Experience Tobe

Experience Tobe

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in Records 1760-1774

Experience Tobe’s story is unusually well-documented and reveals a life shared by Sampson, an enslaved African-American man,  and Experience, a free Native woman. Their story touches on numerous themes that impacted the lives of people of color in colonial Little Compton and throughout New England: the pursuit of freedom, concepts of race, military service, epidemics, poverty, debt, town-oversight, indenture, injustice and a right to a voice in the colonial courts. Sampson and Experience (also known as Experance or Exe) show us the complicated and changing nature of the lives of enslaved people, free people of color and indentured servants in Little Compton as well as the role played by the Little Compton Town Council, a role that was both protective and controlling.[1]

Sampson was born on May 27, 1720 into the family of Nathaniel Church. Nathaniel sold the boy for £18 to his cousin and fellow Little Compton farmer William Shaw when Sampson was just nineteen months old.[2] It was not unusual for slave-owning families to take very young enslaved children into their households. A small number of people enslaved in New England wrote about their time as children in their masters’ families. They remember being raised very much like the white children in the family for the first several years of life, wearing the same clothes and eating the same foods, sleeping in cribs in their mistresses’ room, learning their letters and reading a little bit of the Bible. Things changed as the children grew older. The enslaved children knew they were different from the family’s white children and simply “did not expect as much.”[3]  Masters were not attempting to raise substitute or additional children, they were skillfully training obedient servants drilled in the rules and operations of a specific household since birth.[4]

As soon as he was old enough Sampson joined the men and boys working on the Shaw family farm, caring for livestock, tending crops and moving the field stones that cropped up every spring. As an adult he married and started a family of his own. As an adult Sampson negotiated with William for his freedom. The two men came to terms, and William visited the home of Fobes Little to ask him to write the agreement down. “Sampson obliged to pay his master 150£ Old Tenor and when so fulfilled then said Shaw promised to give him his freedom and to give bonds to the town as the law directs.”[5] Sampson’s freedom, however, would be conditional. Their contract stipulated that “Sampson’s master obliged him to Digg his garden for him as long as he should live and make his Baskets and Brooms.”[6] Even if Sampson could somehow raise £150 he would never be completely free of William Shaw.

Sampson saved the money that he earned working for other white families during his time off and perhaps by selling the baskets and brooms he made. His wife Experience Tobe helped him as did their children. The couple lived near the Shaw farm on Shaw Road in what town documents described as a “wigwam.” By virtue of their mother’s freedom, their two daughters, Dorothy and Anne were also born free.[7]

Sampson’s financial situation improved considerably near the end of 1760 when he was paid £11 for his work as “soldier in his Majesties Service ye year past.”[8] Like other enslaved men, Sampson fought as a soldier in the Colonial Army during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). It was during this service that Sampson and his fellow soldier Lovitt Briggs, a white man, contracted small-pox and brought the disease back to their families in Little Compton.

The Town Council became aware of the infection in late December 1760 and sprang into action to care for the sick, and even more importantly, stop the spread of the smallpox. The Council ordered William Shaw and his son Israel to have “oversight” of Sampson’s family and to provide for their needs until the “danger was over.” In ordinary circumstances the Shaws would not have been responsible for their slave’s free wife and children but in this emergency the Town Council decided otherwise. The Council ordered William and Israel Shaw and Aaron Wilbour to physically guard Sampson and Experience’s house to prevent them from leaving or other unauthorized people from visiting. When it became clear that others, including Lovitt Briggs, were also sick, the town established a “Pest House” to serve as a temporary hospital. William Jameson and Thomas Church removed Sampson, Exe and their daughters from their wigwam home and brought them to the Pest House in December.

