Slavery in Colonial New England

History remembers the North as an advocate of abolitionism and for its role in the Civil War. Colonial America, however, was a different story. The first enslaved people arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (present day New York City) in 1625, and Massachusetts did not abolish slavery until 1780.

"Slaves working in 17th-century Virginia," by an unknown artist, 1670.
“Slaves working in 17th-century Virginia,” by an unknown artist, 1670.

Slavery in New England differed from the South in that large-scale plantations never formed in the North. In 1750, most enslaved people in the South lived and worked on a large tobacco or rice plantation and lived with a large group of other enslaved people. In New England, enslaved people usually lived alone or at most, with one or two others, often with the family inside their home. The person probably worked on a small farm as a domestic slave, or perhaps held a trade in an urban area like Boston.

According to a census from 1765, an estimated 5,199 black people lived in Massachusetts. Censuses counted inhabitants of Menotomy as residents of either Cambridge or Charlestown, making the exact estimate difficult. In 1765, ninety people of color lived in Cambridge and 136 in Charlestown. It should not be assumed that all of these people were slaves. The population of Menotomy during this year was around 500-600. According to Beverly Douhan, it is estimated that there were eleven black people aged 16 and over living in Menotomy. It is difficult to decipher the exact number of slaves in the area as many were referred to as “servants,” like Flora.

Due to the small populations of rural New England, people of color had no community of their own. Slave populations were demographically skewed toward men since their labor was in high demand, leaving women even more isolated. Female slaves in New England were primarily employed as domestics in households. Enslavers tasked enslaved people like Flora with menial house work, such as sweeping, laundry, looking after any children, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, as well as knitting and sewing.

A myth embedded in our society’s view of Northern slavery was that it was docile and benevolent. However, black men, women and children were cruelly treated in many ways. The end of the 17th century saw a shift in slave laws that resembled those in the South. In 1670, children of slaves could also be sold into bondage. The law did not protect slave marriages and families were frequently separated.

A law enacted in 1703 barred people of color (enslaved and free alike) from being out past 9pm. Massachusetts was a highly religious state and outlawed miscegenation. The law against mixed marriage or even sexual relations was passed in 1705. If a black man broke this law, he was to be flogged and sold out of the province. This law did not just apply to those in bondage, it also included free blacks.

Menotomy Assessor's Report, 1770.
Menotomy Assessor’s Report, 1770.

In the Vital Records of Arlington, it states that Seth Reed had a servant named Flora. She was a woman of color and worked for the Reeds for at least fourteen years. From Assessor’s Records in 1770, it reveals that Flora was actually enslaved by Seth Reed’s. She is not mentioned in any of the Reed family papers, or Seth’s will in 1783. The Reeds may have freed Flora, or sold her to another family before 1780. Vital records state that Flora lived in the town until her death in 1791. Not much else is known about her, other than that she gave birth to six children. Their birth dates were recorded, but their names are unfortunately lost to history. Flora gave birth to a son on September 4, 1763, a daughter in June 1765, another child in 1768, in 1770, on November 3, 1773 and another born in 1779. It is also unknown if Flora lived with the Reeds or was able to live in her own home with her family. The Reeds built a new home in the 1760s, but it was probably not big enough to house the entire family as well as Flora’s.

Seth was the only Reed to own a slave. His father Daniel was not wealthy enough and his children lived after Massachusetts abolished slavery. It is not clear what the family’s thoughts were on slavery. They did not mention Flora is any of the documents listed in the Fowle-Reed-Wyman collection. Did the Reeds destroy the documents relating to Flora? Was the family ashamed of their past?

Next: Daniel Reed and the Revolutionary War



Adams, Catherine, and Elizabeth H. Pleck. Love of Freedom Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
Chickering, Jesse. A Statistical View of the Populations of Massachusetts from 1765 – 1840. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846.
Douhan, Beverly. Buried Secrets of Menotomy’s Slaves. Arlington Historical Society.
Reiss, Oscar. Blacks in Colonial America. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland &, 1997.
The Acts and Resolves Public and Private of the Massachusetts Bay. Vol. 1. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1869.
Wright, Donald R. African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins through the American Revolution. Arlington, Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1990.