By Lee Roscoe

Benjamin Bangs (1720-1769) kept a diary that offers insight into many aspects of life on Cape Cod in the mid-18th century. It is from this diary that we learn Bangs was an enslaver.[1]

Born in Harwich on Cape Cod 24 June 1720, Benjamin Bangs lived in the town’s North Parish, situated on the Cape’s bayside, before it seceded from South Parish in 1803 and came to be known as Brewster.[2]

Bangs’ forebear, Edward Bangs, came to Plymouth aboard the ship Anne in 1623. According to Eastham Land Records 1650-1745, Edward Bangs and his son Johnathan acquired at least 80 non-contiguous acres within a large tract of “Old Comers” land grants. This area extended along the north side of the peninsula in what was known as Eastham or Nauset, from Nemskaket to the Satucket River in Stony Brook valley. Ellen St. Sure, Brewster’s late Town Archivist, confirmed that the Bangs family “owned a great deal of land” in what is now Brewster, some of it located around Cobb’s Pond, Schoolhouse Pond, and Stony Brook.

It was Johnathan’s son, Captain Edward Bangs, who fathered Edward, Jr. who in turn fathered Benjamin by his wife Sarah Clark. Edward, Sr. is described by historian Simeon Deyo as an “innholder and shop keeper,” who ran a store and public house. We learn in The History and Genealogy of the Bangs Family that he additionally owned and commanded vessels and “carried on farming and leather manufacturing quite extensively.” Edward Jr. was said to be a whale boat owner and landholder who “cultivated quite a large farm,” owned cattle, was involved in shipping, and ran a tannery.

St. Sure posits that Benjamin was born in a house in Factory Village, near Stony Brook. We know that he later lived in a house originally built by his grandfather on the Old King’s Highway. That structure was eventually sold to the First Parish Church with two acres of land in 1854 for a dollar and was replaced in 1868 by a newly built parsonage.

As for Benjamin Bangs, Deyo writes that he “was first engaged in sea-faring business. He was a very successful merchant. He was interested in the whale fishery, and fitted out whale vessels” from a store that was likely attached to his house. Dudley adds that Benjamin Bangs was a shipmaster and merchant, “succeeding in nearly all his undertakings, of high and noble character.” The fact that this prominent man was also a slaveholder does not appear to have tarnished his reputation in the eyes of local historians.

Writing in his diary, Bangs often refers to individuals as “my Negro” or “my Indian.” Many of these enslaved people were in fact of mixed African and Indigenous heritage. For instance, he counts both James Oliver and Jesse Caesar as his “Negroes” but later refers to them as “my Indians.” Caesar (also spelled Caezar) had been enslaved by the Dillinghams, who were Bangs’ in-laws. Hannah was also of mixed African and Indigenous heritage and lived in the Bangs residence. She became pregnant and was found incoherent near her dead baby. Tried for murder after spending time in Barnstable jail, she was acquitted in July of 1765.

When Bangs sold “negro Oliver” in October of 1760, he said “good riddance to bad rubbish.” Later that same month, the man’s former enslaver noted “Negro Oliver visited.” Perhaps Oliver had been sold away from his wife and children and had returned to see them. It seems this visit was among his last. On 12 January 1761, Bangs writes that “James Oliver, 1/2 Indian and belonging to me” drowned with six others from Potanumecot when their whale sloop capsized heading into Old Harbor, Chatham. In his 1939 book A History of Harwich, Josiah Paine states that James Oliver had “been much in the employ of Benjamin Bangs” and that he had fought against the French.

Just a few days before selling Oliver, Bangs notes in his diary that Jesse Caesar had been “drunk” and “sassy” over the disbursement of accounts to be settled with Elisha Doane, or “Elisha the Rich,” as Bangs calls him.

On 29 February 1759, Bangs notes that “Sarah negro came here to live. Bought her at 200 pounds.” In January of 1762, Bangs sells “old Amos” and “old Jesse.” That same year, Josh Pompmo ran away to “the Banks” (perhaps the Georgia Banks). In 1764, the merchant mentions that “negro Philip” is at the center of a “famous negro wedding.”

In the late 1780s, a series of judicial decisions pronounced in response to “freedom suits” that had been filed by enslaved individuals in Massachusetts had the impact of progressively phasing out the practice of slavery. The 1790 census listed 13 “Negros” and “mulattos” at Barnstable town, 36 in Falmouth, 12 in Sandwich, 23 in Yarmouth, 3 in Chatham, 3 in Eastham, and 11 in Harwich, which at the time included the area that later became Brewster. Mashpee’s count is confusing, as it lists only 9 non-white individuals, whereas the plantation probably held at least 300 Native people at the time.

