Servitude in Portsmouth: Slavery

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“The purpose of my writing to you at this time is to inform you, that slave in my possession, a Mulatto girl named Mariah, who by the laws of this state is deemed my slave; which I wish to you legally to manumit, that she may be her own free woman, and my estate not encumbered with her.” (Mary Lawton to the Portsmouth Town Council in 1797). *

Mary Lawton document

I came across this document while looking for a particular vintage image of Portsmouth.  In researching many topics in early Portsmouth history, I have encountered a variety of references to slaves.  I have not made a study of this topic, but I would like to share some of the examples I have found.  Portsmouth is not associated with the slave trade like Bristol and Newport, but many local families will find their ancestors held Native American or black slaves.

With the coming of the settlers, the native populations found themselves unable to live in their normal style.  Their hunting grounds and summer camp areas were “sold” to the Europeans.  Towns like Portsmouth restricted them and they found it impossible to live on their own.  After King Philip’s War,  many Native Americans found themselves sold into slavery.  It was not unusual for them be in servitude to colonial farmers in Portsmouth.

Researching the land history of the “Glen” was the beginning of my interest in Portsmouth history.  My father was helping with the research and he brought me a copy of the death inventory of Thomas Cooke.  The Cooke family originally settled the Glen lands from East Main Road to the Sakonnet River.  The original  of this document dated 1677 is included in the Portsmouth Scrap Book, page 72. ** Included close to the bottom of the inventory is “one Indian Boy.”

In researching the Cundall/Slocum graveyard by the Glen Barns, I came across this article:  Rhode Island June 27th (1712). “An Indian servant man belonging to Mr. Giles Slocum of Portsmouth carry’d out to sea in a canoo(canoe) two of his masters sons, one of ten the other of nine years old, whom he kill’d and drown’d, and being examin’d before the Authority confesed that he knocked the eldest child in the head with the padle, and seeing the younger crying, he designedly oversett the canoo, and swam ashore himself, who is now in Irons in close/clofe? prison till he is try’d for his murder.” *** The slave, identified as Job, was found guilty and executed on Miantonomi Hill in Newport.

A son ( or maybe grandson) of the Giles Slocum mentioned above is shown to have had black slaves.  The records of the Town of Portsmouth show: Apr. 1st, 1745, “Giles Slocum gave manumission to a negro slave ‘Jack’ and a negro woman ‘Heleno’ they paying him therefor one hundred and fifty pounds in current bills of publick credit of the colony”.

The Slocum family were Quakers, yet they held both Native American and Black slaves.  We may think of the Quakers as being strong abolitionists and they did become so.  However in the early days Quakers were active in the slave trade and held slaves themselves.  Samuel Elam, who dressed in simple Quaker garb despite his rich lifestyle, is such an example.    His Portsmouth estate was named “Vaucluse” and it was situated off of Wapping Road.  This was no rustic rural retreat.  Elam had enlarged the house to resemble a temple and he developed elaborate gardens on the grounds.  One French visitor described Elam as “the only farmer in the island who does not personally labour upon his own ground.” ****  He would be in need of workers for his estate.

Ad in the Mercury 1799

In 1799 Elam posted a notice in the Newport Mercury for a runaway-slave.  He does want the slave (named John Brayton) back, but he does show some mercy.  Rose Phillips, “a lusty middle aged Woman” escaped with John. Rose had been freed on condition that she work for three years and she hadn’t completed that service.  Elam shows some mercy, however.  If John is caught he would prosecute him unless he had married Rose!!

Elam and other Portsmouth Quakers were finding a conflict between their faith and their slaveholding traditions.  In earlier days Quakers could justify their slaveholding by saying they treated them well and educated them.  Especially after the American Revolution, Quaker leaders were preaching that ownership of slaves contradicted their fundamental idea of equality of all human beings.  In 1774 Quakers were told to give up their slaves or leave the Society of Friends.  Portsmouth Quakers began to free their slaves.

