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Slaveholders in South Dedham Village

Updated: Feb 3



Rev. Thomas Balch (1711-1774) lot 144

Capt. Eliphalet Fales (c, 1717-1781) lot 128

Deacon Nathanael Sumner (1720-1802) lot 126 tomb

 

Northern slaveholding was different from that practiced in the South where dozens, sometimes hundreds, of slaves, worked on a single plantation. In New England, those who claimed human property held only one or two in a household and treated them much like indentured servants. Sleeping in attics, cellars, and back rooms, the enslaved – euphemistically referred to as “servants” – most often worked alongside their masters in the home, on farms, in shops, or as craftsmen. Women slaves were particularly valued for their ability to perform domestic work, the arduous cleaning, sewing, and cooking chores that required working in hot kitchens and freezing outer buildings. There were fewer slaves in Massachusetts than any other colony but in 1721 their number was approximately 2,000. Three decades later, in 1754, the number of black slaves in the town of Dedham was around twenty.




According to historian Elise Lemire, in her carefully researched work, Black Walden, only those with the most wealth, education, or prestige were slaveholders; it was a sign of economic or social position. Virtually all the owners of slaves in the Concord area held the honorific title of Reverend, Doctor, Colonel, Captain, or Deacon, a clear indication of a profession, military office, religious or social standing. The same held true in the southern district of Dedham. There are few surviving records of human bondage in the South Parish, but in every instance, the owners were at the top of the existing social hierarchy. Rev. Thomas Balch unquestionably held the most prestigious position in the precinct, along with his wife, Mary, who was referred to as “Madam” Balch. A formal form of address used to identify a woman of high social standing; the title even appears on her gravestone. And, the couple owned slaves.


Rev. Balch carefully registered all baptisms, marriages, and deaths that occurred during his tenure. On March 24, 1745, he recorded that “Flora, our negro woman [was] delivered of a still born child.” A few months later, there was another entry. On August 13, 1745 Balch noted the death of “our negro child, Peter, about 7 months old.” The following day, August 14, he wrote of the passing of “Flora, our negro woman, aged about 18 years.” That Thomas Balch felt this woman and her children were his property is indicated by the lack of a last name, and his use of the possessive: “our negro child” and “our negro woman.”

For Balch to hold slaves was not illegal. Slavery was first legalized in Massachusetts in 1641, nearly a century before Balch arrived in the district, and it was not until 1783 that the state essentially abolished the practice. Nor was it outside the mainstream of his religion. Cotton Mather, whose beliefs and legacy still reverberated in Massachusetts Bay, believed that the Bible sanctioned slavery and that Christianity provided a proper framework for servitude, one that upheld the humanity of slaves but required obedience to their Masters. In return, Christian slave-owners had a responsibility to care for the material well-being of their human property.


Rev. Thomas Balch

Rev. Thomas Balch gravestone in Old Parish Cemetery

Balch was not the only slaveholder in the small village of South Dedham. On October 5, 1765, the minister “Baptised a Negro child of Captain Fales named Cesar.” As was the case with the parson, Captain Eliphalet Fales (c1717-1781), veteran of the French and Indian War, gave his slave only a first name, an effective way to distinguish his human property from society in general and the family in particular. The name Cesar [or Caesar] conformed to the customary slave names used in New England. According to Lemire, most were given “place names, biblical names, classical names, or a diminutive form of these or common English names.” As it happened, the name Caesar was “one of the most popular slave names in colonial New England. A man who owned a Caesar said to the world he believed in a republican government.” Eliphalet Fales’ grave has not been found.


It was also common to baptize a child born into bondage. Cotton Mather and other church leaders encouraged slave baptisms believing it would ensure the proper treatment of a slave. And, in 1729, the Royal Attorney General assured English colonists that baptism did not infringe upon ownership but may act as a further restraint: Christian slaves may expect the spiritual rewards of Heaven only by accepting their place and obeying their Masters. Thus, children born into slavery were often baptized before being given away or sold.


A third slave-owning family in South Dedham was that of Deacon Nathaniel Sumner (1720-1802), once again a well-educated and well-respected member of the community. Born in Roxbury, Sumner was a graduate of Harvard where he studied theology. Around 1740 the General Court allowed Dedham to annex a considerable portion of his estate which had stood within the borders of Sharon. With the annexation, Sumner was allowed “to do duty and enjoy privileges” within the Second Precinct. Chosen to be a Deacon of the Parish in 1752 after the death of John Everett, Sumner was also a representative to the General Court in Boston and served as a Dedham Selectman for nineteen years. At 55, Sumner was among the oldest colonists to respond to the alarm of April 19, 1775. Owning a slave or two would enable Sumner to fulfill his religious and political duties while still maintaining his farm and considerable assets. There is no record of the number of slaves Sumner may have owned but in 1774, “a baptized Negro belonging to Nathaniel Sumner” died. Her name was Eunice.


Sumner tomb in Old Parish Cemetery

 

Where the remains of Eunice, Peter, Flora, and Flora’s stillborn child are interred is unknown.

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