History of Our Home: The Slave Paintings

We are lucky to have a number of historical sources about our home. One important piece of history that you don’t hear about often in school with regard to New England was that some farm owners, including the family that originally built and lived in our house, owned slaves.

Yes, of course we all learned about slavery in the South (which had slavery much longer), but New England is by no means historically innocent. According to our sources, the slaves were housed in the “commodious attic” of our home.

Our attic has several drawings of colonial-era people, including several drawings of black people, that I’m sharing here. The historical sources refer to these as the “slave drawings.”

The paintings are certainly worn by time, and the complete lack of light in the attic makes them difficult to see (and photograph), but they are quite well done and overall, remarkably preserved.

While our attic is indeed “commodious,” it is a highly, highly unpleasant place to imagine living and sleeping. Freezing in Winter, the hottest place in the house in Summer, damp, and with the ends of nails poking through the ceiling at every angle, we deal with incessant wasp problems up here and are constantly fighting off the mice. Barely habitable now, I can’t imagine it was anything but worse in the 18th century.

There is very little information about the slaves who lived on the property. We have a graveyard, but all the graves are those of the original family and their descendants. We don’t have any purchase or sale records, death records, or marriage records. This is not terribly surprising – records regarding slaves are notoriously difficult to find.

What we do know is that in 1732, the year our house was built, the first owner moved in and married his wife, who had a dowry of 500 acres of land, and two slaves.

We also know that a generation later, in 1769, the eldest son of the original owner, who had inherited the house, married a woman who was a Quaker and he converted. After this, there are references in the sources to black ‘servants’ but not ‘slaves,’ even though slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1783. Given that Quakers were vehemently anti-slavery, it’s likely that the slaves had died and no more were purchased, that they were sold prior to the marriage, or that once the family converted to Quakerism, they freed their slaves.

It is an unsettling thing to read the epitaphs of the original owners in our graveyard. The husband’s refers to his leading “a long unblemished life,” and his wife, who had the slaves as part of her dowry, reads “Virtue and useful industry, she practised and taught. Reader, if this be pleasing to God and beneficial to man, do thou likewise.”