Among Portsmouth citizens who freed their slaves for religious reasons were William Anthony (1 slave 1775), Thomas Brownell (1 slave 1775), James Coggeshall (3 slaves 1775), Cornell Walter (2 slaves, 1775). Weston Hicks (1 slave 1775), Isaac Lawton (1 slave 1775), James Sisson (3 slaves, 1775).

The Portsmouth 1790 Federal Census lists 19 slaves in Portsmouth.  Their owners were Thomas Potter, Mary Lawton, John Thurston, Job Durfee, Matthew Cooke, Matthew Curney (who had 3 slaves), Peter Wales, Sarah Almy (who had 2 slaves), Jeremiah Hazard (who had 6 slaves) and James Allen (who had two slaves.)

The 1800 census showed the number of slaves was down to 12.  Preservd Shearman, Andrew Corie, Jr, Benjamin Chase, Job Almy, Gideon Durfee, Isaac Anthony, Samuel Elam and John Cottorell (who had 2 slaves).

By 1821 there are no slaves listed on the census for Portsmouth.

Guests on Genealogy shows are often dismayed that there were slave holders in their families.  Those with long Portsmouth roots should not be surprised that there are slaveholders among their ancestors.  As a community we need to understand the legacy of slavery in the history of our town.


*A facsimile the Lawton document is included in the Pierce Collection available online at the Portsmouth Free Public Library website.

**The transcription of the Cooke inventory was published in Thomas Cook of Rhode Island. Published by author Jane Fiske, Boxford Mass: 1987.

***Source: Boston News Letter, June 27. 1712.

****So Fine a Prospect:  Historic New England Gardens.

Servitude in Portsmouth: Indentured Servants

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Many of those researching the founding Portsmouth families will find that among their ancestors is an indentured servant who labored hard to gain their freedom. Other families may find that their ancestors were the masters of such servants.   What was an “indentured servant”?  Why would someone agree to be a servant or on the other hand be forced to be such a servant?  What kinds of indentured service were there?  I haven’t made a study of this kind of servitude,  but I have encountered some examples of indentured service as I have researched other topics of Portsmouth history.

What was an “indentured servant”? An indenture is a legal document which binds a worker to a master for a fixed period of time.  It is a legal contract and there are responsibilities for both the master and the servant.  Our document collection includes legal procedures that occur because either the master or the servant has failed in his duties.

In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society there are documents that show different kinds of arrangements for the services.  Some are simple exchanges  – labor for room and board.  Others involve “apprenticeship” where the master exchanges labor for training in a trade or skill.

Robin’s indenture

The following document is an agreement of indentured servitude. In the document, an Indian man named Robin Richman agrees to a term of four months as an indentured servant to Ann Brayton, an Englishwoman:

Articles of agreement Between Ann Brayton of Portsmouth on Rhode Island in New England and Robin Richman an Indian lately belonging to Little Comton [sic] in the county of Bristol in said New England witness that the said Indian Robin shall serve the said Ann Brayton four months beginning on the first day of may next and shall do her good services in any Lawfull business as she shall set him about in consideration whereof the said Ann Brayton shall pay five pound ten shillings on half in money and the other half in such cloathing [sic] as the said Indian shall have occation [sic] for at money price to be paid on or before the End of the said term of four months in witness in hereof the said Ann Brayton and Indian Robin have hereunto set their hands and seals the seven and twentieth day of Aprill [sic] the year 1692
[Signed by]
Joseph Anthony,  John Anthony
Ann Brayton Her mark
Robin Richman An Indian his mark****

Robin will work for Ann Brayton and does her bidding.  Ann will pay Robin for his services and provide clothing.   As Europeans settled Portsmouth, the Narragansett tribe lost its hunting and planting ground.  Native Americans could no longer live their traditional life and they were not prepared to fit into the settlers’ way of life.  Attaching themselves to serving a white family, working in the fields, or working in construction was a way to survive.

