Contact | Join | Shop


Long Road to Freedom
African-Americans in the Old Colony
A June of 2006 exhibition at Pilgrim Hall Museum sponsored by
the Massachusetts Society of the Order of the Cincinnati and
Vickie Quinn, Bank of America Mortgage Representative


The first record of an African American in Plymouth Colony occurs in 1643.

In that year, the Colony Records record the presence of an unnamed “blackamore” among “the males that are able to bear arms from 16 years old to 60 years.”

Ten years later, an African-American maidservant, also unnamed, testified in court against a white man whom she accused of receiving stolen items.

There is no reason to believe these two African-Americans, the "blackamore" and the maidservant, were not free.

In 1684, African-American Robert Trayes, probably also a free man, was indicted for having shattered a man’s leg with a gun blast; the man died as a result of his wounds. Robert Trayes was found guilty of negligence (but not of murder). He was reproved and fined.

By the time of Trayes’ trial, slavery had been established in Plymouth Colony for over ten years. The estate of Thomas Willett of Scituate, who died in 1674, listed eight slaves.

Slavery was practiced intermittently in the Plymouth area after the 1670s. Slave owners were generally wealthy merchants and ship owners who had ties to larger communities, such as Boston and Newport, which were active in the slave trade.

Many New England ship owners were heavily involved in the slave trade. Most of the slaves transported in New England ships were sold into the South or the Caribbean. It is thought, however, that there were as many as 2,000 slaves in Massachusetts by 1715.

In 1729, Plymouth businessman Isaac Lothrop entered into a business agreement with Tompson  Phillips. Together, they bought two people.

One was a 14-year-old boy named Euro. The other was a 25-year-old man named Johnno.

Euro and Johnno were bought as investments. Phillips was to take Euro to Jamaica and sell him there, sending Lothrop’s share of Euro’s purchase price to him as commodities that Lothrop could sell in Plymouth. Lothrop agreed to house the man Johnno in Plymouth for a year and teach him a trade.

At the end of a year, Phillips would take possession of Johnno, paying Lothrop £40 for his half ownership in the man.

For an image of the 1729 Lothrop/Phillips document (with a complete transcription), click here.

Historian William T. Davis estimated that, in 1740, there were approximately 50 slaves in Plymouth.

One was a 22-year-old named Jean.

Jean was sold in 1738 by Jonathon Bourne of Sandwich to Thomas Spooner of Plymouth for £105. For an image of the 1738 document (with a complete transcription), click here.

Masters were by no means universally kind. The actions of even the most “responsible” owners resulted in broken families and children sold away from their mothers.

In 1753, Lazarus LeBaron bought a boy named Plymouth for £23.

For an image of the 1753 document (with a complete transcription), click here.

In a 1766 letter from Ebenezer Spooner of Middleboro to his brother Ephraim Spooner of Plymouth, Ebenezer said he had decided to sell his man Cuff:

“a fine likely young fellow about 19 or 20 years of age” in order to pay off his very significant debts. He hoped to receive £500 or £600 cash for Cuff.

There is no record of whether or not Ebenezer succeeded in selling Cuff although George Watson of Plymouth is recorded as owning a man named “Cuff” in 1768. Ebenezer’s brother, Ephraim, was not a slave owner.

For an image of the 1766 document (with a complete transcription), click here.

Some of Plymouth’s most outspoken “Patriots” saw no inconsistency in owning slaves themselves. The leader of the Plymouth Sons of Liberty, Theophilus Cotton, owned Quamony Quash. Cotton and Quash both served in the Revolutionary War.

Other Patriots spoke against slavery. James Otis of Cape Cod, whose sister Mercy married Plymouthean James Warren, wrote in 1764

“The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.”

Not all the African-American residents of Massachusetts were slave – and not all were silent. Paul Cuffe, an African-American shipbuilder from Dartmouth and a free man, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1780. Cuffe said that African Americans should not have to pay taxes, since they had

“no voice of influence in the election of those who tax us.”

