Hagar, the heroine, was a woman enslaved by a minister in Haverhill back when it was considered the frontier. She had no last name, as was common among “servants for life” in New England in the 1700s. We do not know if she was kidnapped from Africa or was born in the New World, but she was likely descended from West Africans, as that is where most slavers made their purchases. Perhaps she was born in Dahomey, today’s Benin, a center at that time of the slave trade, and the home of a female military regiment.
The entire regiment was composed of women, from the general on down. A missionary, Francesco Borhero, once visited in 1861 and was treated to a mock attack of an enemy in the capital city parade grounds. Among others, specially trained soldiers, the Reapers, walked out with their three foot-long straight razors. The missionary was told these weapons were capable of cutting someone cleanly in two.
Their first obstacle in the demonstration was to climb up a wall of acacia branches. To give you some sense of the challenge they undertook, the nickname for the two inch long acacia barbs is ‘Devil Thorns.’ When they got to the top of the wall, they pretended to perform hand-to-hand combat. Then they fell back and climbed the wall a second time, once again treading on the thorns. Those considered the bravest that day were given acacia thorn trophies, which they attached to their waists. Ouch (Dash)!
Although Hagar’s challenge was very different from the Dahomey soldiers on that day, she also displayed great courage and strength.
Her story begins for us during Queen Anne’s War. The French and British were battling over the control of America, leading to attacks on settlements. The people of Haverhill were under siege by the French and their Indian allies.
As the story has been handed down, one late August night in 1708, Reverend Benjamin Rolfe, woken by gunfire, rushed to the front door and pressed his body against it to prevent the invaders from entering. He called for help from the three soldiers in the house but they were paralyzed with fear and of no use. Shot at by musket balls through the door, Rolfe ran out the back door but was mortally wounded near the well (Mirick 119-121). Soon after, Mehitable Rolfe and their infant child were killed.
Fortunately, Hagar, enslaved in the family, had the presence of mind to take two of the children, Mary, a young teen, and Elizabeth, nine years old (Holmes) into the cellar and hid them under washtubs, while she secreted herself behind the meat barrel. The attackers were soon in the cellar themselves, drinking milk from pans, taking meat close to where Hagar was hiding, and plundering anything else of value. One stepped on a daughters’ foot, but they were not discovered.
Because of Hagar’s quick wittedness, Elizabeth and Mary lived to adulthood and had families of their own. And the family line continued. Who among us today may owe our very existence to Hagar?
A descendant of the young Elizabeth who Hagar saved that day became a diplomat and historian by the name of John Lothrop Motley. He used his position as United States minister to the Austrian Empire to work at convincing European powers not to intervene on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Apparently, many of the aristocracy identified with the Southern plantation owners (Sommers). Mr. Motley may never have existed if not for Hagar.
Elizabeth’s daughter and namesake went on to marry American revolutionary, Sam Adams (Gavin).
As far as Hagar goes, without a last name, her progeny, if any, is hard to trace. However, the following is found in Haverhill’s vital records:
“Edward, [son] of Juda and Hagar, [baptized] June 17, 1711.Robert, [son] Juda and Hagar, [baptized] June 17, 1711…”(Haverhill 327-8)
We may never know if the mother of Edward and Robert is “our” Hagar, and be able to trace her descendants, if any, to the present day, or know who among us exists because of her. However, we do know, in the words of African American poet, Audre Lorde, that “each one of us is here because somebody before us did something to make it possible (Lorde).”
And that “somebody” may be a strong woman, past or present, from the Old World or New.
Dash, Mike, “Dahomey’s Women Warriors,” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/…/dahomeys-women…/Gavin, Mary Katherine. The history and development of the shoe industry in Haverhill. 1951. file:///Users/susanelliott/Downloads/Gavin_Mary_1951_web.pdfHaverhill (Mass.), Vital Records of Haverhill, Massachusetts, to the end of the year 1849, 1910-11.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr., John Lothrop Motley, A Memoir, Complete, Vol. 1. Chapter 1. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4728/4728-h/4728-h.htmLorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984.
Mirick, Benjamin L.; The history of Haverhill, Massachusetts. 1832. NOTE: There is more than one version told of the details of the minister’s killing in various books. However, Mirick consulted “the manuscript account of Rev. Abiel Abbot, taken from the lips of Judith Whiting … [She] was eight years old when the attack happened, and when she gave the account to Mr. Abbot, though very aged, her faculties were unimpaired …” (Mirick 121).
Motley, John Lothrop, “The American War; Important Letter from John Lothrop Motley,” New York Times, 6 June 1861.https://www.nytimes.com/…/the-american-war-important…
Sommers, William, “John Lothrop Motley: The Witty US Minister to Vienna,” American Diplomacy: Insight and Analysis from Foreign Affairs Practitioners and Scholars. 1 May 2017. http://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/…/john-lothrop…/—
HEROIC HAGAR OF HAVERHILL