African American History

African American History IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Runaway Slave AdFrom Essex Gazette. Dates in descending order: July 19, 1769; September 22, 1772; June 5, 1773. Images courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

The history of slavery on Cape Ann has yet to be written; little record of the lives and experiences of enslaved people remains, though ample evidence exists that enslaved and freed African Americans lived here from at least the eighteenth century onward. Prior to Massachusetts’ abolition of slavery in 1783, newspaper advertisements were among the few printed records of enslavement on the North Shore. A survey of advertisements of runaway slaves published in the Essex Gazette (1768–1775) reveals that residents of Manchester, Ipswich, and Gloucester enslaved people. These ads, which typically ran for two to three weeks, did not include their resolution—did the enslaved persons escape or were they captured?—except in the case of Chester, alias Titus. He ran away from Thomas Jaques (1723–1807) in 1769, only to appear in the papers again in 1772 and 1773, when John Lee was in pursuit of the man who was “formerly Mr. Thomas Jaques’ Runaway.”[1] Many of the advertisements include the postscript “All Masters of Vessels and others are hereby cautioned against harbouring, concealing, or carrying off said Negro, as they would avoid the Penalty of Law,” which suggests that some people expressed opposition to slavery by aiding escapees.

Despite such opposition, a market for buying people also existed. Joseph Eveleth (1741–1806), who ran a sawmill on Little River and fought in the Revolutionary War, advertised “To be SOLD, for Want of Employ A healthy Negro Man, who is a good Seaman, can perform any kind of husbandry Labour, and understands tending a Saw-Mill.”[2] City records do not reveal the identity of this “healthy Negro Man,” and from this as well as other lacunae, we can conclude that the births of many enslaved people were not recorded.[3]

Runaway Slave AdFrom Essex GazetteNovember 30, 1773. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society







Not all African Americans living on Cape Ann before the state’s emancipation law were enslaved. For example, in 1768 or 1769, Robin [Freeman] bought his freedom from Captain Byles (1700–1782), who concluded the financial negotiation in his account book with the words “Robing is free.”[4] This refers either to the Robin Freeman who later appeared in the Joseph Moore account book, or to Robin Freeman the son of Prince and Robin Byles, who married in bondage in 1715. In his will of 1781, Byles left “Robin former negro servant 40s.”[5] In a similar act, recorded not in an account book but on a loose slip of paper, Nathaniel Haskell freed Fortune. That paper would serve as Fortune’s “instrument” to prove his freedom, the very instrument that John Lee accused Chester, alias Titus, of feigning in his runaway ad: “He has with him a false Pass or Bill of Sale.”[6]

Even before Massachusetts outlawed slavery, further evidence of free African Americans living on Cape Ann can be found in tax records. The Gloucester selectmen appointed John Low Jr. (1728–1796 or 1754–1801) “to procure and deliver to the muster master of the county of Suffolk in Boston, one able bodied man to serve as a Soldier in the Continental Army for three years or during the war." To raise the funds for this soldier, Low was directed to collect from “persons under named” the amounts listed by their names. Among them was the African American Glocester Dalton (ca. 1723–1813), indicating that he was a taxpayer.[7] Most of what we know about Dalton comes from a brief obituary by Reverend Thomas Jones (ca. 1763–1846) who described him as “an honest, industrious man.” Jones also claimed that Dalton was born in Africa and brought to the United States as an enslaved person.[8] His birth was not recorded in Cape Ann vital records; his name first appeared in 1780 in the Selectmen’s Record Book, where he is described as “Negro,”[9] and we know from various other mentions in the historical record that he lived as a free person in Gloucester. He married Phillis Freeman (d. 1817) in 1787.[10]

In the procurement order, Glocester Dalton’s name is listed near that of Zachariah Dalton (ca.1756–1805). There is no other record of a Zachariah Dalton in Gloucester, but that is because he resided largely in Boston, where he was a servant to the prominent Bostonian Samuel Elliot. A son of Glocester Dalton, Zachariah owned a house and land in Gloucester, which he left to “his honorable father” when he died in 1805. Prior to that, Glocester Dalton had been paying rent at the home of William Hutchings in Gloucester’s First Parish.[11] From Zachariah’s will, we know that Glocester had another son, Thomas, who had a son with the same name; it is this nephew who is also named in Zachariah’s will.[12] The younger Thomas Dalton (1794–1883) became a prominent abolitionist in Boston; along with David Walker (1796–1830) and other black leaders, Dalton was a founder of the Massachusetts General Colored Association in 1826.[13]

