Saturday, March 22, 2008

David S. Greenough Makes A Purchase

David Stoddard Greenough was the father of David Stoddard Greenough, and ancestor of three additional David Stoddard Greenoughs in a row. D.S. Greenough the First came into possession of the house of Loyalist Commodore Joshua Loring after the Revolutionary War, the house surviving today as the Loring-Greenough house at the Soldier's Monument in Jamaica Plain.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has been nice enough to make available transcripts of papers found in the David Stoddard Greenough papers (direct links below). The first is a bill of sale, dated July 13, 1785, from John Mory to D.S. Greenough.The property being exchanged, for the sum of five pounds, is a mulatto boy, five years of age, named Dick. The boy, son of Mory's negro servant Binah, is assigned as a servant until his twenty-first birthday.

The next year, an agreement of indenture was filed,in which five Selectmen of the Town of Roxbury, acting... in loco parentis?... signed over the labor of Dick Mory, negro child, to David Stoddard Greenough, for the next fifteen years in exchange for room, board and training as a farmer.

Please read the two documents, here and here.

So what goes on here? The documents can be interpreted in more than one way. Slavery in Massachusetts had been effectively outlawed by a court decision in 1783, but it took several years for the decision to be followed in practice. In this case D.S. Greenough buys a five year old boy two years after the legal ruling on slavery, and the contract explicitly states that the boy's service is only assigned until he turns twenty-one. The indenture document also stipulates service until the twenty-first birthday, so it seems as if indenture, rather than life-long slavery was indented from the start.

Should we think of this as simply a way to get around the slavery ruling of 1783, and get a slave in fact, if not in name? That's what I thought at first. Then again, why a five year old boy? At that age, he's useless as a servant/worker, and you have to feed and cloth him until he's old enough to be of use around the house and farm. Given that indenture was still legal, why not just get yourself an able-bodied young man and put him to work immediately?

Buying a slave, or binding an indentured servant at the age of five makes no sense to me. What could lead to D.S. Greenough the First to taking on the expense of caring for a five year old boy? Could the agreement to take on the boy actually be considered in a positive light? I could imagine a story in which Mr Greenough takes on the boy to provide him a job and a home while he grows to adulthood. It's hard to justify the need for legal contracts under that scenario, but I still wouldn't rule it out.

Then there's another explanation. Binah, the mother of the boy Dick, is described in the first document as a negro. The boy is called a mulatto. The difference may not matter, but it does raise the question: who was the father? Hmmm.... Are you thinking what I'm thinking? It turns out that the Greenoughs only married in 1784, so an interesting possibility seems highly unlikely.

In the end, the mystery, such as it is, remains a mystery. David S. Greenough purchased a young boy to work as a servant until he reached his majority - that much we know. Why he did so remains a puzzle to me. The simple answer certainly my be the correct one. On the other hand, the loose ends implied by the language in the documents may complicate the story in ways that we cannot decipher. In school I was taught that indenture usually lasted for seven years, and that it was an agreement among adults. In this case, we have a child indentured until adulthhood by the town fathers. The details make the story a bit messy, but that's history.

Addendum: For a great look at slavery in Massachusetts and the other northern states, check out Slavery in the North. Definitely required reading.


  1. Fascinating. I live so close to the Loring-Greenough House that I can see it from my back porch. This adds so much to what I knew about it and the people who lived there.

  2. this is a time period well before the era of the orphanage, so perhaps this little boy having no father (legal one anyway) DSG was simply trying to provide for him? Being an indentured servant until 21 makes sure he grows up clothed, fed and sheltered (if not exactly free and happy)

  3. Altruism would explain why D.S. Greenough would take on the burden of raising a child without gaining any significant labor for several years. On the other hand, this rather generous explanation would require that Greenough was an exceptional man for his time. Slavery had been an excepted way of life in the colony, and the abolitionist movement that would grow in New England was still a generation away. Even after the end of slavery, black people were not allowed to vote, to go to school, or enter many other aspects of civic life. Maybe these documents suggest that Greenough was an exception among his peers - we'd certainly need more evidence to make a decision.

  4. I should add that the Mass Historical Society web site put the documents in their Slavery section, and they add "a slave" to the description of the sales contract. They don't seem to harbor any doubts about the transactions.

  5. Whoops... that should have been "accepted", not "excepted" in my first post above.