Nancy (Minor) Washington
A Woman of Three Centuries
By Valerie Beaudrault
While conducting newspaper research on another family, I stumbled across an 1890 Boston Globe interview with Nancy Washington by Robert Teamoh, an African American writer, photographer, and state legislator. The article was prompted by Nancy’s 95th birthday, and a second article was published to mark her 100th birthday.1Intrigued by Nancy’s story, I endeavored to reconstruct and document her life.
Nancy’s early years
The events of Nancy’s first twenty or twenty-five years would have been impossible to reconstruct without the Boston Globe interviews. To date I have found no primary sources for that early period of Nancy’s life. Few vital records for Boston survive from that period, and records for people of color are even more limited.
According to the published accounts, Nancy Minor was born “of free parentage” to Joseph and Nancy Minor in Boston on April 15, 1795.2 During her childhood, a horrific event altered Nancy’s life. As Nancy recalled, “I was a little bit of a girl, 7 years old, when out one day with my brother John upon the street down town. We were kidnapped by a colored man named Gibbons, who lived upon what was then Fort Hill. We, with about 40 others, colored and white, were put upon a big ship and carried to Virginia, put upon a block and sold as slaves. In Boston we had been born free.”3
My research focused on determining where Nancy had lived in Boston and whether her kidnapping could be documented. In 1890, when Nancy was interviewed for the Globe, the location of her childhood home was occupied by Barnard’s stable on Myrtle Street on Beacon Hill. I searched Suffolk County deeds to trace property ownership in the area. Myrtle Street was, in 1795, a ropewalk owned by Benjamin and Jonathan L. Austin. Abutters included Thomas and Edward Stevens.4 In 1797, Thomas Stevens purchased from his brother, Edward, a piece of property just north of the Austin rope works.5
I searched Boston newspapers for reports of kidnappings of children and ships heading for Virginia. I found nothing relevant until January 3, 1806, when Thomas Stevens advertised for the return of two children “belonging” to him.6 (In 1783, slavery had been effectively abolished in Massachusetts, so I can only speculate that the children were indentured to Stevens.) Because the relevant portion of the 1800 census for Suffolk County is missing, I couldn’t determine whether Thomas Stevens— or his brother Edward, who lived in an adjoining house—had people of color living in their homes in 1800. I did not find any residents of color named Minor in Boston city directories, but this was not unexpected, as residents of color were not often included in city directories during this period. No Minors were listed in Boston tax records either.7 Given Thomas Stevens’s proximity to Austin’s ropewalk and Nancy Minor’s purported childhood home, I believe that the missing children Stevens described were likely Nancy and her brother John.
Nancy then recounted that “I was bought by a man named Andrew Leach of Belfast, Me. My brother went another way. It was the last time I saw him alive. I was told by Mr. Leach not to look back but to make haste and get away. I was given some candy to stop me from crying.”8 Maine, then part of Massachusetts, did not allow slavery, and the 1800 census shows no slaves living in Maine. But we do not know Nancy’s status in the Leach household, whether she received a wage, or how she was treated. When recalling her time in Maine during an interview, Nancy referred to Andrew Leach as “my master” while relating an incident from the War of 1812.
Although I found no records of a person of color named Nancy or Nancy Minor in Belfast, Maine, during this period, I did find a resident named Andrew Leach and other evidence that seemed to validate Nancy’s knowledge of the town. Andrew Leach (1753–1820) was a Boston shipping merchant. His birthplace has not been established definitively, although his Belfast death record lists it as Scotland.9 He lived in Middleborough, Massachusetts— where he was married in 1778 and most of his children were born—prior to moving to Boston by 1792.10 He declared bankruptcy in 1802 and by 1805 had moved to Belfast, according to Belfast town histories.11 In the Globe interview, Nancy remembered, “He was a Scotchman and kept a store in the house.”12 Nancy’s recollection of the location of the store was confirmed by town histories.
