Sarah Pabodie

Sarah Pabodie

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in a Records 1721 – 1797

[My son Gamaliel] is also to provide for Sarah Peabody who has long lived in my family everything necessary for her comfortable Subsistence during her single state.

The Will of Thomas Church, Dighton, Massachusetts, 1797[1]

Many masters, including Thomas Church, considered their enslaved people to be a part of their family. During Thomas’ lifetime, the word “family” did not automatically carry the same suggestion of warmth and affection that it does today. In Roman times “familia” meant “the whole number of slaves belonging to one master.”[2] For generations free servants and slaves were considered subordinate parts of a man’s family along with his wife and children.[3] For an eighteenth-century man like Thomas Church “family” meant – everyone who lives under my roof and deserves my care in return for their labor, or even more simply – my household.[4]

Sarah Pabodie (multiple spellings), an elderly woman of African descent, lived in a number of white families over the course of her lifetime. Prior to 1721 Sarah belonged to Captain Thomas Gray of Little Compton. His household in 1721 included his second wife Phebe Peckham Gray and his adult son Doctor Thomas Gray. While in Captain Thomas’ household Sarah served the Gray family members and lived among the largest number of people enslaved in any known Little Compton household – a “Negro man” named Will, a “Negro maide” named Peg, and three “mollatto” children Almey, Solomon and Jeffrey. We do not know if Sarah was a blood relation to any of the other people in the household, but it is very likely she served as a mother-figure to the children.

When Captain Thomas died in 1721, Sarah’s “family” changed. Doctor Thomas, who was already living with his parents, inherited his father’s house and Sarah “with the bed she lodgeth on and the bedding belonging to it” as well as the boy Solomon. The Widow Gray inherited Peg. As a result Sarah, Solomon and Peg stayed together in the Gray’s house with two of their previous owners while Will, Almey and Jeffrey were given to Captain Thomas’ other adult children and moved to new homes.[5]

Shortly after Captain Thomas Gray’s death, three neighborhood men were assigned by the town to inventory and value all of his possessions, including his enslaved people. The adults, Sarah and Will, were given a value of 30£ each. Jefrey was valued at 45£, and the three other young people were valued at 50£ each.[6] The evaluations were based on the particular skills of each enslaved person and the number of years of labor expected from them. Children were especially valuable because of their potential for a lifetime of unpaid labor.

Doctor Thomas, a bachelor, died just two years later, and Sarah’s family changed again, this time more dramatically. In 1723 Doctor Thomas’ sister Rebecca Gray Pabodie inherited Sarah.[7] As a married woman Rebecca could not own property so Sarah’s ownership passed to Rebecca’s husband Deacon John Pabodie, the grandson of Elizabeth Alden and William Pabodie. Now Sarah had to leave her mistress Phebe Gray, as well as Peg and Solomon, and move into the Pabodie’s house. Rebecca had her first child that same year. In addition to her other tasks, Sarah would have helped care for that baby girl and the eleven siblings that followed.[8]  

Sarah remained a member of the Pabodie family for forty-four years until John’s death in 1767, but in 1731 she took a very important step toward creating a family of her own.

Ye intent of marriage between Cesar negro servant to Nathaniel Church and Sarah negro servant to Mr. John Pabodie was entered September ye 11th 1731.

Little Compton Vital Records [9]

The Reverend Richard Billings of Little Compton’s Congregational Church married the couple on October 7. If they had any children together, their births were not recorded.  

A little more than a hundred years later, sometime in the 1840s, Little Compton’s Town Clerk Otis Wilbour undertook the very large task of transcribing all of Little Compton’s early vital records from their various books and ancient handwritings into a single well-organized volume in his highly legible script. Otis decided to edit Cesar and Sarah’s record. His entry for their marriage reads as follows:

Cesar Church and Sarah Peabodie both of Little Compton intend Marriage September 11 1731, married October 7, 1731 by Richard Billings.

