The Chronicle Review

Finding Adam

A historian's journey into the world of slavery in colonial America

Andrew Hogan, Courtesy of the Hempsted Houses, New London

The garret of the Hempstead house, where Adam Jackson may have slept
April 08, 2013
Finding Adam

Andrew Hogan, Courtesy of the Hempsted Houses, New London

A reconstruction of the kitchen of Joshua Hempsted's house, in New London, Conn.

Fifteen years ago, I began a study of Joshua Hempstead, of New London, Conn., and the diary he kept for nearly 47 years during the first half of the 18th century. Adam Jackson—a little-known New Englander who inhabited Joshua's household as a slave for most of his adult life—changed my focus.

Joshua's diary is one of the great private documents of early New England, but it is especially rare for the modest background and dogged constancy of its writer. Born in 1678, Joshua was the son of a wheelwright from the colonial provinces. His only formal education was a shipwright's apprenticeship, and yet, from the age of 33, this devoted father of nine sat down nearly every day to document his work, his family, and his town. And his diary is not all that has survived the centuries: Joshua wrote reams of other documents, now in state and local archives, and even his house still stands—having become a historic site and museum after the last Hempstead descendant to occupy it died, in 1937. In spite of this remarkable collection of sources, however, historians did not rush to engage directly with Joshua and his diary.

When Joshua died, in 1758, the diary stayed in private hands, parceled out in sections among different branches of his family. Several sections remained in the house he had occupied, which is in part why the diary continued to be largely unknown outside the New London area. That changed in the late 19th century, when the New London County Historical Society came into possession of three sections and published them in 1901; it has since published a new edition and a companion guide. Although publication made the diary accessible to a broader audience, it did not substantially change the book's reception: Joshua's journal remained a tool principally for antiquarians, genealogists, and local historians. Professional historians came to know the Hempstead diary and its usefulness in documenting important events such as the Boston fire of 1711 or the Great Awakening of the 1740s, but none were drawn to tackle it as a whole—deterred, perhaps, by its repetitious almanac style and emphasis on farming and weather.

When I opened Joshua's diary for the first time, I was immediately captivated by its cryptic prose and its elusive portrait of the life of one man. Most intriguing, however, was the extraordinary view it offered of the home and family of an ordinary New England tradesman. Wanting to know Joshua the husband and father, I began to wade slowly through thousands of entries filled with words like "corn," "rain," "died," and "son" in seemingly endless rounds.

At the outset, I hoped that Joshua's diary would permit me to place men firmly in the domestic life of the family—research that would complement the work of historians who have drawn attention to colonial women's contributions beyond the realm of the household, and to economic life in particular. Joshua's diary portrayed a man who embodied a treasured archetype of New England manhood—the hardworking, principled patriarch with a profound devotion to family and community. It revealed him as a compassionate, hands-on father deeply engaged in the lives of his children and grandchildren. But beyond the diary's drumbeat of dates and crops, birth and death, lay a much richer vision of colonial New England.

Finding Adam

Andrew Hogan, Courtesy of the Hempsted Houses, New London

The garret of the Hempstead house, where Adam Jackson may have slept

I set to work trying to recapture life inside the Hempstead house, spending months indexing the diary's entries to identify patterns and changes. It was detailed and fascinating work. As I did, however, I kept bumping up against one particular member of the Hempstead household, a man called Adam. At first glance, he might easily be mistaken for a relative, neighbor, or simply one of the many hired workers Joshua employed during his lifetime. But Adam was none of those: In 1727 Joshua purchased Adam Jackson, a fellow New Londoner, as his slave. Adam subsequently spent nearly three decades in the Hempstead household, living and working in proximity to his master.

Initially I saw Adam largely through the prism of Joshua's life, as I would any other figure appearing in the pages of the Hempstead diary. But the more I read, the more I could not gloss over the other man—and the other family he represented—standing just across the room from the shipwright and father I had come to admire.

For Adam's sake, I needed to read between the lines of Joshua's entries and look beyond the clapboards of his house to find out more about Adam Jackson and others like him.

It is no secret that even New England households of modest means held servants. Less recognized is that many also held slaves in small numbers, especially along the region's coastline and in its urban centers. When most Americans think of slavery, they generally conjure up images of plantations in the 19th-century South. But there were other slaveries—even in the North—and the "forgetting" has been purposeful. New Englanders in the 19th century studiously erased and omitted inconvenient and unsavory aspects of their region's collective past in favor of a more heroic and wholesome narrative.

Joshua and Adam's story asks us to confront some of the uncomfortable truths about the history of the North—but it is a portrait with many dimensions, not easily labeled or understood. The cramped houses of early New England forced a kind of intimacy on families of every class that could sometimes blur distinctions and even create unexpected opportunities for those at the bottom of the pecking order. Colonial New England remained a deeply hierarchical society with slaves, but its rules and customs in the early decades of English settlement were still in flux. Life on the fringes of the British Empire was not so well ordered that the borders of class, gender, and even race could always be easily patrolled.