I visited Belfast in 2013. Although I didn’t uncover any additional details about Nancy’s life there, I was able to determine, from descriptions in town histories, the approximate site of the Leach house—at the corner of present day Anderson and Church Streets in the city center. Nancy clearly lived in Belfast during the War of 1812. She described at length incidents during the siege of the town during the war, including that “I once got a whipping because I told the truth. It was in the fall, about October when the town was taken by the enemy. I was barefooted, and one day the English colonel seeing me in that condition, and as it was cold that day, said to me: ‘Why do you not wear shoes’ I replied that my master would not give me any until Thanksgiving. He told me to call at the headquarters for him the next day and he would give me a pair. This I did, and the shoes I took home. My master seeing them asked me where I got them and I told him. He grew very angry and gave me a whipping.”13
Nancy reported that for her last three years in Maine she was “let out” for 25 cents a week to a Mrs. Lee of Hallowell, when Mr. and Mrs. Leach were in Boston for the winters. Nancy eventually left the Leach family to work for the Lees permanently. Who was Mrs. Lee? I searched local histories and the federal census for information about Lee families in the Belfast area during the first two decades of the nineteenth century without much success. Nancy had mentioned that Mrs. Lee’s daughter Mary married a man from Boston named Baker. A search of the Belfast vital records produced a marriage for Mary T. Lee and James Baker of Boston in Belfast on September 20, 1817, but the record did not include the names of Mary’s parents.14I then located a Lee-Baker marriage announcement that named Mary’s father, the late Honorable Samuel Lee, and provided Mary’s middle name (Tremain).15This information was key to determining the correct Lee family. I found a published Lee genealogy that included Samuel Lee and his daughter, Mary Tremain Lee, who married Joseph Baker. The genealogy noted that Mrs. Lee moved to Belfast in 1816 after her husband’s death.16 Nancy must have started to work for the Lees in 1816 or 1817, before Mary T. Lee married and moved to Charlestown, then a separate town adjacent to Boston.
Return to Boston
Nancy accompanied Joseph and Mary T. (Lee) Baker back to the Boston area and worked for them for approximately five years, likely from 1818 until 1822 or 1823. She then reconnected with the Leach family. She recalled, “One day going up Hanover street [in Boston] I met Thomas Leach, whose father had brought me from the South. He kept a thread store on the corner of Hanover and Court streets, and he wanted me to come and live with his family. This I did. They lived on Poplar street.”17 I found Thomas Leach in the 1825 Boston city directory living at 12 Poplar Street. He advertised his “domestic warehouse and thread store” at that location in local newspapers.18 Nancy left the Leach household, likely after a few years, to work as a cook for John Hall, a silk dyer, who lived one door down, at 13 Poplar Street.19 Nancy recalled that during this period, “I attended Rev. Thomas Paul’s church on Belknap [now Joy] street. This was the first colored church in Boston and was known as the First African Baptist church. In the vestry of that church was held a school by a man named Bascom. It was there where I first learned to read and write.” I found that William Bascom indeed taught in the school from 1824 to 183520—another time I was able to verify and document Nancy Minor’s early life.
Nancy’s later life
On October 14, 1826, Nancy Minah [Minor] of Boston and John Tucker of Salem, Massachusetts, filed an intention to marry in Salem.21 This is the earliest public record I found for Nancy, then aged between 26 and 31. For the next seventy-six years of her life, records for Nancy Washington abound. She married four more times and had five children, two of whom lived to adulthood. Nancy summarized her nearly fifty years of married life as follows: “My first husband was John Tucker. I had by him three children, John, Ruben and Sarah. . . . My first husband died in Sumatra. Two years afterwards I married Alexander S. Butts. I had two more children, Maria and Mary. He died two years afterward. Two years after his death I married Rev. John Fountain from Virginia. He dying, I next married Samuel Fowler, who also died. My last husband was Deacon George Washington of Joy Street Church, who died 17 years ago.”22 In later life, Nancy worked as a cook in various Boston hotels through at least 1880. The 1890 Globe article also mentioned a hotel in Putnam, Connecticut, and quoted Nancy, “I have been from Old Orchard Beach to Narragansett Pier along the coast, cooking at the chief hotels.” When she retired she moved to Salem to live with her daughter, Sarah (Tucker) Potter.
In June 1886, Nancy was admitted to Boston’s Home for Aged Colored Women at 27 Myrtle Street, on Boston’s Beacon Hill. Founded in 1860, the Home was intended to be a haven to prevent “respectable black women” from ending their last years in dire circumstances. According to Nancy’s admission record, “She lived as pastry cook at the Commonwealth Hotel & Coolidge House for many years. She has no children and her stepson cannot support her. She is a most excellent woman.”23
The Leach family had remained an important part of Nancy’s life. TheBoston Globe articles noted that Andrew Leach’s descendants regularly took part in Nancy’s birthday celebrations. In 1890 Nancy received a present from “Eliza and Charlotte Leach of Washington, D.C., great-grandchildren of the man who brought her from the block in Virginia.”24 In 1895, on Nancy’s 100th birthday, the Globe reported that “the Misses Watson and Miss Adams, relatives of her former master, were present to congratulate Mrs. Washington.”25
Nancy (Minor) Washington died on May 23, 1902, at the Home for Aged Colored Women’s third location, at 22 Hancock Street, on Beacon Hill, just blocks from her birthplace. The organization’s 1902 annual report stated that Nancy’s death “took from the Home one of its most picturesque and interesting figures.” Further, Nancy “was one of the most active and happy members of the Home, walking out by herself or taking charge of others more feeble, going to Sunday school and church celebrations. … Just after her 102nd birthday, a visitor asked her age. ‘Don’t tell,’ said she, with a mischievous smile, ‘I’m sweet sixteen,’ and so she was as far as energy and enjoyment of life went.”26 Nancy is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery in Salem.27 Of her two children who lived to adulthood, only her son, John J. Tucker, may have had a child. To date, I have not located any living descendants of Nancy. Only one child, her daughter Sarah (Tucker) Potter, survived her, by just over a year.