Zachariah Dalton was not the only African American landowner on Cape Ann. Further evidence of African American land ownership can be found in a 1761 deed in which Samuel Tarbox, joiner, of Gloucester, sold to William Stevens a dwelling house and thirty-four poles of land on the easterly side of Governor’s Hill in Gloucester, “in trust for Pompey Cummins a Negro whom Mrs. Mary Stevens, late said negro servant’s mistress, willed his freedom.” The price was eighty pounds. Appended to this deed is another, dated almost a year later, in which William Stevens sold to “Pompey Cummins the within named Negro servant manumitted by Mrs. Mary Stevens, his mistress”[14] the same house and land for eighty pounds. William was the son of Mary Stevens, who died in 1758. The eleven-month gap between the two sales was perhaps the time necessary for Pompey to acquire the asking price.

Seventy years later, in 1831, another transaction deeded land to an African American couple, Charles and Olive Richardson. They received a loan, much like a mortgage, for “a small dwelling house and about half an acre of land” from Jacob Story for seventy dollars. The Richardsons bought the land from Randel Andrews. Presumably, neither could write, so they signed the document with “their mark,” Charles with an X, and Olive with a plus sign.[15] Charles (1788–1833) was born in Maryland and first appeared in the Essex Census in 1830.[16] Olive (1794–1854) was born in Essex.[17] They were married before 1820 and had at least eight children.[18] Olive and some of the children remained on the property after her husband died.

Some other African Americans did not fare as well as the Richardsons. Evidence of their struggles can be seen in official documents at Gloucester City Hall. We learn of young Lucy O. Voice, the daughter of “a black of said town of Gloucester who is lawfully settled in and become chargeable to said town.” Neither Mooney Voice nor his daughter Lucy is listed in the town’s vital records, but the indenture stipulated that Lucy was to be cared for like other children whose parents could not care for them. In addition to learning “the art, trade or mystery of a spinstress,” Lucy was to “be taught and instructed, to read and write, and cypher to and through the rule of three” if she was “capable to learn.”[19]

Many African Americans probably passed through Gloucester as itinerant seamen. According to some estimates, as many as 40 percent of African Americans living in Boston in the 1830s worked in maritime industries.[20] African American men typically worked as cooks or stewards aboard vessels; the crew list for the William and Henry described the cook as John Henderson of “black” complexion and “wooly” hair. Pay for cooks was on the rise; prior to 1820, their pay averaged about five dollars per month (33 percent less than sailors earned), [21] but in the next decade, cooks’ wages rose, and by 1850, they equaled what sailors earned. Captain Richard Trask wrote to his wife in 1842 that while his ship was docked in New Orleans, the steward and cook were imprisoned. White men “put the poor fellows in irons and drive them through the streets to the prison ... a dirty filthy place we should think hardly fit for our hogs.”[22] Trask commented that the abolitionist movement in the north seemed to have had little effect in the south, but did not comment on how he and other Cape Ann captains supported slavery abroad. The William and Henry, for example, was bound for Paramaribo, Surinam, where its cargo of salt cod would most likely feed enslaved people on plantations. Long after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, the fishing industry on Cape Ann helped sustain this practice in the southern hemisphere.

Charles FreemanCharles Freeman, ca. 1885. Photographer unknown. Cape Ann Museum.

Contradictions between popular sentiment and commercial pragmatism abounded in the nineteenth century. The abolitionist movement took hold in the northern United States, and Gloucester by and large embraced the movement, with increasing calls to end slavery appearing in local newspapers. The Gloucester Telegraph promoted the abolitionist cause, reprinting pieces from New York’s Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper.[23] The most direct tie to the abolitionist movement in area archives comes from the letter book of Henry C. Wright (1797–1870), who owned property in Gloucester and had personal ties to local citizens. A noted abolitionist, Wright worked with William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and the American Anti-Slavery Society on a number of causes, including organizing children’s antislavery societies. His letter book contains descriptions of and letters from luminaries of the transatlantic abolitionist movement as well as observations by children. One of these is a letter written by William Henry Webb, a young Irish boy from a Quaker family whose father was the Dublin publisher Richard D. Webb (1805–1872), a friend of Wright’s. During his tour of Ireland in 1845, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was a guest in the Webb household. In his letter to Wright, William Henry wrote, “I have been at two of [Douglass’s] lectures and he dined with us yesterday. I think he is a pleasant man able to interest children very much about slavery and other things too.” A postscript, probably by William Henry’s aunt Maria Waring, adds, “Though from overwhelming attendance last night it is evident that no house in town would be adequate to contain the numbers likely to seek admittance. Douglass is indeed a powerful speaker.”[24] We do not know how Wright’s letter book ended up in Annisquam, but it is a shining example of how locally held archives can illuminate larger historical trends, in this case the transatlantic abolitionist movement.