Other Portsmouth Historical Society documents illustrate apprenticeship, also called “indenture” in this case.  There are obligations for both the apprentice and master. An apprentice will be learning skills from a master.  Note that this child “Philip” is a “Parish Child”  This means that he is an orphan in the care of the town or coming from a poorhouse.  Note that it is the “Town Council” that is putting this child into indenture.  Pay attention to the responsibilities of the apprentice and those of the master.  The master will take care of the apprentice “in sickness and in health” and teach him how to read, write and cypher.  This contract is very typical of the wording in most of the apprentice type indentures.

Whereas the Town Council of the Town of Portsmouth in the County of Newport in the Colony of Rhode Island. At a meeting of said Town Council held the 14th Day of May, Anno Domini 1750. Ordered that a Parish Child named Philip Gusteen, the son of Pathena Gusteen be bound out an Apprentice by the clerk of said Town Council unto John Cory of North Kingstown in Kings County in the Colony aforesaid for the term or time fifteen years from the day of the date of said meeting.
Now this indenture, made the fourteenth day of May in the twenty third year of his Majesty’s Reign George the Second, King of Great Britain, Anno Domini 1750. Witnesseth that I, William Sanford, Clerk of the said Town Council of Portsmouth aforesaid, pursuant to the order of the said Town Council, have put, and by these present, do put and bind the above named Philip Gusteen, an Apprentice, unto the above named John Cory and in case of death of the said John Cory within the said Term then to serve Joseph Cory, son to the said John Cory, the remaining part of his apprenticeship. During all which time the said apprentice, his master faithfully shall serve his secrets keep, his lawful commands, being lawfully obeyed, he shall do no damage to his said master, nor flee, it be done by others without giving notice thereof to his said master, he shall not wrest, lend nor purloin the goods of his said master, nor absent himself from the service of his said master either by night or by day without his leave or consent, he shall not contract matrimony within the said term, nor haunt Ale-houses, Taverns, or Playhouses, nor play at any unlawful game or games whereby his said master be damaged, either with the lots of his own goods or the goods of others but in all things behave himself as a true, faithful and honest apprentice ought to do during said term. In consideration whereof the said master John Cory for himself and his son Joseph Cory both covenant and agree to find, provide and allow unto his said apprentice good and sufficient meat, drink, and apparel, lodging and washing fit and suitable for his said apprentice, both in sickness and in health and also teach his said apprentice or cause him to be taught to read, write and cypher within the said term and at the end and expiration thereof to discharge his said apprentice with one good new suit of apparel throughout besides his usual apparel and for the true performance of the Covenant and agreements above expressed the parties to these present above named bind themselves to each to the other. In witness whereof they have hereunto interchangeably set their hands the day and year above written with seals affixed.
[Signed by:]
Gideon Freeborn, Esq. Joseph Anthony
John Cory *****

The indenture of Joseph Cundall illustrates another reason people entered into servitude.     In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native England to become an indentured servant in America.  Becoming an indentured servant was a way for a young person to learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult.  Joseph Cundall’s family would ultimately hold most of the Glen land and they were pillars of the community and master millers.

Indenture Form

For the white apprentices, this period of service gave them an opportunity to pay their fare to America, gain profitable skills and then take their place in society.  For the Native Americans and Blacks, indentures were not always voluntary.  It was sometimes treated as a punishment by the courts.  If they violated a law and could not pay restitution, they might be bound over as an indentured servant.  It is hard for us to imagine choosing to bind yourself into service or forced into service because of race or poverty.  It was however, a feature of life in Portsmouth for over a hundred years.


**** PHS document 111.04 INDENTURE Portsmouth, RI 4/27/1692 Indenture Agreement April 27, 1692 between Ann Brayton of Portsmouth and Robin Richman, Indian, of Little Compton.