The New Guinea Settlement at Parting Ways
The “New Guinea Settlement at Parting Ways” began its official life in 1792, when the Town of Plymouth "voted and granted a strip of land about twenty rods wide and about a mile and a half long on the easterly side of the sheep pasture, to such persons as will clear the same."

The “persons” were four African-American veterans of the Revolutionary War: Cato Howe, Plato Turner, Quamany Quash and Prince Goodwin.

The names of three (No. 2 Quamany Quash, No. 4 Cato Howe and No. 8 Plato Turner) are found in the Revolutionary War recruiting book of Nathaniel Goodwin.

Click here to see a larger image of the recruiting book.

These four Patriots came from varied backgrounds. Quamany Quash, who fought for liberty for his country, was himself a slave; he was not emancipated until after his service in the Revolutionary War. Plato Turner and Prince Goodwin were former slaves. Cato Howe was a freeman who had probably never been enslaved.

Quash seems to have been present at the Siege of Boston; Howe was at Valley Forge and may have been at Bunker Hill. Both Quash and Howe probably served in the New York campaign as well as the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga and Monmouth.

A document in the collections of Pilgrim Hall Museum MAY be a letter written from Cato Howe to his employer, Ephraim Spooner, in 1777 during the New York campaign. The letter, however, is torn and has no name at the bottom so we will never know for certain. Click here for an image of that letter (with a complete transcription).

Research is still ongoing in an effort to document the history and service records of all four veterans as well as the other African-American and Native American men from Plymouth who served in the Revolutionary War. Click here for the full list of African-Americans and Native Americans listed in the Nathaniel Goodwin recruiting book.

After the Revolutionary War, John Adams drafted a new constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That constitution read "all men are born free and equal, and have…the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties." After several court cases in the early 1780s, slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.

Theophilus Cotton did not free Quamony Quash until 1781. Cotton stated this was being done

“In consideration of my Negro Quomminys having inlisted himself at my request in the service of the Continent for three years, and upon his faithfully serving the full time without departing therefrom, and my receiving the one half of the wages due for said Service, together with the bounty given by the Town, do at his comminceing twenty one years of age, quit all pretentions to him as a slave… I do allow said Quamony out of the bounty three hundred paper Dollars…and five hard ones, with half of his Wages.”

The movement to abolish slavery began in England. In 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. In 1833, Parliament gave freedom to all slaves in the British Empire.

Long before that, however, New Englanders of conscience had begun to oppose slavery. Massachusetts, in the 1780s, had outlawed slavery. In 1820, on the occasion of the Pilgrim Society’s first celebration of Forefathers Day, orator and statesman Daniel Webster spoke against slavery.

It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer. I hear the sound of the hammer. I see the smoke of the furnace where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those who by stealth and at midnight labor in this work of hell, foul and dark as may become the artificers of such instruments of misery and torture.


Webster here refers to Bristol, Rhode Island, a town once within the bounds of old Plymouth Colony. Citizens of Bristol were engaged in the slave trade.

Slavery continued to be legal in many parts of the United States. And, even though slavery was not legal in Massachusetts, there was continued interaction between the merchants and ship owners of Massachusetts and the institution of slavery as practiced elsewhere in the United States.

In 1808, a Delaware slave named George Thompson escaped from his owner, David McIlvain. George Thompson then signed on board a brig owned by William Davis of Plymouth, who employed him until 1812, when his former owner, McIlvain, discovered and reclaimed him. Thompson had used his earnings to buy new clothes, and a small house and plot of land near Coles Hill. McIlvain claimed not only the person of George Thompson, plus his clothing and property, he also sued William Davis for the wages he had paid to Thompson. The eventual resolution was that Davis paid McIlvain $150 and, in return, McIlvain turned Thompson’s personal possessions and the title of his house and land over to Davis.

