Sojourner Truth, David Ruggles, and the African-American Community of Florence, Massachusetts: How We “Found” Their Houses
By Steve Strimer, David Ruggles Center
In 1850 at least fifty-six African Americans lived in Florence, which then was home to 580 people; the village comprised 17 percent of Northampton’s total population and was home to 36 percent of its African American population. At nearly 10 percent of the 1850 village population, African Americans made up a greater share of total population in Florence than they did in virtually any other Massachusetts place. …Florence, for a village its size, may be unique in New England not only for the relative size of its African American population but for the integration of African Americans in both work and political settings. While most antebellum African American males in Massachusetts were unskilled laborers, teamsters, and in such service occupations as waiters and janitors, Florence industrialists, at least for a time, employed them in mills and factories, jobs usually filled by white immigrant labor.
Kathryn Grover, Florence Abolition and Reform National Historic District nomination
On October 4, 2002, after ten years of fundraising, permit seeking, and public explaining, the Committee for Northampton, a tight-knit group of anti-racism activists, celebrated the installation of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue at the corner of Park and Pine Streets in the village of Florence. Knowing this day would come, bringing with it heightened interest in her time here, members of the Florence History Project set about learning the fate of the 1849–1850 house she owned on Park Street. The local historians we asked each had a different story: either it had been torn down to make way for new houses; moved and then burned down; or was clearly not the house designated the “Sojourner Truth House” on the Massachusetts Historical Commission “Form-B” and in Florence, Massachusetts History 1895–1985.
As it turned out, it was there at 35 Park Street all the time, enlarged with an ell and an added second floor to be sure, but signs of her timber-framed, story-and-a-half house were easy to see in the attic and rough stone basement. Of the thirteen African American houses “rediscovered” since 2001, hers was the first. The resources and techniques we used to find it developed into a kind of modus operandi we would use, and expand on, to identify the others: texts, deeds and probate, maps, censuses and “Form B’s”, followed by house visits. Searches can begin from information found in any of these ways.
The techniques used to identify these dwellings can be used by researchers in any town in the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley. Many of the resources described below are available for many Valley communities. This essay narrates our process below in the hope that it can be a guide for researchers in other towns that may not count figures as well- known as Sojourner Truth among their former residents, but who are just as important to document and locate on the landscape.
Local house investigations often begin in one of two ways: (1) From scratch, looking in census records, city directories, assessor’s records, etc. for individual members of a particular ethnic group, occupation, etc; or (2) from research into where a particular person or group lived or met. Our project was of the second type: We hoped to find the home of a famous or noteworthy individual, and so began with a name: Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth House, 35 Park Street, Florence
In most cases, researchers won’t have the benefit of detailed remembrances of African American lives in their communities for whom even obituaries are rare. Our trail started with the recollections of Arthur G. Hill, son of Truth’s best friend and fellow Northampton Association of Education and Industry member, Samuel L. Hill. In his “Recollections of Anti-slavery Days in Florence,” he states, “Sojourner Truth, whose real name was Isabella Van Wagner, lived here for several years, having the house built for her now occupied by Mrs. Lyman Abbott.” In a later memoir entitled “Florence the
Mecca Sanctuary of the Colored Race,”he recalls that, “The house on Park St. now occupied by Mr. Wait was built for her.”Arthur G. Hill wanted to make certain people knew which house on Park Street was once hers. He claimed, at the age of 8 or 9, to have taken down notes to assist Truth and Olive Gilbert as they composed her Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave. So they were once close and she didn’t leave Florence until 1857 when the precocious A.G. Hill had reached his sixteenth birthday.
Finding descendants of your research subjects can be difficult; the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 created a kind of diaspora of refugees from slavery. But descendants may hold letters, papers, and recollections of family members to help fill in their stories. If the people you are researching are at all prominent in their communities, they may have appeared in a local newspaper. We now have wide access to searchable newspapers from a number of sources: Genealogy Bank, News Bank, Ancestry, and Accessible Archives. In a few cases we found the house we were seeking mentioned in an article, which helped steer us in the right direction.
