By Jared Ross Hardesty
Some of the most common questions I receive after giving a talk about my book or a workshop about slavery in New England concern research. Where do you start? What types of sources are available? How accessible are those sources? In this post, I hope to clarify some of these questions and offer a short introduction to researching New England slavery.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that almost everywhere you look in the archives of colonial and revolutionary New England, you will find evidence of slavery. Likewise, a significant amount of this material has been published and/or digitized and is readily accessible.
There are four main types of sources any researcher will encounter: public, private, church, and print. Public records are some of the most important. These include government documents, such as legislation and reports; probate records, namely wills and inventories; and court records, including summons, testimonies, and petitions. All these records provide important insight on slavery. Take, for example, court records. Judicial archives include what are called “file papers,” which are all the documents related to a given court case. In colonial Massachusetts, these papers often contained the depositions of enslaved people. Here, enslaved people often discussed their everyday lives and experiences as part of testifying.
And the best part about public records? Many are readily available for free online. FamilySearch, a non-profit website offering resources for genealogical research, has digitized microfilm copies of most of the public records for colonial New England.
Private papers are also an important source for studying slavery in New England. These include letters, diaries, and business records kept by individuals in the region and often include discussion of enslaved people. And many of these are available online or in print. Harvard Library’s Colonial North America project is digitizing the university’s archival material related to the colonial era. This collection includes the papers of merchants and artisans who were active in slave trading, owned enslaved people, and hired enslaved labor. Moreover, many published private records are now out of copyright and have been digitized. Take, for example, the papers of Reverend James MacSparran, an Anglican minister in Rhode Island. In his diary, MacSparran often discussed the enslaved people he owned, the work he had them do, and the punishments he meted out to them.
Church records are also important sources. Enslaved people interacted extensively with New England churches and almost every denomination had Black members. And these churches, be they Anglican, Congregational, or some other sect, kept extensive records. Like other sources, church records have been published and digitized, making it fairly easy to find the connections between these churches and slavery. Moreover, major research and digitization projects, such as the Congregational Library and Archives’ New England’s Hidden Histories project, offer unparalleled opportunities to study the relationship between churches and slavery in early New England.
Finally, there is print. New England was the center of printing in early America and home to numerous newspapers by the end of the colonial era. Enslaved people interacted with print in a variety of ways and any glance at a newspaper will reveal just how common slavery was in the region. Perhaps most significant are the runaway slave advertisements. When enslaved people resisted slavery by absconding, enslavers would often put advertisements in the newspaper looking for their return. These ads are important sources. Enslavers had to be honest in their depictions and the ads offer insight into the lives of the runaways. There are numerous ways to access early New England’s newspapers and Freedom on the Move, a database of runaway advertisements, has many of the ads from New England.
This all sounds great, right? Now it is time for the bad news. There is a reason the advice above is vague. A significant amount of the material on New England slavery has not been published and/or digitized and there are large collections containing evidence of slavery in town halls, local museums, historical societies, and dusty church basements just waiting to be examined. And these are not limited to small towns and out-of-the-way hamlets. A significant portion of Boston’s early town records remain undigitized and must be accessed in person at the Boston Public Library.
Yet, the biggest obstacle to researching slavery in New England is not accessibility, but rather the very nature of the records themselves. There is not a central repository of documents about slavery in New England. Rather, there is a fragmented source base, spread across at least ten countries, eleven states, dozens of private museums, archives, and historical societies, hundreds of towns, and thousands of publications. It may not be hard to find evidence of slavery in New England, but it is difficult to sustain lines of inquiry and construct larger narratives. Doing so requires spending a significant amount of time combing through records and connecting them into a coherent whole.
An example of this fragmented source base is Adventurer v. Vanderhoaf, a freedom suit—a type of lawsuit that enslaved people filed to win freedom from their enslavers—from 1782. Thanks to the work of Edward Bell, we have quite a bit of information about this case and its plaintiff. Adventurer was an enslaved man from Suriname and his enslaver, Richard van der Hoaf, was a Dutch merchant from the same colony. When Van der Hoaf arrived in Salem in 1781 with Adventurer, local abolitionists helped the enslaved man file suit for his freedom, which he won. The case is important because it created legal precedent that Massachusetts was “free soil” and slavery anathema to the principles of the commonwealth. And yet, it provides little insight into who Adventurer was. Understanding Adventurer requires searching beyond the judicial records and piecing together several disparate documents. Here are three of them:
First, is the record of the trial in the Essex County Court of Common Pleas where we learn of the case itself, where Adventurer was from, and who the lawyers representing each party were:
Second, if we turn to the private papers of Theophilus Parsons, an Essex County-born abolitionist and Adventurer’s attorney, the case appears in a few places, including Parsons’s docket book as seen here:
And finally, Van der Hoaf appeared in the records of Suriname, thousands of miles away from Salem. In this 1779 document, Van der Hoaf told officials of his intention to travel to St. Eustatius, another Dutch colony in the Caribbean. Since he left with enslaved people, including Adventurer, he had to report his departure. We know from this document, then, that Adventurer had lived in Suriname for a time, traveled to St. Eustatius, and finally arrived in Salem:
Admittedly, Adventuer represents an extreme case, but it shows just how far-flung the records related to New England slavery can be. Generally, when researching slavery in New England, especially the lives of its Black population, you will not need to look further than the region’s many archives. Nevertheless, it does require exploring the records and spending hours hunting for snippets and fragments. For that reason, the best advice I can give is to dig in.