Bangs expresses some attachment to the Indian Jonathan Coshomon, noting in November of 1744 “friend, dies of sickness.” On 8 July 1761 he records the fact that “Sarah Cowet, Indian [“s-word”], drowned at Robin’s Hill Channell” as she fished there when the tide rushed into the “holl.” Bangs buries Sarah in his own graveyard.

Throughout his diaries, Indians that he identifies as belonging to him and his father are mentioned as members of the crew on the family’s whaling vessels. For example, on 26 November 1748, Bangs remarks, “Father’s Indians struck the biggest… whale.” It appears that a number of whalers enslaved or employed by Bangs also lived on his property. He whaled out Jesse Caesar and James Oliver, Hannon Toby (listed as “my negro”) as well as Prince Negro, who is noted as owning half a share in one of Bangs’ voyages. Bangs himself appears to have invested in shares of whaling voyages and regularly leased out to other whalers men whose labor he claimed to own.

The name “Micah negro” appears in the diaries with no information. This might have been a reference to the man both Paine and Nickerson identify as Micah Rafe, a whaler aboard one of Bang’s vessels to Canada.[3] Along, too, were Judah Hopkins as skipper, two Clarkes and David Quansett “ends men,” Peres Bangs as “ship’s keeper,” a Sears, two Cahoons, another Bangs, and Amos Lawrence. Micah Ralph and John Squattom were hands. Micah, the Quansetts, Squattom, and Lawrence were all Indians.

Rafe was also spelled Ralph, and John Ralph Jr., son of the distinguished Indian minister, whaled with Bangs, as did David Ralph, Thomas Jolly, and Richard Attomin, Jr. All except Jolly, who was a Sauquatuckett tribe member (19 years old in 1760), were Potanumecots—that is, Nausets living at the reservation of about 100 acres in what is now Orleans. Amos and Daniel Lawrence, also Native, whaled for Bangs, as did “Queech.” One Indian was sent by Bangs to Casco Bay to help John Snow build a sloop he had commissioned.

Indian whalers were considered especially brave and adept, according to Bangs’ account and those of others. Whether free or enslaved, their exploits were often valued, as in the case of Jeremiah Cauley, a noted Potanumecot whaler who secured in 1759 the greatest number of barrels of oil for Bangs.

While many of the whale crews were made up of people of color, whaling captains were typically white and bore surnames such as Freeman, Snow, Gage, Berry, and Hall.  One notable exception is “Potawaumacut” Samuel Cooke, who is said to have commanded an all-white crew.[4]

On 3 December 1747, a storm at sea pulled a cable apart as the sea rushed over them near the Nantasket shoals. The jib loosed and shrouds gave way. Freezing cold, they landed at “Braintry” and “came to the fire” of a welcoming house. Bangs almost fainted. His fingers froze. He was with Silas Negro “given to me this day,” as well as Captain Thatcher and Esquire Freeman. Bangs did captain crews, but in this case it is unclear who was actually commanding the vessel.

In 1755, over 100 people on Cape Cod were involved in whaling, according to Paine, with Bangs at the forefront of those fitting out vessels.

Bangs died in 1769 at the age of 48, leaving sons to fight and (one to) die in the American Revolution and a fair inheritance of wealth to all his heirs. He is buried in Brewster behind what is now the First Parish Unitarian Church, near to the spot where his house once stood.

This post was excerpted from an article published by Lee Roscoe in the Spring 2016 issue of The Journal of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society and was edited by Meadow Dibble.

[1] I used the Massachusetts Historical Society collections both in Boston and at the Brewster Ladies Library, and the Harwich Historical Society’s Paine Collection, to peruse various pieces of the journals of Captain Benjamin Bangs from which this essay is in part excerpted. The odd punctuation and spelling is his. I also used Josiah Paine’s “History of Harwich,” and Simeon Deyo’s “History of Barnstable County.”

[2] Bangs date of birth is listed as 1721 on his gravestone in the First Parish Church cemetery

[3] Cape Cod Library of Local History and Genealogy: A Facsimile … Volume 1.

[4] See D.R. Mandell, Behind the Frontier.

3 thoughts on “Captain Benjamin Bangs, an Enslaver in Brewster

  1. Great article. Lee, do you have any ideas when Micah served at sea? I’d like my entry for him in my Black Mariner Database to be as precise as possible. Thanks. Charles Foy

  2. Charles thank you so much–, there is some confusion between Micah Sr. and Jr. It appears that Micah Sr. was Bang’s whaler, not the Jr who was the “last full blood.” Likely between 1745 and 1760 roughly. I am emailing you the full article I did on Bangs for there is more on whalers, and also an old piece by WS Nickerson which has come relevant info.

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