Fighting Back Stories of the Enslaved in a New England Town

Although slave dealers had the advantage over their captives, there were reports of enslaved people fighting back on the long voyage from Africa. Even after they were sold and forced to work for their owners, the enslaved found ways to try to gain their freedom, such as running away or using the courts to compel their owners to free them. It took courage to do these things; if the attempt failed, the owner might have had them whipped or even put to death.

Captives Revolt on the Voyage from Africa

In 1789, six years after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, William Fairfield of Salem wrote to his mother about a revolt of the African captives on board a slave ship captained by his father. William told the story of 35 Africans who battled the crew with weapons—swords, axes, and pistols—they had found on board. The captain of the ship, William Fairfield’s father (also named William), was killed, as were three African men; captives and crew were wounded. At the end of the fight, the crew confined the captives once again, and continued on their way to Cayenne, French Guiana, in South America, where the Africans were sold.

William Fairfield’s Letter About a Slave Revolt

Cayenne, April 23, 1789. Honour’d Parent: I take this Opportunity to write Unto you to let you know of a very bad accident that Happen’d on our late passage from Cape Mount, on the Coast of Africa . . . we sail’d . . . with 35 Slaves on bord [13 days into the voyage] the Slaves Rised upon us, At half past seven, my Sir and all hands being Forehead Except the Man at the helm and my self, three of the Slaves took Possession of the Caben, and two upon the quarter Deck, them in the Caben took Possession of the fier Arms, and them on the quarter Deck with the Ax and Cutlash and other Weapons, them in the Caben, handed up Pistels to them on the Quarter Deck. One of them fired and killed my honoured Sir, and still we strove for to subdue them. And then we got on the quarter Deck and killed two of them . . . . There was a . . . passenger on bord that Could speak the tongue . . . and we called them up and one came up, and he cal’d the other . . . we put them in Irons and Chained them . . . . we have sold part of the slaves.”

Running Away

Another way of fighting back was for an enslaved person to run away, as illustrated in this advertisement for Chester, a runaway, from the Essex Gazette in 1773.

Runaway Advertisement, 1773 Essex Gazette

Manchester, in Essex County, Massachusetts Bay, June 5, 1773. RAN away from the Subscriber at Manchester Yesterday, a Negro Man named Chester, alias Titus, formerly Mr. Thomas Jaques’s Runaway, about 30 Years of Age, 5 Feet 9 Inches high, well limb’d, a stammering Speech, and one or more of his Toes partly lost by Frost. Had on when he went away, a brown colour’d all-wool Coat, red half-thick Jacket, white Trowsers, mill’d Cap, and check'd woolen Shirt. Whoever shall take up said Runaway, and return him to his said Master at Manchester . . . shall have SIX DOLLARS Reward . . . He has with him a false Pass or Bill of Sale. N. B. All Masters of Vessels and others are cautioned against harbouring or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of Law. JOHN LEE”

The Story of Juno Larcom

Beginning in the 1760s, the idea of going through the courts to require owners to free their enslaved circulated among African Americans. A number of enslaved people in Massachusetts, including Beverly resident Juno Larcom, sued their owners in order to get their freedom.

Juno Larcom (c. 1724–1816) was born to a Native American mother and an African-American father. Her mother was captured in North Carolina and brought to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she was purchased by Captain Henry Herrick of Beverly. When Mary, Captain Herrick’s daughter, married a prosperous farmer, Thomas West in 1731, 7-year-old Juno went with her mistress to serve her.

Mary’s father remained Juno’s owner (even after West died and Mary wed her second husband David Larcom in 1751) until his death in 1755. In his will, Herrick bequeathed Mary “thirteen Pounds, six Shillings & eight pence worth of my Household Goods, with a Negro Girl now living with her named Juno.” According to probate court documents of the time, it was not unusual for owners of enslaved people to will the enslaved to their beneficiaries, even to their daughters. Nevertheless, according to the laws at that time, Mary’s property—Juno—became the property of her husband, David Larcom.

In about 1756, Juno married Jethro Thistle, who was enslaved by a neighboring family. Juno and Jethro had 12 children; only one died in childhood. Between Juno’s family and the Larcom family, there may have been as many as 26 people who lived on the Larcom farm.

The Larcom Farm

Sketch of the original Larcom farm where Juno and her children lived until 1775. We don’t know if Juno lived in the main house or in a separate dwelling. The farm was located near what is now West Beach in Beverly Farms.

