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Slavery in Our Midst

The remains of a New England plantation reveal a side of Colonial life the history books forget to mention

The advertisement read, “to be sold, a likely negro girl, fit for Town or Country.” The girl’s age, place of birth, and personal details are lost. Not even her name has come down to us, although we do know in which eighteenth-century newspaper the notice appeared. It was the Boston Gazette.

Many Americans have found it convenient to believe that slavery was a phenomenon of the Old South, a regional aberration linked to cotton and the Civil War, but slaves were hardly uncommon in Colonial New England. Even today people suffer from what Tufts anthropology professor Rosalind Shaw has called “social amnesia about the role of the slave trade and the presence of slaves” in the North. The truth is that for more than a century and a half, every colony in the New World was a slave colony. In fact, much of Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus sits on what was once Ten Hills Farm, a six-hundred-acre plantation presided over by the man who placed that long-ago Gazette ad, one Isaac Royall. His mansion, known as the Royall House, still stands, a two-minute walk from Cousens Gym.

The Royalls reigned in what was then the hamlet of Mystick for two generations. Isaac Royall’s father, the son of a Maine carpenter, had made his fortune on the West Indian island of Antigua. As a slave trader—in one year he sold 121 slaves—he accumulated substantial holdings, including a sugar plantation, a refinery, and a rum distillery. When slave uprisings spread across the Caribbean, he determined to bring his family home to New England. He purchased Ten Hills Farm in 1732.

The existing saltbox farmhouse was beneath his grandee standards. By the time the family arrived in 1737, together with twenty-seven slaves, a major remodeling campaign had doubled the footprint and raised the roof to enclose three full stories. After his death, his namesake son carried on his ostentatious ways, updating the garden front in a Classical style that incorporated pilasters, pediments, and wood shaped and painted to resemble stone.

Isaac Royall the younger would lose his splendid American assets in the days after Paul Revere’s ride, when, loyal to the king, he left for England. But before that, everything about him and his family’s home conveyed a sense of wealth, taste, and power; he even insisted that the property be known as Royallville. In 1750, a ship’s captain venturing north from Boston noted in his diary that it was “a Fine Country Seat . . . One of the Grandest in N. America.” Had he knocked on the Royalls’ door, he would likely have received a warm welcome. For Isaac Royall, hospitality was “almost a passion,” according to one nineteenth-century historian. “No house in the colony was more open to friends; no gentleman gave better dinners, or drank costlier wines.”

Perhaps the visitor would have been offered a draft from the three-gallon silver punch bowl that Royall is said to have kept filled with rum at all times to refresh arriving guests. Looking around, the captain would have marveled at newly paneled walls and carved chimney pieces. The rooms of the elegant interior were furnished with the finest of imported objects, including marble and mahogany tables, peer glasses (mirrors), and a cherished rug, a “Turkey Carpitt” worth the princely sum of forty pounds. In an era when families were fortunate just to own a Bible, the Royalls had a library of more than a hundred volumes, including works by John Locke, Tacitus, and Shakespeare.

Today, the Royalls are remembered thanks to the artifacts that survive them. Their portraits have appeared in the slide trays of American art historians for generations. And their house, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, has long been maintained as a house museum. For more than a century, it has offered both a view of Colonial life among the genteel and a look at the Revolutionary era in general (after Royall abandoned his Medford home, the Continental Army moved in, and George Washington not only visited but probably slept there).

In recent years, however, the more complicated story of master and slave has begun to emerge. The organization charged with preserving the property, the Royall House Association, has begun to focus on a half-forgotten wood-and-masonry building just across the courtyard from the main residence. This was the slave quarters (known as the “out kitchen” in the Royalls’ time), once home to an ever-changing population of more than sixty men, women, and children held in bondage during the forty-odd years of the Royalls’ habitation. Historians believe it is the only structure of its kind still standing in the northern United States, and an archeological dig conducted between 1999 and 2001 unearthed thousands upon thousands of telling artifacts from the area around it.

The manner in which the Royalls lived was dependent upon slavery, and the new interpretation at the property poses a jarring contrast between English gentry and African slaves. For anyone visiting the site, the story of slavery in Massachusetts is no longer deniable.

Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize human bondage when it established the Body of Liberties, its first code of laws, in 1641. From that time until the state proscribed slavery in 1783, the slave trade was big business in the North, particularly in Boston and Rhode Island. Fully three-quarters of all New England exports circa 1770 were linked to it. Most slave ships were built in the region, and the bulk of the exported livestock, sawn boards, and grains went to the Caribbean to support the production of sugar, the raw material essential to the making of rum, the favored medium of exchange for buying slaves. More than four-fifths of the rum distilled went to Africa.

