What do you see outside your window?
How far back in time can you travel?
From my early to middle 18th century house today known as The Elms, I see Milford’s Bear Hill, home to an Amazon warehouse, beer brewer CraftRoots, several other businesses, and temporary quarters to the occasional bear.
But let’s roll back the thousands of sunrises and sunsets to the year 1751. Jonathan Hayward, owner of property on Bear Hill, has recently died and the appraisal of his estate is at hand (Heyward).
Almost at the top of the inventory manuscript, you read of his “wood Lott Lying on a hill Known by the Name of Bear Hill Consisting of about forty five acres” and the appraisers’ valuation is over £600 pounds. Like no estate inventory today, among the listed items are swarms of bees, sheep shears and sickles, bushels of beans, barrels of “cyder,” a cider mill and press, several pounds of tobacco, arms and ammunition, cows, colts, swine, sheep and oxen, his “Bible and Books,” and a pew in the Mendon Meeting House.
But there is one item among all the rest that stands out to us today, the “old negro fellow with his Clothes Bed and Beding.”
The “old fellow,” along with his bed and bedding, was valued at little over a British pound. His bones are long buried in an unmarked grave. But his owner’s family name lives on with an eponymous street that runs near the base of Bear Hill onto the main drag in town.
The man is not accounted for in the 1754 Massachusetts Slave census (Primary) because there is no record of a return from the town of Mendon, of which Milford was once part. But even if an enumeration comes to light from some dusty attic or archive, he likely would not have been among those counted. The census was taken by town assessors for tax purposes only in an effort by the state to raise money in what became known as the French and Indian War. Someone beyond their working years as well as children under sixteen years of age were not counted as they were considered to be of little economic value.
If we continue our time travel over Bear Hill heading south, we come to Bellingham and the home of Doctor John Corbett (Crooks) (Elias Frost), long gone from modern day Hartford Avenue at the Depot Street intersection. Here we meet Bess Corbett, her parents Hagar and Cuffee, along with several of her siblings, all enslaved by this local doctor. John had a very busy medical practice (Alden) that Bess’ family made possible by the multitude of jobs performed. There is no end to what someone can accomplish when all their laborers are paid nothing. By the time the doctor dies, he is a relatively wealthy man (Corbett). Dr. Corbett’s Probated Estate Inventory
The doctor gave a slave to both of his daughters upon their marriages (Tyng). When one of them, Meletiah, died early in the Revolutionary War, an enslaved girl was given to her daughter Esther, Bess.
Poor young Bess Corbett, the slave in question, had been sent off from Bellingham to work in the Craggin household in Uxbridge. One day a few years later, there was a knock on the door.
Amariah Frost, Jr., the son of the local minister of the same name, had come to fetch her, saying that Bess had been given to his wife, Esther Messenger, the doctor’s granddaughter (Craggin). Once again this child is sent off to face a new household. Amariah Frost’s Deposition RE: Bess Corbett
We see the two traveling east along the Sherburne road, with young Bess carrying a small bundle of clothing, and not unlikely, tears in her eyes. She has not yet reached her teenage years.
Bess’s enslaver, Amariah, had been friendly with the owners of my house, the Jennisons. As he wrote in his diary in 1773, “Went a Guning in the Woods for Squirrills, with the Jennison’s.” On another occasion, he came to our house, and “ we drank Tea, & Dance ” Amariah was comfortable enough with the Jennisons along with several others “to [have] slept in three beds at Seagrave’s & had a noisy Night.” I am sure Bess was familiar with the Elms since she lived close by. She passed by it that day with attorney Frost.
I can almost catch a glimpse of her. I wish I could run outside to let her know, as I do, that she will have her freedom someday (Tyng).
Who do you see when you look out your window?
North or South, a Bess, a Hagar or a Cuffee is looking back at you.
***A shout out to Martha Hazard-Small for inspiring me to revisit the Bess Corbett story. ***
Alden, Ebenezer. The Early History of the Medical Profession in the County of Norfolk, Mass. pp. 28-9. S. K. Whipple & Co., 1853, Boston. https://archive.org/…/101158355…/page/n25/mode/2up…
Corbett, Jonathan. Norfolk County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1793-1877. Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2019. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. Digitized mages provided by FamilySearch.org) Transcribed by Susan Elliott, 7 March 2022.https://www.americanancestors.org/…/4476-co10/71040798
Craggin, Marey. Massachusetts Archives. Testimony in the case of “Inhabitants of Milford versus Inhabitants of Bellingham.” Transcribed by Susan Elliott, 9 March 2022.
Crooks, Marcia. Chairman of Bellingham (MA) Historical Commission, retired in 2020, in conversation.
Frost, Amariah, Jr. Diary. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections. New England Historic Genealogical Society. Various dates in 1773. Transcribed by Susan G. Elliott, 8 March 2022.
Frost, Elias. Chronicle of the Frost Family. Rauner Library, Dartmouth College. In Frost’s hand drawn map of Milford and the surrounding area, he illustrated the home of Dr. John Corbett in Bellingham, MA.
Heyward, Jonathan. Worcester County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1731-1881. Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives.) Transcribed by Susan Elliott, 9 March 2022.https://www.americanancestors.org/…/28660-co18/682476191
Primary Research. “1754 Massachusetts Slave Census.” https://primaryresearch.org/slave-census-all/
Tyng, Esq., Dudley Atkins. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Vol. XVI. pp 107-9, Little, Brown & Co., 1864, Boston. Transcribed by Susan G. Elliott 3 March 2022. https://www.google.com/…/Massachusetts…/fRAQAAAAYAAJ…