Apprentices at Forty Acres

The papers of Charles Phelps Jr. include the documents of two boys contracted to live with and serve the family before they passed into adulthood. The Phelpses had relied on the work of at least six slaves and several more indentured servants (such as John Morison) in the years prior to these contracts, most of whom were legally bound to service either without their consent or out of financial necessity. This was in addition to “the usual stream of hired women and short-term workers such as needlewomen, weavers, and cordwainers, and as many as five hired men” [6]. But each had a different story. These two young men arrived at Forty Acres under a different category of indenture, one which may have offered them more privileges and protections than most servants. 

In 1783, Elisha and Rachel Searl of Northampton apprenticed their 12-year-old son David Johnson to Charles Phelps for a term of eight years and eight months [1]. While technically under an indenture contract, apprentices served for their own educational benefit, being promised instruction by their “master” in his (or her) specific trade. David would  “learn and be informed in the art or mistery [sic] of husbandry… after the manner of an apprentice.” Arguably the most formative eight years of his life would be spent living among the Phelps’ servant community, learning to farm and possibly manage the 600-acre property. In return, Phelps covenanted “to teach and instruct and cause to be taught and instructed in the art or calling of husbandry” and to provide the typical “meat, drink, and lodging” and care in sickness, as well as “two decent suits of apparel one for Sabbath day, and the other for laboring or every day.” Phelps also promised David a “freedom due,” a payment of fifteen pounds to be given after the term’s expiration. Northampton town records indicate a household headed by Elisha Searl from this time, and Andover recorded a David Johnson baptized by father John Johnson in 1771. David was more than likely taken under guardianship by the Searls from different parents, though the circumstances of either family remain unclear.

Craft apprenticeships in North America date back to the early colonial era, when the movement towards an independent American economy relied on the training of skilled craftsmen to supplement a primarily agrarian society. Boys between the ages of 14 and 17 were sent away from home to learn necessary skills like carpentry and cordwaining (shoemaking) until their 21st birthday [4]. Apprentices would emerge with the skills necessary to support themselves in their own businesses. Though the Phelpses’ apprentices trained and labored in agriculture rather than more remunerative crafts, their contracts promised the same accommodation of “meat drinke [sic] & clothing fitting such an apprentise,” that appeared on indenture documents as early as 1640. 

But by 1783, apprenticeship, which remained a local institution, had evolved in response to a series of factors. With urbanization and the beginnings of industrialization, the need for new craft-trainees decreased while rural landowners were slowly finding it more difficult to acquire ample farm labor. After 1790, early factories offered lower class youth steady pay for producing the same goods they might have needed years of unpaid training to make by hand. Also in the North, immigrant workers became a primary source of indentured labor. A covered cost for their voyage to North America satisfied most immigrants in place of the freedom dues which apprentices required [4]. Most significantly, owning slaves had attracted white New England citizens as a cheaper source of long term labor which did not hold them accountable for the education, payment, or even humane treatment of their workers. But beginning in 1782, the gradual abolition of slavery in Massachusetts meant farm owners like Phelps turned to alternate sources for labor.   

Akin to common or craft apprenticeship, pauper apprenticeship also developed in the colonial era, a practice which indentured children in the most dire circumstances. In these instances, orphans or children from families that could not afford to care for them were contracted by town officials to labor in the homes of wealthier families deemed more fit for child-rearing. Pauper apprentices rarely learned a skilled craft, and instead found themselves assigned to help on farms or carry out manual labor around the home. John Murray and Ruth Herndon’s study “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship” emphasizes that these were child servants with essentially no agency, who finished their contracts with minimal advantages. “Variation in freedom dues to suit the needs of the master or overseer of the poor, without reference to the worker-child's own interests, resulted from the child's lack of advocacy during contract formation”[7]. While parents and children were sometimes present to sign the contract, negotiations between the employer and overseer determined what it stipulated. Unlike Phelps’ indentures, cash freedom dues were not commonly offered to pauper apprentices [7]. Yet because conditions ranged a great deal between apprentice and locality, some “craft apprentices,” like the Phelpses’ may have had much in common with pauper apprentices.