Nancy (Minor) Washington’s long life across three centuries contained great drama, hard work, resettlement, tragedies, and a network of family and friends—and, fortunately, many verifiable details. Unlike so many African American women, she had the means to tell some of her stories in her later years to a wide audience and, consequently, to preserve them. As many stories as Nancy told about her life, I am convinced there are still more to uncover.
1 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe, April 18, 1890, p. 3; “Is 100 Years Old Today,” Boston Daily Globe, April 15, 1895, 3. (Viewed on bpl.org, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.) ↩
2 “Received Her Friends Gladly,” Boston Daily Globe, April 16, 1895, 4. (Viewed on bpl.org, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.) ↩
3 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe [note 1]. ↩
4 Samuel Chester Clough, Clough’s Atlases of Property Owners of Boston in 1798, at masshist.org/online/massmaps/index.php, see May Street-Map Beacon Hill 1; the map does not indicate that the Stevens brothers owned the properties, but the description in the deeds (see note 5) corroborates the location. 1798 Massachusetts and Maine Direct Tax, vol. 17, 669 (viewed on AmericanAncestors. org). Tax Assessor’s Records – “Taking Books.” City of Boston Tax Records, 1798, Ward 7. Thomas Stevens first appears in Ward 7 in 1798. ↩
5 Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Deeds, Grantors, vol. 186, 100 (viewed on FamilySearch.org). ↩
6 New England Palladium (Boston, Mass.), January 3, 1806, 1 (America’s Historical Newspapers, viewed on AmericanAncestors. org). If Nancy’s birth year of 1795 is correct, she would have been approximately 7 in 1802 and 10 in 1805. Given the lack of records, determining whether the discrepancy is with her birth year or the recollection of her age when she was kidnapped, is difficult. ↩
7 Tax Assessor’s Records–“Taking Books,” City of Boston Tax Records, 1795–1805, Ward 7. Rare Books and Manuscript Department, Boston Public Library. ↩
8 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe [note 1]. Nancy said that, although she never saw him again, her brother “got free,” and made his way to New York City, where he worked as a barber and married. Nancy recalled visiting his grave there in 1843. ↩
9 Alfred Johnson, ed., Belfast, Maine, VitalRecords to 1892, Volume 2 – Marriages and Deaths (Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1919), 579. ↩
10 Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, marriage of Andrew Leach of Middleboro and Hannah Hobart of Pembroke, Aug. 9, 1778, Pembroke. (Viewed at AmericanAncestors. org.) Andrew Leach was said to be “of Boston” in a 1792 transaction. Plymouth County, Massachusetts, Land Deeds, filmed by Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Grantor deeds, vol. 173, 157. Viewed on microfilm at NEHGS. ↩
11 Andrew Leach is mentioned in Joseph Williamson, The History of the City of Belfast,Maine, from Its First Settlement in 1770 to 1875, vol. I (1877; repr., Rockport, Maine: Picton Press, 2002), 202, 214, 535; William George Crosby, Early Histories of Belfast, Maine—Annals of Belfast for Half a Century (Portland: Loring, Short, and Harmon, 1877), 24, 42, 161; Hermon Abbot, History of Belfast from Its FirstSettlement to 1825 (Belfast: Grace E. Burgess, 1900), 241; and William White, A History ofBelfast (Belfast, Maine: E. Fellowes, 1827), 110. Legal notices regarding Andrew Leach’s bankruptcy appear in several Boston newspapers, including the Independent Chronicleand Columbian Centinel, from November 1802 through February 1808. (America’s Historical Newspapers, viewed on AmericanAncestors. org.) ↩
12 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe [note 1]. ↩
14 Marriage intention for Mary T. Lee and James Baker of Boston, September 20, 1817, “Certificate issued October 4.” Alfred Johnson, ed., Belfast, Maine, Vital Records to 1892, Volume 2 – Marriages and Deaths (Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1919), 19, 252. ↩
15 “Matrimony Notices,” Boston Weekly Messenger, October 16, 1817, 13 (America’s Historical Newspapers, viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). ↩
16 William Lee, comp., John Leigh of Agawam (Ipswich) Massachusetts, 1634–1671, and His Descendants of the Name Lee (Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1888), 202–203. ↩
17 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe [note 1]. ↩
