Bidwell Lore – The Warning Out List, Part III

Welcome to week 88 of Bidwell Lore! Now a return to the Warning Out List to see if we can find out if some were ‘solid citizens’. First on the list was Loring Andrews and it turns out he was the first postmaster of Stockbridge, employment that Theodore Sedgwick would have to approve.

“When the Hon. Theodore Sedgwick went to Congress from Western Massachusetts [1] in the early 1790s he was a resident of Stockbridge. At the time the nearest post office was in Springfield. He requested and obtained permission for a post office in Stockbridge. That office was opened July 12, 1792, the first post office in Berkshire County. Loring Andrews was the first postmaster.” [2] (1792-1797)

Abraham Codner, Stonecutter, was married to the daughter of Dr. Erastus Sergeant, son of the missionary the Rev. John Sergeant. Examples of his stonework can be found on gravestones in the Old Section of the Town Cemetery.

Daniel Pepoon was the owner and operator of an inn at the corner of Main and South Street, since replaced by the Red Lion Inn.

There was an Ephraim Williams, Attorney at law and an Ephraim Williams, Jr. Cordwainer; [3] Jonathan Patten, Esquire; [4] Asa Day, Schoolmaster; Adonijah Foot, blacksmith; Eliphalet Fowler, Yeoman [5]; Chauncy Hitchcock, Distiller; John McMullen, Bloomer; Sally Woodward, spinster; Rachel Wells, Semptress; Peter Maynard, Negro or mulatto; James Dresser, Miller; Cato Brum, Negro; Joseph Barton, Clockmaker; Humphrey, Negro; George Paterson, Tinman; Caesar Ball, Negro; Daniel Warner, Labouror; Elizabeth Sedgwick, Spinister; Tom, old Negro; Joel Brace, Labouror, Physician; Bett, old negro woman at Jahleel Woodbridge; Mum Bett [6], negro woman; Elijah Higbee, Yeoman; Elizabeth Brown, Widow; Barnabas Bidwell, Attorney at law.

This is just a small sampling of the 180 people on the Warning Out list. Let’s take a deeper look at one of those people, Elizabeth Freeman.

Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman ( ca. 1744-1829)
1811 Watercolor on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick (1788-1867) 3 in. (7.5 cm) x 2 1/8 in. (5.5 cm) Gift of Maria Banyer Sedgwick, 1884. Original watercolor at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Massachusetts Constitution 1780: A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The book One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom, by David Levinson and Emilie Piper (Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, 2010), is a scholarly tome on Elizabeth Freeman and I would recommend it for any in-depth reading of her life. In the absence of available copies, a carefully chosen reading of information online will give you the Cliff’s Notes version of her life. For Bidwell Lore, we will briefly examine her court case and its repercussions for slavery in Massachusetts. A short version of her life follows:

“Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, acquired Mumbet and her sister, Lizzy, from their owner, a Dutchman named Pieter Hogeboom, upon his marriage to Hogeboom’s daughter, Annetje (Hannah). The event, according to folklore, which prompted Mumbet to sue for her freedom occurred when the mistress of the house, Mrs. Ashley, attempted to strike Mumbet’s sister, Lizzy, with a heated kitchen shovel in the Ashley House. Mumbet blocked the blow, but her arm was injured and she never regained its full use.

According to novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Mumbet was prompted to seek freedom after hearing the Declaration of Independence spoken, and according to historian Arthur Zilversmit the people of Berkshire County then adopted Mumbet’s cause to test the constitutionality of slavery following the passage of the new state constitution. ‘Brom and Bett’ were the first enslaved African Americans to be set free under the new Massachusetts State Constitution of 1780. Mumbet is without a doubt the first black woman in the United States to be set free from enslavement due in large part to her own determination and character.

After Mumbet was set free she chose the name Elizabeth Freeman and began working in the Theodore Sedgwick family as a paid servant, first in Sheffield, and later, when the family moved to Stockbridge. She became a surrogate mother to the children of Theodore whom affectionately called her Mumbet.” [7]

From Mass Archives: Recognizance Writ for John Ashley re Mum Bett and Brom
Mass Archives: Recognizance Writ for John Ashley re Mum Bett and Brom

You might wonder how Brom became a part of Mum Bett’s case. Women, Black or white, had no standing in a courtroom in the 18th century. Brom’s presence was needed for Mum Bett to bring the case to court. The Berkshire Court of Common Pleas was an inferior court and, generally, rulings there would not impact cases in other courts. However, Chief Justice Cushing of The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts did cite Brom & Bett v. Ashley during the Quock Walker trial.

Procedurally, the case began in May 1781 when the attorneys for Bett and Brom obtained a writ of replevin, an action for the recovery of property, from the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas. The writ ordered Ashley to release Bett and Brom to the sheriff because they were not Ashley’s legitimate property. Ashley refused.

