Seth Reed: Farmer and Slave Owner

Seth Reed was born in Woburn, MA to Daniel and Susanna Reed. His exact birthdate is unknown. One source states that Seth was born in 1709, while another states that it was actually 1705. Vital records of Arlington, MA reveal that Seth Reed died of age and dropsy on March 18, 1783 at age 80 making his birth date around 1703.

Like his father, Seth did not marry until later in life at the age of 29. He married Lydia Cutter, daughter of John and Lydia Harrington Cutter on August 5, 1732. Together, they had several children: Thomas, Samuel (1733 – 1749), Seth (1736-1749), Susanna (1739 – 1749), Daniel (1742 – 1801), Lydia (1745 – 1785), Susanna (1750 – 1753), and Hannah (1753 – 1753). Unfortunately, Seth outlived several of his children. His three eldest children, Samuel, Seth and Susanna, died in June 1749. The cause of their deaths are unknown they probably succumbed to the outbreak of influenza or pneumonia that swept the Atlantic seaboard in 1748-49. His two youngest daughters, Susanna and Hannah died young in 1753.

A militia call-up for Seth Reed, 1759.
A militia call-up for Seth Reed, 1759.

Like most men in the colonies, Seth Reed served in the local militia. In 1759, Seth trained as a soldier under the command of Captain John Hancock. He would have been in his mid-50s. Before the Revolutionary War, the militia drew its members from the local community, requiring all able-bodied men (sometimes including indentured servants and slaves) ages sixteen to sixty  to serve and equip themselves. The commander of these local troops would schedule an annual Muster Day to allow the militia to practice. However, disciplined practice occupied only a small portion of the day. Muster days usually involved celebration and ministers even complained that they resembled a carnival.

Seth Reed was an active member of society in Arlington and served in public office for several years. He served as a prudential committee man on and off between 1740 and 1767. As a prudential committee man, the town required Seth to manage the school system. Since the 17th century, most communities in New England provided tax-supported public education. In 1642, Massachusetts law stated that parents were to teach their children to “read & understand the principles of religion & capitall lawes of this country,” and to write and learn a trade. In 1647, Massachusetts established a free school system. Each district in Massachusetts hired a prudential committee man who hired teachers, repaired the schoolhouse and managed the school district.

A notice given to inhabitants of the NW Precinct in Cambridge who own real estate to be assessed, 1798.
A notice given to inhabitants of the NW Precinct in Cambridge who own real estate to be assessed, 1798.

During the same period, Seth also served as a precinct assessor. A precinct assessor would estimate the value of each person’s property, both real and personal estate, and asses their taxes. Towns in New England were responsible for collecting taxes from inhabitants as well as creating rules and regulations. In turn, towns cared for their poor, maintained roads and operated schools.

In New England, people governed themselves through town meetings. By the end of the 18th century, tax-paying men voted if they were at least twenty-one years of age. Because Seth was a tax-paying member of society, he had voting rights. Tax-paying men decided the needs of their town, chose town officers, and voted on various regulations. Although some women owned land and paid taxes, they could not vote and were not involved in town decisions.

The Old Burying Ground in Arlington, MA. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Tim Pierce.
The Old Burying Ground in Arlington, MA. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Tim Pierce.

Like most people in the 18th century, Seth and his family were religious. He became a member of the Second Parish of Cambridge (also known as Menotomy Church) on September 6, 1741. The church was consecrated in February 1735 as a meeting house and was located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Pleasant Street. The present-day Unitarian Church located at Massachusetts Avenue and Pleasant Street as well as the Old Burying Ground mark the site of the first meetinghouse. By 1739, the organization of the church was complete and the congregation chose Samuel Cooke as their pastor.  

Jason Russell House, 1941.
Jason Russell House, 1941.

The church covenant lists Seth’s wife Lydia Reed as one of its first members. Another early member of the church was Jason Russell, who was one of the men killed by the British on April 19, 1775. His home is now a museum that is owned and operated by the Arlington Historical Society.

Seth Reed, like his family before him, was a farmer. However, he accumulated more wealth than his father Daniel, and built a newer home for his family in 1762. On April 3, he wrote up a contract between “Husbandmen” Seth and Thomas Reed and “Housewright” Enoch Hamond. A housewright was someone who built and repaired houses, especially wooden ones.

Page one of the contract between Enoch Hamond and the Reed family.
Page one of the contract between Enoch Hamond and the Reed family.