Deeds and probate
Of all that’s different about this work since 2001 when we began our search, accessing deeds has changed the most. Gradually every bound book at the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds, except the oldest, were digitized and reprinted in compact but generic looking white plastic binders and were indexed for easy online searching. But the handsome, older handwritten books were never made searchable by Owner, Town, Street, etc. (as of this writing, in January 2022). Hidden at the bottom of the scroll down menu for the kind of search you’d like to try on the state Mass Land Records site is the all-important “unindexed property search” where you have to supply a book and page to find the deed. So, if you are tracing your way back from the present, you would enter the last sure book and page you found in your indexed search.
However, at times the thread is lost when a lawyer or registry official failed to mention a book and page. In the old days you could resort to the sometimes-ancient file cards for the Grantee (that is, the purchaser) and Grantor (the seller), but those are now gone. For a while I thought they were lost to us, but scans of each card are now available at Familysearch.com. If you need to use this collection, either to restore the thread or to find other owners’ earliest properties, there are two ranges where you will find your owner: one is for grantor, the other for grantee, though they don’t really tell you which. Then you must narrow in on the proper card by iteration. If you have trouble, you can email us at email@example.com.
File card for Sojourner Truth as Grantee for the two lots she purchased from Samuel L. Hill on Park Street. These cards are now available in Massachusetts Land Records at www.familysearch.org.
Occasionally, one needs to look at Probate Records to confirm ownership of a property, but biography is the principle use in my view. Take for example the 75-page probate record of David Ruggles who, though chronically unwell, fell mortally ill in September of 1849, and died only three months later on December 16, 1849, leaving no will. He was running a growing business, just past its startup phase, so that you see a lot of property and a lot of debt.
A meticulous inventory was made just after his death, of every bedstead, bureau, table, stove, and looking glass—the standard issue for the nineteen dormitory rooms—with the dollar value of each. Clearly, all the patients had departed: The rooms are empty of clothes, books, luggage, etc. All except room #12 which had in it the contents listed below:
1 Bedstead with curtain, 1 Stove, 1 Table and cover, 1 Bureau & Book Case, 1 Lounge, 1 Hearth Brush, Oil Cloth & bed Comforter, 9 yards Straw Carpet, 1 Bed (illeg.), Comforter, spread, & frill, 1 Thermometer, 1 Sack coat new, 1 over Coat, 1 Summer Coat, 1 fine dress coat, 1 (illeg.) Coat, 1 linen Coat, 1 dressing Gown, 1 pr. Blk Kersey Pants & Suspenders, 1 pr. Ck. Pants & Suspenders, 1 pr. Dark Summer Pants & Suspenders, 1 Velvet Vest—new, 1 Velvet Vest—old, 3 White Vests—old, 2 Blk Cravats, 3 prs Linen Socks, 2 prs Gloves, 3 Linen shirts, 2 Cotton shirts, Unfinished Linen, 2 prs Drawers, 2 Linen Blouses, Cap & Hat, 1 pr Boots, Summer Hat, 4 Napkins, 1 Worcester’s Dictionary, 1 Wilson’s Anatomy, 1 Elements of Physiology, 1 Macauley, England 2 Vols, Temperance Documents, 1 Life of Abel Brown, 1 Prison Life & Reflections, 1 Small Pox, 1 Bible, 1 Anecdotes, 1 Pilgrims Progress, 1 Review Mexican War, 1 Titch on consumption, 1 Knife.
This is surely the room in which David Ruggles died. This inventory tells us much about him.
The six maps we had to work with for the Sojourner Truth house search varied in scale and size. Using landmarks and street intersections I reduced or enlarged them to as close the same size as possible, to allow comparison of the building outlines on each. Fortunately, “S. J. Truth” appears next to the simple dot of her house above and to the right of center on this map of 1854, the year she paid off her mortgage to Samuel L. Hill.
Detail from the 1854 Wm. J. Barker Map of Hampshire County, Massachusetts, showing the home of “S.J. Truth” near other former NAEI members H. Wells, E. Hammond, and S.L. Hill.
Later maps actually confused the situation. The Florence section in 1873 Beers atlas and the 1884 Walker atlas show the house centered on the lot, whereas the 1895 Miller atlas shows it shifted north where it belongs, with the southern half parcelled off for two new houses. This likely led to the opinion, held by most, that her house had been razed to make room for three houses on her old lot.
Map expert and surveyor James Avery Smith pointed out that the Beers atlas draftsmen were prone to center building outlines in the middle of the legal lot. Truth had purchased the empty Lot #10 below her Lot #11 in 1856 (see 1846 map above). She sold the combined lots to Daniel Ives in 1857 and subsequent maps show them as one.