*****PHS # 1700.017: Indenture of Philip Gusteen, son of Pathena, to John Cory of North Kingston dated 5/14/1750

From Slaves to Portsmouth Farmers: The Aylers

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As I have been researching Portsmouth farm heritage, I found that our farmers have come from a variety of experiences.  They were settler farmers who were originally tradesmen and merchants in England. “Gentleman farmers” with big estates came from business backgrounds in New York and cities.  Our Yankee farmers were the descendants of the settlers and they were pillars of the community.  Portuguese farmers came across the Atlantic to Portsmouth to continue their farming trade.  I came across another farm family, the Ayler family, whose road to Portsmouth was quite different.

Edward Ayler’s obituary (published in the Newport Mercury in June of 1935) provides some clues to understanding their lives.

“Edward Ayler, one of the oldest and best known citizens of Portsmouth, died last Friday at his home on Freeborn Street.”

Ayler Property on 1907 map

This first line tells us where Edward (and his father before him) lived – in the area of Portsmouth known as Cozy Corner. Edward was well known.

“He was the son of the late Morgan and Matilda Ayler, former slaves, who came from the South to Portsmouth after the Civil War.”

The last line of Edward’s obituary tells us that he lived a long life as a Portsmouth farmer.  “He was more than 80 years old and had been engaged in farming practically all his life.”

How did the Aylers settle in Portsmouth?  The obituary of Matilda Ayler’s sister gives us another clue.  The Newport Mercury 1926 article about the death of Mrs. Robert Scott said “She came to this town over 60 years ago from the South, when the late Joseph Macomber went there and returned with 16 slaves.”   I am still working on researching the others who came here with the Aylers and I will write more about these Portsmouth community members in a later article.

Morgan Robert Ayler was born in Virginia in 1825.  I will focus on his life in Portsmouth, but genealogical resources show him residing in Ohio and West Virginia on his way back to his native Virginia.  The  records of the U.S., Freedman’s Bank show his residence as Washington, D.C. in 1870.   Also in 1870, Morgan, his wife Matilda and three of his children are listed as residing on the farm of Joseph Macomber off East Main Road in Portsmouth.  Morgan is listed by his middle name of “Robert” and son Edward is listed as “Edmund,” but their ages correspond to the birth dates of Morgan and Edward.  The men are listed as being farm laborers.

An interesting Daily News article in 1879 tells us that Mr. Morgan Ayler is in charge of  Friend Macomber’s farm.  It seems that Morgan Ayler found thirty six small bottles of liquor – all in a row – in one of the fields.  Since Macomber was a “well known temperance man,” it was suggested that the bottles were left behind by “thirsty Providence folk” who came for the “great celebration” of the Battle of Rhode Island the year before.

By the 1880 U.S. census both Morgan and Edward are listed as farmers with land of their own.  Both men won awards for their produce at the local Agricultural Fair.   At age seventy-seven, farmer Morgan’s tomatoes were given awards in 1902.   In 1914 and 1918 Edward was winning awards for his potatoes, parsley, beans and lima beans.   The Aylers must have been well known as farmers because an 1890 newspaper ad uses a testimonial from Edward Ayler and his brother Robert – “In trial with other Fertilizers, E. Frank Coes’s Red Brand Excelsior Guano gave the best results.”

The Ayler family was very involved in Portsmouth activities.  Edward Ayler’s wife (Louise Jackson Ayler)  was active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.  She often hosted meetings at her home.  She was active in the Friends Missionary Society.  The early generations of the Aylers were strong Quakers, but there seems to be a split among the third generation.  Edward’s sons Raymond and Emerson and daughter Alice Ayler Morris were known for their singing in the Friends Church before World War I.  During the war, however,  Raymond H. Ayler was commissioned as Second Lieutenant after having been drafted “with the colored boys” (Mercury, 9/13/18) while brother Osceola received a deferment because of his Quaker faith.  In the 1920s Raymond would be on the executive board of the American Legion along with William Vanderbilt and Bradford Norman.  L

Later generations of the Aylers would move on from Portsmouth.  Despite their difficult beginnings they became a vital part of the Portsmouth community.  The Ayler family is part of Portsmouth’s farm heritage.

