Kimmitt Genealogical Research

07 November 2014

Three Negro Servants in Colonial Princeton, Massachusetts

Detail of gravestone of Flova, servant of Moses Gill, Meetinghouse Cemetery, Princeton, Massachusetts
One of my favorite burial grounds is the Meetinghouse Cemetery in Princeton, Massachusetts. It is right off Mountain Road, but sunken down a steep embankment so when you enter you're buffered from the modern world. It's as if you are traveling back in time.

Like most early burial grounds, it was sited adjacent to the original meeting house (church), which used to stand directly across the street, according to the website of Princeton's First Congregational Church.

The cemetery is small, and a real pleasure to explore owing to its beautiful gravestone carvings. Because slate holds up so well over time, the earlier stones are clean and legible, belying their age.

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia
One of Princeton's most influential early residents, and the man who donated the land for the church and burial ground was Moses Gill. According to the History of Princeton (1) Moses was born in Charlestown in 1734. He was a successful hardware merchant who twice married into wealthy families. By marrying so well he became the owner of large tracts of land in Central Massachusetts and kept a beautiful country home in Princeton. He had no children with either wife.

By 1774 Moses had turned to politics and occupied various positions in government, starting with the Provincial Assembly and eventually moving on up to Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, then Acting Governor after the death of Increase Sumner. But it was his time as Judge and Chief Justice in the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas that will prove most interesting for our purposes.


This burial ground contains the graves of three servants of Moses, all lined up together: Flova, Thomas and [illegible], pictured below.

In Memory of 
Flova a Negro wo
man Servant to the
Honbl Moses Gill Esqr
who died June 13th
1778 aged 41 years



















In Memory of
Thomas a negro
man Servant to the
Honbl Moses Gill
Esq who died
Septr 14th 1782
Aged 89 years


Here lye[--]
body of N[---]
Negro man Ser
vant to the Hon'bl
Moses Gill Esqr
who died March
1th (sic!) 1776 aged 39 years

















The History of Princeton mentions all three slaves in the sketch for Moses Gill (lists them as if they are children), and gives some additional information, citing only "town records of Princeton":

i. NERO, Negro servant to Hon. Moses Gill, came to Princeton from Sutton, Mass., with his mother  "Violet," July 1767, d. March 2, 1776 ae 39.

ii. FLORA, a Negro woman servant to Hon. Moses Gill; d. June 13, 1778, ae. 39.

iii. THOMAS, Negro servant to Hon. Moses Gill; d. Sept. 14, 1782, ae. 89.

Now. We can see what information he gleaned from gravestones, but obviously a good search of Princetown records is in order, because Nero coming from Sutton with his mother Violet is really interesting. They came to Princeton at about the same time as Moses did from Charlestown. Note the spelling of Flora here as opposed to the gravestone's Flova.


Princeton Town Records mention who came to town and from where. Invaluable! (2)






[-ilit a negro woman & Nero her son
Removed from Sutton into this Dist in July or
Augt 1767.

There are other volumes of town records which could be searched for more information. Without seeing the original register I can only hope that Francis Blake was accurate in recording the name [Vililit?] as Violet. But isn't it lovely that all of these people entering town were recorded, with their places of origin?

So Moses Gill had three slaves/"servants" that he thought highly enough of to erect gravestones in their memory. And not just inexpensive gravestones. Every letter carved cost something--every filigree, and especially portraits. The average person could not even afford a headstone, never mind one with words, but depicting a face was an honor indeed. While not an accurate rendition, these primitive images do have some detail. They are just one step in the development of gravestone iconography which started early on with winged skulls, progressed to death heads, and graduated to portrait stones.

Though slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts from the beginning (3), the practice did occur and people learned to avoid the slave word and call them servants. Moses Gill was Chief Justice during the famous Quock Walker trials. Quock's owner died, having promised him his freedom, and Quock was passed on to the deceased owner's wife. When she remarried her husband abused him. Quock sued for his freedom. This came on the heels of the American Revolution and there was much talk of "being created equal." There were several trials and the decisions went both ways, but in 1781 Quock Walker won. (4)

I could go off on a million tangents here because this subject is so ripe for exploration. Did these trials make Moses more sensitive to the plight of African American slaves or was he already so inclined? It may be assuming too much to say that he was probably a fair master, but I want to believe that is so. In any case, he gave his three slaves enough of an identity to still be remembered 230 years after their deaths, and that's worth noting.


--------------
1. Francis Everett Blake, History of the Town of Princeton in the County of Worcester and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2 vols. (Princeton: Town of Princeton, 1915), 2:114.

2. "Town Records and Marriages, with Births, Marriages, and Deaths," Princeton, Massachusetts, p. 21 [penned]; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 November 2014), image 12. The image of the cover shows the title of the volume as "Records, Feb 9, 176[1?] - Mar 8, 1788, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Miscellaneous, Princeton, Mass.," and there is a note from Francis E. Blake dated 1883 mentioning it being rebound and saying that the records were put in more of a chronological order.

3. Nathaniel Ward, The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (Boston, 1641). n. 91. "There shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us." 

4. Emory Washburn, "The Extinction of Slavery in Massachusetts, A Paper Read Before the Massachusetts Historical Society, at Their Monthly Meeting, April, 1857," Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 333; Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 7 November 2014). This is interesting because we hear the opinions written in 1857. See also George H. Moore,  Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (New York: Appleton, 1866); Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 7 November 2014).

2 comments:

Laura Aanenson said...

Such an interesting post. Very thought-provoking.

SOC said...

I came across these stones today and am glad to see someone has done the research to give Nero back his name. Excellent post, thank you.