This contract gives us a unique insight into the building of a house in colonial New England. Both parties were responsible for certain duties. Enoch Hamond, the builder, was responsible for finding and providing the materials needed to build the house. Hamond built the house with 12,000 bricks, clay, timber for the frame and about 3,000 boards. The contract stated that the house was to be 36′ x 18′ x 17′. Hamond laid the foundation with brick and lime. The north, lower and chamber rooms were laid with clear white pine floors. The outside of the home was “to be Borded, the Bords to be feather edged. The fore side and both ends to be clapborded.” The house had fifteen windows with eighteen squares per window. The contract also declared that the house was to be completely finished by December 1, 1762. This gave Enoch under eight months to finish the Reed family home.

As for the Reeds, the contract stated that they were to find Hamond “suitable and convenient bording and lodging” for his rank and degree during the construction of the house. The contract required the family to pay Hamond £73 6s 8d before he finished the house on December 1st. The Reeds had enough money to hire a contractor to build their new home and moved out of the house that Daniel Reed bought from John Fowle in 1707. The Fowle-Reed-Wyman home was later sold to a Wyman relative in 1775.

In addition to his new home, Seth owned a slave. Flora was a black woman, who worked for the Reeds for several years (the exact years unknown). Vital records of Arlington state that Flora was a servant for Seth and gave birth to six children (from 1765 – 1779) while working for the Reed family, so we know she was with them for at least fourteen years. An assessor’s report from 1770 confirms that Flora was not a servant; she was a slave. Unfortunately, not much else is known about Flora. She died on September 23, 1791 at age 60.

A will is an important document that gives us a window into the past. During the colonial period, the colonies adopted English inheritance law. In 1540, England enacted the Statute of Wills, allowing people to decide who would inherit their property upon their death through a will. However, a majority of the colonies rejected primogeniture (the right of the first-born male to inherit the family’s estate) and passed laws to allow younger siblings to receive shares of an estate.

Seth Reed's will, 1783
Seth Reed’s will, 1783

Seth Reed wrote his will on March 6, 1783. It included an inventory of his estate as well as a list of expenses to be paid after his death. In his will, Seth appointed his son Daniel as his executor. He left a silver tankard for Daniel, and a silver porringer each to his daughter Lydia Smith and his granddaughter Rhoda Reed. To his granddaughter Hannah Reed he left “four large silver spoones and six silver tea spoones and one pair of gold sleeve buttons.” Vital records of Arlington, MA reveal that Seth Reed died of age and dropsy on March 18, 1783 at age 80. Dropsy, now known as edema, is an abnormal accumulation of excess water, causing the swelling of soft tissues.

An inventory of Seth & Lydia's estate, 1790.
An inventory of Seth & Lydia’s estate, 1790.

An inventory of Seth’s estate reveals that he owned a home and 42 acres of pasture and woodland valued at £409 10s. His personal estate included items such as a bed, a silver tankard, silver spoons, gold sleeve buttons, several tables and desks, a large mirror, pewter plates and platters, brass candlesticks and chairs.

In 1790, appraisers inventoried Seth Reed’s estate for a second time. He had been deceased for seven years and the estate was in the possession of his widow, Lydia (Cutter) Reed. Laws at that time did not acknowledge women’s ownership of real estate, thus the appraisers kept the inventory in Seth’s name. It stated that Lydia had a dwelling house, an old mill house, as well as 42 acres of pastureland and woodland at an estimated worth of £201 6s. Her personal estate included items such as an old chest of drawers, several gowns, a gold necklace and gold sleeve buttons, a Bible, a pewter frying pan and a silver buckle for an estimated worth of £37 11s 2d.

Seth and Lydia left a large portion of their estate to their son Daniel. Like many in his family before him, Daniel was a farmer. However, Daniel was also alive during one of the most historically significant times in our nation’s history – the Revolutionary War.

Next: Slavery in Colonial New England



Cutter, Benjamin, and William Richard Cutter. A History of the Cutter Family of New England. Boston: Printed by D. Clapp & Son, 1871.
Drake, Samuel Adams. History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts: Containing Carefully Prepared Histories of Every City and Town in the County. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880.
Parker, Charles Symmes. Town of Arlington, past and Present; a Narrative of Larger Events and Important Changes in the Village Precinct and Town from 1637 to 1907,. Arlington: C.S. Parker & Son, 1907.
Putnam, Eben, ed. The Genealogical Quarterly Magazine, Devoted to Genealogy, History, Heraldry, Revolutionary and Colonial Records. Vol. 3. Burlington, VT: Research Publication Company, 1902.
Reed, Jacob Whittemore. History of the Reed Family in Europe and America. Boston, MA: J. Wilson and Son, 1861.
Vital Records of Arlington, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850. Boston: Published by the New-England Historic Genealogical Society, at the Charge of the Eddy Town-record Fund, 1904.