A summary essay about the 1839 report on the deliverance of Massachusetts citizens liable to be sold as slaves in slave states and a 1936 reference book on historical Massachusetts judicial cases involving people of color
By Edward L. Bell
scholarly researcher and writer in New England history
Abstract: The 1839 Massachusetts legislative Report on the Deliverance of Massachusetts Citizens Liable to be Sold as Slaves in slave states, quickly led to the passage of a resolution directing the Governor to seek legal release and transport of free Massachusetts citizens imprisoned in other states “on suspicion of being a slave.” The case of Eral Lonnon, a mariner from Mashpee held in a New Orleans jail under presumption of being a fugitive slave, was exemplary. Lonnon was a free man of color who was a descendant of Wampanoag Indians on Nantucket. His arrest and imprisonment was part of a corrupt system in slave states to extort fees, to extract forced labor, and to sell free people of color into slavery. A recently digitized 1936 reference book, Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, summarized cases relating to that unconstitutional practice of “slavery by another name.” In Massachusetts, judicial abolition was achieved by freedom suits brought by people of color and their allies from 1660–1784. The earliest Massachusetts freedom suits were brought to courts by Native people. Their cases evolved the common law and moved judicial abolition forward in the state courts. This paper examines the still-murky history of judicial abolition in Massachusetts, and the persistence of slavery, slave-like laboring arrangements, and the slave trade long after the supposed end of slavery in the state. Despite popular belief enshrined in modern heroic narratives, slavery in Massachusetts did not end suddenly as a result of the once obscure but now-famous Mum Bett and Quock Walker cases. It was not until 1836 in Commonwealth v. Aves when statewide judicial abolition of slavery was articulated in a judicial decision of record that had immediate and statewide legal effect.
The Report on the Deliverance of Citizens Liable to Be Sold as Slaves was presented to the Massachusetts General Court (the legislature) by a special joint committee in 1839. It documented the dangers that free Massachusetts people of color faced with respect to imprisonment, forced labor, and enslavement when traveling to and from slave states, and on board ships on the high seas. The report led to the passage of Chapter 66 of the Resolves of 1839 that directed the Governor to seek legal release and transport of Massachusetts citizens imprisoned in other states “on suspicion of being a slave.”
The report made reference to the case of Eral Lonnon as described in a letter dated August 19, 1837 and sent by Jacob Barker, Esq. (New Orleans, LA) to Samuel H. Jenks (Nantucket, MA) after Lonnon was imprisoned in New Orleans for six weeks on presumption of being a fugitive slave.
Eral Lonnon, born in Mashpee and descended from Nantucket Indians, was the grandson of Sarah Tashmy. He was a mariner and worked in whaling out of Nantucket and New Bedford. In New Orleans circa 1837, Lonnon was arrested on sight and imprisoned, as the Louisiana law then presumed any person of color unaccompanied on the street to be a fugitive slave.
Those prisoners were put to work in chain gangs to do highway repair and could be sold into slavery to pay the jail fees that accrued from their arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor. Several states created similar systems to generate revenue through unfree labor. Mariners, men of color, were forcibly removed from vessels whose captains were extorted to pay for their release and post bonds before they got underway. In “slavery by another name,” corruption by “fees” was notorious.
Lonnon had been imprisoned six weeks before Jacob Barker, a former Massachusetts resident living in Louisiana, paid the fee required for his release although “no one seemed to know why he had been confined or arrested.” Barker also recollected Peter Micha and Joshua Chicken, Nantucket Indians, and mentioned them in this account (pages 15–16).
A recently digitized reference book, Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, published in 1936 (the fourth volume, with the Massachusetts cases, of a five-volume series published 1926–1937) contains summaries of many types of state and federal court cases (pages 455–534) involving people of color with Massachusetts connections. Toward the end of the Massachusetts summaries (which are arranged chronologically), in the early- to mid-19th-century cases, experiences such as those faced by Lonnon and others were presented to federal courts.
