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  • Using Local Histories to Research New England African Americans

    Beth Anne Bower

    Published Date : December 20, 2002

    Local histories can be valuable sources of information on New England African Americans and their communities. They may provide general information about the community in which your ancestor lived, stories and information about individuals, names of slaves and slave-owners, genealogies, and sometimes photographs. As with all secondary sources, the information presented in a local history must be approached with caution until one is able to confirm the facts from other sources. In some cases the source of the information is cited, but not always. What is exciting about many of the entries is that the authors of these histories were at times recounting “first hand” information about people they knew or repeating anecdotes that had been passed down by the older generations. In such cases they can provide clues that can lead the researcher in a new, more profitable direction. NEHGS trustee Tony Burroughs provides an excellent discussion of the use of local histories in African American genealogical research in his book Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree.[1]

    Genealogists researching African American families in New England will find a valuable Internet resource in the Connecticut Historical Society’s online finding aid African American Resources at CHS ( http://www.chs.org/finding_aides/afamcoll/index.htm). CHS has compiled a very thorough index of all of their primary and secondary resources, including objects and photographs. It is cross-referenced and easy to navigate. Their resources extend beyond Connecticut to include many town histories in other New England states and New York State. The index also includes national resources. All entries are annotated, as shown in the following example:

    Goodwin, Joseph Olcott.
    East Hartford: Its History and Traditions. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1879.
    Brief discussion of slaves owned by East Hartford residents (pp. 234-236), plus two references to Pomp Equality, an African-American who owned a boat as well as some real estate (pp. 179, 224). [2]

    NEHGS has an extensive collection of New England town and county histories available at the library and for loan through their Circulating Library. In addition, they recently have added thousands of local histories to their online store. These custom reproductions are printed and bound on demand.

    Almost every county and town in New England has a published history, many of which were written in the late nineteenth century. While it is helpful that the author was closer to the history he or she is describing, it also means that the descriptions and editorial comments reflect nineteenth-century New England attitudes towards slavery and African Americans. These often self-serving and incorrect passages are sometimes difficult to read, but they communicate the environment and attitudes to which African Americans were subjected. In his history of Lexington, Massachusetts, Charles Hudson briefly recaps the history of slavery in Massachusetts and presents this amazing false statement: “There never was a time when our courts would not have given freedom to the children of slaves”! [3]

    It is best to consult town and county histories when you are fairly sure that your family once resided in that locale. Not all local histories are indexed, and many indexes do not include all names that appear in the history. Remember to search the index for not only your ancestors’ names, but also under Blacks, colored, mulattos, Negroes, slaves, and slavery. But as Tony Burroughs relates, it sometimes means reading the entire volume to find the nugget you seek.

    Some town and county histories identify and describe African American communities in their region. For instance, The History of Newport, New Hampshire, from 1766 to 1878, With a Genealogical Register contains a description of the African American “colony” at Coit Mountain and its vicinity, as well as a description of a “Negro Wedding.” [4] There are also town histories that tell us about African American communities up through the twentieth century, such as Stamford: An Illustrated History and From Wintonbury to Bloomfield, Bloomfield Sketches: A Collection of Papers on the History of the Town of Bloomfield, Connecticut, Formerly Known as Wintonbury.[5]

    Many town histories contain anecdotes about specific African Americans, such as the History of the Town of Acton, which tells about the town parson’s sale of his slave, Frank Benson. [6] The History of Woburn, Massachusetts contains a chapter on “Longevity in Woburn,” with brief descriptions of three aged African Americans: Chloe, Prince Walker, and Jane Burkeland. Both publications have valuable references to diaries and obituaries. [7]

    An example of a detailed anecdote is the story of the “Malay” slave, Caesar, who arrived in Medford with an East Indian merchant, William Andriesse. After Andriesse’s death his widow left America for the Netherlands taking all her slaves but Caeser, whom she sold to the son of a neighbor. That son took Caesar to his plantation in the south, but when he returned to visit his father in Medford, Caesar escaped. Although recaptured by his master, his Medford neighbors freed him. The Medford town history tells us how he defended his freedom in court, later lived in Woburn, and was known as Mr. Anderson. [8]

    This narrative has many exciting details, but the careful genealogist must check all aspects of the tale to determine the facts. A perusal of the vital records of Medford, Massachusetts shows that indeed William Andresse (also called Andrews), variously described as a “Dutchman” and a “Dutch comadore,” died of diarrhea either July 1, 1799 or July 30, 1799. [9] Elizabeth Andries is indexed as a head of household in Medford, Massachusetts, in the 1800 U.S. Census. A death record of “A Malay slave of Andresse” on February 27, 1801, also described as “An Injan Girl of Mrs. Andrews,” confirms the existence of the “Malay” slaves. [10] And the Medford vital records also list the death of a child of Cesar, “a Malay,” on February 24, 1816. [11]

