Last night Sarah and I presented “Finding Phebe” to an audience of about sixty people at East Providence Library. They were a great group who expressed their emotions loud enough for us to hear them and that always encourages us.
When we go outside of Warren, we try and find some information on enslavement in the town where we are presenting since there is no place in Rhode Island where people weren’t enslaved. East Providence was founded after the end of slavery, so we went to the East Providence Historical Society site and found that the group’s headquarters were in the John Hunt House circa 1750 — East Providence was a part of Rehoboth MA at the time — so we started there; we didn’t need to go any further. When I put that name and date into ancestry.com, it presented the Will and Inventory for Mr. Hunt dated 1751. After reading the first two pages of his will, I found an all too common bequest — a human being.Primus could well have been an adult, the use of the derogatory term “boy” tells us nothing about his age. Did John Hunt own any other people? None were mentioned in the will so we looked at the inventory of property taken after his death, and we found the answer.
Listed among the livestock were “a Negro woman and her child.” Although it may be shocking to think about, it was not unusual for people to own slaves but not mention them in their wills at all, only to find them turning up in lists similar to Hunt’s inventory.
And so with the information from those probate records, coupled with the information available on the house owned by John Hunt, we can say that three enslaved people lived in John Hunt’s house in what was then Rehoboth, now East Providence. For more house details, click here.
The next step toward finding Primus and the woman and child enslaved in the Hunt house would be to look at more wills, go through Rehoboth town council records for possible emancipations or other actions involving the enslaved, and look at any family papers from that period as well as the earliest census for Massachusetts, 1790. This work can be tedious and frustrating but it is truly rewarding to find those who have been forgotten. There are folks thoughout the state happy to guide such searches. Let us know if you would like to look for those within your home town.