When the case was tried in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Sedgwick argued that the Massachusetts Constitution had outlawed slavery. The jury determined that Brom and Bett were not Ashley’s property. The court set Bett and Brom free and awarded them 30 shillings damages. Below is a partial transcription of the court record dealing with the jury verdict:

“…the same case is committed to the Jury Jonathan Holcom Foreman and his fellows who being duly sworn return this verdict that in this case the Jury find that the aforesaid Brom & Bett are not and were not at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro servants of him the said John Ashley during their life and [illegible] thirty shillings damages wherefore it is considered by the Court Adjudged and determined that the said Brom & Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley during life, and that the said Brom & Bett do recover against the said John Ashley the sum of thirty shillings lawful silver Money, Damages, and the Costs of this suit Paned at five pounds fourteen shillings and four pence like Money and hereof the s. Brom & Bett may have their Executions. The said John Ashley appeals from the Judgment of this Court to the Supreme Judicial Court to be holden at Great Barrington within and for the County of Berkshire upon the first Tuesday of October next: and John Ashley Jun. Esq. Recognizes with [sureties] as the law Directs for the said John Ashley his prosecuting with assest this appeal at the said Supreme Court [8] & c. as on file.”[9]

Painting of Theodore Sedgwick from around 1808. He is wearing a black jacket and his white blouse has a ruffle at the neck.
Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828.
Theodore Sedgwick, about 1808.
Oil on canvas, 74.29 x 60.64 cm (29 1/4 x 23 7/8 in.).
Bequest of Charles S. Rackemann, 33.508. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After gaining her freedom, Mum Bett worked for many years as a domestic servant in the household of Theodore Sedgwick. Mary Gray Bidwell writes from Stockbridge on September 21, 1807, to her husband Barnabas Bidwell who is in Boston, serving as the Attorney General for the State of Massachusetts, relating information on the death of her cousin Pamela Dwight Sedgwick:

By intelligence, which you have doubtless received from the messenger dispatched for Judge Sedgwick, you will I presume, my dear friend, be prepared to hear that our excellent neighbor is numbered with the congregation of the dead. She was unusually well, or rather comfortable, last week until Saturday morning, when she appeared rather languid, but took a seat at table as usual. Her attendant Betty [10] tells me, she was alarmed while dressing her this morning by the appearance of a livid spot over her right eye. If the family noticed it, they imagined it occasioned by some slight contusion. She supported her customary pleasantness through the day, Sally Fairman [11] happening to be in Mrs. Sedgwick’s room, with her, towards evening, when Catherine with other company, were in a high sense of mirth in the front parlor. Sally inquired if the noise did not disturb her? ‘No, I am pleased to find they are cheerful and happy,’ was her reply, or words to that effect. I relate this characteristic anecdote, to show you that she retained this self-rewarding philanthropy to the last. She retired, as usual that evening, and without special complaint, at two in the morning, she seized with a fit, similar to those, which have so long afflicted her. She endured twenty of these distressing paroxysms, it is judged, before nature yielded under this severe conflict. Cato, was dispatched after the Judge [12], and another messenger for his sons at Albany, a little before eight yesterday morning, and in fifteen minutes after, Mrs. Sedgwick closed a life of uncommon suffering; commencing as we have reason to hope, a happy immortality! When I reflect upon the unmurmuring, and even cheerful submission, which she uniformly exhibited in her lucid hours, under a most distressing personal calamity. When in considering her many virtues, this is added to the number.  I feel I must pronounce her, one of the most exalted of her sex. [13]

The letter indicates the relationship between the Bidwell family and the Sedgwick family rose above the public saber-rattling of their politics. 

Upon her death in 1829, Mum Bett, was the only non-family member buried in the Sedgwick family pie in Stockbridge, her epitaph authored by Charles Sedgwick:   

known by the name of
Died Dec. 28, 1829

Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good Mother, farewell.”

Next week we will talk more about the Warning Out List and Barnabas Bidwell.

[1] At that time congressional districts were by county. Sedgwick represented Berkshire County.
[2] Postal History of Berkshire County Massachusetts 1790-1981, Leo L. Lincoln and Lee C. Drickamer, 1982.
[3] A cordwainer was a maker of shoes as opposed to a cobbler who repaired shoes.
[4] In the 18th century people’s names were generally followed by their trade or a yeoman if they owned property. The caste system from England was ranked first by Esquire, second by Gentleman, followed by trades.
[5] A husbandman in England in the Middle Ages and the early modern period was a free tenant farmer or a small landowner. The social status of a husbandman was below that of a yeoman. The meaning of “husband” in this term is “master of house” rather than “married man.” Wikipedia (In America, Yeoman usually meant someone who owned more than one piece of property.)
[6] AKA Elizabeth Freeman, formerly enslaved by John Ashley, freed by the court with the assistance of Attorney Sedgwick.
[8] In October, Ashley withdrew his appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Boston.
[9]  Language taken from the court records.
[10] Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, who sued for and was granted her freedom. 
[11] Married to James Gray Hunt, another cousin of Mary Gray Bidwell, in October 1807. She owned a dress shop at what is now 28 Main Street. Both Mary Gray Bidwell and James Gray Hunt were second cousins of Ephraim Williams, Jr.
[12] Sedgwick was in Boston serving on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
[13] Barnabas was the Attorney General of Massachusetts and in Boston at the time of Pamela Sedgwick’s death.