Jane

Jane

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Documents suggest c. 1725 – c. 1785

Jane – an imagined portrait by Dora Atwater Millikin, 2016. LCHS Collection.

Also my will further is that if my Negro woman Jane after my decease should want to be sold my Executor may dispose of her and to bye another for the use of the family until my son Benjamin comes to the age of twenty one year and then to be his.

                                                                     Thomas Church, Last Will & Testament, 1746 [1]

                                                              

The threat of sale hung over each of the 250 men, women and children enslaved in Little Compton, Rhode Island from 1676 until 1816, but for one woman, named Jane, her potential sale meant something very different. In Jane’s case the decision to be sold, or not, was her own. 

Jane was the only person enslaved by Thomas Church at the time of his death in 1746. She served Thomas, his third wife Sarah Horswell and Thomas’ nine surviving children on their 120 acre farm on Little Compton’s Great West Road.[2] Thomas’ father Colonel Benjamin Church, a key military leader in King Philip’s War, purchased the land with the town’s other First Proprietors from the Sakonnet Indians in 1673. Benjamin was the first white man to begin to establish his plantation at Sakonnet.[3]

Jane performed a myriad of household and farmyard chores for the Church family and helped the female members of the family process the wool from Thomas’ sheep. If Jane chose to be sold, Thomas’ will ordered that she be replaced. Her work within the family was far too important to do without.

Thomas’ offer to give Jane the choice to be sold is unique in all of Little Compton’s records. In one stroke Thomas recognized Jane as both person and property, a woman capable of making a life-changing decision for herself, and at the same time his personal belonging, easily “disposed” of and just as easily replaced.

Jane’s choice raises many questions about her role in the Church household. Why would a young woman want to be sold after her elderly master’s death? Why did Thomas give the choice to Jane and not to his wife Sarah or his children? There are multiple possibilities. Jane may have been being abused by someone in the household, and Thomas was giving her a chance to escape. Jane may have had parents, or a husband, or children living in a different household and was hoping to be sold to that master. Jane may also have longed to leave the rural isolation of Little Compton for the excitement of nearby Newport, Rhode Island. The truth may always remain somewhat hidden, but a new look at the historic record steers us in the right direction. A handful of primary source documents scattered in Little Compton, Dighton, Massachusetts and Newport bring us closer to Jane’s truth.

Jane chose not to be sold.

Whatever the ties were that bound her to the Church family and her home in Little Compton, they were stronger than the forces tempting her to leave. After Thomas’ death Jane stayed with her mistress Sarah and the four youngest Church children, Mary, Thomas, Benjamin and Mercy. The elder Thomas had ordered that if Jane chose to stay with the family, his youngest son Benjamin would become her master on his twenty-first birthday. Benjamin was only fourteen when his father died and so could not yet legally own property. Benjamin petitioned the Town Council to allow his mother to be his guardian. As her son’s guardian, Sarah remained Jane’s legal mistress for the next three years, until Benjamin passed away in 1749 at the age of seventeen, and Jane changed hands again.[4] Now Benjamin’s older brother, the Church’s only surviving son and their fifth boy to be named Thomas, became Jane’s next and final owner. He was then twenty-two years old, recently married, and finally able to take possession of all the property he inherited from his father. Property that included Jane and a large “neck farm” at Sakonnet Point.[5]

Young Thomas established a household at Sakonnet with his first wife Ruth Bailey, and later his second wife the widow Mary Richmond Ware of Dighton. Between 1748 and 1777 Thomas fathered a total of seventeen children, and Jane would have helped care for them all. A 1774 census of Little Compton shows that Thomas Church presided over the largest household in Little Compton with a total of twenty-one members, two of whom were “Indian” women and three of whom were “black.”

With each addition to the household Jane continued to serve the Churches, but there was more to her life than just service. One of the “black” people in the Church household was Jane’s young son Caesar. Thomas Church’s farm adjoined that of Thomas Bailey on Warren’s Point. The Baileys, perhaps the wealthiest family in Little Compton at the time, owned three enslaved people, one of whom was named Prince. Prince and Jane became a couple and started a family. Their son Caesar was born around 1760 and may have had brothers and sisters who do not appear in the historic record. By law the children of a female slave became the property of the woman’s master. Any children Prince and Jane may have had together would have been the property of Thomas Church – his to keep, sell or give away as he saw fit.

Prince appears just once in Little Compton’s historic records. The minutes of a 1760 Town Council meeting show that Prince served as a nurse for a small group of enslaved and free people of color suffering from small pox. The town paid Thomas Bailey £3 per day for the dangerous work Prince undertook.[6] Thomas Church was one of the town officials who confined the small pox victims to the town’s “pest house” and recruited “black” nurses like Prince to care for them until the danger of a town-wide epidemic had passed.[7]

Thomas Church was very politically active in both Little Compton and the surrounding regions, like his father Thomas and his grandfather Benjamin before him. During the Revolution he served in a variety of capacities and suffered greatly for his patriotism, losing three sons in the war and enduring the burning of his Sakonnet Point home by a raiding party of English soldiers from nearby Newport. After loading a few household possessions on an ox cart, Thomas fled with his family, including Jane and Caesar, to the safety of Dighton, Massachusetts thirty miles to the north on the Taunton River and close to his wife Mary’s family.[8]

Jane, Caesar and Prince were now separated, perhaps for the first time, but not for long. On September 19, 1778 “Prince Baley of Little Compton a Negroman & Jane a negrowoman belonging to Thomas Church of Dighton” entered their intention of marriage with Dighton’s town officials.[9] After years of what was essentially a common law marriage, the couple chose to be married in the English fashion and followed the custom of the day by registering their intention. The wording of the record indicates that Prince had secured his freedom by this time, and that Jane was still enslaved. As a resident of Dighton, Jane, if she was still living, would have gained her freedom around 1783 when a Massachusetts court case initiated the end of slavery in the state. In Rhode Island slavery did not end completely until 1842.

