Parting Ways: An 18th Century Settlement of Freedpeople in Plymouth
African American Life In Slavery and Freedom in Plymouth County; Atlantic Slavery; Judicial Abolition in Massachusetts; The World of Parting Ways
[Readers, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I thought I would take a step back and focus on a significant historical site in Plymouth: Parting Ways, on Plympton Street (Rt. 80), near the Kingston line. Later this week, I will focus on the excellent historical work being done by Wayne Tucker, who has been doing pioneering research via his Eleven Names Project, which is also on Substack, on slavery in Plymouth County; I’d like to give Mr. Tucker fuller treatment later this week, and focus on the historical life of African Americans locally on this important holiday. — Ed.]
Parting Ways, on what is today Massachusetts Rt. 80, was a thriving community on the outskirts of Plymouth, founded after the Revolution by free African Americans who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War. In the aftermath of, and in part as a result of their service in that war, the four men and their families who founded the community — Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin, Plato Turner, and Quamony Quash — established, in a real and material way, their own liberty and independence, and formed one of the most important free African American communities in early Plymouth County.
( The graves of Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin, Plato Turner, and Quamony Quash, at Parting Ways, January, 2023; photo credit — J. Benjamin Cronin )
( A view of the Parting Ways Cemetery, January, 2023; photo credit — J. Benjamin Cronin )
Before we look at the particular, it is important to examine the general. While many of us may associate slavery with the Southern United States, the reality is that slavery was an Atlantic-wide phenomenon between the 15th and the 19th centuries, from St. Louis du Senegal to St. Louis, Missouri; from Newport, Rhode Island, to Liverpool England; from Antigua to Brazil and the Mississippi Delta, to the mills of Lowell and Lawrence.1
In our region, slavery is first attested in the 17th century; the first enslaved people we find in the historical record, to my knowledge, of our towns, are in the 1670s, in the estate of Thomas Willett, of Scituate.2
The New England Colonies, like the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), were what historians call “societies with slavery,” rather than “slave societies,” which dominated the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South. Nevertheless, slavery was an inescapable reality in early New England, where wealthy merchants and other high status individuals frequently held slaves who worked as household and personal servants. Slavery was profitable for New England merchants and sea captains: Newport, Rhode Island, was the third-largest slave-trading port in the British Atlantic, after Liverpool and Bristol, England.
At the same time, free African American communities likewise established themselves in New England. The maritime economy, in particular, was a space where working people of widely diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds found themselves laboring side by side, often under conditions of extraordinary danger and difficulty, and African-descended people were disproportionately represented in these populations in the early modern period.
In Massachusetts, the revolutionary upheaval of the last third of the 18th century ultimately resulted in the judicial abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth, which gave great impetus to the birth of free African American communities throughout the state, from the Berkshires to Cape Cod Bay, including at Parting Ways.
Four court cases were critical in effecting abolition in the Commonwealth. The first, Brom and Bet v. Ashley, was brought in 1781, concerning events in Sheffield, in Berkshire County, by Elizabeth Freeman, who was a slave in the household of John Ashley, a prominent local notable. According to the 19th century New England novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick, daughter of Freeman’s attorney (and later U.S. Senator) Theodore Sedgwick, it was upon hearing the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution’s guarantee of freedom and equality3 that Elizabeth Freeman (she took on her surname after she obtained her liberty) argued that the law applied to her, too, and sued John Ashley for her freedom.
Her Attorney, Theodore Sedgwick, turned for help to prominent early American lawyer Tapping Reeve; together, they argued in a 1781 trial in Great Barrington that Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution applied to everyone, and that it effectively abolished slavery in the new, republican Commonwealth (though fighting had largely left New England by this point, the Revolutionary War was ongoing; the Peace of Paris would not be signed until 1783). Elizabeth Freeman had achieved her own freedom, and struck a blow for that of thousands, indeed, millions, of others.
Three cases involving Quock Walker, of Worcester County, and his quest for liberty —Walker v. Jennison, Jennison v. Caldwell, and Commonwealth v. Jennison — came before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in this same decade. Chief Justice William Cushing, of Scituate (later one of the first Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court), said the following, as part of his instructions to the jury in the 1783 case Commonwealth v. Jennison; slavery, he told the jurors,
(it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage – a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or … features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal – and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property – and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature….4
Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin, Plato Turner, and Quamony Quash all fought in the Revolutionary War. At least three, and possibly all four (Howe’s status is somewhat uncertain) were enslaved prior to the Revolution. According to historian Dr. Patrick Brown, local tradition holds that it was widely understood that when the Plymouth Town Meeting voted, in March, 1792, to grant 93 acres to any who could clear it within three years near the crossroads, it was in recompense for the service of the four men in the recent war, and that their houses had already been built.