Portuguese Farmers Come to Portsmouth

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Note Portuguese names on their 1907 map

Portsmouth has a strong heritage of farmers of Portuguese descent.  When did they begin to come to Portsmouth?  How did they come to own their own farms?  What were their farms like? How were they accepted in the community?  Fortunately, back in 1910 twenty Portsmouth farmers of Portuguese heritage were interviewed by a federal government agency for a report on immigrants in various American industries.  The information in this report gives us valuable insight into the roots of the Portuguese farming community here in Portsmouth.  

When did the Portuguese come to Portsmouth?  According to the report, the Portuguese began to come in numbers to the United States as early as the 1830s.  They shipped out from the Azores as sailors on whaling vessels bound for the port of New Bedford.  There were communities of Portuguese in New Bedford and later Fall River.  In the 1880s Portuguese began to come to Portsmouth as farm workers.   They lived in Fall River and worked in Portsmouth.  Within the Portuguese community, Portsmouth became known as a place where men could find agricultural work.  By 1890 the Portuguese began to come directly to Portsmouth.  Of the twenty farmers interviewed for the report, 14 had been farmers or sons of farmers in their native islands.  They were used to working in agriculture and they wanted to continue in that tradition.  They came from the islands of Sao Miguel, Sao Jorge and Fayal in the Azores.  

How did they come to own their own farms?  In 1909 there were 59 Portuguese farmers on the Portsmouth tax rolls.  Thirty-one of them were tenants and twenty-eight were owners of their own farms.   These owners were able to find a path from farmer worker to tenant farmer and then buy their own land.  When they came as farm workers they were not afraid of hard work and long hours.  They saved their money in order to rent land.  Land in Portsmouth was expensive.  Portsmouth agricultural land was considered some of the best farm land in the state.  As tenants they paid for their house and $8 to $10 an acre to farm the land.  They saved money to buy a horse and wagon, a few pigs and a few implements.  Their wives routinely worked the land with their husbands.  The writer made a comment that the women did not neglect their homemaking even though they helped their husbands.   Many of the men worked for neighbors in order to augment their income.   Most tenants (and owners, too) had to take out loans and could not pay their debts until the crops were sold.  Not every farmer succeeded, but most were able to make a good living.  In order to become an owner, they had to take on a mortgage.

What were their farms like?  Most farms were small.  The largest of the Portuguese farms was 95 acres and the smallest was one acre.  More than half the farms were under 15 acres.  Potato was the money crop.  Most farmers had half their ground planted with potatoes.  Their potato crop was marketed through Bristol Ferry to Providence.

Nearly every farm had a few acres in corn, but their corn was used to feed animals.  Five of the twenty farms grew hay.  Some of their farms had dairy herds and poultry products were sold by most of the farms.  They were somewhat self sufficient in providing their own meat, milk, eggs and vegetables.  The writer reports that “on the whole, the farms are well kept and appear like the surrounding farms.”  

Portuguese names on 1907 Newtown School roll

How were the Portuguese farmers accepted in the community?  The report writer claims that “there is really no race prejudice and the Portuguese are not looked down on.” (page 454)  He writes that “Americans regard them as indispensable.”  (page 458)  Their credit is good and the fields “improve under Portuguese tillage.”  One of the few negative comments is that the Portuguese are not as interested in becoming naturalized citizens as other immigrant groups.  

Clearly the Portuguese farmers as a whole were able to take the path from farm worker to tenant farmer to proud farm owner.  Their hard work and willingness to put in long hours paid off.  They became an integral part of the Portsmouth community.

If you want to read the report for yourself it is online at Google Books.  It is titled “Immigrants in Industries:  Part 24: Recent Immigrants in Agriculture.”  Go to  Chapter VI – Portsmouth, RI:  Portuguese Potato Planters.


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