During the years she was enslaved in Dighton, Jane was part of a very prominent household. Eighteenth-century New England towns often received new families with suspicion sometimes refusing to let “strangers” settle in their community. This was not the case with the Churches in Dighton. As a capable man of means Thomas Church was welcomed with open arms and was quickly elected to serve on a variety of Dighton town committees. Thomas was often joined on those committees by former Little Compton resident Silvester Richmond II. Both men were responsible for recruiting men and boys to serve for Dighton in the Continental Army. By 1780 they were struggling to meet their quotas, especially to fill the new three-year terms of service.

Thomas, Silvester and the other committee men decided to try a tactic that had met with success in Rhode Island just two years earlier. They recruited slaves in exchange for their freedom. Seven Dighton slave-owners, including Thomas, sold their enslaved men to the town of Dighton on the condition that the men would serve in the war for three years. In return Dighton freed the men and teenage boys on March 1, 1781 proclaiming Peter, Reuben, Caesar, Neos, Prince, Thomas, & Benoni “FREEMEN” and promised to support the soldiers in their old age or disability “in ye Same manner as they do their White Inhabitants.”[10] Caesar Church was described as a 5 foot 7 inch tall, nineteen-year-old laborer at the time of his enlistment. Caesar served in Captain Tew’s Company and fought in Rhode Island and Springfield, New Jersey. He died in service on May 27, 1782.[11] 

Like many Revolutionary War soldiers Caesar Church was owed back wages at the time of his death, and the new republic struggled to pay its veterans and their families. Caesar’s case dragged on until August of 1790 when “Prince Bayly” wrote from Newport, Rhode Island petitioning the Judge of Probates for Bristol County, Massachusetts to give the estate administration of his son “Ceaser Church formerly of Dighton” to Samuel Vinson of Newport. Prince signed his name to the petition with an “X.” Samuel Vinson, the white man assisting Prince with his claim, was deeply involved in the slave trade.[12]

Prince had settled in Newport and, according to the 1790 Federal Census, was living in a household of three free black people, one of whom may have been Jane.[13] There is no written evidence concerting Jane’s separation from the Church household or her death.

Though we do not know how Prince became acquainted with Samuel Vinson, we do know that he needed a powerful man behind him because he had another powerful man working against him. One month after Prince petitioned for Vinson to be appointed administer to Caesar’s estate, Thomas Church did the same, asking that he be appointed administrator and claiming Caesar died owing him a “considerable debt.”[14] The county’s Probate Judge denied both men’s requests and appointed two other men as estate administrators. The appointments may have favored Thomas Church, however, as his old Little Compton associate Silvester Richmond helped post the $100 bond for the estate. The judge ordered the administrators to make an inventory and file an estate account, but here the records end, leaving the final settling of Caesar’s affairs and the reason for his debt unclear.

Jane, her husband Prince Bailey and their son Caesar Church were a Little Compton family. No written history of Little Compton has ever told their story or even mentioned their names. Two primary source documents, a 1746 will and a 1778 marriage intention, are the only known evidence of Jane’s existence. Prince Bailey appears just five times in the historic record; 1760 Town Council minutes, the couple’s marriage intention, the 1790 petition concerning his son’s estate and the 1790 and 1800 Federal Censuses. As a soldier, Caesar is somewhat easier to trace, but his military service brought a sudden end to his brief life which was documented by less than a dozen military and probate records. 

The available documents enable us to tell something of the stories of Jane and Prince and Caesar’s lives. They are stories of enslavement, dangerous work their white neighbors were unwilling to do, voluntary and involuntary movement from one community to another, love, loyalty, responsibility, decision making, oppression and ultimately of freedom. Their stories are their own, but they are inextricably entwined with others, their own family members as well as the white men and women who owned them and held so much power over them. Their stories raise as many questions as they answer.

Marjory O’Toole, first published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold, (Little Compton Historical Society: Little Compton, RI), 2016.


[1] Bristol County Probate Records, Book 1, p. 131-135.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, the genealogical information in this essay is taken from: Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Little Compton Families, (Little Compton: Little Compton Historical Society, 1967).

[3] The house and farm remain intact today and are best known as the Benjamin Franklin Wilbour or the Nelson Farm.

[4] Benjamin Church’s petition for Guardian.

[5] In 1756 Thomas carried out another order his father expressed in his will by selling his father’s homestead farm for the most money possible and dividing the proceeds among his seven surviving sisters. After the sale, the “neck farm” provided a home for Thomas, his first wife Ruth Bailey, the oldest six of his seventeen children just a few miles away on Sakonnet Point. Thomas’s mother Sarah likely joined his household after the sale of the West Main Road homestead along with Jane, Caesar and any other of Jane’s children.  

[6] Little Compton Town Council and Probate Records, Book 1, p. 297-298.

[7] Pest house reference.

[8] Wilbour, Little Compton Families, p. 173-4.

History of Dighton.

[9] Jane’s marriage liscense

[10] Helen Holmes Lane, The History of the Town of Dighton, Massachusetts: The South Purchase, May 30, 1712, (The Town of Dighton: Dighton), p. 124. Accessed via the Hathi Trust.

[11] “there Lives and Fortens…”‘   The book is on its way from the Dighton Historical Society.

[12] Document at Wilbor House. Loaned by Stephen Serzan.

[13] Prince Bailey is head of a household of four free people of color in Newport in the 1800 Federal Census. He is not listed in the 1810 Federal Census.

[14] Petition of Thomas Church.  (See printout for citiation.)

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