Rising before dawn,
She gathers wood, stokes the fire,
Fills the kettle pot.
I’ve had a hard life. It shouldn’t have been. I’m descended from royalty, African royalty. Many years ago, long before my time, two ancestors of mine were king and queen of their nation. But one day while the queen, my mother, was performing her duties, she was stolen away along with others by men from a neighboring enemy at war with my people. I was never told what became of the king. As for my queen mother, she was sold to white merchants along the coast, and through circumstances only the devil himself could have inspired, she eventually arrived here, on this Noddle’s Island in Boston, where I live today, the life of a slave.
Did Black Betty actually say this? No, and we cannot recover what Betty actually said and thought as speculated above, but a small picture of her life can be sketched from what is known to this writer at present. As to her possible royal ancestry, we need to visit Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor back in 1639 before Betty was born (Sumner, p. 45). Samuel Maverick, the son of an Anglican priest, owned the island and the several people who worked and slaved there. A traveler visiting New England, John Josselyn, who later published a book about his trip, had the following to say about an encounter he had with an enslaved woman on Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor. The mudflats and water around the island were filled in, thereby becoming part of today’s mainland East Boston.
“Mr. Maverick’s Negro woman […] in her own Countrey language and tune sang very loud and shrill, going out to her, she used a great deal of respect towards me, and willingly would have expressed her grief in English, but I apprehended it by her countenance and deportment, whereup on I repaired to my host, to learn of him the cause, and resolved to intreat him in her behalf, for that I understood before, that she had been a Queen in her own Countrey, and observcd a very humble and dutiful [distinctive] garb used towards her by another Negro who was her maid. Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house, he commanded him […] to go to bed to her, which was no sooner done but she kickt him out again, this she took in high disdain beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief”(Josselyn).
We cannot hear this unnamed woman’s voice. As all the enslaved of the time, she was never taught to read and write, nor given access to pen and ink, but I offer the following as something she might have written if she had had the means.
Back home in my native country, I was royalty and had many people waiting upon me. Here on this Boston harbor island, the unmentionable has repeatedly been done to me. I am treated worse than the livestock that are also owned by that bastard Maverick. My spirit is nearly broken.
As for Betty, we do learn more about her. In one case, she appears briefly in an unaddressed and unsigned letter penned by a disgruntled tenant of a wealthy and influential Boston family, the Shrimptons. Not unlike today, disputes over the rent sometimes occurred between a property owner and the leasee, but in this case we have to travel back in time to June 1, 1729 and read from the actual correspondence.
“I [the tenant] am under a great deal of concern & cannot but think it a hardship on me [that] you should raise my rent as your attorneys inform me. [You] have you know [that] I aggreed with you for forty pound [per] year & you promised me [that] I should have it so & I have heard nothing to [the] contrary from [your] self (Shrimpton Papers, Reel 1).”
Included among the letter writer’s many complaints to the landlord, in addition to raising the rent, were the outdoor kitchen subject to the elements, the cellar being “out of doors,” and the taking by others from the tenant’s water supply. The tenant also complained about a recent health scare and, important to our purposes, the loss of the equipment used to brew medicinal beverages to Betty.
“[Your] black betty carried a Large kettle pot tined inside which held four or five pails full I used to brew my diet Drink – I have occasion for it […]” ( Shrimpton).
These two quotes are found in the archives of the Mass. Historical Society among the Shrimpton Family papers. The patriarch, Samuel Shrimpton, who had died a generation earlier, had been a wealthy Bostonian, owning Beacon Hill, Noddle’s Island (now part of East Boston), Rumney Marsh a few miles north of Boston and more. After Elizabeth, Samuel’s widow, died, Betty was mentioned again when the large estate was being settled and came under dispute in 1726 between two members of the family, John Yeamans and Simeon Stoddard, with the latter quoted below.
“As for any Service of Young Moll, Stephen & Black betty the Appelantt had no Occassion of ? for his own private family” (Stoddard).