    There is no mention of Caesar or a Mr. Anderson (or Andrews) in the Woburn vital records or the History of the Town of Woburn; but a Cesar Anderson is indexed as a head of household in the 1820 U.S. Census in Boston. The story raises several other questions such as why Mr. and Mrs. Andriesse were allowed to keep their slaves even though slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts around 1789. One should also question whether Caesar, described as “Malay,” was a native of Africa or East India (Malaysia or Indonesia). Further research would be conducted in the Middlesex County, Massachusetts court and probate records, the state’s vital records, U.S. census records, and at the Medford Historical Society.

    Many New England town histories list the names of slave-owners in the town and, at times, the names of their slaves. The History of the Town of Durham, New Hampshire and A History of Barrington, Rhode Island both contain chapters on slavery and slave holding. [12] Others like the Historical Records of the Town of Cornwall, Litchfield County, Connecticut, and the previously mentioned histories of Lexington and Medford in Massachusetts provide lists of slave-owners and slaves. [13]

    Even more valuable are the town histories that append genealogies. Volume II of Hudson’s Lexington town history is entitled “Genealogies,” and contains family groups of the Barbadoes, Chessor, and Tulip African American families. [14] And, Shirley Uplands and Intervales: Annals of a Border Town of Old Middlesex, With Some Genealogical Sketches presents genealogies of African American families with the surnames Boston, Giger, Hasteneleven, Hazard, Henesy, and Mitchell. [15] Most exciting for family historians are volumes such as the History of Norfolk, Litchfield County, Connecticut, that includes not only anecdotes, but also photographs of some of the African Americans discussed. [16]

    In conclusion, those in search of their African American ancestors in New England should definitely consult town, city, and county histories. The local histories may provide only general information, but they often contain individual anecdotes, names and family groups, population statistics, geographical information, and even photographs. All secondary information should be approached with caution. But like oral histories, local histories can provide clues that come from oral traditions.


    [1] Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, Fireside Division of Simon & Schuster, 2001, pp.254-257.

    [2] http://www.chs.org/afamcoll/printed.htm#332

    [3] Hudson, Charles History of the Town of Lexington, Middlesex County, Massachusetts from First Settlement to 1868. Revised and continued to 1912 by the Lexington Historical Society. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913, vol. I, p. 482.

    [4] Wheeler, The History of Newport, New Hampshire, from 1766 to 1878, With a Genealogical Register. Concord, NH: Republican, 1879, pp. 252-253.

    [5] Feinstein, Estelle F., and Joyce S. Pendery. Stamford: An Illustrated History. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1984 and Wintonbury Historical Society. From Wintonbury to Bloomfield, Bloomfield Sketches: A Collection of Papers on the History of the Town of Bloomfield, Connecticut, Formerly Known as Wintonbury. Bloomfield: Wintonbury Historical Society, 1983.

    [6] Phalen, Harold R. History of the Town of Acton. Cambridge, MA: Middlesex Press, Inc., 1954, p. 385.

    [7] Sewall, Samuel, Charles Chauncy Sewall and Samuel Thompson. The History of Woburn, Middlesex County, Massachusetts the grant of its territory to Charlestown, in 1640, to the year1860. Boston: Wiggen and Lunt, 1868, reprint 1990, pp. 158-160.

    [8] Brooks, Charles History of the Town of Medford ,Middlesex Medford, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, from First Settlement in 1630 to 1855; revised 1885 by James W. Usher. Boston: Rand, Avery & Co., 1886, pp. 355-357.

    [9] Vital Records of Medford, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, p. 335.

    [10] Ibid, p. 468.

    [11] Ibid, p. 469.

    [12] Stackpole, Everett S. History of the Town of Durham, New Hampshire (Oyster River Plantation), With Genealogical Notes.(. (1913) Vol. 1, Ch. 9, and Bicknell, Thomas Williams, A History of Barrington, Rhode Island. Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1898.

    [13] Gold, Theodore Sedgwick, ed. Historical Records of the Town of Cornwall, Litchfield County, Connecticut. 2nd ed. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1904.

    [14] Hudson, vol. II, pp. 489-490.

    [15] Bolton, Ethel Stanwood. Shirley Uplands and Intervales: Annals of a Border Town of Old Middlesex, With Some Genealogical Sketches. Boston: Littlefield, 1914. Pp. 361-366.

    [16] Crissey, Theron Wilmot, comp. History of Norfolk, Litchfield County, Connecticut. Everett, MA: Massachusetts Publishing, 1900, pp. 370-374.

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