In this first history of slavery in western
Massachusetts in colonial times, Robert H. Romer demonstrates that
slavery was pervasive in the Pioneer Valley in the 1700s, where many of
the ministers and other “important people” owned black slaves. To show
the role of slavery in the valley, Professor Romer presents a “snapshot”
of slavery, choosing a moment (1752) and a place (the main street of
Deerfield) to present detailed information about the slaves who lived in
that place at that time – and their owners. Working largely from
original sources – wills, probate inventories, church records, and
merchants’ account books – he shows that slavery was much more
significant than had previously been thought. Some twenty-five slaves
belonging to fifteen different owners lived on that mile-long street in
1752. He emphasizes that these were individuals, some born in Africa,
some born as slaves in New England, forced to live their lives as
property, always subject to being sold away at the whim of an owner.
Deerfield is used simply as an example – slavery was pervasive throughout the valley. In other chapters he treats – in less detail – other towns in the valley. He also gives a brief history of slavery in Massachusetts, from its beginnings in the 1630s until its gradual end in the final decades of the 1700s and then discusses how in the following centuries New Englanders for the most part managed to forget that slavery had ever existed here.
His work brings out of obscurity the many black slaves who lived in the valley, the invisible men and women of our colonial past.