“Hagar of Haverhill, Massachusetts.” 2021, Erin Elsey, eeaart.com
Today’s essay is illustrated by the artist, Erin Elsey of Killingly, Connecticut (eeaart.com). Like myself, Elsey is pained to learn about the North’s involvement in slavery. Neither of us had ever heard even a whisper of it during our school days. Northerners were supposedly always on the right side of history when it came to the owning of humans as chattel property. Not so.
Erin decided to draw her charcoal interpretation of an eighteenth century woman, Hagar, during the deadly attack on the frontier home and village where she was enslaved, today’s topic.
Hagar constantly drilled herself. “What do we do if and when we are attacked?” “How do I keep young Elizabeth and Mary safe along with myself?” “Depending on where the enemy enters the house from, should we hide?”
It is the time of Queen Anne’s War.
Hagar probably overheard talk from the White folks, other enslaved people and apprenticed workers (if any) of the 1697 raid by French, Algonquin and Abenaki warriors in King William’s War. More than two dozen Haverhill, Massachusetts residents were killed and thirteen taken captive (Atkinson). Hagar’s neighbors Hannah Dustan, and Hannah’s midwife (O’Hara) Mary Neff, had been captured only to escape and kill their captors, an extended family of both adults and children (Ball). The thought of all that always sends a shiver down her spine.
Then there was the more recent Massachusetts Bay frontier town of Deerfield raid in 1704 that gave her pause. Although news of it had reached Haverhill four years earlier, she was not familiar with the details. She may not have known that these incidents were part of a larger war between the French and the British for control over North America. She had heard that French soldiers and their Indian allies had attacked the village even though the villagers had built a seemingly protective tall wood fence. Fifty of the townspeople were killed in that raid with more than one hundred taken prisoner, many dying along the winter’s journey to snow encrusted Canada (Library).
Hagar knew that if there were to be a raid of Haverhill, she would have only herself to depend on to save her own dark skin. Although she ate with the Reverend Rolfe’s family and slept by their hearth, she knew saving her life was not a high priority for them. She had already been bought and sold twice. They were her owners, not her kin.
In one of her ruminations about a possible attack, she had hit upon a variation on the classic game of hide and seek. It became a favorite with the young Rolfe girls, Elizabeth and Mary. Instead of everyone except one hiding, each took turns one at a time. In this way, both girls had the same amount of practice evading “capture.” It soon became apparent to them all that the basement was the best place to hide. It was dark at noon even on the cloudless midsummer day they first played the game.
Hagar was intimately familiar with the provisions and sundry household objects such as washtubs kept in the basement, a cool place in summer and not quite freezing in winter. Each and every apple she had picked in the fall was gently placed inside one of the large wooden barrels so as not to bruise it. The plentiful nuts from the hickory and black walnut trees in the surrounding forests had their new home inside one of the resident ceramic crocks.
The cheese she made from the cow’s donation to the family economy was also stored in the subterranean level of the house. She would set milk from early morning milkings in a pot over the massive central fireplace to warm and then to curdle as a first step in cheese making. She then would break up the curds in a basket and shape them with the press. Next she would churn the cheese on the cheese-ladder while at the same time rubbing the fat blocks. And let’s not forget the butter making, (Earle 85), the preserving of meats and fish, the pickling of everything from asparagus to green walnuts, the preserving of berries. Washing clothes was another important aspect of her enslaved work life, along with hauling the tubs up and down the steps.
So one fateful morning on August 29, 1708, Hagar was not counting on the three soldiers assigned to protect the Reverend Rolfe’s household to save her and the girls under her charge. And it is a good thing she did not.
At dawn’s early light, Mrs. Smith, an unfortunate neighbor, was first sighted outside and shot dead by a raiding party of Indians. On hearing the disturbance, Rolfe rushed to the front door to hold the raiders back but was soon wounded through the elbow with one of two shots fired. The soldiers, frozen with fear, were of no use. The wounded minister, fending for himself, ran out the back door but was soon tomahawked near the backyard well, and drew his last breath. Mrs. Mehitable Rolfe and her infant child also met a bloody end. The soldiers begged for their lives but were soon dispatched as well.