18 City Directories for Boston, Massachusetts, 1825, 169 (viewed on Fold3.com). Thomas Leach advertised his thread shop in local newspapers. See, for example, ColumbianCentinel (Boston, Mass.), December 18, 1822, 3. (America’s Historical Newspapers, viewed on AmericanAncestors.org.) ↩
19 City Directories for Boston, Massachusetts, 1825, 129 (viewed on Fold3.com). ↩
20 Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac, eds., William Cooper Nell, Nineteenthcentury African American Abolitionist,Historian, Integrationist: Selected Writings 1832–1874 (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002), 30. ↩
21 Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). ↩
22 First marriage: John Tucker was a “steward on board the ship Lotos, [who died] on the coast of Sumatra, October 24, 1838.” Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). Second marriage: “Sandy A. Butts [Alexander, int.], of Boston and Ann [Nancy H. int.] H. Tucker, October 1, 1840,” Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Salem (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). Death of Alexander Butts reported in the Salem Observer, July 26, 1851, p. 3: “At sea, May 31, on board barque Iosco, on the passage from Zanzibar to Aden, Alexander Butts, cook, of Salem.” Third Marriage: Nancy A. Tucker married John Fountain on November 4, 1852, as reported in the Salem [Massachusetts] Register, Nov. 8, 1852, 6 (viewed on genealogybank.com). Death of John Fountain: Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910, Salem, 1857 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). John Fountain was likely a free black man from Winchester, Virginia, who was expelled from Virginia because he helped slaves escape. Poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an essay titled “The Black Man,” which began with an anecdote about John Fountain. “The Black Man” in John Greenleaf Whittier, The Stranger in Lowell (Boston: Waite, Pierce, 1845), 48–49. Fourth Marriage: Marriage of Samuel Fowler to Nancy A. Fountain, Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910, Boston, Malden, 1862 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). Death of Samuel Fowler: Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910, Charlestown, 1863 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). Nancy Fountain and Samuel Fowler filed an “antenuptual contract” defining what she could inherit from his estate. (Middlesex Registry of Deeds, Southern District, 1860–1869, 1862: vol. 861, 583 and 1866: vol. 941, 879 – relinquishment of claim against estate.) Samuel Fowler bequeathed $200 to the Home for Aged Colored Women for Nancy’s care. Sarah J. Shoenfeld, “Applications and Admissions to the Home for Aged Colored Women in Boston, 1860–1887,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 156 (2002): 84–85. Fifth Marriage: George Washington and Nancy Fowler were married on September 15, 1870. Intention: Marriage record: Massachusetts, Town & Vital Records, 1620– 1988, Charlestown, Mass., 1870 (viewed on Ancestry.com). George Washington died in Boston on March 21, 1871. Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910, Boston, 1871 (viewed on AmericanAncestors.org). ↩
24 Robert T. Teamoh, “Kidnapped in Boston,”Boston Daily Globe [note 1]. These women were actually Andrew Leach’s granddaughters, children of his son Thomas, with whom Nancy lived in Boston. Charlotte and Eliza Leach lived at 1209 Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., in 1890. Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, 1890, 573 (viewed on Ancestry.com). ↩
25 “Received Her Friends Gladly,” Boston Daily Globe, April 16, 1895, 4 (viewed on bpl.org, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database). Andrew Leach’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband, George Watson, had a large number of children, including several daughters who never married. Two of the daughters, Caroline and Jeanette, were living in April 1895. Helen Adams, a great-granddaughter of Thomas Leach, was in 1895 the only surviving daughter of Mary Ann Leach and her husband, George Adams. ↩
27 “Oldest Boston Resident Mrs. Nancy Washington Dead at Age of 107 Years,”Boston Herald, May 25, 1902, 5; and “Oldest Bostonian,” Boston Journal May 27, 1902, 10. (Both articles viewed on genealogybank. com.) Nancy Washington was a proprietor of Harmony Grove Cemetery; she purchased a lot after the death of her third husband, John Fountain. G. M. Whipple and A. A. Smith, Harmony Grove Cemetery, Salem,Massachusetts (Salem, Mass.: Salem Observer Press, 1866), 46. ↩