The writer was Simeon Stoddard, the widower and second husband of Samuel Shrimpton’s widow Elizabeth, here discussing the use or lack thereof of Young Moll, Stephen and Black Betty during the settling of the estate.
But more importantly, in the margins of a document that was submitted to officials in the settling of the same estate, we learn the likely enslaved role Betty played in one of the Shrimpton family’s households, when a marginal note reads “Black betty a cook” (Suffolk).
This might explain Betty’s taking possession of the kettle pot during the time of the settling of Elizabeth’s estate. And she would have likely cooked for the others enslaved on the island in addition to her owners. The others enslaved included Jack, Tom, Amba, Robin, Mary, Hagar and Harry, as well as Young Moll and Stephen, along with the children, Hager, Abraham and Cuffee. And it appears that the enslaved had to grow and fish for their own sustenance. “Such Negroes as housed at Noddle Island they chiefly Supporting themselves by fishing & Gardening” (Suffolk).
Betty’s days were likely long, starting before day break. She likely roasted meats from the livestock on the island and fish from the harbor on spits over the fire she built. Upon the open fire, she used the kettle pot to boil foods. She placed coals around the hearth to provide additional burners for the footed kettles known as spiders. She would have been the master of the beehive oven for baking her pies and biscuits, breads, cookies and cakes. And as the cook, her job would have been as a preservationist of the foods, drying fish and meats, vegetables, berries and the like. Betty was an important and highly skilled person, whether acknowledged in her day or not (Food).
When it came time for an inventory in 1713 to be taken of Elizabeth’s estate, one was taken of Noddle’s island. [NOTE: A question mark not attached to other letters in the inventory refers to an illegible word. When attached to other letters, the word is legible only partially.]
״Noddl’s Island & Stock &c
Goods & Utensils in and about the farm~
House in the tenure of Christ? Capril £20
Stock as ? particulerly £239 6 ~
14 Negroes Old & young onro? another £350
2 Cowes & 2 horses for [the] house £9
Houshold furniture £67 7 ~
The Land Houson &c £12000
A Farm at Rumney Marsh £1000״ (Suffolk)
With no names given in the list of the 14 enslaved, we do not know definitively if Betty was among the fourteen. But in any case, we know that she was worth more than all the lands, houses, and fine furniture owned by Elizabeth. Maybe someday we will discover through DNA living descendants who can take pride in knowing they are related to the late Betty the cook, whether or not she was of royal blood.
WORKS CITED & ILLUSTRATION
“Food in the Seventeenth Century: More than a Kitchen Aid.” Boston College. https://mediakron.bc.edu/capellmanuscript/food-in-the-seventeenth-century-1
Josselyn, John. An Account of Two Voyages to New-England. Green Dragon, 1674, London. P 28. https://archive.org/details/accounttwovoyag00Joss/page/n11/mode/2up?q=negro&view=theater )
Shrimpton family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcribed by Susan G. Elliott, 12 Jan 2023.
Stoddard, Simeon. County, MA: Probate File Papers.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2017-2019. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. Digitized images provided by FamilySearch.org). Transcribed by Susan G. Elliott 29 Dec 22
Suffolk County, MA: Probate File Papers.Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2017-2019. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. Digitized images provided by FamilySearch.org)
Sumner, William H. A History of East Boston: with Biographical Sketches of Its Early Proprietors.J. E. Tilton, 1858, Boston. https://archive.org/details/historyofeastbos00sumn
ILLUSTRATION OF WOMAN IN KITCHEN: Beta.Dreamscape.ai. Generated by the author with the terms, “black woman kitchen worker. 1600s Boston.” I had mixed feelings about using artificial intelligence, but not being an artist, this was my way of bringing Betty to life. I tried at least a dozen different terms to conjure her, and viewed hundreds of pictures generated. This was the best of the whole lot. I also used my browser to find an appropriate image but they were few and far between, and when found, did not have Creative Commons licenses.