In some respects, slavery in New England differed from that in the South. Slaves were a common presence in the homes of middling householders as well as the gentry in the North, though the region’s mercantile economy meant fewer slaves were required (the typical slaveholder had between one and five bondsmen). Without a single cash crop like tobacco or rice to plant and harvest, the slaves were more likely to learn trades.

Many became shipwrights, carpenters, tailors, printers, blacksmiths, bakers, or coopers. For their masters, this meant added value, as a slave trained as an artisan or craftsman could be hired out.

At Ten Hills Farm, slaves produced wool, cider, and hay and tended livestock. Some worked as field hands, while others had higher status as boatmen, domestic servants, cooks, and “body slaves” (valets and ladies’ maids). A liveried coachman drove the Royalls’ fine carriage, with its team of four horses. Some of the servants slept in the kitchen, a few in an upstairs chamber, others in an attic garret. The rest probably inhabited the slave quarters, which provided rudimentary accommodations, including a hearth for preparing meals. Beyond this handful of details, little is known about the lives of the enslaved at Royallville. Until 1999, in fact, all such information had to be inferred from vague and fleeting transactions noted in the Royalls’ ledgers, inventories, and probate records.

Then came the meticulous three-season dig masterminded by the archaeologist Alexandra A. Chan, then a graduate student at Boston University. Among the roughly 65,000 artifacts excavated were pottery, sewing implements, tableware, coins, metal, animal bones, buttons and buckles, and shards of glass. As Chan points out in her book Slavery in the Age of Reason (University of Tennessee Press, 2007), such “mundane refuse” is invaluable, because through it, “the historically invisible can come vibrantly to life.” The record of those who labored at Ten Hills Farm is to be found largely in “overlooked places,” she explains. “Artifacts lend heft, depth, and texture to historical narratives; they document the past as much as any deed, letter, or newspaper can.”

Some of the finds complement documents already in the hands of historians, allowing us to envision the gentrified life of the Royalls in more vivid detail. For example, an inventory of the family’s possessions specifies wine glasses, decanters, tumblers, and various items of “chiney” (china). And the dig did indeed turn up fragments that were once teacups, stemware, chocolate cups, wine bottles, pharmaceutical containers, and liquor bottles imprinted with the Royall seal.

Contrasting with such finds are numerous bits and pieces of plain, homely crockery. While the Royalls drank port, chocolate, tea, punch, and coffee from an array of purpose-made and imported vessels, those who served them ate off coarse earthenware. The dig uncovered thousands of shards of crude redware storage jars, relics of the hard work that was the slaves’ lot: growing produce, cooking and preserving foods, laundering their owners’ clothes, making soap and candles, maintaining the house and horses, and performing the thousand other duties that gave the Royalls the leisure to read, socialize, and pose for paintings.

Still, the relics illuminate more than the slaves’ travails. There are also crude tobacco pipes, handmade children’s marbles, and gaming pieces shaped from shards of porcelain. Chan believes that a decorative stone bead discovered in a foundation was worn by a slave woman as part of her “garments of gladness,” clothing for times of spiritual celebration. Another object that resembles an arrowhead may be an amulet of the sort that the Akan people of West Africa thought to be magical. The evidence is tantalizing: because of Chan and her colleagues, enslaved people about whom so little is known can now be considered during moments of relaxation and ritual.

Artifacts like these are in poignant contrast to slavery’s more brutal realities. Slave families in the North, like those in the South, lived with a terrible uncertainty: their owners could, and often did, sell individuals or shift them at a whim to other properties. Enslaved parents, children, and siblings could be separated forever. They were assets, plain and simple, and family ties were irrelevant. To judge by trade notices of the time, the Royalls’ “Negroes” were just “sundry goods,” to be sold along with barrel staves, “very good hay,” West Indian rum, and “Molases.” When the elder Isaac Royall died in 1739, the female slaves Ruth, Trace, Sue, and Jonto and the male slaves Fortune, Barron, Ned, Robin, Quamin, Cuffe, Peter, and “house Peter” (so named to distinguish him from the other Peter) were listed in his probate inventory along with the cattle, oxen, and swine. In the 1739 Probate Inventory, each man was valued at a hundred pounds, each woman at seventy-five.

Upon expatriating himself in 1775, the younger Isaac Royall left behind more than porcelain and portraits. One household member—Belinda, an elderly slave—is unique among Royall’s retinue in that she is survived by a fairly detailed life story.