From top left 1846 Eaton’s Village Lots Plan, Truth bought Lot #11 from Samuel L. Hil; 1854; 1860, 1873, 1884, 1895. The red circles indicate the building outline of Truth’s house, 1854; 1860, D. Ives; 1873, D. Ives, 1884, Mrs. Ives; 1895, L. Abbott
The U.S. and Massachusetts censuses are invaluable for these searches, especially after 1850 when all members of the household are listed with their gender, age, race, employment, and estimated value of personal property and real estate. We are fortunate that censuses were taken in Massachusetts in 1855 and 1865, using similar criteria, allowing us to see the effect of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 on African American settlement in the State. In many cases, it appears the census taker was recording each house in sequence as he/she walked down the street, so that it was possible to compare this order with maps and deeds to confirm the location of the dwelling.
Northampton has a good compilation of its Massachusetts Historical Commission Form B’s (for buildings) available in its Public File Cabinet. Most towns don’t have so robust a web presence and researchers should try the MHC’s database, the Massachusetts Cultural Resources Information System, or MACRIS, that allows researchers to find buildings gathered by local historical commissions. While somewhat limited in that properties are typically assigned only one “historic” name and one “contemporary” name, generally omitting people of color who inhabited a given property at some point, when used in connection with the deed, map, and other searches here, these forms can fill out a picture of a property’s history and help connect fragments of information recovered through other sources.
After we identified the house or building we were looking for, we prepared a packet of images, clippings, biographical material for the current owners with how we came to our conclusion. We then ask if we can see their basement and attic, etc. to help arrive at a date of construction. This process results in a kind of solidarity with the owners who often had no idea their house was of historic importance. Walking into the Sojourner Truth House, we saw this photo hanging on the wall.
Howes Brothers photograph of 35 Park Street, ca. 1900 looking very much as it does today.
Arthur G. Hill recalled, “Sojourner Truth, whose real name was Isabella Van Wagner, lived here for several years, having the house built for her, now occupied by Mrs. Lyman Abbott on Park St.” This photo was taken during the period Abbott owned the house.
Bill Flynt of Historic Deerfield and Kris Thomson, restoration carpenter and Ruggles Center Board member. During a recent renovation, with walls down to the studs Kris and Bill took the opportunity to examine closely the framing of the 1849-1850 Sojourner Truth House.
I hope what we’ve learned can help others in the towns and villages of Western Massachusetts to locate the houses and buildings associated with their African American citizens.
 “Florence Abolition and Reform National Historic District;” draft narrative, 2021 by Kathryn Grover, 2, 54.
 “Legacy” Massachusetts Historical Commission Form B for 67 Park Street, Northampton, MA , 1980, pp. 170-171.
 Florence, Massachusetts History 1895–1985, 1986, Book Committee of the Florence Civic and Business Association, Jan Kosar, Ed.
 “Anti-Slavery Days in Florence”, Arthur G. Hill, ca. 1912, unpublished typescript, Forbes Library Special Collections
 “Florence the
Mecca Sanctuary of the Colored Race,” collection of Brian McCullough, copy at David Ruggles Center, n.d.
 Letter from A. G. Hill to editor of The Crisis magazine, March 1918.
 David Ruggles Probate Record, March 1850, Hampshire County Probate and Family Court
 Probate inventories from Massachusetts are available via American Ancestors, a database of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Though most of this resource requires a subscription, these public records do not.
 J. Barker, Map of Hampshire County, 1854, BPL Leventhal Map Collection; Book 133, page 123, Hampshire County Deeds
 In the last half of the nineteenth century, the Beers family published atlases of most of the northeastern United States; these are now widely available in libraries and online. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastatelibrary/albums/72157633789629824/)
 Atlas of Northampton City, Massachusetts. Published by Geo. H. Walker & Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1884. George H. Walker was an important, Boston-based publisher of maps who also published an atlas of Massachusetts.
 Atlas of the City of Northampton and Town of Easthampton, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, D.L. Miller, C.E., Philadelphia, PA: D.L. Miller & Co., 1895.
 Conversation with James Avery Smith, August 1, 2001
 Arthur G. Hill, Anti-Slavery Days in Florence, p. 3., David Ruggles Center
 Photograph courtesy of Historic Nortphamton