Robert Wright, of Springfield and Greenfield

Robert Wright, of Springfield and Greenfield

By Cliff McCarthy 

We know about Robert Wright because he told his story to the Springfield Republican in 1899.[1] He related that he was born with the slave name of Moses Bartlett Sohn on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia in 1814. The son of “a free father and a slave mother,” he had several brothers and sisters who were “all sold and never heard from afterward.” He escaped in 1840 by using the free papers he purchased for fifty cents from a Black man named Robert Wright, whose name he then kept. Fifty cents was the “amount a free negro was charged for new papers when his old [ones] were lost.” 

Wright was captured on his journey north, but when brought before a magistrate, the judge determined that he matched the description on the papers and declared him “as free as I am.”[2] Wright stated that he arrived in Springfield on his twenty-sixth birthday. This would be 1840, assuming his stated birth date of 1814 was correct.

The earliest archival evidence we have of Robert Wright in Springfield is actually a deed, dated 27 May 1845 in which he purchased a parcel of land on Mechanic Street from George & Horace Kibbe.[3] Wright appears in the Springfield city directories in which he is listed as a waiter at the Exchange Hotel in 1846 and as an assistant cook at the Massasoit House in 1847.[4] That year, Wright married Delia Wells in Wethersfield, Connecticut. 

In January of 1848 their first child, son Robert, Jr., was born in Greenfield.[5] In March of 1849, Wright purchased land on Pearl Street in Springfield from his friend and self-liberated formerly-enslaved person, Cyrus Thomas, and by September 1849 the couple had returned to Springfield where their second child, a daughter Alice, was born.[6], [7]

After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Wright’s former enslaver made an effort to “reclaim Wright to servitude.” Wright “disappeared” to Greenfield. However, he was enumerated there in the 1850 U.S. census and his third child was born there in 1851. That year, a group of sympathetic Greenfield citizens purchased his freedom.[8]

In Springfield, the League of Gileadites was an organization of African Americans pledged to protect one another from the efforts of slave-catchers after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Abolitionist John Brown helped the Black community to organize to protect itself in January of 1851. Robert Wright’s name does not appear on the written list of names on the Gileadites founding document, however in 1900, the Springfield Republican identified him as a member of the league and as “one of Brown’s staunchest friends among the colored men.”[9]

During his early years in Springfield, Wright worked as a waiter in a coffeehouse where he met prominent Springfield merchant James Byers, who then hired him to be his personal servant on a fishing trip to Canada. Wright worked frequently for the merchant until Byers’ death in 1852.[10] It was likely after Byers’ death that, as Wright related, he ventured to California “during the gold fever” where he worked for miners and succeeded “getting a start in life which enabled him to return to this city [Springfield], where he made his home for 50 years.”[11]

The family of Robert and Delia Wright was enumerated in Northampton in the 1855 state census.[12] It is likely that during this time he met John Payson Williston, an ardent abolitionist and station-master on the Underground Railroad. Deed records show that in 1855, Robert and Delia Wright mortgaged their property on Pearl Street in Springfield to J. P. Williston. By 1859, the loan was repaid and the mortgage was discharged.[13]

Wright was in Springfield in 1860, where he was counted in the census with his wife and three children.[14] He worked as a cook and in various other jobs.[15]

A tragic event befell Wright at the end of his life. In 1903 a headline reported “Narrow Escape from Tragedy. Woman Sets Fire to a Bed in Which Her Aged Father Lay.”[16] Purportedly, Wright’s drunken granddaughter, Delia (Wright) Newport (mistakenly called his daughter in the article) set fire to his bed, outraged that he had “deeded his home to a Mrs. Johnson so that he might be sure of proper care during the few years of helpless existence before him.” Several acquaintances reported that the granddaughter had threatened several times to “get rid of the old man.” Wright was not injured in the fire; neighbors had “rushed into the house and removed the old man from the burning bed and carried him to the home of a neighbor.” However, he died only four months later at the age of ninety-one.[17]  To extend the tragedy even further, Delia (Wright) Newport, the granddaughter, was herself consumed by a household blaze not two months after Robert Wright’s death.[18]

Cliff McCarthy, Archivist at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, is also Vice-President of the Pioneer Valley History Network.

[1] “He Was James Byers’ Servant,” Springfield Republican, 8 September 1899, p.16.

[2] “He Was James Byers’ Servant,” Springfield Republican, 8 September 1899, p.16.

[3] Deed from George and Horace Kibbe to Robert Wright, Hampden Co. Registry of Deeds, Book 129, Page 415.

[4] Springfield City Directories, 1846 & 1847.

[5] Carvalho, Joseph, III, Black Families of Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2011.

[6] Deed from Cyrus Thomas to Robert Wright, Hampden Registry of Deeds, Book 149, Page 4.       

[7] Stott, Clifford L., The Vital Records of Springfield, Massachusetts to 1850, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2005. 

[8] Springfield Republican, 22 April 1851, p. 2.

[9] “John Brown’s Local History Told by Men Who Remember Him,” Springfield Republican, 13 May 1900, p.10. 

[10] “He Was James Byers’ Servant,” Springfield Republican, 8 September 1899, p.16.

[11] “Veteran Colored Man’s Long Life,” Springfield Republican, 16 October 1904, p. 6.

[12] 1855 Massachusetts State Census for Robert Wright, (Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA).

[13] Mortgage Deed from Robert Wright to J. P. Williston, Hampden Registry of Deeds, Book 178, Page 270.

[14] 1860 U.S. Census for Robert Wright, (Springfield, Hampden Co., MA).

[15] Springfield City Directory and Business Advertiser, Samuel Bowles and Company, Springfield, Mass., 1860, p. 129.

[16] “Narrow Escape from Tragedy. Woman Sets Fire to a Bed,” Springfield Republican, May 29, 1903, p. 4.

[17] “Veteran Colored Man’s Long Life,” Springfield Republican, 16 October 1904, p. 6.

[18] “Horrible Burning Accident,” Springfield Republican, 6 December 1904, p.3.

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