Gaining an understanding of a town’s history is complicated by the fact that some residents’ stories are much less accessible than others. Standard town histories from the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to focus on a small group of socially prominent citizens. People of color were seldom mentioned. Anyone trying to learn about the early Black residents of Acton has had very little material to work with. Records are sparse, and there are sometimes conflicts among the pieces of information that we do have. To better understand early Acton’s racial diversity, we set out to find all mentions of Black and mixed-race residents (slave or free) in Acton’s early records. To do that, we used eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents that sometimes refer to racial diversity with terms that we would not use today. When quoted here, it is only to give accurate historical evidence about a person’s racial background. There is much work left to do, but in collaboration with the Robbins House in Concord, we offer what we have learned so far.
We will start in 1735 when Acton was set off as a town from Concord. We are hampered by lack of census records in the early days but will continue to look for more information. We do have a definitive record that slavery existed in Acton after it became a town. The 1754 Massachusetts slave census completed by the Selectmen stated that there was “but one male Negro slave Sixteen years old in Acton and No females.” (The inventory asked for the number of slaves over the age of sixteen; the wording presumably meant that the male mentioned was in that category, rather than being exactly sixteen years old.) We have no way of knowing if there were any younger slaves. Unfortunately, the inventory did not list either the name of the slave or the slave owner. As a result, we have no idea whether he was eventually freed and whether he stayed in town or moved on to another location.
Acton apparently also had free Black and/or mixed-race residents during its earliest years. We are still trying to document their stories. In South Acton by 1731, there was a William Cutting who, according to a story in a published journal of Rev. William Bentley, (volume 2, page 148) was himself or descended from a “Mulatto” slave who “upon the death of his master, accepted some wild land, which he cultivated & upon which his descendants live in independence.” (This story is still being researched; our various efforts to confirm those details have not yet been successful. A 1731 deed from Elnathan Jones to William Cutting is extremely hard to read, but it mentions a purchase price paid to a living person, rather than a gift or inheritance. Another 1732 deed from Elnathan Jones also seems to be a straight sale. Probate records have not yielded clues, either. A possibility is that the story was about an earlier ancestor in a location other than Acton.)
An Acton’s Selectmen’s report dated Feb. 2, 1753 mentions a road being laid out, with one of the boundaries being “a Grey oke on Ceser Freemans Land.” Both Cesar and Freeman were names associated with free African Americans of the period. Cesar Freeman’s story is unknown at this point, so we do not know if other Freemans in town records are his relatives.
Harvard University has put online a transcribed and indexed version of the Massachusetts Tax Inventory of 1771. This inventory reported the number of each taxpayer’s “servants for life.” According to that database, there were two “servants for life” in Acton, assessed to Amos Prescott and Simon Tuttle. (For relevant entries click here.) We know nothing about the person assessed to Prescott. However, it appears that Simon Tuttle’s “man” fought in the Revolution. At town meeting on March 4, 1783, the town voted to reimburse Mr. Simon Tuttle for “the Bounty for his negro man which was Twenty four Pounds in March 1777 to be Paid by the Scale of Depreciation.” Simon Tuttle was one of the Acton leaders who was charged with recruiting men to enlist from Acton, and it was common practice for the recruiters to pay bounties for enlistment out of their own pockets on the understanding that they would be reimbursed. (Acton took such a long time about actually paying the men back that the value of currency completely changed and adjustments needed to be made “by the Scale of Depreciation.”) The unique thing about this 1783 entry in town records is that the recruit was described at all, in particular his race and the fact that he was considered Simon Tuttle’s man. We have a clue as to his name; Rev. Woodbury's list of known Revolutionary War soldiers from Acton (compiled in the mid-1800s) included the entry "Titus Hayward, colored man, hired by Simon Tuttle." For more information about this soldier, see our blog post about our research into his identity.
Acton did have a free Black population in the years of and following the Revolution. John Oliver, listed in later census records (inconsistently) as a free person of color, enlisted for Revolutionary war service from Acton as early as April 1775. John Oliver lived in North Acton in an area near the town’s borders with Westford and Littleton. We are investigating whether there was a community of Black and mixed-race residents in that area. What we know about John’s life in particular was discussed in a previous blog post, and the location of his farm was discussed in another.