Little Compton Births, Marriages, and Deaths [10]

Otis eliminated Cesar and Sarah’s race, status as servants and master’s names from the official record. He also gave the couple last names that according to the earlier record they did not really use. In the 1840s, hundreds of Little Compton residents could still personally remember the presence of slaves in Little Compton, and a formerly enslaved man, Primus Collins, lived in town until 1858, but Otis did what he thought was proper at the time and rewrote Cesar and Sarah’s record as though they were white and free. Because Otis edited a number of records for enslaved people of color in a similar way, his actions helped hide Little Compton’s history of slavery from future generations. A similar obscuring of the local history of slavery was happening all throughout New England in an effort to portray new England as a historically free, white society that stood in stark contrast to the slave-holding South.[11]   Otis’ transcription muddied Sarah and Cesar’s story. If Cesar had a more English sounding name, we many never have looked deeper into the old record books to discover the truth about their race and their enslavement. Little Compton’s original records remain our best hope for a more accurate understanding of the local history of slavery.

Sarah’s story continues in 1767 when John Pabodie died without a will. His inventory takers noted the presence of “a Negro Woman Named Sarah” in the household and assigned her a value of 0 £. In their eyes Sarah, now elderly, had no more value.[12] According to colonial law and local custom, the Pabodie heirs inherited Sarah, even though there was no will, and were responsible for her care until her death. Something out of the ordinary happened, however, and no one in the family took responsibility for her. If Cesar was alive, he may have attempted to care for her, but as an enslaved man, it would have been difficult or even impossible. Shortly after John Pabodie’s death, Sarah had no viable means of support and became chargeable to the town. The town would have paid someone to keep Sarah in their home, or may have even provided her with a small space to live in the Town Meeting House. In 1772 the Town Council, likely sensing that someone was shirking their duty toward Sarah, decided they would no longer pay for her.  

The vote was put to know ye Town mind Whether Sarah Pabodie an aged Negro Woman should be kept any longer at ye charge of this town & sd vote passed in ye Negative.

Little Compton Town & Vital Records [13]

After the ruling Sarah appears in yet another white family. Thomas Church, the owner of Jane and her son Caesar Church, took Sarah into his family. Thomas was not related to the Pabodie’s, and so was not likely to be legally responsible for Sarah. His reason for taking her in may have been sentimental. As a child Thomas was the Pabodie’s neighbor to the south. He and his brothers and sisters were age mates to the Pabodie children and would have frequented each other’s homes. Thomas knew Sarah since he was a little boy and may have agreed to take her in when she had nowhere else to go out of kindness.  

There is another reason that Thomas may have taken Sarah in. Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Jane named her son Caesar. Perhaps she named him after her father. It is possible that Sarah and her husband Cesar were Jane’s parents. Thomas may have taken Sarah into his legal family to help preserve Jane’s true family.  

Sarah was with the Churches during the Revolution when they abandoned their home in Sakonnet and moved to Dighton, Massachusetts. As a Massachusetts resident Sarah became a free woman in 1783 as a result of a court case that essentially ended slavery in the state.[14] She remained with the Church family as a free woman, and in his 1797 will, Thomas instructed his son Gamaliel to care for her for the rest of her life.[15] Sarah would have been in her nineties at this time.  

Families in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Little Compton were intricate combinations of people, enslaved and free, from different generations, and of different races. They were tied together by both blood and bondage. While some white families turned their backs on the people of color who served them for decades, other families honored those connections for generations.

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] The Will of Thomas Church of Dighton (Bristol County Probate Records, Book ?,  p. 563. Accessed via Ancestry.com.

[2] Lord Raglan, “The Meaning of the Word ‘Family,’” Man, Vol. 31 (Jan., 1931) p. 2. Published by Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

[3] Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge), 1981, p. 7.

[4] For more information on the idea of “Family Slavery” please see: Lorenzo Green, The Negro In Colonial America, Chapter XVIII.

[5] Will of Captain Thomas Gray, Bristol County Probate Records, Book 3, p. 14.

[6] Will of Captain Thomas Gray, Bristol County Probate Records, Book 4, p. 14.

[7] Will of Doctor Thomas Gray, Bristol County Probate Records, Book 4, p 196 & 199.

[8] Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Little Compton Families, p. 440.

[9] Little Compton Vital Records, Vol. 1, p. 45.

[10] Little Compton Births, Marriages, and Deaths, Vol. 1, Transcription, p. 172.

[11] For more on New England’s attempt to forget slavery in the North please see Joanne Pope Melish’s Book Disowning Slavery.

[12] Inventory of John Pabodie, Little Compton Town Council & Probate Records, Book 2, pg. 93-4.

[13] Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol. 1 p. 96

[14] For insight into the complicated end of slavery in Massachusetts please see Melish, pgs. 64-65.

[15] The Will of Thomas Church of Dighton, Bristol Couty Probate Records, p. 563.

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