On at least two occasions, the courts ruled that Louisiana’s practices to seize mariners of color on board ships, to prohibit men of color from coming ashore, and to require that captains pay fees and post bonds before leaving the state with crewmen of color, were unconstitutional. See page 511 (The Cynosure, 1844) and page 524 (The William Jarvis, 1859).
Early Massachusetts cases summarized in Judicial Cases, and many more court cases since identified in the Massachusetts Judicial Archives, involved Native people seeking freedom from enslavement and from more ambiguous situations of involuntary servitude. Written petitions for freedom directed to the colonial government by Native people date even earlier in the 17th century. Digital history projects with images of original petitions include the Digital Archives of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions and of Massachusetts Native American Petitions.
Native women, single women and girls, but mothers and young men too, were the first people of color to advantage the Massachusetts courts to bring suits for freedom from at least 1660. That year, the 16 year-old Nantucket Indian girl named Mall was entrapped in servitude unhappily by men who “much commooton her.” She had walked away from her master’s house in Newbury. Other English men in Lynn attempted to protect her and advocated for her freedom in court. The court ordered her returned to her master, allowing the disagreeable and uncertain arrangement to continue without setting an endpoint. The case is exemplary of situations in which vulnerable children of Native ancestry were placed in English households as servants without a consensual written contract of indenture that specified terms and duration. The lack of formal agreement resulted in the distinct prospect of free people of color becoming enslaved.
Legal actions for freedom in the early county courts established expectations in legal and public minds for the slew of freedom suits that followed circa 1672–1784. Those cases evolved the common law principle that descendants of Indian women could not be legally enslaved for life. Juries and judges regularly freed people with maternal Native ancestry, and freed people born of other free women of color, on the principle that they were born free. Historian Margaret Ellen Newell emphasized that—despite judicial decisions, government policies, and laws—men, women, and children of Native, African, and other ancestries continued to be enslaved in fact and practice.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) eventually determined that slavery was entirely inconsistent with the declaration of freedom and equality in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. But slavery, slavery-like arrangements, and the slave trade persisted in Massachusetts decades after what was the long-supposed moment of judicial abolition of slavery. It is still popularly thought that judicial abolition occurred 1781–1783 as a result of the once obscure but now famous cases of Mum Bett and Quock Walker. Historian T.H. Breen called that popular “dominant explanation” of Massachusetts judicial abolition the “heroic legal narrative,” which has since evolved to emphasize the actions of enslaved people themselves to end slavery in Massachusetts.
The Mum Bett and Quock Walker cases have become in modern heroic narratives the defining moments of agency and determination by enslaved people and their allies to force courts to abolish Massachusetts slavery. Remembered by families and friends, the people involved and the circumstances of their lives were never forgotten in the towns. The cases of Mum Bett and Quock Walker continue to be featured in local, county, state, and national historiography. The cases are a key narrative turning point in histories of the state’s slavery and emancipation.
In point of fact, neither of those cases instantly abolished slavery in Massachusetts. The particular outcomes of the cases were effective for the parties involved. The cases were remembered for a time by lawyers and seemingly persuasive to dissuade slave-owners from further challenging freedom suits against them in Berkshire and Worcester counties.
In late 18th-century legal circles, however, the Mum Bett case was soon forgotten. The three Quock Walker cases that reached the SJC were then later remembered differently by state jurists, “cannily misunderstood” as having abolished slavery—as Thea K. Hunter phrased it, and as many other legal historians concur. The convenient legal purpose of having supposed some long prior decision of judicial abolition, that “purposeful misunderstanding,” was done simply to bolster later judicial decisions. That formalistic “legal fiction” of prior judicial abolition addressed technical points arising in disputes between towns about financial support of impoverished former slaves and their descendants (Judicial Cases, pages 481–487). In actuality, it was not until 1836 when statewide judicial abolition of slavery was articulated in a judicial decision of record that had immediate and statewide legal effect (Commonwealth v. Aves, 35 Mass. Reports 193 at 208, 210, 217, summarized in Judicial Cases, pages 506–508).