Another Black Revolutionary War soldier with Acton ties was Caesar Thomson who appeared in Acton’s records after the war. According to an article published by the Historical, Natural History and Library Society of South Natick in 1884 (page 100), Cesar Thompson was a slave of Samuel Welles, Jr., a Boston merchant and the largest landowner in Natick by the time of the Revolution. When Natick needed men to fill its quota of soldiers, Mr. Welles sent Cesar, whose Revolutionary War service was extensive. (See Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Volume 15, pages 631 and 668). After serving for several years, he was “disabled by a rupture” and was actually granted a pension in January 1783. (Pensions were granted to disabled soldiers, though full pension coverage for veterans was far in the future. Unfortunately, the earliest Revolutionary War pension records were lost in a fire.) As stated in the 1884 article, Natick town records contain the following notation:
“Boston, Feb. 18, 1783. This may certify, to all whom it may concern, that I this day, fully and freely give to Caesar Thompson his freedom. Witness my hand, Samuel Welles. A true copy. Attest, Abijah Stratton, Town Clerk.”
After the war, free man Cesar Thompson lived in Acton.
At the April 5, 1783 town meeting, a committee was appointed to figure out seating for the meeting house (a regular occurrence). Seating arrangements were to take into consideration age and property, using the prior two years’ tax valuations. It was voted that the committee was to “Seat the negros in the hind Seats in the Side gallery.” Clearly, despite years of fighting for political freedom and equality of “all people,” Acton was not ready to grant equality to all of its own people. (It should be noted that it was an era in which citizens paid for pews in the meetinghouse, which was not only a church, but the place were town meetings took place. Presumably, pew placement denoted social status.) In an 1835 centennial speech, Josiah Adams recounted a childhood memory that reveals how it must have felt to be one of very few people of color in the town at the time. Young Adams would watch as Quartus Hosmer climbed the stairs to the “hind seat” of the gallery, eagerly waiting for him to reappear with his queue of “graceful curls” held back by an eel-skin ribbon. (Adams, Josiah. An address delivered at Acton, July 21, 1835: being the first centennial anniversary of the organization of the town, Boston: Printed by J. T. Buckingham, 1835, page 6)
It cannot have been comfortable to be a curiosity to young Actonians and to deal with attitudes made obvious by the meeting house seating vote. Nevertheless, some residents of African descent stayed in Acton. John Oliver farmed and raised his family with his wife Abigail Richardson. (Their known children were Abijah, Joel, Fatima and Abigail. We suspect, but have not yet been able to confirm, that there were others.) Cesar Tomson/Thompson was mentioned in town records when, on January 27, 1785, he married Azubah Hendrick (both were of Acton), Azubah was admitted to the church, and their children were baptized (Joseph, Moses and Dorcas). There is no record of what happened to Azubah, but Caesar married Peggy Green in Acton on December 1, 1785. He also appeared in town records on Feb. 23, 1789 when his tax rate was abated.
While researching the Thompson family, we discovered that other Massachusetts towns’ vital records might hold clues about Acton’s Black residents. In Natick, we found two birth records (on the page before the 1801 intention of marriage for Dorcas Tomson, then living in that town):
“Moses Hendrick son of Benjamin and Zibiah Hendrick was Born in Acton September 15. 1780
Dorcas Tomson Daughter of Ceasar and Zibiah Tomson was born in Acton April 1. 1784”
In Grafton, we found a marriage intention between Polly Johns and “Moses Hendrick, ‘a native he says of Acton but now resident of Grafton,’ int[ention] Aug. 30, 1817. Colored.” Until we found these two records, we had no idea that a Black man named Moses Hendrick had been born in town.
Another discovery was that at town meeting in August 1786, the town discussed suing Peter Oliver and Philip Boston “for Refusing to maintain Lucy Willard Child agreeable to their obligation.” Though both names were associated with free people of color in nearby towns, we have not figured out exactly who these men were or what their connection was to Lucy Willard. On March 19, 1792, the town paid Simon Tuttle Jr. for assistance given to Peter Oliver.
The first full census of the United States came in 1790. Though only the heads of household were named, it gives us a more complete picture of the composition of the households in Acton. The census asked for the numbers of free white males (16 or older and under 16), free white females, slaves, and “all other free persons.” Acton had no slaves in this or later censuses. The census taker seems to have had some issues with accounting for “other free persons,” and the census scan is in places hard to read, but from what we can see, the following households had free persons of color:
The census shows six total free persons of color out of the 853 people in 1790 Acton. The seven people in John Oliver’s household were classified as white (2 males, 5 females), as were the nine members of William Cutting Jr.’s household (3 males, 6 females).