Captured at age twelve by slavers on the banks of the Volta River in what today is Ghana, Belinda Royall served the family for some fifty years, in both Antigua and Medford. She was left penniless with an invalid daughter, Prine, when the younger Royall fled Ten Hills Farm. In his will, her master (who was remembered as “kind to his slaves”) gave Belinda a choice: she could be bequeathed to his daughter as chattel or be set free. She chose freedom, and went to Boston to join the growing free black community. In 1783, she filed the legal document, a petition, that is the source for virtually all we know about her. Wishing to avoid the poorhouse, she sued the Royall estate for support, citing a promise in Royall’s will to provide her “security that she shall not be a charge in the town of Medford.”

She was unlettered (she signed her name with an X), and the petition may have been prepared for her by Prince Hall, a black freeman active in the freemason and abolitionist movements in Boston. Nonetheless, it is impossible to read the petition without imagining the spirited woman behind the words. It recounts Belinda’s kidnapping by “men whose faces were like the moon,” her trans-atlantic journey (in “a floating world” with “three hundred Affricans in chains”), and her fifty years of “ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall.” It concludes with a plea: “Your Petitioner, [her face] now marked with the furrows of time” asks “the just return of honest industry—she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her and her more infirm daughter from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their Lives.”

She was awarded the sum of fifteen pounds annually, but had to seek redress four years later when the money went unpaid. The date and circumstances of her death were unrecorded.

Now that the acknowledged ghosts at 15 George Street in Medford include Belinda and her fellow slaves, visitors to the Royall House and Slave Quarters confront the fact that bondage was once an accepted way of life in New England. But as they set foot inside the slave quarters—as they file past the multiple cases filled with artifacts from Alexandra Chan’s dig—something else happens as well. The stratified world of the eighteenth century, in all its racial and economic complexity, becomes more tangible.

The addition of the archaeological finds, says Alexandra Chan, “invites people to engage in the debate. Rather than coming in to be talked at and given a cold, factual narrative, we invite people to ask questions, to try to think about the physical world. In that way you make the study of history more personal, and it extends its interest to a wider audience.”

Now that it has changed its mission, revised its tour, and added the archaeological exhibit, the Royall House receives more visitors—“particularly group tours, teachers, and college classes,” says Thomas Lincoln, executive director of the Royall House Association. Lincoln has observed a generational shift, too, especially in the African American community. “For some the slave quarters used to be almost embarrassing,” he says, “but the current generation has a real yearning to know more.” That is reflected in the people of color who take the tour: some are locals viewing a neighborhood landmark for the first time, while others arrive from much further afield, being of Caribbean origin and even Africans visiting the United States.

Scholars have shown a renewed interest as well. “You see all these dimensions of history happening all at the same time and place,” explains Steven Cohen, a lecturer in education and American studies at Tufts. “You have the buildings at one level. You have the way the house used to be interpreted when the slaves were almost always referred to as ‘servants.’ Now you have the present interpretation based on Chan’s work, which adds a different take. Going there is much more powerful than reading a text or having a teacher talk about slavery.”

The new, more candid look at the past provokes many questions. Penny Outlaw, who is African American, is co-president of the Royall House Association and sometimes acts as a docent. She says she detects little hesitation among visitors, white or black, to ask questions about New England’s slave days. “Visitors typically ask about the extent of slavery in Massachusetts,” she says. “They ask, ‘What happened to the Royall House slaves after the Royalls decamped for England?’ ‘Why don’t we hear more about slavery in the Northeast?’ They also wonder about the daily lives of the slaves, given the harsh New England climate.” The answers to such questions can be conjectural. But even the uncertainties serve the discussion.

If, in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves unable to conscience the social and racial wound that was slavery, historical sites like the Royall House may move us beyond merely separating out slaveholder and enslaved. We must recognize that the identities of all who inhabited Ten Hills Farm were inseparable and interdependent. We do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss the players as merely monsters and victims. It may be discomfiting to imagine oneself as either slaver or slave but, as Alexandra Chan says, “No mattd Slave Quarters is located at ie many of the seeds of our modern American society.”

Penny Outlaw puts it another way. “At the Royall House, slavery has become part of the conversation.”

The Royall House and Slave Quarters is located at 15 George Street in Medford, Massachusetts. Visit www.royallhouse.org for admission information.

HUGH HOWARD, A74, has written about the past for more than twenty years. In addition to authoring a number of books, the most recent being The Painter’s Chair: America’s Old Masters Paint George Washington, he has written for the New York Times, Smithsonian, the Washington Post, House Beautiful, Traditional Home, Adirondack Life, Travel and Leisure, Esquire, Preservation, and Early American Life.

  © 2010 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155