Emily Blanck’s pathbreaking research gathered a large sample of records of freedom suits and other legal actions, and she analyzed their complicated history and significance from the colonial to the early statehood periods. Blanck’s list of 30 named cases included 25 freedom suits named by the case caption dating 1703–1783, and she mentioned “five additional unnamed cases” in unspecified sources. Of the 30 named cases, five were not freedom suits, per se: three were disputes about matters involving slaves, servants, or free people of color; one was a criminal case for assaulting and kidnapping a free man of color; and, one was a legislative declaration of freedom for a man of color manumitted by will. I have continued Blanck’s project, searching for records of freedom suits to further document cases noted by Blanck and other scholars, and, while searching for those records, happening upon several more previously unidentified freedom suits. Altogether, my compiled list presently has 69 Massachusetts freedom suits dating 1660–1784. Surely many more freedom suit cases remain undiscovered in the archives. A comprehensive search and documentation effort for records about the Massachusetts freedom suits would be a major historical contribution.
Enslaved and free people of color learned about and considered legal developments about cases sued in courts where enslavements were being challenged and freedom obtained. Historian Scott Hancock in “The Law Will Make You Smart” wrote that “Legal beliefs are perceptions of how the law does or should work, perceptions based on personal experience, on information passed through the neighborhood, or by watching what happens to others who encounter the law.” People of color attained “legal consciousness” of a variety of practical subjects with land transfers, probate process, court activities, poor relief, banking, census enumerations, veteran pension applications, and other legal and bureaucratic encounters involving interactions with attorneys, justices of the peace, local magistrates, judges, town, county, state, and federal clerks, and other officials.
The most often remarked characteristic of the history of judicial abolition in Massachusetts is its murkiness. Details and documentation remain uncertain and incomplete. Research requires technical knowledge to locate and to understand the partial and fragmented legal records in public and private archives. Two publications by William E. Nelson, “Court Records as Sources for Historical Writing,” and Americanization of the Common Law, are among many instructive works in legal history that are fundamental for understanding historical legal processes, vocabulary, rules, and variable practices that created the contents and forms of preserved historical legal records.
Factual ambiguities in the tenebrous history of judicial abolition in Massachusetts were useful beyond their legal application in obscure judicial case decisions. Legal historian Philip Hamburger recognized that “It was part of a broader rewriting of history that would gratify many nineteenth-century inhabitants of Massachusetts, that would annoy many twentieth-century historians, and that would in both ways distract attention from what actually happened.” Historians Joanne Pope Melish and Margot Minardi traced that broader, revisionary, historiographic transformation of Massachusetts slavery and emancipation in view of regional and national American culture.
Judicial emancipation progressively arrived in Massachusetts after more than a century of prior legal and political challenges to enslavement and slavery-like situations. Petitions and lawsuits for freedom by Native people began in the 17th century. Their cases and then those of other people evolved the common law through the eighteenth century by court decisions that more often than not, but not always freed the enslaved plaintiff. Some statutory reform was attempted, particularly but ineffectively against Indian enslavement, and then against the slave trade that continued clandestinely nonetheless. Economic entanglements of Northern industries and commerce in support of slavery and the global slave trade persisted into the 19th century. The legacies of the uneven legal, social, economic, and political landscape for people of color in the historical United States affect us yet.
Beckert, Sven, and Seth Rockman (eds.), Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016. http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15556.html
Bell, Edward L., “Obtaining Her Liberty: The 1771 Freedom Suit of Nancy Parker of Andover, Massachusetts (with Notes and Suggested Readings for Educators and Researchers on Massachusetts Slavery and Emancipation).” Summary prepared for Invisible Injustice: A Symposium on Slavery in the North, Salem State University, Salem, Mass., April 2, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/23912789
Bishop, John v. John Hathorne and Edward Richards (In re Mall Indian), Essex County Quarterly Court Records, Ipswich, September 1660, page 89 (No. 16), Judicial Archives, Massachusetts Archives, Boston. Abstracts of the court record and some file papers are in Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, 1656–1662, Vol. 2, pages 240–242, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass., 1912. Transcriptions of file papers are in Archie N. Frost (comp.), “Verbatim Transcriptions of the Records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts,” Vol. 6, 1660–1661, 23-1–23-4, 24-1–24-3, 25-1, Typescript, 1938 (“WPA Transcripts” on microfilm) at Judicial Archives, Massachusetts Archives, Boston.