In the beginning of the 1790s, Acton worked to specify those who were not considered legal residents, a step toward defining its responsibility toward the poor. The Revolutionary War had caused economic distress for many people in the new country. There were no safety nets as we understand them today. Then as now, towns were reluctant to tax people for any expenses that could be avoided. Under the system that had been in place since the early days of the colony, towns could avoid responsibility for supporting poor people if they were not considered legal residents of the town. Formally, this meant giving people notice that they had not been granted permission to live in town and that they should leave (and therefore that they had no right to expect help from the town if they stayed). This process was called “warning out.”
From about 1767 to 1789, warning out seemed to be dying out in Massachusetts. However, a law change in 1789 led to a flurry of warnings out in Acton and elsewhere. In the 1790-1791 period, town records show that 23 households were warned out of Acton. Included were a number of Revolutionary War veterans and long-time inhabitants. John Oliver and Cesar Thomson, their wives, and their children were on the list. Both families stayed in town, as most warned-out people probably did in the 1790s. As a practical matter, if those people become indigent, assistance would still have been given them, but the town, relieved of its legal responsibility, could petition the state for reimbursement.
Available in Harvard’s Anitslavery Petitions Massachusetts Dataverse is a July 1, 1796 petition from Jonas Brooks to the Commonwealth to reimburse the inhabitants of Acton for “considerable expense in supporting Caesar Thompson a negro man, together with his wife, three small children” who were “not legally settled in said Town of Acton or in any other town in said Commonwealth that your petitioner can find - That he served as a soldier in the Continental army during the last war...” The town sent a follow-up petition for state reimbursement in 1797. As a former slave, Cesar apparently had no legal claim on Natick (despite filling its quota in the Revolutionary War) or Boston, where he might have lived before serving in the military. After the petitions, we found no more records for Caesar Thompson; whether he died in Acton or moved, we were not able to determine. We do know that his daughter had moved to Natick by 1801.
The 1800 census asked for more information than its predecessor. Only the heads of Acton households were listed, but the ages of white inhabitants were broken out more carefully. Acton’s census return had a column for the number of slaves and one for “All other persons except Indians not taxed.” With entries in that somewhat perplexingly-named column were the households of:
William Cutting Jr.’s household of seven was again listed as white. Also of note in the 1800 census is that many of the warned-out families were still in town.
Acton’s vital records show that in December 1802, Sally Oliver married Jacob Freeman. Their relationship to people of the same surnames in town is unclear (so far). Sadly, Sally and Jacob had only a short marriage marked by tragedy. Their son died on Sept. 3, 1803. Jacob died on July 9, 1804 at age 45. Acton’s death record specifies his race as negro. (In early 1805, Amos Noyes, Joseph Brabrook, and Edward Weatherbee were paid for goods delivered to Jacob, presumably during his sickness.)
1810’s Acton census had a column for “All free other persons, except Indians, not taxed.” Acton households with someone in that category were:
John Oliver’s sons’ 1810 households were classified as white. The household of Abijah Oliver had 1 male 45+, 3 females <10 and 1 female 16-25. Joel Oliver’s household had 1 male <10, 1 male 26-44, 2 females 10-15, and 1 female 26-44. William Cutting Jr. was also classified as white.
During the 1810s, town records show payments for some Black residents in need. Between 1813 and 1815, John Oliver was providing help to others, including Abijah Oliver and, when sick, “Abigal” Oliver and Sally (Oliver) Freeman. In 1811-15, John Robbins and David Barnard were reimbursed for boarding “Titus Anthony.” Later records give clues that he may have been Black (see below). (Probably relatedly, in March 1810, town meeting records mention a lawsuit by the town of Townsend against Acton “for supporting Hittey Anthony and Child.”) Acton town meeting took up Titus Anthony’s case in September 1811; unfortunately, the discussion was not reported in the extant records. In 1813, David Barnard was paid for providing for the poor and, separately, for “2 payment for the Negro” (name unspecified).
