Joshua Boston, of Hadley

Joshua Boston, of Hadley

By Marla R. Miller

If today’s residents of Hadley, Massachusetts, are at all aware of people of color in the 18th-century community, it is likely because they have heard some reference in local histories to Joshua Boston.  The town’s historian, Sylvester Judd—whose History of Hadley, Massachusetts was written in the 1850s and published in 1863—wrote that Boston was “represented by those who knew him well, as tall, erect, and portly; he was well dressed, gentlemanly in his manners, and there was much native dignity in his appearance. His dignified aspect attracted attention in the street, and when he entered the meeting-house.”[1]

This flowery prose is meant to be flattering, and to be sure it may well capture something important about Boston’s active effort to assert himself as a respected member of his community. But it may also reflect in some ways a certain, almost romantic, sensibility among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century observers, in prose familiar to readers of town histories published in the mid nineteenth century.  Judd’s work is fascinating for the ways in which he relied on oral history; notes from his dozens of conversations are found in the multivolume “Judd Manuscript” preserved today in Northampton’s Forbes Library.[2]  And other period sources confirm that Joshua Boston’s community perceived him in this way: Elizabeth Whiting Phelps Huntington told her children that she believed Boston “had a prince’s blood in his veins”—the notion of successful people of color coming from “African royalty” being common across eighteenth-century communities.[3]

Fortunately, we need not rely only on these romantic recollections, as archival material across local history collections, including a series of account books kept by neighbors with whom Boston traded from the 1770s through the 1810s, document Boston’s life in Hadley, painting a much richer picture.[4] Piecing together stories from these books shows the life of a Hadley man whose life began in enslavement, and ended in freedom. Though a close look at Boston’s choices and actions, it becomes easier to see him in the context that he saw himself: as a Hadley farmer.

*  *  *

Surviving records tell us some of the early facts of Boston’s life, mainly that he was born about 1740 and was among at least six people enslaved by Hadley’s “Honorable” Eleazer Porter: Thankful, Tabitha, Agnes, Boston, Simon, and Joshua.  In the1758 estate inventory taken after Porter’s 1757 death, four enslaved people—Boston, Thankful, “Tab,” and Simon—are not assigned a dollar value. “Josh” was valued at twenty pounds, and Agnes (perhaps a sister), was valued at eight pounds.[5] Others enslaved at some point in time by Porter and who were probably known to young Joshua Boston were Scipio and Adam, the latter having been manumitted by Porter; Adam bought nineteen acres of land in Sunderland, north of Hadley.[6]

How Joshua Boston gained his freedom is not at present known; perhaps it was upon Porter’s death, or shortly thereafter.  He next appears in the (known) archival record on the eve of the American Revolution, when he and local woodworker Samuel Gaylord “reckoned” their history of exchange.  Gaylord’s father had been one of the three local men appointed by the court to assess Eleazer Porter’s estate; he had helped assign the value, to Porter’s heirs, of Boston as an enslaved man.  Now, some seventeen years later, on March 23, 1774, Gaylord and Boston met to agree on where their accounts stood. They found that Boston owed Gaylord for nine days’ board (7 shillings).  Boston had also hired Gaylord to help furnish his home, making a chair (3 shillings 8 pence) and a cupboard (six shillings 8 pence).  He had used Gaylord’s horse to go up to the local mill (3 pence) and owed for the labor of Seth (possibly one of Gaylord’s hands or apprentices) for a day’s hoeing (2 shillings).  He also hired Gaylord to build a coffin (two shillings)—perhaps suggesting the death of one of his family members whose age or health caused Samuel Gaylord Sr. and his colleagues to assign their labor no value those many years earlier.[7]

Gaylord’s accounts in the years to follow show steady exchange between the two men. Boston turned to Gaylord when he needed extra labor (e.g. “for two hands one day” in August 1774); when he needed to acquire small wooden goods (“to a rolling pin,” for 5 pence; “to a breadbox,” for 3 shillings); and when he needed shad, pork, turnips and parsnips, butter, or “pirtaters.”[8]

Gaylord and Boston were in close contact, as Gaylord was with other men from Hadley’s Black community, including Ralph Way, Ishmael Prutt and other members of the Prutt family— each of whom form a significant presence in Gaylord’s accounts.  For Way, he built in the 1770s a chest of drawers, a cradle, a trundle bed, a great chair as well as a “reel for your wife” (debts offset in part by a moose skin provided by Way); in 1785 Gaylord built a fence for Way, and supplied a coffin “for a child.”[9] He also sold Way bushels of rye and corn and loaves of bread, pork, and loads of wood.[10]  To Cesar and Levi Prutt, he sold butter by the pound and corn by the bushel.[11]  For Ishmael Prutt, he supplied several pairs of shoes as well as pairs of stockings, mittens, breeches, overalls and trousers, a frock, checked shirts, and a jacket and great coat; he also rented the use of his horse and paid Prutt’s bill with Dr. Kellogg.[12]

