By Scot McFarlane
Research Scholar, Historic New England, Northern New England Region
Though I recently completed my dissertation on the history of slavery on Texas’ Trinity River, studying and understanding slavery’s history in New England has been a very different experience. As one of four new research scholars at Historic New England, my job is to expand the range of voices and stories told at their twelve sites in Maine and New Hampshire. Already I have found many sources that allow us to talk about the history of slavery in New England in vivid detail. None of this research would have been possible without the connections I made that sustained and informed me in this process.
One of the major contrasts compared with my research on slavery in Texas is the level of ambiguity in the sources I have found in New England. Especially by the Revolution, enslavers tried to hide their actions. Thus, when I encounter a receipt for work done by “my boy” I seek out the advice of other scholars and citizen researchers. What do they know about the context that might let me draw firmer conclusions? I have also come to accept that some of these sources will remain ambiguous while offering a teachable moment. They can still be included in a tour alongside an explanation for why the study of slavery in New England has been purposefully muddled. This research is not only about the archives and the documents we might find, but also includes our understanding of them.
While the study of slavery in New England is new to me, there are many people who have working on this topic for a long time. People like Vana Carmona at Atlantic Black Box or the author Glenn Knoblock have built impressive databases over the years. Sometimes their work has helped to verify one of my sources, and it is part of an oral tradition where the transfer of knowledge comes from reading books and spreadsheets, and also from having conversations. These conversations can lead to new discoveries. For example, when visiting with Barbara Rimkunas of the Exeter Historical Society, I explained my purpose in exploring the history of the Gilman Garrison House in Exeter. Barbara told me that they had no direct evidence of slavery there, but that someone who lived nearby kept a diary that commented on slavery. When we looked at this document, the first entry that appeared described the 1749 drowning of Titus who had been enslaved by Peter Gilman. Since Titus died, he would not have been included in Gilman’s will and we have no other record of his life. It is through conversations that much of the work of historical recovery can take place.
Doing research collectively is more effective, and it supports the dedication required to document and share as much of this history as possible. Granted each researcher feels differently about the inevitable isolation of days spent in archives whether virtual or physical, but it is heartening for me to know that I am not doing this work alone or just with my colleagues at Historic New England. In fact, the only way we can unearth and explain the history of slavery in New England is through this collective process. In my training for my PhD, each hurdle emphasized my knowledge, my labor in the archives, and my interpretation. Unlike in academia, here we have a common goal even as we have different experiences and skills. This improved, communal process is not an ends in itself, but will surely help us create a more complete understanding of New England’s history of slavery.