Cate

Cate

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in Records from 1754 – 1756

When a lifetime of slavery was more than they could bear, a small number of Little Compton slaves and indentured servants resisted by making the radical decision to run away and free themselves. Cate, though “advanced in years” was the only Little Compton woman known to do so. Her master penned this runaway notice in 1756.

Whereas Cate a Negro Woman was a servant of the late Sylvester Richmond of Dartmouth Esq: Deceasd being advanced in years takes of liberty to abscond from her present master Perez Richmond and Neglects his services. There are to forbid all persons from entertaining her as they will expose themselves to ye penalties of the law made and provided against Entertaining other mens servants, and wherever she shall come: they to whom she shall resort are desird to order her to repair home with all speed, & if she shall go out of this government into any other they to whom she shall come are desir’d to discountenance her tarrying or give information where she is if she refuses to repair home.

Runaway Slave Notice Published by Peres Richmond [1]

Cate and a man named Natt were enslaved by Colonel Silvester Richmond in the Acoaxet area. Silvester was a very successful man in part because of the labor of Natt and Cate. In his 1754 will he distributed his wealth to his heirs and created a possible path to freedom for Natt and Cate. That path proved too difficult for Cate to follow.

Also my will is & I hereby order that my Negro man named Natt shall be set free at my Decease & be at his own liberty as to his time and service Provided he procure sufficient security to save my son Peres from all loss & charge in case he shall not be able to support himself whose time I give to sd Peres & his heirs in case he fail of securing as above said but whenever he shall procure such security to be free, also In like manner I give my Negro woman Named Cate her time as I do Natts provided She get security to Peres to free him and his estate from loss she being also given to sd Peres & Heirs if she fail of security & both Natt & Cate being thus Disposed of my son Peres is to save all my other heirs from any cost about them.

Will of Colonel Silvester Richmond [2]

Silvester didn’t really free Natt and Cate. He freed them if they could raise their own freedom bond. Slave owners were required to post a substantial bond (between £50 and £100) with the town when they freed a slave as a sort of insurance. If the freed person ever became “chargeable” to the town through disability, age, or even idleness or drunkeness, the town would use the bond to provide for the person, saving tax payers the expense. Silvester did not want his heirs to shoulder the cost of Natt’s and Cate’s freedom bonds so he laid that expense on the two enslaved people as a condition for their freedom. If they could not raise the funds, they became the property of Silvester’s son Peres.[3]

Cate could not do it. For two more years she worked as a slave in Peres’ household. Finally, she could take it no longer, and in her old age, ran away. Peres advertised for her return accusing her of “neglect” and reminding his neighbors that it was illegal to entertain other men’s servants. We do not know who may have helped Cate or if she ever returned to Perez. Neither do we know any more about Natt.

Cate’s story illuminates some of the frustrations and injustices that would prompt an enslaved person to run away. It was a dangerous choice. The lack of food and shelter were real threats. Master’s posted rewards for the return of their runaways prompting not only sheriffs but regular citizens to actively seek them out and capture them. When they were returned to their master’s homes, they were certainly punished.

When Joshua Richmond wrote about his ancestor Silvester in a massive family genealogy in 1889 he recorded that Silvester’s will stated “To Nat and Kate their freedom.” That was all; a very edited version of the truth, though he did print Cate’s runaway notice. In their later local histories Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Carlton Brownell and David Patten used Joshua’s book as a source and simply reprinted “To Nat and Kate their freedom.”[4] For well over one hundred years readers of these histories were impressed with Silvester’s decency for freeing his slaves. The story changes, along with our impressions, only when we returned to its unedited version in the primary source, Silvester’s last will and testament.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.

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[1] Joshua Richmond, Photo Plate, unnumbered, appears after page 36.

[2] Will of Silvester Brownell, Bristol County Probate Records, 1754. Accessed via Ancestry.com.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joshua Bailey Richmond, The Richmond Book; David Patten, Adventures in a Remembered World (Providence: Providence Journal, c. 1950), p. 96; Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Little Compton Families; Carlton Brownell, ed., Notes on Little Compton.

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