Why Ishmael Prutt’s accounts with Gaylord are filled with so many references to clothing is not yet known, but articles of apparel also appear in Gaylord’s transactions with Joshua Boston.  One November day, for instance, Gaylord debited Boston 6 shillings for “a hat that I let you have” (suggesting perhaps that it was unexpectedly chilly on a day the two men were working alongside one another, and Gaylord “sold” Boston something from his own wardrobe).[13] We also learn of Boston’s acquisition of some “checkt cloth for shirts”—a reference to an iconic blue and white checked weave associated with men of the Connecticut Valley— and three and a half yards of woolen shirting.[14], [15]

On February 5, 1776, Joshua Boston enlisted in the “Continental Regiment of Foot” commanded by Elisha Porter, Esquire; Ralph Way enlisted the same day.[16] Other Black men from Hadley who served in the Revolution include “mulatto” Levi Prutt, Amos Hull, Ichabod Nye, “Sezor” Phelps and Caesar Freeman. Another glimpse of Joshua Boston, the soldier, is captured in later records: when he joined up again for a six-month term on the fifth anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1781, receiving a bounty for his willingness to serve. He was described as thirty-five years old and six feet tall; he reported his occupation to be a farmer.[17]

Boston might have been married by this time; if not by then, it was not long thereafter.  The evidence here is very thin. Many years later Elizabeth Porter Phelps would record in her memorandum book having attended the 1806 funeral of Joshua Boston’s wife, Pits Bennet, but no record is yet known that documents their marriage.[18] The first reference (now known) to his wife is in the records of Giles Crouch Kellogg, who in March 1784 treated Boston’s wife; among other things she received balsam anodyn, a pain reliever.[19] In August 1784 he is debited 8 pence for the “making of a bunnit” (presumably a bonnet) in the account book of Samuel Hopkins.[20] The presence of a woman or women is also hinted at in reels mended by Gaylord, suggesting some textile production in his household—work usually performed by women.[21]

Gaylord’s accounts also offer hints into Boston’s farming in the 1780s. Among other things, in May 1784 the men reckoned for Boston’s use of Gaylord’s oxen—three days—and also “to plowing corn,” suggesting that Boston planted his own crops but did not keep a team of his own.[22] But during these years he also labored on the farms of others.  Samuel Hopkins accounts suggest Boston began working for him in May 1782, when he exchanged a half day’s work for a half bushel of corn for seed.[23] That summer Hopkins relied on the labor of Ishmael Prutt and a man named Cato, but beginning the following Spring, Boston begins to appear more often, threshing and fanning corn and rye, as well as dressing flax.[24]  In the winter of 1783-84, Boston arrived some half-dozen times, over which he dressed more than 80 pounds of flax, labor that secured peas and Indian corn by the bushel, cheese, beef and pork.  In spring and summer the work for Hopkins shifted to threshing and fanning corn and rye, pulling flax, and mowing brush, in exchange for beef, pork and cheese. And so it went, season after season.

These accounts sometimes afford glimpses into Boston’s life in his own home.  In 1782, Samuel Gaylord charged Boston four shillings for “work at your shop,” and another small sum “to a sash.” In November 1785, Boston appears to have built a home that stood around the north end of the Hadley common, toward what is today Middle Street. Woodworker Samuel Gaylord had already either made or repaired for Boston’s household a chair and cupboard, a candle stand and a table for Boston as well as breadbox and a soapbox.[25]  Now, he charged Boston for the labor of Moses White for “one day to frame a house” (9 shillings and 3 pence) and also for the labor of “Henery one day to frame a house”(3 shillings).  Gaylord and a hand also spent a day dressing logs.  Lastly Gaylord charged Boston for “carting a lode of bricks from Lebanon,” work Boston had hired perhaps to supply the building’s hearth and chimney.[26]

It is tempting to connect the framing of the house to a pair of entries in the records of Samuel Gaylord and Samuel Hopkins from about the same time.  On November 19, 1785, Gaylord recorded a charge of 15 shillings for “my horse to New Haven 90 miles.”[27] Meanwhile, Samuel Hopkins recorded having pd Joshua Boston 71 in cash when going to N Haven.”[28] Seventy pounds would have gone far in Revolutionary Connecticut.  What took Boston to New Haven, and what expense might have created the need for this much cash?