( The snowy pine barrens forest at Parting Ways; photo credit — J. Benjamin Cronin. )
Moreover, Dr. Brown notes that the sandy soil of the Parting Ways area already harbored several squatters, and that though a difficult existence, it provided an important space of liberty and independence for these African Americans in early republican Plymouth County. In fact, Dr. Brown quotes Dr. Karen Hutchins-Keim, an archaeologist who has studied the Parting Ways site; Dr. Hutchins-Keim noted that in the 1790 Census, there were 54 African-Americans living in Plymouth; the 13 African-Americans who lived at Parting Ways were the only ones living independently of white households (many slaves had their legal servitude transformed into indenturesb after the Freeman and Walker decisions; substantive freedom was still not available to all).5
Parting Ways continued in existence, not only through the 19th century, but even into the earliest years of the 20th century. In the 1970s, and beyond, archaeological investigations, starting with seminal work by Dr. James Deetz, of Brown University, have offered glimpses of the social world and the everyday life of the free African American inhabitants of Parting Ways. Dr. Deetz in particular argued that the archaeological finds at Parting Ways demonstrated the persistence of African lifeways: for instance, ceramic jars were found at Parting Ways that bear remarkable similarity to the “tamarind jars” — used to store tamarinds — of West Africa. Likewise, some of the houses built by African Americans are arranged in spatially quite distinct ways from the nearby Anglo-American houses, in arrangements that seem to bear something in common with both the Low Country South and West Africa.6
Taken as a whole, it is clear that the Parting Ways community formed a vital space of legal and economic independence for the Freedpeople of Plymouth County in the early republican period. Over the course of five centuries — the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st — African Americans have called our region home, have fought and bled for it, have contributed vitally to its fabric, its institutions and culture.
It is well, then, for us to reflect on this day on the long struggles for racial equality in both the past and the present, nationally, regionally, and locally; and the continuing effort “to form a more perfect union” — one that truly extends liberty and justice to every inhabitant of our land.
Here is wishing all of you a peaceful, restorative, and reflective Martin Luther King Day.
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Beginning with the very first journeys of the Iberian nations down the coast of West Africa; continuing through the era of contact and the beginning of what Historians call “the Columbian Exchange”; and continuing through the periods of imperial rivalry by European powers on all sides of the ocean; through the era of Revolutions and the rise of independent states in the Americas; and through the era of the American Civil War, and in Brazil, up through the latter part of the 19th century, slavery formed a critical part of the economy of the entire Atlantic basin, from the sugar fields of Jamaica and St. Domingue (Haiti), to the cotton fields of Georgia and the rice plantations of the Carolinas, to the rum distilleries of Medford and the textile factories of Lowell and both Manchesters (England, and New Hampshire), to the financial centers, places like Amsterdam, London, Paris, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond, that organized the global economy of the early modern world.
See the Pilgrim Hall Museum, here: (https://www.pilgrimhall.org/long_road_to_freedom.htm)
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
William Cushing, “Instructions to the Jury in the Quock Walker Case,” Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Nathaniel Jennison (1783).
Over the course of the ensuing two decades, abolitionist sentiment spread not only in Massachusetts, but throughout the revolutionary Atlantic world. Many states, especially in the Mid-Atlantic, enacted gradual abolition laws. Likewise, it was in this period that the abolitionist William Wilberforce began his successful campaigning in Britain, including in Parliament, against slavery; and even some southerners in places like Virginia thought that slavery might be on its way to a gradual, natural death. The British and the US both outlawed the international slave trade in this period. Historian Leon Litwack (I believe) has called this “the first abolition.”
It was only the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the development of extensive cotton agriculture in the lands, recently conquered from Native nations (particularly Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and others), of the Old Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana), that set this historical tide running in the other direction. Indeed, by 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, the lower South saw the emergence of the beginning of the “King Cotton” regime, which brought almost astronomical amounts of wealth and power to a slave-owning aristocracy.
It was only the US Civil War that was able to decisively defeat that aristocracy and legally disestablish slavery in the United States.
Karen A. Hutchins-Keim, “Parting Ways Revisited: Archaeology at a Nineteenth-Century African-American Community in Plymouth, Massachusetts,” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology & Heritage, Vol. 4 No. 2, July, 2015, 115-142; as quoted by Brown.
See this selection from Deetz here: http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/parting.html