While most of the English New Englanders who appear in Joshua's diary are identifiable through probate, church, land, or town records, African New Englanders like Adam are much harder to find, usually not permitted to leave their own definitive marks on the written record, in the form of a will or a purchase of property. Most are discernible only through the chance bill of sale, advertisement about a runaway, or brief remark in local records.

Scholars have made significant progress in uncovering writings and other primary sources created by and about enslaved men and women in the 19th century. For more than three decades, for example, a major documentary editing project, the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, has transcribed, annotated, and published thousands of primary sources from the 1860s. With relatively few direct sources dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries, however, the individual lives of enslaved men and women from this early period have remained obscured. Searching for Adam, I thought there was little likelihood that I could learn much more about this man who had been a key member of the Hempstead household for so many years. Then again, maybe I would get lucky.

As it turned out, the Foxes, who originally owned Adam, belonged to the extended Rogers family, a wealthy and unconventional merchant clan with a propensity for religious fanaticism and public spectacle. The Rogerses spent many days in court, embroiled in protracted internal and external conflicts. By a stroke of implausible good fortune for a historian, one of those strands of litigation­­—a complex battle over ownership—involved not just Adam Jackson but also his entire family. My search for Adam would lead me further still—to other families like the Jacksons, who lived on the edge and at the heart of New England society during this earliest period of American history. What I found defied easy stereotypes.

Finding Adam

Andrew Hogan, Collection of the New London County Historical Society

Joshua Hempstead's diary, which he kept for more than 45 years

New England families were an Atlantic world writ small. Neither simple nor one-dimensional, they are not easily categorized as a series of "types." These dynamic early households held men and women of every background, thrown together in the forced intimacy of everyday life. Slavery, a domestic institution in New England, was just one aspect of these quotidian arrangements. Deep interconnections of work, faith, law, and kinship related every family to those around it and linked them all up and down the social scale. Within a generation or two of English arrival, those ties were already elaborate and complex, decipherable only to those with lived, local knowledge.

This social fabric held deeply ingrained patterns, but it also contained surprising patches of ambiguity and opportunity. Every family endured shocking reversals—wounds and strivings powerful enough to destroy. A slave might free himself from bondage while his master, a son of privilege, crumpled and broke under the weight of his own pedigree. A "mulatto" servant might imagine and even make himself "English" as his slaveholding neighbors signed their own sons over to years of servitude. A kindhearted widower could devote himself to motherless children but still enslave another man's boy without a whiff of remorse.

An early New Englander, navigating the contours of his social world on instinct, saw no paradox. Changes of fortune were around each corner, and every New Englander knew he might be next—struck down or lifted up through a change of faith, a turn in the law, or simply by breathing in the wrong air at the wrong sickbed. Such unpredictable upheavals were common to every family history, an American history, that no one—from the lowliest slave to the colonial governor—could entirely escape.

Once I began to explore nearly a century of court and other public records, I discovered that I could trace the American beginnings of the Jackson family back to Adam's maternal grandmother, Maria. An enslaved young woman of African origin, she landed on Connecticut's shores as an article of trade, probably in the 1660s or 70s, from the West Indies. "Deaf and dumb," as records described her, Maria had to endure more than the usual adjustments to work, climate, and language. It was the merchant and commercial baker James Rogers who purchased her to labor as a slave in his large household, the second-richest in the entire colony. From that point forward, the Rogers and Jackson families became deeply intertwined, bound by legal, religious, and domestic ties that continued for no fewer than five generations.

The more I read, the more I could not gloss over the other man standing just across the room from the shipwright and father I had come to admire.

Those connections began as a simple, if odious, property arrangement: James Rogers owned Maria as chattel. When Maria gave birth to a daughter, Joan, that child, too, became Rogers's property. But already with Joan, complications emerged in the connections between the families. Evidence suggests that Joan had an English father, so she was related by blood either to a Rogers or to another neighboring English family. Still, the Rogers family continued to own her. As time passed, the layers of complexity, enhanced by the intimacy of mutual households and joint work, grew.

By the late 1680s, for example, Joan had become the property of a Rogers daughter, Bathshua, and her husband, Samuel Fox. During the same period, Bathshua's brother John Rogers established his own family and purchased a bondsman from the West Indies. By the turn of the new century, that bondsman, John Jackson, and Joan would be husband and wife. Around the time of their marriage, John Rogers gave John Jackson his freedom, but the Foxes continued to enslave Joan. As a result, the Jacksons remained separated, their family life forced to span the distance between two fraternal households. During this separation, Joan also bore the first two of their many children: Adam and Miriam. Brother and sister were still very small when their mother also received her freedom, but when Joan left the Fox household to join her husband, the children had to stay behind in slavery. It would be the beginning of a long family struggle, as the Jacksons straddled slavery and freedom, often in startling ways.

