Mary Sly: Her Life and Self-Emancipation

Mary Sly: Her Life and Self-Emancipation

By Anna Smith

According to the 1855 Massachusetts State Census for Northampton, Hampshire County, Mary Sly was a sixty-year-old Black woman and a Massachusetts native.[1] But, as various writings from her family and acquaintances show, Sly had also been enslaved by Springfield resident Israel E. Trask despite the fact that slavery was effectively outlawed in the state in 1783. Sly’s life thus complicates the common notion that Massachusetts slavery was solely an eighteenth-century phenomenon.

Mary Sly, born about 1795, was a Mississippi woman remembered in early twentieth-century recollections as having self-emancipated in antebellum Springfield. She was brought to the city by her enslaver, Brimfield native and Amherst College trustee Israel E. Trask, around 1818 to help care for his family. After her self-emancipation in the 1820s or 1830s, she established herself as a cook at Jeremy Warriner’s Tavern and assisted people on the Underground Railroad in the process of self-emancipation. She also established a family in the city, investing herself in the free Black community of Springfield and highlighting the strong connection between Massachusetts and slavery in the antebellum period.

According to Sly’s daughter, Julia, Mary Sly was born not in Massachusetts, but in New Orleans.[2] It is in one of the city’s infamous slave markets that she may have been sold to Israel Trask, a Brimfield native who first came to Mississippi in 1801 to aid in the Louisiana Purchase. There, in 1803, he married Elizabeth Carter, daughter of planter Jesse Carter, and established several plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. One, just outside of New Orleans, was the home of several enslaved people who participated and were executed for their involvement in the 1811 German Coast Uprising. However, Trask’s most-visited plantation appears to be LaGrange in Woodville, Adams County, Mississippi, where his brother later resided. Here, the major crop was cotton; after Trask returned to Massachusetts in 1812, he would establish a textile mill in Brimfield to process the fruits of the labor of the people he enslaved. In total, the Trask family appears to have enslaved over two hundred and fifty people.[3]

Israel and Elizabeth Carter Trask would eventually settle in Springfield in 1821. Though Trask divested himself from the inner workings of enslavement and plantation life, he continued to work closely with his brother James Lawrence Trask, who maintained control over the plantations. Further, he appears to have brought several enslaved people to Massachusetts to care for his family as nurses, cooks, and laborers.

The first letter in surviving Trask family materials that indicate an enslaved person’s presence in Springfield appears to be one dated November 18, 1827.[4] Addressed to his wife Elizabeth in Springfield, it reads:

Tell Cesar & Lucy their friends are all well an[d] rejoiced to hear that they have not conducted like Spencer. They would be glad to see them. I must remind Cesar to be attentive to the occonomy [sic] & cleanliness of the barn. And to keep good fires for you. I trust he will be faithful and Lucy also to all their duties.[5]

Apparently at least two people—the man Cesar and a woman named Lucy—had traveled from LaGrange to Springfield at some point in the year prior. An earlier letter, dated November 14, 1818, and addressed to Elizabeth in Brimfield, mentions other enslaved people brought to the state:

“Remember me to Mother & friends. I hope that Alice is a good girl. Tell Sally & Lucy to be careful of the children. And Upham — that he must make good fires to keep you all warm.”[6]

Though suggested here, other letters and commentary from his neighbors make explicit the fact Sally, Lucy, and Upham are enslaved. An October 4, 1828, letter from Israel Trask to James indicates that Lucy made an unsuccessful attempt to claim her freedom. Cesar, as mentioned in the above letter, was Lucy’s husband and went on to claim his freedom. Sally and Upham’s proximity to Lucy in this letter thus suggest that they, too, were enslaved, in addition to their presence on various contracts and indentures. In none of his extant correspondence, however, does Trask mention the name Mary Sly. Instead, overlapping biographical details suggest that Sally is Mary Sly, with the latter’s last name a possible shortening of the former. 

Indeed, addition to the question of Sly’s true place of birth, there is some question surrounding her name and identity. There does not appear to be any record of a Mary Sly in any of the various contracts and indentures held in the Trask-Ventress Family Papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History nor in the Israel E. Trask Business Records at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library and Special Collections. In his correspondence held as part of the Israel E. Trask papers at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Trask writes of only five enslaved people brought to Massachusetts: Cesar, Lucy, Spencer, Upham, and Sally. Lucy was married to Cesar and never left the family, leaving Sally as the only possible candidate.

Sally was first enslaved by Israel Trask at his Second Creek plantation in Adams, Mississippi, in 1807.[7] Evidence in this correspondence lends credence to the theory that Mary Sly and Sally are one and the same. At some point after self-emancipating, Sly came to work as a cook in Jeremy Warriner’s Tavern, or the United States Hotel, in Springfield. As published in the January 31, 1907, issue of the Springfield Weekly Republican, Sly was a revered cook:

“I remember Rufus Choate coming into the big kitchen night of the argument and saying to Aunte Phoebe: “Give me the strongest cup of tea you ever made, Mrs. Warriner, and some of Mary Sly’s” (she was an old black cook that lived her life there) “best waffles and broiled chicken, and I’ll carry it through,” and he did.”[8]

Sally, too, is mentioned in Trask’s papers as an excellent cook. Of Sally, Trask complains in December 1820 that he “should have thought that Sally might have sent me a plate of cake or a piece of cold pork. I dont find any cooking here that suits me so well as hers.”[9] This certainly fits with Sly’s description, but when Trask last mentions her in 1824, Sally is living in Natchez and apparently not under Trask’s watch.

It is here that the apparent lives of Sally and Mary Sly differ. While Sally is last recorded in Trask’s known correspondence as living in Natchez, one of Mary Sly’s contemporaries places her elsewhere.  A letter from Sarah B. Merrick to Wilbur Seibert, historian of the Underground Railroad, in 1907 elaborates on Sly’s life and escape:

“In our family was a colored woman, who had come from Natchez (a slave woman), with her Master[‘]s family — Colonel Trask — She was a woman of fine appearance and of more than ordinary intelligence — and in some way had heard that a slave was practically freed, when on Massachusetts soil — When Co. Trasks family ready to return to Natchez, Mary Sly, was non est [[noticed]] missing — As I was told, she remained secreted for days — until the coast seemed clear — when she took her place as cook in my Uncle Warriner’s kitchen — a position she held for many years — and until her death in 1858 or 9 — To his honor & credit be it said Col. Trask sent Mary her ‘freedom papers’ after his return to Natchez and allowed her to buy her husband with her first years wages.”[10]

Based on the dates of the birth of Sly’s daughter and the death of Israel Trask, it is likely that her escape took place some time in the late 1820s or early 1830s. Despite the fact that slavery was no longer legal in Massachusetts, it would have been well within Trask’s right to advertise Sly’s escape and to post a reward for her return; not until 1836 did the Commonwealth v. Ames case declare that no person could be held in the state against their will. However, it does not appear that he did so. Was this a matter of propriety, of convenience, or of morality? Sly would eventually go on to join abolitionist Reverend Samuel Osgood’s congregation in Springfield, which Trask also attended, and would live on the same street as her former enslaver; she would not have been hard to find after her initial escape, but Trask seems to have been primarily driven by money.[11]

Another answer may lie in Trask’s evolving views around slavery. In 1826, he joined the Hampden County Colonization Society along with Samuel Osgood. Though wishing for the abolition of slavery, the society declared that “the black population can never be amalgamated with the white; our nature revolts at the suggestion.”[12] Perhaps, in failing health, Trask sought to rid himself of his closest connection to the peculiar institution, hoping that she would ‘return’ to Africa. But she did not do so; instead, Sly went on to help others escape enslavement. As recounted by Merrick, Sly had “hidden more than one [escaping enslaved person] under the old kitchen stairs” of her place of employment, where no one dared to look in for fear of punishment.[13] While to “his honor & credit” (as Sarah Merrick phrased it) Trask confirmed Sly’s assertion of her own freedom, he is also the person that took it away.

Another possible explanation for Sly’s freedom lies in her designation as a Massachusetts native on the 1855 state census. Though this could easily be attributed to the inattentiveness of the census taker, the fact that neighboring entries have birthplaces ranging from Ireland to New York suggests that Sly herself reported that she was born in Massachusetts. Perhaps Merrick’s recollection is incorrect; Trask did not give Sly her freedom, but she instead claimed it for herself, later presenting herself as a Massachusetts native to avoid suspicion. By the time of the 1860 census, though, her birthplace was recorded as Maryland, a more plausible place for a formerly enslaved woman to have been born. 