Blanck, Emily, “Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 75 (1) (2002): 24–51. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1559880?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Breen, T.H., “Making History: The Force of Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts,” in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, page 72. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1997. https://www.uncpress.org/book/9780807846445/through-a-glass-darkly/
Carpenter, Daniel, Nicole Topich, and Garth Griffin, Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions, Massachusetts Archives, Boston MA, 2015 (website), https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/antislaverypetitionsma. Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 2015.
Carpenter, Daniel, C. Carden, and Garth Griffin, Digital Archive of Massachusetts Native American Petitions, Massachusetts Archives, Boston MA, 2017–2018 (website), https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/nativeamericanpetitions. Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 2018.
Catterall, Helen Tunnicliff (ed.) with additions by James J. Hayden, Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Vol. 4: Cases from the Courts of New England, the Middle States, and the District of Columbia. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C., 1936. https://archive.org/details/volume4judicialc00unse/page/454
Hamburger, Philip, Law and Judicial Duty. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2008, pages 482–483 and n12–n15. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674031319
Hancock, Scott, “‘The Law Will Make You Smart’: Legal Consciousness, Rights Rhetoric, and African American Identity Formation in Massachusetts, 1641–1855.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Hampshire, 1999, page 7. https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3093&context=dissertation
Hunter, Thea K., “Publishing Freedom, Winning Arguments: Somerset, Natural Rights, and Massachusetts Freedom Cases, 1772–1836.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2005, pages 9 (quotations, italics mine), 150. https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/6318346
Massachusetts General Court, Special Joint Committee Report on the Deliverance of Citizens, Liable to be Sold as Slaves. House No. 38, March 1839. https://archive.org/stream/reportondelivera00mass#page/n5/mode/2up
Massachusetts General Court, Chapter 66 of the Resolves of 1839, passed April 8, 1839, in Acts and Resolves passed by the Legislature of Massachusetts in the years 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, together with the Rolls and Messages, page 105. Secretary of the Commonwealth, Boston, 1842. https://archive.org/details/actsresolvespass183942mass/page/104
Melish, Joanne Pope, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1998. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100881680
Minardi, Margot, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 2010, pages 37–42. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/making-slavery-history-9780195379372?cc=us&lang=en&#
Nelson, William E., Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachusetts Society, 1760–1830 (reprint of 1975 edition). University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1994. https://ugapress.org/book/9780820315874/americanization-of-the-common-law/
Nelson, William E., “Court Records as Sources for Historical Writing,” in Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630–1800: A Conference Held 6 and 7 November 1981 by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, ed. Daniel R. Coquillette, pages 499–518. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Boston, 1984. https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/928
Newell, Margaret Ellen, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 2015. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100460180
O’Brien, William, “Did the Jennison Case Outlaw Slavery in Massachusetts?,” The William and Mary Quarterly (3rd series) 17 (2) (1960): 219–241. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1943353.pdf
Edward L. Bell is grateful to Lise Breen for sharing the 1839 legislative report, to Margaret Ellen Newell for advising about the 1660 case of Mall, and to Meadow Dibble Hilley for inviting this summary essay.
Mr. Bell is a Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer at the Massachusetts Historical Commission in Boston. His scholarly writings link the history and archaeology of local places to broader historical and social themes. He is presently engaged in a long-term research and writing project about Massachusetts freedom suits, and particularly about biographies of people of color in enslavement and contingent freedom in the historical town of Andover (presently Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence) in Essex County, Massachusetts.
Read more by Edward L. Bell at https://independent.academia.edu/EdwardLBell
Cite this essay: Bell, Edward L., “Freeing Eral Lonnon: A Mashpee Indian Presumed a Fugitive Slave in Louisiana, and the Role of Native People in the History of Judicial Abolition in Massachusetts.” A summary essay prepared for the Atlantic Black Box website https://atlanticblackbox.com/, April 29, 2019.