The 1782 Phelps Barn, where both apprentices may have tended to livestock.

In the New Republic, rural gentry families like the Phelpses struggled to find suitable farm labor. The farm was at its height of size and productivity and remained their primary livelihood. Meanwhile, they had higher ambitions for their son Porter, despite his usefulness at home. The new American economy did not centralize around agriculture in the same way it had 30 years prior. Cities were growing, universities gained widespread prestige, and increasing numbers of prosperous Americans could become lawyers, doctors, ministers, scholars, or other educated professionals. While the art of husbandry would set up boys like David Johnson with enough skills for a sustainable future, his training was not the sort of education Charles and Elizabeth had in mind for their son. After learning to read and write, Moses “Charles” Porter (known as Porter) left home at age 11 to board with one highly respected mentor in Hatfield, the Reverend Joseph Lyman, while learning Greek and Latin at the nearby grammar school. Porter also accompanied his father to occasional court sessions in Springfield and Northampton [8]. When their son turned 15, the Phelpses paid for Porter’s education at Harvard University, after which he spent three years studying law as a clerk for the practice of Theophilus Parsons, Esq., in Newburyport [8]. The Phelpses prepared their son—just one year younger than David—for society and economic independence, a contrasting ‘apprenticeship’ for the elite.

In The Roots of Rural Capitalism:Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860, Christopher Clark confirms that from 1780 to 1820 it was particularly hard for farm owners to find proper labor, even amidst a growing population, because of the irregularity of the amount and duration of labor required. As a result, "most live-in servants identifiable in 1820 were young" [3]. Western Massachusetts land owners increasingly hired children––like David Johnson––during this period to acquire the long term farm labor they needed. Johnson’s term ended in 1791, and in the spring of 1802, Charles Phelps continued a common complaint as he admitted to his son that Forty Acres was “only half Mand” [3]. While employers sometimes saw the taking in of pauper apprentices as an act of charity or civic duty, regardless of the servant’s actual treatment, Phelps’ contract with David’s parents was undoubtedly a practical one for the farm. Still, with “no uniform system of apprenticeship” even at a state level, and variation in the conditions of apprentice contracts to suit the needs of the master, the experience of Phelps’ young husbandry apprentices likely reflected characteristics of both pauper and craft apprenticeship.

David leaves a sparse paper trail in the Phelps family papers in comparison to other indentures. In 1783, Elizabeth verifies in her diary several times near the date of David’s indenture contract that Charles went to Northampton “on errands”. These may have included contract negotiations and/or transporting Johnson from his Northampton home.

In January of 1807, Charles Phelps brought on a new apprentice. Once he and the Scottish indenture John Morison (as a witness) had signed and the apprentice and his father had each inked the page with their marks, 13-year-old Robert Frasier was contracted to serve a term of 7 years, 7 months, and 12 days [2]. Robert’s indenture read much like David’s; “I Henry Frasier of Hatfield… do of my own free and accord part and bind my son Robert Frasier…[as] an apprentice to Charles Phelps Esq. of Hadley… to learn and be instructed in the art or mystery of Husbandry.” Both this and Johnson’s contract meticulously stipulated, “He shall do no damage to his master nor see it done by others… He shall not waste his masters goods nor lend them unlawfully to any— he shall not absent himself by day or by night from his master or his service without his leave, but shall behave himself as a faithful apprentice ought to do toward his master...” Phelps promised to provide Robert with the same food, lodging, and care in sickness during his term, after which he would furnish the young man with two decent suits “proper for his station in life” and pay him one hundred dollars. In 1800, one noteworthy payment minimum set for pauper apprentices was $43 - Phelps’ offers waxed generous in comparison [7].  Both cash dues valued the equivalent of approximately $2,000 today. 