The account book of Samuel Hopkins in the mid 1780s suggests how Boston supported his household in these years.[29]  There he is credited for work like threshing rye and corn; cutting tobacco; and cutting wood.  He is also credited for his labor digging the garden, and setting a fence. Especially important to his transactions with Hopkins was the work of pulling and dressing flax, and “taking it up and putting it into my barn.”  Flax—the plant that produced linen—was key to early American households, and dressing flax was skilled work.  First, a flax break was used to separate the plant material from the fiber within; then the fiber was “scutched,” to further prepare the fibers.  Finally, hetchels, or hatchels, were used, in a series of ever-finer progression, to comb the fibers in preparation for spinning. Skill and knowledge were required to retrieve and prepare the fiber to be spin into linen—skills Joshua Boston clearly possessed. Boston also threshed and fanned flax seed.  

Farmwork was hard and could be dangerous, so it is not surprising that in the late 1780s Joshua Boston appears in the 1787 accounts of Dr. Giles Crouch Kellogg with an injured knee.  Kellogg “drest his knee” which was “ulcerated and gangrene[ous].”  Kellogg visited nearly every day to check on Boston’s condition, apply ointments, and/or change the dressing.  Nearly a month later, Boston was still suffering, prompting the physician to dress his knee with “caustic,” which in the period meant applying some substance — possibly nitrate of silver prepared in sticks—intended to burn and destroy tissue.[30]

The nation’s first federal census, taken in 1790, finds Joshua Boston in a household of two.  In 1800 Boston’s home sustained four free Black people—Boston and his wife, as well as town “pauper” Phillis Aberdeen, and an unknown individual.  Unlike many free Black people in Hampshire County, Joshua Boston had become a vehicle of public support rather than the recipient of it. In the early years of the nineteenth century, he appears regularly in the records of Hadley’s Overseers of the Poor, compensated for his efforts to find “house, room and firewood” for Phillis Aberdeen.[31] The years between 1807 and 1813 find him regularly in those records, receiving payments of 6.50 or 7.58, mostly marked as made to Boston for “house room & fire wood.”[32] The town selectmen reimbursed Boston for his costs in keeping Aberdeen at least as early as 1800, and as late as 1813 (and likely until Aberdeen’s death in May 1816), suggesting one way that members of Hadley’s African American community cared for one another in whatever ways they could.

In these years, Joshua Boston’s account in another Hadley ledger suggest that he continued to farm at his own property and to work on those of others.  In the early 1810s, Boston appears in the records of Charles and Elizabeth Phelps (and almost certainly worked for them earlier, but those accounts are not known to survive).[33]  In December 1810, for instance, Boston traded four days’ labor for a lamb.  He still relied on others for labor and animals necessary for farming: in May 1812 Phelps charged Boston for “two hands and team plowing one day” ($2).  He also acquired from Phelps bushels of rye and gallons of cider, as well as beef, suet, and corn.  To settle his account, Boston worked at hoeing and mowing, picking and threshing corn, and fanning rye.  A note from July 27, 1812, finds Joshua Boston credited for labor at $7.50 for thirteen days.

Boston was clearly working into advanced age.  If he was born in the early 1740s (his enlistment in the Continental Army suggests he was 35 in 1781, putting his birth about 1746, but this would make him only eleven years old when probate assessors ascribed him a value of £20; it seems likelier that his birth was closer to 1740), then Charles Phelps’ entry of 1812 finds the seventy-two-year-old Boston working in Forty Acres’ fields. As late as 1817 and 1818, Boston appears in farm accounts kept by Charles P. Hitchcock (whose mother, Thankful Richmond Hitchcock, had grown up at Forty Acres as a sister to Elizabeth and Charles P. Phelps), manager of Charles P. Phelps’ farm, purchasing rye, cheese, fish, and even one sheep, offset by his labor “carting dirt,” dressing flax, and other farm chores.[34]

Toward the end of his life, Joshua Boston was cared for by Polly Sampson, a member of one of Hadley’s native American families.[35]  He died in December 1819.  When Sylvester Judd began interviewing Hadley residents about the town’s past, Joshua Boston heads a list of “Negroes in Hadley” reported by Dr. Giles Crouch Kellogg together with Sylvester Smith—Judd’s source for his comments about the “dignity” and “majesty” of Judd’s “countenance.”[36]  These lines would come to have a life of their own, repeated in other publications. But Boston’s appearance in many of the surviving account books from eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Hadley paint a richer picture, one of a knowledgeable and active farmer and laborer well known to many neighbors throughout the community, who offered shelter to other people of color in the community, and worked throughout his long life to sustain his household.

[1]Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley: Including the Early History of Hatfield, South Hadley, Amherst and Granby, Massachusetts (Northampton: Met calf & Co., 1863).  This essay relies on a later edition published in Springfield, Mass., H. R. Huntting & company, 1905. For this reference to Joshua Boston see the latterp. 313.

[2] Sylvester Judd manuscript, Forbes Library, Northampton.  

[3]Theodore Gregson Huntingtin, “Sketches of Family Life in Hadley,” p. 18, Box 21 folder 5, Porter Phelps Huntington Family Papers.  On the trope of enslaved people’s “royal” background, see, e.g. Barry Weller, “The Royal Slave and the Prestige of Origins,” The Kenyon Review 14, no. 3 (1992): 65-78.