In January the Council ordered the Town Sergeant to provide some “suitable Black person either Indeon or Negro Woman for a nurse for ye black people that are sick with ye small pox.” The racial descriptions used to describe the participants throughout this incident help shed light on the meanings of these words in 1760 Little Compton. In every document Sampson is described as a “Negro” which meant a person of African origin or appearance. Sampson is, however, included as one of “ye black people” in need of nursing. Experience Tobe is described in different records as either an “Indian Woman,” a “Sqaw,” or a “Black Person” or “Black Woman.” Their children are called “black children.” The Council’s request for a “sutable Black person” tells us that at the time “Black” could mean either Indian, African or mixed race, and that it was much more suitable for “black people” with an infectious disease to be cared for by people of color than by white people.

On February 3, 1761 the Council decided that the danger was passed and all the men standing guard were discharged from their duties. However, dealing with the financial ramifications of the outbreak had only just begun.[9] The Council calculated the cost of caring for Sampson and his family to be £167, more than the price of his freedom. The cost of Lovitt Briggs’ care was £445.[10] In the months that followed and even more than a year later, the Council was still paying bills submitted by people who played a part in the care of the sick. Free people like Pheby Shaw were paid for their time spent caring for the sick. Masters like Thomas Bailey were paid for the time their slaves, including Prince Bailey, spent as nurses. White men were paid for their oversight, and neighbors were paid for the use of their blankets and beds. Most interestingly, William Briggs was paid for his “cleansing” of Sampson and Experience’s property.[11] Neighbors may have cared for the sick out of the goodness of their hearts, but charity had its limits. The almost one dozen people involved in the incident who provided care and provisions requested and received payment for their time and trouble from the town of Little Compton.

During her family’s crisis, Experience was not able to pay their daily expenses and so became “chargeable to” or dependent on the town. As it did in many cases, the town took action to minimize or even recover some of its costs. The Council ordered the couple’s two girls, Dorothy and Anne, “bound out” or forcibly indentured until the age of eighteen so that the town would not be financially responsible for their care. The council referred to the girls by their mother’s last name, Tobe. Dorothy was indentured to Jeremiah Wilcox and Anne to Oliver Hilliard, a tavern keeper. The girls were obligated to work for their keep, and Jeremiah and Oliver were obligated to provide them with food and shelter, to teach them to read English, and to provide them with a new set of clothing and a Bible when they reached the end of their indenture. [12]

As a free white man with greater resources to repay his debts, Lovitt Briggs and any children he may have had at the time were not subjected to the same treatment by the Town Council following his illness. Ironically however, Lovitt’s son Jeremiah did find himself indentured by order of the town almost thirty years later as an “Idle, Indegint Person”.[13] No matter what a person’s race or age may have been, town-ordered indentures were the solution when a physically-capable person became a financial burden on the town. 

Experience recovered from the smallpox, and it appears that Sampson did as well, as there are no funeral expenses listed in the records, but their ordeal was not over. When Councilman Thomas Church removed the family from their home to the Pest House he ordered, “A Sqaw called Exe the wife of said Negro to bring all the money out and shee brought him sumthing out of the wigwam” and gave it to her husband Sampson. Later Thomas ordered Noah Stoddard who was supervising the Pest House “to take the money the Negro man Sampson had with him …to air clens…sometime after…William Shaw came and demanded [it and Stoddard refused.] Thomas Church, Esq. one of the athority came and received it.”

The idea that money infected with smallpox (and Sampson and Experience’s other belongings) needed to be cleaned fits well with the town’s fear of the spread of the disease, but Experience and Sampson fully expected the money to be returned, and it was not. As a town official Thomas Church may have kept the money because he felt the town had a right to cover its expenses, but Thomas never turned the money over to the town. He appears to have kept it for himself.

Sampson, Experience and William Shaw took the matter to court, and in 1763 the case was heard in Newport. William challenged Thomas in an action to recover four 30 shilling bills (the equivalent of 60 pounds) “received by the hand of his Negro Sampson.” It is noteworthy that William sued Thomas personally and not the town, evidence that the money never found its way into the town treasury. Experience produced a receipt that showed Church had taken the money “ordered out of [her] hands to be cleansed of the small pox,” and William won the case even after Thomas appealed. During the case, Sampson and William’s emancipation agreement was heard as evidence, an indication that the money was earmarked to help pay for Sampson’s freedom.[14]

Receipt provided by Experience Tobe during William Shaw’s court case against Thomas Church.

