1783) suffered from the “King’s evil” the last year of her life when she was only 7 years old. Though king’s evil was the term for scrofula. her illness was most likely tuberculosis, as it was commonly misdiagnosed in slaves as scrofula (known as “struma Africana). [1] Slaves in the North were generally thought to be more prone to illness, especially because of the harsher climate and were often kept in outbuildings and garrets that offered no protection from the cold. There is currently no evidence that points to where the slaves lived at Forty Acres—they may have resided in the garret which would have been frigid in the winter and scorching in the summer, or in outbuildings that no longer survive on the property (the garret at Forty Acres locks from the outside). Thus, it is not surprising that Rose, Phillis, and Phillis had been ‘poorly’ during the winter months.

 

The two deceased girls, Rose and Phillis, age 10, had visited doctors, but Phillis age 7 received a slightly different treatment. In February 1783, Elizabeth notes “Thursday my husband and I up to Mr. Arams’ at Muddy Brook. He a seventh son—we took Phillis with us—think she has a Kings evil.” [2] It was believed that seventh sons of kings, or in this case seventh sons of seventh sons, could cure the King’s Evil by stroking the neck of the invalid. Phillis was brought to Mr. Arams’ to be stroked several times, all in vain. [3] She died a year later in May 1783.

                             Detail of the chest

                           Detail of the chest

Elizabeth, who is often terse and brief in her diary entries, writes rather sentimentally about the deaths of the three girls. She had cared personally for Phillis, bringing the chest downstairs to her study in the Pine Room to place her by the fire. By lining the chest with blankets, Phillis could rest by the warmth of the fire without being hit by sparks. After Phillis passed, Elizabeth wrote “she was a very prety Child, I hope she sleeps in Jesus, being washed in his Blood. Oh Lord grant it may make a suitable impression on all our hearts—remember the Children with mercy—enable us that have the care of ‘em to discharge our Duty faithfully.” [4] She exhibits empathy to the three girls, yet is unaware that their living conditions might ultimately have caused their deaths.

Notes:

1. Warren 50

2. Phelps 127

3. Carlisle 104

4. Phelps 136

 

Sources:

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

Diary of Elizabeth Porter Phelps, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 8 Folder 2, on deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

Phelps, Elizabeth Porter. The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, edited by Thomas Eliot Andrews with an introduction by James Lincoln Huntington in The New England Historical Genealogical Register. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Jan. 1964.

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

Warren, Christian. “Northern Chills, Southern Fevers: Race-Specific mortality in American Cities, 1730-1900.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 23-56.

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.