1820’s census yields more information about Black town residents. In that year’s report, “Free colored Persons” had four columns each for males and females of differing ages. Households with entries in those columns were:
1820’s total “free colored” population was listed as 17, which does not match the numbers given in the columns, so the accounting is uncertain. John Oliver’s 2-person household was listed as white. Regardless of the counting issues, there was obviously quite a community of people of color in Acton during the 1820s. Most lived in the North and East parts of town. The households of Jonathan Davis and Uriah Foster would have been near today’s Route 27 in North Acton. John Oliver’s sons Abijah and Joel eventually moved closer to East Acton; land records indicate that their father helped with financing.
In 1830, federal census takers were given forms two page-widths across that specified ages and sex of both slaves and free people of color and had a “total” column for each family that should have encouraged accurate record-taking. The only household in which free persons of color were enumerated was John Oliver’s:
John’s son Joel Oliver was listed as white, living with 5 white females. Simon Hosmer’s family no longer was listed with a free person of color. This jibes with the hypothesis that the “Quartus Hosmer” mentioned by Josiah Adams lived in the Jonathan/Simon Hosmer household. In Acton’s vital records, the handwritten register of Acton deaths for 1827 shows:
“June 30 Quartus a Blackman 61”
The Hosmer name was not given in the death record. (This entry was indexed on Ancestry.com as “Quartus Blackman,” but that is clearly an error.) In Acton’s transcribed and published Vital Records to 1850, the listing appeared under “Negroes, Etc.” That entry adds information from church records (“C. R. I.”):
“Quartus, ‘a Black man,’ June 30, 1827, a. 61 [State pauper, a. 64, C. R. I.]
A state pauper meant that the individual had no “settlement” status. (Acton could not send him or her back to another Massachusetts town for financial support, but he/she was not officially accepted as having a claim on Acton either.) By this time, if a person with no official claim on a town was in need based on age, disability, illness or poverty, he/she became, officially, a state pauper, and expenses incurred by the town would be billed to the state. Apparently, former slaves often found themselves in this position (Cesar Thompson, for example), as well as new immigrants from overseas and anyone not connected to a town by family or marriage. Quartus’ status as a state pauper means either that he was free but didn’t start off in Acton or that he had started out a slave. If we are correct that the free person of color in the Hosmer household was this Quartus, he clearly had a long relationship with the family. The available records do not give us much information about what the relationship was, but we have not found evidence that he had been enslaved by Acton Hosmers. This Quartus was too young to have been the over-16-year-old slave in the 1754 census, though slaves younger than sixteen were not reported. The 1771 tax valuation showed no Acton Hosmers with “servants for life.” He could have been freed by then or could have been enslaved elsewhere in his early years and later entered the Hosmer household as a free working person.
The 1840 census showed “free colored persons” in the households of:
The census shows the household of John Oliver, especially noted for being 92 years of age and a military pensioner, as white (1 male under 5, 1 male 5-9, 1 male 90-99, 1 female 5-9, 1 female 40-49). His son Joel Oliver’s household is also listed as white, (2 males, 30-39 and 60-69, and 2 females, 15-19 and 50-59).
During the 1840s, many in Acton were advocating for an end to slavery in general and for improvements in laws affecting the lives of Massachusetts’ Black residents. A digitized 1842 petition from Acton to allow white people legally to intermarry with other races was signed by 70 women, including Abigail Chaffin who was most likely Abigail Richardson (Oliver) Chaffin, herself of mixed-race ancestry. (Abijah Oliver’s daughter, she had married Nathan Chaffin, born in Acton to Nathan and Mary Chaffin. After that point, records always seem to have classified her as white.) Abigail Chaffin also signed two other anti-slavery petitions in 1842 ( Petition against admission of Florida as Slave State and Petition to abolish slavery in Washington, DC and territories and to end the slave trade).
Abigail Chaffin was remembered in a Chaffin family history (pages 269-270) as “one of the most remarkable women ever born in Acton, on account of the wonderful sagacity, industry and executive ability, which characterized her through the whole of her life and... together with mental and physical vigor, to a very rare age. ... Even after she was four score and ten she was able to do more for others than she needed to have done for herself.” After the death of her husband in 1878, she moved in with her son Nathan who prospered in the restaurant business in Boston. She lived in Arlington for many years, and she died in Bedford in 1911, after having “passed her last years not only in the possession of the comforts, but of the luxuries of life.”