[4] These include: Samuel Gaylord account book, 1763-1793, Memorial Libraries, Deerfield; Samuel Hopkins, account book, 1767-1806, Memorial Libraries, Deerfield; Charles Phelps farm account ,Vol 1, Baker Library, Harvard; Charles P. Hitchcock account book (Phelps Farm), PPHFP; Hadley Overseers of the Poor record books, Hadley Historical Society.

[5]Eleazer Porter Estate Inventory, Box 117, No. 10, Hampshire County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1660-1889. Online database. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2016, 2017. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives and the Hampshire County Court. Digitized images provided by

[6]Robert H. Romer, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts (Amherst: Levellers Press, 2009)180-82.Romer found these names in Sylvester Judd’s notes from the Crouch account book.  See Nobles, ed., Selected Papers, 433, 436.

[7] Samuel Gaylord account book, 1763-1793, March 1, 1774, Memorial Libraries, Deerfield, p. 12. For more on Gaylord, see Sharon Mehrman, “Labor, Learning and Livelihood, 1760-1860,” Historic Deerfield.

[8] Gaylord account book, August 2, 1774, p. 12; November 3, 1775 and May 21, 1776, June 16, 1779, pp. 43-44.

[9] Gaylord account book March 25, 1773 June 18, 1775, p. 114; 12 February 1778, p. 110; January 3, 1785 and June 30, 1784, p. 179.  The reference to the coffin is annotated “Seser Prince’s.”

[10] Gaylord account book March 25, 1773, June 18, 1775, p. 114; 12 February 1778, p. 110.

[11] March 26, 1788, May 19, 1788, n.p.

[12] Gaylord account book March 10, 1785, Nov 28, 1785, n.p.

[13] November 3, 1775. See  June 16, 1779 (p.44) for a reference to 3.5 yards of woolen shirting.

[14] Gaylord account book, June 23, 1785 (183).

[15] June 16, 1779 (p.44).

[16] U.S., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 via Ancestry.

[17] Massachusetts Office of the Secretary of State, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary.

War, vol. 2 (Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Co., State Printers, 1896–1908), 294.

[18] Elizabeth Porter Phelps memorandum book, January 19, 1806.

[19] Giles Crouch Kellogg daybook, 1776-1789, Hadley Historical Society, March 30, 1784. She continues to appear periodically in these records, which extend to 1789.  Interestingly Boston is also noted, in 1785, as in debt to Gaylord for the making of a stock by Polly,” and this simple accessory (worn around the neck) could have been fabricated by many women; it would seem surprising that he would pay for this labor if he was then married.  See Gaylord account book, June 23, 1785 (183).

[20] Samuel Hopkins, account book, 1767-1806, p 145.

[21] See, e.g., December 14, 1777 and May 18, 1784, “mending a reel;” Gaylord account book.

[22] Gaylord account book May 18, 1784, n.p.

[23] This and the following from the Samuel Hopkins, account book, 1767-1806; the volume is a traditional account book at the front of the volume, followed by pages treated as day book. This discussion draws on the latter, paginated by another hand.  Boston first appears on p. 135.

[24] Hopkins, account book, May 22, August 26, and October 28, 1783; January 5 and 22, 1784.

[25] Gaylord account book: pp. 12, 43-44, 153-54, 183.

[26] Gaylord account book Nov 19, 1785, p. 183. This entry does not indicate whether it refers to Lebanon, New Hampshire or Lebanon, Connecticut.

[27] Gaylord account book Nov 19, 1785, p. 183.

[28] Hopkins, account book, 16.

[29] Hopkins account book, pp 16-20. 

[30] On November 1st as well as regularly from the 5th to the 9th, Kellogg bills for visits and “bleeding;” on the 9th and again on the 13th and 18thhe “drest his knee” which was “ulcerated” and affected by “gangrene.”  This was still an issue as late as December 6th when he again “dressed his [knee] and applied “caustic.” See Giles Kellogg (physician), account fragments, 1761-1793.  Hadley Historical Society Series I. Business, Box 1 f 10, and daybook, 1776-1789, entries throughout December 1787.

[31] Hadley Overseers of the Poor record books, Hadley Historical Society.

[32] See also October 1, 1808 charge for “Doctoring Phillis.” 

[33] Phelps account book, Vol 1, Baker Library, Harvard University.

[34] Charles P. Hitchcock account book, PPHFP, n.p.

[35] Elizabeth Porter Phelps to Elizabeth Whiting Phelps Huntingtin, September 15, 1814, Box 5 folder 12, Porter Phelps Huntington Family Papers.

[36] Judd Manuscript, “Hadley,” Vol 3, p., 82.

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