Mary Sly remained in Massachusetts only a few years after the 1855 census was taken. At the time of the 1860 federal census, she was living with her daughter and working as a cook at Jeremy Warriner’s Tavern, likely along with her daughter who was listed as a servant,[14] but she died intestate in Newport, Rhode Island, in December 1861 of extreme burns after her dress caught on fire.[15] The fact that Merrick misremembered Sly as dying before the advent of the Civil War adds further credence to the possibility that she was mistaken in other areas of Sly’s biography, as does the fact that only one child is mentioned, as Sly was survived by two children. One, Julia, was born free in 1837, suggesting that Sly’s husband, Noble, had indeed been able to come to Springfield. However, no record of him is found in the 1855 census. Julia married several times under the names Bell, Wilson, and Lee, dying in Springfield in 1912. She met at least one husband, James Wilson, while working at the tavern; according to an 1868 city directory, Wilson worked as a barber under the U.S. Hotel.[16] This further marks the Jeremy Warriner Tavern as a center of importance for the free Black community in Springfield. 

Sly’s older child, Joseph C. Rhodes, was likely born into slavery in 1819, possibly by a different father. Unlike his sister, however, Joseph did not stay in Springfield, moving to Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1856. His 1893 obituary in the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News states that he was born in Brimfield, where Trask lived and brought Sally in 1818—another piece of evidence suggesting that “Sally” in these records is the same woman who called herself Mary Sly. A dyer, Joseph Rhodes was “one of the most respected colored residents of the city,” having apparently inherited his mother’s intelligence.[17] He was survived by wife Martha Van Dusen and three children. 

Mary Sly’s name has largely been forgotten by history. Her place of employment now stands unrecognizably and unnoted as the South End Market portion of the MGM Casino, while Trask’s house just a few blocks away continues to stand proudly.[18] Her name remains absent from the archival record, while Trask’s name abounds. But Sly did live, was enslaved, and escaped in Springfield, and her story gives greater meaning to the history of enslavement in Massachusetts.

Anna Smith is a senior American Studies major at Amherst College currently writing a thesis on representations of slavery in museums and archives. 

[1]Year: 1855; Census Place: Northampton, Hampshire, Massachusetts.

[2] “Passing of the Old Tavern,” Springfield Homestead (Feb. 6, 1907), Box 47, MA 139, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, OH.

[3]Genealogist Nicka Smith, herself a descendant of people enslaved by Trask, has been tracking these people and has been instrumental in the writing of this biography. See Nicka Smith, “Trask 250 Series,” Who is Nicka Smith?, accessed September 12, 2021.

[4]The Israel E. Trask Papers held at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections primarily consist of correspondence to and from Trask from 1818 to 1835, documenting his travels between Massachusetts and his family’s plantations in Missisippi and Louisiana with occasional reference to enslaved people and cotton production. Other material in the collection documents his involvement in the establishment of Monson Academy and Amherst College, as well as recollections recorded by descendant Alice Laidlaw Williams, who donated the collection to Amherst in 1968. Additional material at Baker Library and Special Collections better documents Trask’s business dealings. 

[5] Israel E. Trask to Elizabeth Trask, November 18, 1827, Box 1, Folder 12, Israel E. Trask Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA.

[6] Israel E. Trask to Elizabeth Trask, November 14, 1818, Box 1, Folder 2, Israel E. Trask Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA.

[7] Power of attorney given by Israel E. Trask (Adams County, Mississippi Territory) to James L. Trask (Adams County, Mississippi Territory), Box 2, Folder 6, Israel Trask Business Records, Harvard Business School, Baker Library Special Collections, Boston, MA 02163. Box 2, Folder 6.

[8] “Jeremy Warriner’s Tavern,” Springfield Republican (Jan. 31, 1907), Box 47, MA 140, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, OH.

[9] Israel E. Trask to Elizabeth Trask, December 1820, Box 1, Folder 3, Israel E. Trask Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA.

[10] Sarah B. Merrick to Wilbur Siebert, March 3, 1907, Box 47, MA 135, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, OH.

[11]Samuel Osgood ministered at the First Congregational Church, where Trask endowed two pews. For more on Samuel Osgood, see Imani Kazini, “Black Springfield: A Historical Study,” Contributions in Black Studies Vol. 1 , Article 2 (1977).

[12] “Hampden County Colonization Society Circular.” Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), November 22, 1825. GenealogyBank, accessed September 6, 2021. 

[13] “Jeremy Warriner’s Tavern.”

[14]Year: 1860; Census Place: Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts; Page: 240.

[15] “Rhode Island,” Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), December 14, 1861. GenealogyBank, accessed September 6, 2021. 

[16]Springfield Directory and Business Advertiser (Springfield, MA, Samuel Bowles & Company, 1868), p. 229., accessed September 6, 2021. 

[17] “Joseph C. Rhodes,” Poughkeepsie Eagle-News (Poughkeepsie, NY), February 28, 1893., accessed 6 September 2021. 

[18]See “SPR.181,” Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, accessed September 12, 2021.

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