In 1774 Experience appears in the census as the head of one of the only two Indian households in Little Compton. At that time she was living with three women over the age of sixteen, and a boy and two girls under sixteen, perhaps her daughters and grandchildren. There are no adult males in Experience’s household and no enslaved men in William Shaw’s.[15] Sampson, who would have been in his fifties by this time, had likely passed away, but his children and grandchildren carried on as new generations of Little Compton residents. His daughter Dorothy may be the Dolly Sampson listed as the head of a household of two free people of color in the 1790 census.[16]

Despite Sampson’s status as a slave, he and his wife Experience Tobe created a home and a family in Little Compton. At times their lives were turned upside down by forces they found difficult or impossible to control – military service, serious illness, the inability to pay their debts, the theft of their savings and the town-ordered indenture of their children. In many ways their lives paralleled that of Lovitt Briggs, a white man, who also served, became ill, was indebted to the town, and had a child indentured by town order. As similar as their lives may have been, Sampson’s enslavement was an obstacle that made his experiences much more challenging.

While Lovitt Briggs, a white man, was raised in a large extended family living on a farm that was a lifelong source of shelter and income, Sampson was sold as a toddler and could have been resold again at any moment. His parents had little to share with him, certainly not a farm and not even a last name. Though Lovitt’s expenses during his illness were almost three times as much as Sampson’s, he is not listed in any record as chargeable to the town. Lovitt had resources that kept his family free of forced indenture during his illness. The town believed that Lovitt could find a way to pay while Sampson and Exe could not. Lovitt was also able to keep his sickness and debt far more private, out of the town records, than Sampson and Exe were able to do.

In court it is William Shaw, another white man, who brings suit against the powerful Thomas Church, not Sampson nor Experience, not because it would have been impossible for them to do so, but because it was so much easier for William. Sampson spent most of his adult life working extra hours and saving every penny to buy his freedom, something Lovitt and William already had at birth. If Sampson succeeded and actually purchased his freedom, it was still only a partial freedom. He would be obligated to his master in some ways for the rest of his life. His status as a slave could not be completely overcome, and it shadowed and complicated every aspect of his life, even those that were strikingly like his white neighbors.

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] See The Index of Enslaved and Indentured People for numerous primary sources relating to Sampson Shaw, Experience Tobe and their daughters.

[2] Jane Fletcher Fiske, Gleanings from Newport Court Files, (Self Published: 1998) Date of Record-1763, Item # 962.

If the date on the sales receipt presented in Fiske is correct, William Shaw would have been just 10 years old when he purchased Sampson according to Shaw’s birth date in Little Compton Families. This is very strange. It is also strange that Sampson would have been sixty-two years old when he received his wages for military service. A transcription mistake in the date of the sales receipt, or some other incorrectly recorded date, would explain some of these issues. A line in the original document indicates that the sale took place in the seventh year of the reign of King George (crowned in 1714). As such the bill of sale would have been written in 1721, a date that fits much better with the ages of the men involved.

[3] William D. Piersen, Black Yankees, The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England, (The University of Massachusetts Press), 1988, p.33.

[4] For an excellent explanation of “Family Slavery” and the purchase of young children please see Piersen, p. 25-36.

[5] Fiske, Item # 962.

For a thorough explanation of conditional or half freedoms see:

Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 57-8.

[6] Fiske, Item # 962.

[7] Fiske, Item # 962.

[8] Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 1, 297

[9] Little Council Town Council and Probate Book 1, 296.

[10] Little Council Town Council and Probate Book 1, 297.

[11] Town Meeting Record, June 12 1762, Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol. 1, 79.

[12] Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 1, 300.

[13] Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 3, 175.

[14] Fiske, Item # 962.

[15] LCTCP Book 2 pg. 83-4

[16] 1790 Federal Census, Little Compton, RI

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