An 1812 letter from David McIlvain details the personal possessions of George Thompson:

  • 1 blue cloth coat fine
  • 1 black ditto fine
  • 1 pair of ribbed velvet pantools
  • 1 ditto black bombazet trousers
  • 1 white shirt
  • 1 white waist coat
  • 1 black bombazet waistcoat
  • 1 black silk waistcoat
  • 3 yellow marsailles waistcoats
  • 1 pair white cotton stockings
  • 2 checked shirts
  • 1 new fur hat
  • 1 chest & one trunk in which are the title papers to his house
  • 1 silver watch.

Click here for an image of the 1812 list and a complete text of McIlvain's letter.

In 1831, a powerful abolitionist voice arose in Boston when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. In the first issue, Garrison wrote:

"I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation… I am in earnest – I will not equivocate –
I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD."

In 1832, Garrison helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society; this was the first organization dedicated to promoting immediate emancipation. Word of Garrison’s activities quickly spread to Plymouth. A meeting was called in the Robinson Meeting-House and the Plymouth Anti-Slavery Society was formed.

Plymouthean Abby Morton Diaz remembered:

"Deep interest was awakened, though among comparatively a few. The large majority of the people,
including, of course, the wealthy and influential, held aloof in enmity or in contemptuous indifference."

The purpose of the meetings – to discuss abolition.

Click here for announcements of meetings of the Plymouth Anti-Slavery Society.

Plymouthean Abby Morton Diaz remembered that the Unitarian and Congregational churches did not support the anti-slavery movement during the 1830s and 1840s. The Robinson Meeting-House, however, always opened its doors for antislavery meetings and lectures.

On one occasion, Abby wrote:

“I was present at a meeting when it was assailed by a violent mob; stones thrown through the
windows are yet to be seen. My father went for the sheriff, a prominent citizen, but he refused to come.”

The most identifiable image (designed in London in 1787) of the abolitionist movement was an African man in chains. In 1828, a female companion piece, perhaps inspired by the contributions of women to the abolitionist cause, was designed.

These images were widely printed in the 1830s and 1840s. They were used by members of many organizations, including members of the Plymouth Anti-Slavery Society.

Plymouthean Abby Morton Diaz remembered:

“…antislavery writing paper. It came in the very large square sheets of the period, each
being headed with a print of a slave in chains with the question, ‘Am I not a Man and a
Brother?’ or ‘Woman and a Sister?’”

During the 1840s, public opinion in Massachusetts became more strongly abolitionist.

Charles Sumner was an outspoken critic of the institution of slavery. In 1851, he was chosen as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts to fill the seat of Daniel Webster, who had resigned his seat upon being appointed U.S. Secretary of State. Sumner's views and Webster's views were very different. Webster was personally opposed to slavery but was willing to compromise because of his strong belief in the importance of preserving the Union. Sumner refused to compromise with slavery.

Click here for a document written by Sumner giving his opinion on slavery and the writers of the U.S. Constitution

In 1864, Sumner introduced the 13th Amendment, ending slavery in the United States, to the Senate.

13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Ratified on December 18, 1865

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Selected bibliography for further reading:

Cox, Clinton. Come all you brave soldiers: Blacks in the Revolutionary War. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.
A forgotten history: the slave trade and slavery in New England. Choices for the 21st century education program. Providence, R.I. : Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, 2005.
Joyner, Brian C. African reflections on the American landscape: identifying and interpreting Africanisms. Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Center for Cultural Resources, Office of Diversity and Special Projects, 2003.
Lanning, Michael Lee. Defenders of liberty: African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.H. : University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institution of Early American History and Culture of Williamsburg, Va., 1961, 1996.
Schama, Simon. Rough crossings: Britain, the slaves and the American Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.


Back to "Beyond the Pilgrim Story" Main Page

Home | About Us | Visit Us | Collections & Exhibitions | Education | About the Pilgrims | Beyond the Pilgrim Story | Thanksgiving
Museum Events | Shop | Join | Donate | Sponsors | Site Map | Links | News Room | Contact Us

Pilgrim Hall Museum
75 Court St, Plymouth, MA 02360 | Phone (508) 746-1620