The End of Slavery

By Peter Fay, Jamestown Historical Society

Slavery in Jamestown experienced a very slow demise.

Rhode Island outlawed any new enslavement in 1784 but left existing slaves in bondage for the rest of their lives, unless manumitted by or purchased from their owner by the slave’s family members. While a handful of slaves were manumitted, it took Jamestown almost half a century more to free all its slaves, many dying still in bondage.

Since towns were required at their own expense to provide support for the poor, in the aftermath of the war, the town renewed efforts to rid itself of “undeserving” poor or simply anyone who required public financial support. Black and indigenous people, enslaved or free, were especially targeted.

Sarah Warwick and Mary Primas

Dozens were “warned out” of town, such as Sarah Warwick and Mary Primas (alias Bristol), “two Negro women residing in this town not being inhabitants.” Failing to leave, in 1788 they were ordered “out of Jamestown… to the towns where they belong, if they return they are to receive ten stripes upon their naked backs.” When Rose Weeden, a Black woman enslaved by Nicholas Carr, was convicted of stealing pork, the penalty was “twenty stripes upon her naked back.” She then became “destitute of a house and every other necessary and support of life and has been forbidden entrance to her said master’s house.”

10-year-old Boy Jamestown

Black enslaved children who might require town funds for support were put under extra scrutiny. In 1784, the same year the much-heralded Gradual Abolition act was passed, the Town Council ordered a bill of sale of “a certain Negro Girl” owned by Rebecca Martin. Rebecca Carr Martin had inherited slaves from her husband’s father, John Martin (owner of Hannibal) who had owned ten slaves before the war, and she failed to provide for their support. By 1791, the Town Council had taken over management of widow Martin’s slaves altogether, as she was in “want of prudent management of her estate” and her slaves are “likely to become chargeable to the town.” The council appointed themselves guardians, ordered her to “transact no kind of business whatsoever,” and promptly dispatched her “Negro woman named Dinah,” her five children”, and three more of her slaves into indentured servitude. On the holy day of Christmas Eve, 1791, Martin’s ten-year-old boy “Jamestown” was sold by the council for $30 into indentured servitude. After eleven years, at age twenty-one, the boy would be released with “some clothes” in return for his labor.

The councilors, who were from the Howland, Carr, Eldred and Hammond families, were or had recently been slaveholders themselves.

Even as slavery waned, the town continued to use bondage as a threat. It ordered formerly enslaved Black people, especially women, keeping “disorderly houses” to appear before the town council. The punishment for this crime was indenture, authorized by the 1770 “Act for the Breaking Up Disorderly Houses,” which forbade “free negroes and mulattoes” to have “disorderly houses” or entertain slaves at “unreasonable hours or in an extravagant manner.”

In 1819, the Town Council, again employing race to the town’s financial advantage, urgently ordered “the overseer of the poor advertise all the black children who are paupers of the town and bind them out as apprentices to who ever may apply as soon as possible.” Among the councilors issuing the order was Daniel Howland, owner of James Howland, still enslaved thirty-five years after passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act.

James Howland

James Howland remained at the white Howland household until his death, even after he finally gained his freedom. In his will in 1837, Daniel Howland ordered the now-free “old Black man James to be supported out of my Real Estate as long as he lives.” James Howland died in 1859, still a servant at the Howland mansion after 100 years, the last living person who had been a Rhode Island slave.

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The Connecticut version of the Gradual Emancipation Act, which set children born to slave mothers free at the age of 25, rather than 18 for girls and 21 for boys in the Rhode Island version of the Act.

"out of Jamestown… to the towns where they belong, if they return they are to receive ten stripes upon their naked backs."

- Carr, Edison. The Carr family records. Rockton Ill: Herald Printing House, 1894.

Figure 6 – “Advertise all the Black Children who are paupers… and bind them out… as soon as possible.” (Town Council, 1819)

From Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England: 1770-1776