Sezor Phelps, of Hadley
By Marla R. Miller
(Adapted from Miller, Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in RuralMassachusetts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).)
One of the few known letters from an enslaved resident of the Valley is a message Hadley’s Sezor Phelps sent home from Fort Ticonderoga during the American Revolution, a document featured in the website “Revolution Happened Here.” The September 30, 1776, letter to Charles Phelps reported that Sezor had not received his wages. He asks how the “Folks do at home,” and asks for their “prayers while in the Sarves” [service]. And finally, he requests that, should Charles Phelps decide to sell him, could they please send his “his neck stock and buckle,” a stylish accessory men wore around the neck, and secured with a clasp.“Though the letter is signed ‘Sezor,’” the web exhibit points out, “it is unknown whether or not he penned it himself, or dictated it to a fellow literate soldier. Regardless, it is his voice.”
While nothing is (to date) known about the fortunes of Sezor (Caesar, or Cesar in Elizabeth Porter Phelps’ spelling) after this date, a little more about his life before the war is captured in the papers of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington family.
Charles and Elizabeth Phelps purchased Sezor in March 1770, paying William Williams of New Marlborough (then in the state of New York, today part of Vermont), £66 and 13 shillings for a “negro fellow named Cesar of about eighteen years of age.” In 1776, Charles Phelps, Sr. had offered to remake some tools to accommodate the enslaved man’s hand, which had become lame in the course of his work. The injury could be related to frostbite; in winter 1771, Elizabeth Porter Phelps recorded in her memorandum book “Last Tuesday Cesar froze his finger.” Some years later (4 June 1775) she recorded being “much surprized with Cesar’s hand…has had a terrible swelled hand this month,” though by then it was “thought to be the rhumatizm [sic].”
In 1776, Charles Phelps, Sr. wrote his son from Vermont offering to purchase Cesar and move him to his own farm. Phelps assured his son that he would urge Cesar to return to his usual labors with “gentleness and persuasion”—what’s more, he would offer him the opportunity to make sugar (one of the products of Charles Phelps’s Vermont enterprise) for himself to sell for ready case as a further motivation for recovery. His letter suggests that tension between Sezor and a woman named Peg, also enslaved at Forty Acres, had contributed to some problematic behavior on Sezor’s part and inspired this offer to return him to Vermont: “I am persuaded that he is more Peevish and fretful in Pegs resistance of his former indulgences and freedom with her than otherwise he would [be,] that she is a pernicious temptation and incitement to him to a number of vices by her Peremptory [sic] of his those former gratifications.” Phelps’s letter suggests that Peg had perhaps not had full control of her body in the past but was exerting it now, or perhaps had changed her mind about her relationship with Sezor, as she developed a relationship with a man named Pomp, enslaved by another local family, the Warners.
Whatever the reason, it seemed that Charles and Elizabeth Phelps came to believe that Peg and Sezor would not be able to work alongside one another as they had in years past. When, in February 1776, Charles Phelps, Jr. took a wagonload of provisions to Cambridge, he left his enslaved man—now in his mid twenties–there to join the army encamped there. The move, however, did not confer freedom. In a letter home to Forty Acres (whether written by Sezor himself or dictated to another we cannot now know), he writes “Sir, I take this opportunity to enform you that I don’t entend to live with Capt. Cranston [where he is working for wages, some portion of which he appears to have kept] if I can help it,” suggesting some perhaps surprising autonomy. But also, he continued to be enslaved, and was apparently reconciled to the possibility that Phelps may detach him from the household at Forty Acres, writing, “if you determine to sell me I Want you Should Send me my Stock (a man’s neck cloth) and Buckle.”
What Phelps in time “determined,” we also do not know, as there is no further (yet known) archival reference to Sezor Phelps. There is no reference to any sale among Charles Phelps’ surviving papers. Perhaps Sezor gained his freedom, and/or changed his name, in the course of his military service. Or perhaps he did not survive the war. Unless (or until) more archival material surfaces to amplify this story, we may not learn how the coming of the American Revolution shaped the future of Sezor Phelps.
Marla Miller is a historian of women and work in early America, at UMass Amherst; from 2001 to 2021 she directed the Public History program there.
Though this name was clearly intended to be Caesar, which Elizabeth Phelps tends to spell “Cesar,” as the spelling Sezor appears in the signature of the letter from this individual to the Phelps family, that is the spelling I will use here.
Bill of sale, Porter-Phelps-HuntingtonFamily Papers, Box 4 folder 15.
Elizabeth Porter Phelps memorandum book 22 December 1771, New England Historic Genealogical Register(April 1964), 117.
Elizabeth Porter Phelps memorandum book 4 June 1775, New England Historic Genealogical Register(July 1964), 226.
Charles Phelps, Sr. to Charles Phelps, Jr., 15 February 1776, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers.
 Elizabeth Porter Phelps memorandum book, 25 February 1776, New England Historic Genealogical Register July 1964). Sezor/Cesar/Caesar Phelps does not appear in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors. Other Black men from Hadley who served in the Revolution include Ralph Way and Joshua Boston, as well as “mulatto” Levi Prutt.