Both father and son’s inability to write further indicate their lesser socioeconomic standing. The Frasiers may have indentured Robert in the hopes that he would receive an education with the Phelpses, one which his upbringing at home could not afford. However, there is no evidence to confirm if Robert received rudimentary education during his time at Forty Acres. American apprentice indenture documents typically “required masters to provide a modicum of education for their charges.” But both Frasier and Johnson were beyond the basic schooling age, and even if they had not been, “whether training in the three R’s developed into adult reading capacity depended on circumstance and individual initiative” [5].

By this time, the particular challenges that employers faced in hiring apprentices had also progressed. William Rorabaugh’s work on apprenticeship in the early republic reveals that,

“Freedom was increasingly equated with contractual relations and consent...And so it was with servants and apprentices who, empowered by Republican ideology, began to challenge their masters conceiving themselves, not as willful children, but as free and independent citizens of the Revolution.”[4]

The ideology pervaded young indentures, or more significantly, their parents. As a letter Phelps wrote to his wife indicates, “[s]earching for labor in 1802, Charles Phelps had hired a boy from Pelham as a live-in farm servant. In due course, he was visited by the boy's father, who demanded 'more liberty' for his son. ‘I asked him what liberty,’ wrote Phelps. ‘Liberty of the house,’ replied the father”[3]. Elizabeth had kept many doors and drawers locked, maintaining a large system of keys which she stored in specific and—to most residents—secret places, resulting in highly personalized and limited access within the house for servants [6]. Further “liberty” was refused, and the boy left. The incident illustrates the extensive efforts which Elizabeth and Charles took to keep a tight rein on their household staff as much as they did with  their property [6]. Charles maintained that the boy “would not have more liberty than he had,” but employers of indentured children inevitably answered to the insistings of parents. The Pelham boy left before completing his agreed time of service, abandoning the contract without major repercussions. He exercised far greater freedom and legal protections than pauper apprentices, some indentured servants, and, by far, slaves. Apprentices like Johnson and Frasier, too, could benefit from this extra degree of protection.


  1. Indenture of David Johnson, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 4 Folder 32.

  2. Indenture of Robert Frasier, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers Box 4 Folder 32.

  3. Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism, 109-111.

  4. Jacoby, “Apprenticeship in the United States,” n.p.

  5. Kaestle and Foner, Pillars of the Republic, 31.

  6. Miller, “Labor and Liberty in the Age of Refinement,” 18-21.

  7. Murray and Herndon, “Markets for Children in Early America,” 356-362.

  8. Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 122-3, 133.


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

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dunn, Richard S. “Servants and Slaves : The Recruitment and Employment of Labor.” Colonial British America : Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era : (Based on Papers Presented at a Conference), Colonial British America : essays in the new history of the early modern era : (Based on papers presented at a conference). - Baltimore u.a. : Johns Hopkins Univ. Pr., 1984, p. 157-194.

Hamilton, Gillian. “The Decline of Apprenticeship in North America: Evidence from Montreal.” The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 3 (2000): 627–64.

Jacoby, Daniel. “Apprenticeship in the United States.”, Economic History Association.

Kaestle, Carl F., and Eric Foner. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. 1st ed. American Century Series. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Luskey, Brian P. “‘What Is My Prospects?’: The Contours of Mercantile Apprenticeship, Ambition, and Advancement in the Early American Economy.” The Business History Review 78, no. 4 (2004): 665–702.

Mason, Mary Ann. “Masters and Servants: The American Colonial Model of Child Custody and Control.” The International Journal of Children’s Rights 2, no. 3 (1994): 317–32.

“Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 - AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed July 29, 2019. 

Miller, Marla L. “Labor and Liberty in the Age of Refinement: Gender, Class, and the Built Environment.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 12 (January 2005): 15–31.

Murray, John E., and Ruth Wallis Herndon. “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship.” The Journal of Economic History 62, no. 2 (2002): 356–82.

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, p.6, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers [Box 9]. On deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, 1698-1968 (Bulk 1800-1950). Box 4 Folder 32, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. 

Rosenbloom, Joshua. “Indentured Servitude in the Colonial U.S.”, Economic History Association.

John Morrison: Indentured Servant, Ornamental Gardener, and Unlikely Family Friend

Today, the layout of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum’s North Garden closely resembles its original eighteenth-century design. At the time of its creation, the North Garden’s design differed from the traditional kitchen garden arrangements that were prevalent throughout colonial Massachusetts. Unlike the typical Hadley kitchen gardens, the North Garden was carefully planned and featured exotic flowers and crops. The unique North Garden was designed and maintained by John Morrison. Morrison arrived in the Colonies as a conscript in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. Upon his arrival to America, he found himself taken as a prisoner of war. He eventually ended up in Hadley, Massachusetts at Forty Acres. It was here that he spent the rest of his life.

Looking from the North Garden towards the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House

Looking from the North Garden towards the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House


In June of 1776, John Morrison and the Seventy-First regiment of Highlanders arrived outside of Boston Harbor. Unaware of the evacuation of Boston by the British Troops, the Highlander’s ships were engaged by American vessels upon their approach to port. After a two-hour navel engagement, the British ships sailed towards Boston were they hoped to find refuge in a British-controlled port. As they sailed closer to port, they were attacked again by the same American vessels from the earlier skirmish. The Highlanders suffered even more casualties and their commander, Lt. Col. Campbell, decided to surrender to the Americans.[1] John Morrison was among the two hundred sixty seven Highlanders taken as prisoners of war.[2] Approximately one year later Morrison arrived at Forty Acres as an indentured servant.

Throughout Massachusetts, the recruitment of local men into militias had put a strain on the available labor force. The shortage of able-bodied farmhands posed a serious set-back to the planting and growing of crops on farms throughout the area. As a result, farmers petitioned the local Committees of Safety for permission to use captured enemy soldiers as labor in their fields.[3] John Morrison was one of the captives sent to supplement the diminishing labor force on farms across Massachusetts. On March 23, 1777 Elizabeth Porter Phelps mentioned in her diary that “one of the Highlanders” whom was captured by her cousin Colonel Porter, was sent to live and work at Forty Acres.

Upon his arrival, John Morrison was initially put to work in the fields. Back home in Scotland, Morrison was an ornamental gardener. With his experience, Morrison eventually  was given the responsibility of creating and maintaining the gardens at Forty Acres. Most families in Hadley at the time had gardens but, they were most often just extensions of their vegetable plots. It is likely that the Phelps were the only family in Hadley with their own private gardener. According to Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, author of Earth Bound and Heavenbent, formal gardens, like Morrison’s, were a rare sight in rural Massachusetts. They were more common in the South. She further claims that Southern gentry often relied on indentured servants to serve as formal gardeners, citing George Washington and his formal gardens.[4] This trend extended to the North as evident by Morrison’s labor at Forty Acres. Prior to Morrison’s tenure at Forty Acres,  Elizabeth had described gardening as sporadic and casual.[5] Morrison’s North Garden was carefully planned; it was laid out in a rectangular shape with four subdivided paths, a circular rose-bed at the center, and was lined by fruit-trees along its sides. The meticulously designed North Garden brought a sense of elegance to the rural landscape that surrounded Forty Acres.

After the Revolutionary War, John Morrison remained at Forty Acres. He would eventually be considered a member of the extended Phelps Family.[6] Due to his trusted position and his excellent gardening skills, he was able to request that family members purchase specific seeds from Boston for the North Garden. In 1789, Elizabeth Porter Phelps wrote to her brother in Boston, “Mr. Morrison…wishes once more to request you purchase some flower and kitchen garden seeds—of which I send enclosed in a list.” Two years later in 1791, Charles Phelps wrote his son to update him on the status of Morrison’s garden and pass upon his requests for seeds. Phelps wrote, “John has his hotbed at work—and his cucumbers planted.” He continues the letter by requesting his son get “½ ounce Dutch cabbage seed – and ½ ounce early York Cabbage – and send home.”[7] It appears as if, the family greatly appreciated Morrison’s garden and went to great lengths to procure the specific seeds that John requested.