Back in Acton, the 1850 census, for the first time, listed the names of all residents of the town. A column for race showed the following residents of color:
The race column for all other residents was left blank (including the 7-person household of Joel Oliver, Abijah’s brother). The 1850 real estate valuation for the town shows Ephraim Oliver (son of Joel) with buildings valued $375, plus 40 acres of improved land and 20 acres of unimproved land; he was living with Joel at the time. Abijah Oliver had been farming in East Acton, but obviously he was no longer able to care for himself. It was not particularly unusual for the aged, regardless of race, to need assistance.
Massachusetts took its own census in 1855. We have noticed in the past that the Acton census taker that year was particularly careful in recording full names, and the census taker noted more information about race as well:
We have not yet been able to find out where Titus Anthony Williams came from and how he ended up in Acton’s poor house. The middle name reported in the 1855 census raises the question of whether the “Titus Anthony” who was receiving assistance in the 1810s was actually the same Titus Anthony Williams who spent many years in Acton’s poor house (occupation farmer). If so, he would have been a young child when he first appeared in Acton’s records.
By the mid-1800s, Acton was changing. The arrival of the railroad brought new industry and new people to town, and events in Europe brought new immigrants who would have competed for jobs and land. Most descendants of Acton’s early Black residents eventually left Acton to find opportunities elsewhere. Occasionally, they were mentioned in later records. Sickness, disability, loss of a breadwinner, or extreme old age could change economic status. Acton’s town report of 1855-1856 shows payment to the city of Boston for the support of Elizabeth Oliver (probably the recent widow of Abijah Oliver), and to the town of Concord for the burial of two of Peter Robbin’s family, as well as to Daniel Wetherbee of Acton for goods provided to that family. (Peter Robbins had recently died. He was divorced from John Oliver’s daughter Fatima by that time; apparently, his common law wife Almira/Elmira came from Acton, though her parentage is currently unclear. She is referred to in Acton’s records as Elmira Oliver.) The 1857-58 report shows money paid to Lowell for the support of Sarah Jane (Tucker) Oliver. (She apparently married William P. Oliver and then Asa Oliver; their connections to other Acton Olivers are still being worked out). Others receiving help that year who were not living at the poor farm included Sarah Spaulding (John Oliver’s widowed granddaughter) and Elizabeth Oliver.
The 1860 Federal Census showed the following:
The 1860 census also surveyed the town’s agriculture and gave details about Ephraim Oliver’s farming operation, located at approximately 283 Great Road in East Acton. Ephraim Oliver owned 43 improved and 10 unimproved acres worth $3,000, plus $100 in farming implements, a horse, four milking cows, and fifteen other cattle. His farm produced 140 bushels of “Indian corn,” 15 bushels of oats, 40 bushels of “Irish potatoes,” 200 pounds of butter, 10 tons of hay and 5 bushels of grain seed.
Though she was not listed in the poor house in the census, Sarah (Olivers) Spaulding was listed in Acton’s 1860 death records as a pauper. She died, widowed, at age 36 on Oct. 14, 1860 and was listed as a quadroon, daughter of Abijah and Rachel (Barber) Oliver. (Abijah was married to Elizabeth Barber, so that is probably simply an error.)
The final census in this survey is the Massachusetts census of 1865. By that time, Civil War and emancipation had set enormous changes in motion. The census reported the following people of color in Acton:
All other residents were classified as white, including the five-person household of Ephraim Oliver.
We still have many questions that need answers. In the relatively helpful records of the 1860s, we found other mentions of Olivers with connections to Acton that we have not yet been able to untangle:
Researching the lives of Acton’s Black residents is an ongoing project. What has become clear from trying to list all people of African descent who lived in Acton from its earliest years to the end of the Civil War is that available records, though far from complete, do allow us to find at least some of them. The town’s vital records and censuses, the backbone of much genealogical research, are only the beginning. Though searching the columns of early censuses for people of color was helpful, we discovered inconsistency in the reporting of race that certainly understated the number of Black and mixed-race residents. Acton’s vital records only reported some of their life events. By tracing descendants, we were able to uncover new details such as Acton births recorded later in other towns. Another source was town meeting and expenditure reports that proved when people were in town and where they might have gone, especially if they provided financial assistance to others or needed it themselves.
If you are a descendant of any of Acton’s Black and mixed-race residents, have any additional information about them, can correct any information provided here, and/or know of other people who should be on our list, please contact us. We would appreciate help in bringing their stories to life.
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