The Jackson-Rogers relationship proved durable nonetheless—even remarkably so. Although Rogers family members continued to enslave John Jackson's children, John Rogers could count on his onetime slave to be a devoted follower when he led his renegade Baptist sect in defiance of the prevailing Congregational order. So, too, when at one point, after she had been freed, the courts took Joan from her husband and threw her back into slavery, John Jackson relied on John Rogers's considerable financial and material support to get her back. During her re-enslavement, Joan became the property of John Livingston, heir to a New York fortune and the Livingston Manor, and his wife, Mary Winthrop, daughter of Connecticut's governor. But an undaunted John Jackson would still carve a path to join his wife at the Livingstons' as their servant and, later, even hold Livingston accountable in court when the New Yorker failed to honor their agreement. In the end, it would be Jackson who largely prevailed in the fight for his family, while his master Livingston succeeded only in destroying his own through a combination of bad luck, poor business decisions, and sexual transgression.

For John and Joan Jackson's eldest son, Adam, who remained in slavery, there would be a powerful emotional bond to the parents who could not be with him. Still, there would be other ties: to the extended Rogers clan that owned and raised him until his late 20s, denying him the chance to join his parents; and increasingly to his siblings, who came in close succession and would be dispersed across the county and beyond. The death of his master, in 1727, meant new ruptures and bonds for Adam, as a shipwright from across town who had known him since birth came to purchase him. Joshua Hempstead—diarist and now the widowed father of eight surviving children—bought Adam to help with the work of his farm at a time his five sons were reaching the age of independence.

Adam and Joshua would spend the next three decades together in the field and in Joshua's house, each becoming the other's most consistent companion—a relationship dutifully recorded in Joshua's diary. As a worker and servant, Adam distinguished himself for his diligence and skill—prized qualities that permitted him, over time, to assume a supervisory role on the farm. In later years, when Joshua took on the guardianship of two orphaned grandsons, he could count on Adam to accompany and train the boys in the work of men. Providing such fatherly guidance, Adam became an important male figure in the lives of Joshua's "boys." The bondsman may have chosen not to have a wife and children of his own—having borne painful witness to the struggle and turmoil in the lives of his parents and siblings—but his impact on family life at the Hempsteads would be lasting nonetheless.

In the early winter of 1758, Joshua lay in his bed, its curtains pulled around for warmth, allowing only partial views of the chamber he had occupied most of his life. He had turned 80 on the first of September but had remained active, taking dinner to field hands, gathering apples. Now he would never leave the house again. For three days, he still managed to make short accounts in his diary. On the fourth, he could write no more. After lying in bed more than two months, Joshua Hempstead died on December 22, 1758. His children and grandchildren buried him the next day.

New London's first newspaper had been in operation just three months when Joshua died; it was the latest attempt to bring the outside world to the scruffy little port that had remained so stubbornly provincial. The paper took pains to celebrate Joshua's life, giving the beloved local leader a formal obituary: "a useful Friend, a promoter of Peace, and a valuable Member of Society. In all the publick Offices he sustained, his Conduct was unexceptionable; he acted with uniform Integrity, and preserved an unblemished Character."

Joshua's will made no mention of his slave of more than 30 years, the "old Negro man named Adam," as the estate inventory described him. Joshua had written scores of testamentary instruments, so the omission was surely intentional. Less deliberate was the final, fitting enigma it also created—another blank space between these lives intertwined and forever beyond reach.

Manumitting a slave was still uncommon in midcentury New England—uncommon enough that Joshua might not have even considered freeing Adam. Nor was emancipation, especially for a long-serving man on the verge of old age, an unambiguous good. Elderly freedmen faced lives of singular struggle and privation, as Adam well knew, and freedom could throw moral and legal entitlement to care by a master into question.

Joshua probably shared his intentions toward Adam with his son and neighbor John, the blacksmith he chose as his executor. It is with John that Adam apparently remained, at least in part, perhaps splitting his time between John's household and the one he knew better than any other.

When Joshua's diary fell silent, the window onto Adam's life, never more than ajar, closed tightly. Then, in 1760, a new name appeared on the New London tax rolls: Adam Jackson, free man, with a minimal estate of £18. Within four years, his name had disappeared.

When Adam died, as he did most likely in 1764, he left neither estate nor children, probably not even a stone to mark his grave. Had John Hempstead decided to free him after his father was gone? Or had Joshua, the meticulous chronicler, arranged this ending before he died? Was Joshua the "fatherly" master who freed a dutiful slave while still providing for his care? Or was he the callous owner trying to spare his heirs the expense of an old and worthless bondsman? Or somewhere in between? Or perhaps it was Adam Jackson, the proud and manifest son of John and Joan Jackson, who had seized the means of his own liberation and would not let go.

Allegra di Bonaventura is an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University. This essay is adapted from For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England, due out this month from Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton.