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.