Morrison was obviously a very skilled gardener and while living at Forty Acres his “exclusive business was ornamental gardening.”[8] However, letters between Charles Phelps and Elizabeth Phelps illuminate another side of the ornamental gardener. According to family letters, Morrison was some-what of a notorious drunkard. His relationship with alcohol led to periods of prolonged absences which frustrated family members. He would allegedly skirt his duties at Forty Acres to instead nap on top of Mount Warner—the hilltop at the edge of family’s estate. It was on top of the Mount Warner where he would recover from his bouts of drinking. The secluded area was a great spot for a nap but, it also gave John a vantage point to admire his work in the garden from a distance.[9] The planned and orderly garden, inspired by European-style gardens, would have stood out from the rural New World landscape that surrounded it. Today, if one hikes to the summit of Mount Warner, it is possible to find “John’s Rock”, a boulder which Morrison regularly used to rest his head during his naps.

Morrison lived the rest of his life with the family at Forty Acres and eventually was buried alongside family members in the Old Hadley Cemetery. After Morrison’s death in 1815, Elizabeth Phelps referenced the declining state of the gardens due to Morrison’s absence. She wrote, “…Our gardens look like a forsaken place…[they] look like a desert but a great variety of pretty flowers which if there was anybody to dig the ground and arrange them would appear well…” In 1949, James Lincoln Huntington, the founder of the Museum, reflected on the remains of Morrison’s garden, “The Plan of the old garden can still be traced; the lilac to the left of the flagstones leading to the south door and the bed of lilies-of-the-valley are believed to been planted by him [Morrison]”[10] John Morrison was an unlikely resident of Hadley—brought to Forty Acres as a prisoner of war and indentured servant. However, he is one of the many to have made their home at Forty Acres. His legacy continues today; visitors to the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum are free to explore the North Garden where one can imagine Morrison working to bring a slice of the Old World to rural Hadley.

Morrison's grave located in the Old Hadley Cemetery. The gravestone reads "John Morrison a Scotch Highlander captured with Col. Campbell in Boston harbor June 1770 died in the family of Cha. Phelps Sept. 13 1814 aged about 65"

Morrison's grave located in the Old Hadley Cemetery. The gravestone reads "John Morrison a Scotch Highlander captured with Col. Campbell in Boston harbor June 1770 died in the family of Cha. Phelps Sept. 13 1814 aged about 65"


[1] Lieutenant-Colonel, Campbell to General Howe. June 19, 1776, in American Archives: Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776.

[2] Thacher, James, and Samuel X. Radbill. 1862. Military journal of the American revolution: from the commencement to the disbanding of the American army : comprising a detailed account of the principal events and battles of the revolution with their exact dates, and a biographical sketch of the most prominent generals. Hartford, Conn: Hurlbut, Williams & Company. 44

[3] Pendergast Carlisle, Elizabeth Pendergast. 2004. Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and life at Forty Acres, 1747 - 1817. New York, NY. 89

[4] Pendergast Carlisle, 177

[5] Pendergast Carlisle, 178

[6] Pendergast Carlisle, 90

[7] AC Archives, PPH Collection Box 4 Folder 5

[8] AC Archives, PPH Collection Box 21 Folder 5

[9] Pendergast Carlisle, 270

[10] Huntington, James Lincoln. Forty Acres: The Story of the Bishop Huntington House. New York: Hastings House. 1949. 12-13

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


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.


1.     Romer 44

2.     Romer 73

3.     Carlisle 84

4.     Phelps 129



“African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts.” Massachusetts Historical Society: 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Historical Society,

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.


1. Warren 50

2. Phelps 127

3. Carlisle 104

4. Phelps 136



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.


[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.


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.