And where was Hagar, along with eleven year old Elizabeth and nine year old Mary?
Hagar hurried the girls downstairs and into the cellar. They weren’t alone for long because after the slaughter of their parents, baby sister and the soldiers, the Indians found their way, and began plundering for foodstuffs.
Elizabeth and Mary both had quickly hidden under the wooden tubs, but were passed closely by several times. One of the raiders even stepped on one of the girls’ feet, but she remained silent, and was left undiscovered. Close call.
Hagar, too large to hide under a tub, sat silently behind the meat barrel from which the men helped themselves. She too remained undiscovered.
Hagar, as a result of her many duties, always left milk in cellar pans to separate out cream through rising. The invaders soon found the milk and started drinking. However, Hagar, Mary and Elizabeth continued in their silence and stillness. Once satiated, the men tossed the pans onto the floor and left (Drake).
Look closely at the drawing to try finding the two youngsters hiding in the dark. Can you see them?
Was the survival of Hagar and the girls, Elizabeth and Mary, due to careful planning by the enslaved woman? We do not know what Hagar’s actual thoughts were, before, during or after the raid, as she left no diary, journal or letter. As a Black enslaved woman, she was most likely never taught to read or write. Whether she was born into the family or was sold multiple times before, not an uncommon occurrence, is also unknown. But her heroic saving of the youngsters from kidnapping or worse by hiding them in the cellar under the milk pans, with one of their feet being stepped on is historically established. And so is Hagar’s seeking of protection behind the basement meat barrel (Drake, Chase). However, we still may never be completely sure of the details.
If someone reading this is a descendant of the revolutionary Samuel Adams, let it be known that you might owe a debt of gratitude to her as well for your very existence. Here’s why. Elizabeth went on to marry a minister, the Rev. Samuel Checkley, Sr., of Boston. One of their daughters, Elizabeth Checkley, married the future Founding Father, the first of his two wives. Before Elizabeth died, she gave birth to two children who lived to adulthood, Hannah Adams and Samuel Adams, Jr.
And if you are a descendant of Hagar, claim her. According to Chase’s, The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, she “‘owned the covenant, and was baptized,’ with her children, (two sons and one daughter) by Rev. Mr. Gardner, in 1711” (241), after the raid.
Atkinson, Jay. Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston’s Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America. LP, 2017. Guilford, CT.
Ball, Margaret Haig Roosevelt Sewall (2006). [Grim Commerce: Scalps, Bounties, and the Transformation of Trophy-Taking in the Early American Northeast, 1450-1770, University of Colorado]. https://scholar.colorado.edu/downloads/ms35t873h
Chase, George Wingate. The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, from Its First Settlement, in 1640, to the year 1860. Chase, 1861, Haverhill.
Drake, Samuel Adams. The Border Wars of New England. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897, New York. https://archive.org/…/borderwarsofnewe00drakuoft_djvu.txt
Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. Dover Publications, Inc., 2012, Mineola, NY. This book was originally published in 1898 by Macmillan Co., NYC.
Elsey, Erin. “Hagar of Haverhill, Massachusetts.” 2021. Charcoal drawing. eraart.com
Library of Congress. “Raid of Deerfield, Massachusetts in Queen Anne’s War, February 29, 1704.” America’s Story from America’s Library. http://www.americaslibrary.gov/…/jb_colonial_deerfld_3…
O’Hara, Kathryn. “Female captivity Narratives in Colonial America.” The Gettysburg Historical Journal, Vol. 8, Article 4. 2009
I am a descendant of The Rev.
Benjamin Rolfe Sr and Jr.
I have studied genealogy for years. I love telling the story of Hagar saving the children from the Indians.
Are you a descendant of one of his daughters?