[1] “Ran-Away,” Essex Gazette 1, no. 52, July 18, 1769; “Ran Away from the Subscriber,” Essex Gazette 5, no. 218, September 22, 1772; “Ran Away from the Subscriber,” Essex Gazette 5, no. 254, June 1, 1773.

[2] “To Be Sold, for Want of Employ,” Essex Gazette 6, no. 280, December 30, 1773. The Cape Ann Museum has an account book for Joseph Eveleth that covers the period 1777–1804.

[3] Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, vol. 1 (Topsfield, Mass.: Topsfield Historical Society, 1917). For more on the “negro populations” in New England, see William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 14–17.

[4] Throughout his account book, Byles vacillates between writing Freeman’s name as “Robin” and as “Robing.” I use “Robin” for consistency’s sake. For a record of the marriage, see Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, vol. 2 (Tops- field, Mass.: Topsfield Historical Society, 1917), 802.

[5] “‘Charles, Capt. Boyles — Bles, Boiles, Byles. Case #4417’ in Essex County, Mass.: Probate File Papers, 1638–1881,” American Ancestors, 1782,

[6] “Ran Away from the Subscriber,” Essex Gazette 5, no. 254.

[7] Dalton’s first name is spelled “Glocester” in some places and “Gloucester” in others. To differentiate the man from the town, I use “Glocester” when referring to him.

[8] As quoted in Richard Eddy, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass. (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Brothers, 1892), 188.

[9] As cited in Mary Ray, Gloucester, Massachusetts: Historical Timeline, 1000–1999, ed. Sarah R. Dunlap (Gloucester, Mass.: publisher not identified, 2002), 72.

[10] Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849, vol. 2, p. 602.

[11] “‘Gloucester Dalton’ in Massachusetts and Maine: Direct Tax, 1798 Census, Tax and Voter Lists,” American Ancestors, 1798,

[12] “Suffolk County [Massachusetts] Probate Records, 1636–1899 ‘Zachh Dalton Probate Record 22271,’”, accessed December 20, 2017,

[13] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 205.

[14] “Deeds Book 155,” Southern Essex Registry of Deeds, accessed January 19, 2018, aspx?book=00155&page=069. The first deed was dated Septem- ber 12, 1761; the second, August 5, 1762.

[15] The use of a mark rather than a signature is a sign of illiteracy, but it is only an indirect marker of level of education. For more on signatures as indicators of education, see William J. Gilmore, “Elementary Literacy on the Eve of the Industrial Revolution: Trends in Rural New England, 1760–1830,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 92, no. 1 (April 1982), 89.

[16] “1830 United States Federal Census,” accessed January 12, 2018,; Mass. Vital Records—deaths (1888), vol. 391, p. 220; 1830 census, p. 528.

[17] Mass. Vital Records—deaths (1854), vol. 84, p. 119; 1850 census, p. 37, 295.

[18] In 1830, the household of Charles Richardson included three males: two aged 10–24, one, 36–55, and four females: three under 10, one, 36–55. Olive Richardson was listed in the 1840 census, but the members of her household were not enumer- ated (the line is blank). In 1850, Olive Richardson’s household included herself, age 55, and Charles Richardson, 30. Also living in the house were her daughter Sally A. Field and her family.

[19] “Lucy O. Voice Indenture. 1818,” MSS., Box 42 Folder 8 (Gloucester, Mass.: Gloucester City Archives).

[20] Michael Cohn and Michael K. H. Platzer, Black Men of the Sea (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978), 60.

[21] W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 168.

[22] Richard Trask, “Letter to Abigail, November 5, 1842,” MSS., Box Trask Letters #1 Folder Capt. NN3121-NN3164 (Manchester by the Sea, Mass., Manchester Historical Museum).

[23] See, for example, “From the Freedom’s Journal Origin of the African,” Gloucester Telegraph 1, no. 26 (September 1, 1827) and “Natural Death of Slavery,” Gloucester Telegraph 2 (July 19, 1828).

[24] Thanks to Holly Clay-Smith for her help navigating the Wright letter book, her transcription of this letter, and her research on the relationship between Douglass and Webb.

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