First Parish Church in Beverly

Juno Larcom, her husband, Jethro Thistle, and their children were members of the congregation of the First Parish Church, which they attended in this building until the construction of the current building in 1770.

Baptismal Records of Juno and Jethro from the First Parish Church

In baptismal documents from the First Parish Church, two entries record the baptism of “Jethro, a negro man, Servant of Jeoffry Thistle” on April 25, 1756 and of “Juno, a negro woman, Servant of David Larcom” on May 9, 1756.

The Breakup of Juno Larcom’s Family

Jethro, Juno’s husband, was sold in 1763 to Ebenezer Ellingwood and again in 1773 to Josiah Lovett, both of Beverly. He remained in Beverly until 1777, when he joined the Continental Army to fight against the British. See Section 3, “Three Soldiers and a Sailor,” for an account of Jethro Thistle’s experience as a private in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

One of Juno and Jethro’s sons, Cesar, was sold when he was 17 to Thomas Davis, a wealthy Beverly merchant, who paid 40 pounds for him. Sixteen years later, David Larcom sold two more of their children: Reuben, age 12, was sold to wealthy Beverly farmer James Thistle; Flora, about 14, was sold to a man from New York.

Bill of Sale for Juno Larcom’s 12-year-old son, Reuben Larcom, from 1773

Reuben, Juno and Jethro’s 12-year-old son, was sold to James Thistle in 1773 for more than 40 British pounds.

I do hereby covenant with the said James Thistle that I am the Lawful Owner of the said Reuben, and that I have good Right and Lawful Authority to sell him to the said James Thistle and that I will Warrant and defend the said Reuben to the said James Thistle his heirs and assigns Forever against the Lawful Claims and Demands of all persons in witness whereof I have hereto sett my hand and seal the sixth day of April Anno Domini 1773”

Juno Larcom Makes a Stand

The breakup of Juno’s family and the prospect of more of her children being sold seems to have prompted her to take the unusual step of taking David Larcom to court. She charged him with “trespass and assault,” stating that she and her family were “seized with Force of Arms & imprisonment kept in Slavery against her will.” If Juno’s lawsuit succeeded, there was no way to be sure that they could find work to support themselves as free people. If it failed, she would have had to continue working for a man she had charged with attacking her, and enslaving both her and her family. Juno’s case was put before the Essex County Court in Salem in July of 1774 and heard in November of that same year.

Juno Larcom’s Petition from November 1774

Please your honor My Mother Come to Capt Hinry Herrick fifty odd year a goe and my Mother was an injun Woman. She Come from ronok in North Carlina my mistress tells me and other people and I have served her 46 year and a Bove and my Master Larcom has sold two or three of my Children . . . and now I am oneasy By reason of selling my children and now jentlemen of the jury and jujes judge ye Weather or noe I hadent ort to Be set at Liberty.”

Juno Larcom Claims Her Freedom

For the next months, Juno Larcom and her children were forced to wait for the court to decide their fate. Then, in April 1775, David Larcom died. As a result, the court decided to dismiss Juno’s lawsuit without a finding, leaving Juno as the property of the Larcoms.

According to the Essex County Probate Records of David Larcom’s estate, some time between 1775 to 1779, Juno did something extremely unusual—she “claim’d their freedom.” She declared herself and her children free. Mary Larcom (David Larcom’s widow) went along with this, absorbing the loss of 100 pounds to her wealth, the amount listed as their value in the David Larcom estate documents.

Juno and her family eventually moved to a small house not far from the Larcom farm. They earned a living by weaving, doing laundry, and working in the fishing industry. Records show that all of Juno’s children with her husband, Jethro Thistle, used the Larcom name until they claimed their freedom. After that, some of the family used the surname “Freeman.” Juno herself used the name “Juno Freeman” in the 1790 Census of the United States, but went back to using “Larcom” in her later years.

Earning a Living

A receipt from 1779 to 1788 listing payments that Juno Larcom received from Israel Woodbury reveals how Juno earned a living after she declared herself and her family free. She did laundry, which entailed “whitening” or bleaching cloth and she did textile work, which involved spinning, “doubling,” and twisting yarn, and then weaving the yarn into fabric.

To explore the lives of four enslaved men who went to war against the British, click below to go to the next section, “Three Soldiers and a Privateer.”

This exhibit is supported in part by a grant from the Beverly Cultural Council, a local agency that is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. https://massculturalcouncil.org