Catherine & Scipio Pt. II

This is the page from the 1924 print copy of Salem’s Vital Records showing the recording of Catherine’s marriage to Scipio on September 7, 1743. (The asterisk indicates that their intention was also recorded.)


How did Scipio come to be held as a slave by Joseph Porter is a question I would like to be able to answer. Did they meet only when they entered the Porter household? Scipio, we’ll find out from later records, is about 24 years old, Catherine, as a “maid” in 1741, may have been anywhere from 17 to 23 by 1743. Was this a marriage of convenience for both of them in order to regularize an existing, or likely to happen, sexual relationship? Unless she had an early miscarriage, we’ll find out tomorrow that Catherine was not pregnant at the time of her marriage.

Since it’s recorded in the Salem Vital Records, this marriage likely occurred at the Salem Village Church. Those church records are now online but, unfortunately, in a very poor 1960 microfilmed version.

Despite the lack of baptisms, there were significant marriages being recorded in the Salem churches. Thirty-one, in total, between 1720 and 1770. That life for Africans and African-descended people was changing in Salem can be seen in the marriages that are recorded in the 1770s – 24 in total,  over half amongst free people.

Katherine and Scipio – I

I’m going to try to tell a story. Be warned – there’s no happy ending.


This is Katherine’s August 9 1741 baptismal record as entered by the Reverend Joseph Emerson in his ledger for the Topsfield Church. Katherine was a “Negro servant maid” who was held as a slave by Joseph Porter. Joseph Porter lived with his wife and children in Salem Village – just across the border from Topsfield. The farmland he owned is now part of Connors Farm and the house he lived in is now known as the Porter-Bradstreet House in what is now Danvers. You can see pictures of the house on the Danvers Archival Center website.

Joseph Porter had inherited the farm from his father. Five years before Katherine’s baptism, he had married Elizabeth Perkins of Topsfield in her home church. Their children, however, were baptized in the Salem Village church.

So why wasn’t Katherine baptized in the Salem Village church as well? What I know, as of now, is that the Salem Vital Records show only eight baptisms of “Negro servants” before the 1770 and the Topsfield’s VR shows 20. I also know that of those twenty Topsfield baptisms, fifteen occurred in the 1740s.

So perhaps the Rev. Emerson or the church elders were more willing or insistent on the baptism of “Negro servants” than the minister or elders in Salem Village. Perhaps it simply wasn’t worth the trip to Salem Village to get Katherine baptized.

Tomorrow: Katherine gets married.

Communicating History

I’m giving a talk next month at a graduate history conference on my Topsfield project from two intertwined perspectives: the research journey itself and how I shared the research journey in the presentation to the THS.  The conference is being held simultaneously with a separate conference on establishing a field called “History Communicators” and the ending of my talk is my statement on what I think a History Communicator ought to do. I will not have much time to expand on that so I’m adding some additional thoughts here.

Thinking about Science Communicators (which is the original analogy used when the idea of “History Communicator” was proposed), they start with a built-in base of a public taught the “scientific method” as school children for probably a century. Now that science is under political attack, the “Science Communicators” devote much of their communication to explaining more about the scientific process:  that theoretical disagreement is acceptable, even desirable, and there are standards by which competing theories are judged, that scientific research for its own sake is critical to new discoveries, that free and open communication between scientists is also critical to the scientific process. 

History Communicators, on the other hand, seem to spend their time countering “bad history”, that is misreadings of the facts, cherry-picked facts and falsification of the facts. That’s not wrong to do, of course, but it continues the assumption that “history work” is a process of fact discovery. In my conference talk, I portray history work as a process of collective construction and I believe historians agree with me.

The problem is, while there is general public acknowledgement that doing scientific work requires specialized knowledge and training, no such acknowledgement exists for doing history work.  I’m not arguing against independent historical research nor arguing that the academy should have a lock on anointing who is an historian. Natural scientists such as ornithologists and astronomers rely on the work of “amateurs”. I would venture to say, however, that amateur birdwatchers are well-versed in avian biology and hobby astronomers have a good understanding of the theory of general relativity. I’m sure both groups adhere to methodological standards because they want their work to be accepted within the greater field. I am arguing that independent historical researchers or anyone who writes about history should know something about the standards of the history field and how history work is done. Good ones do and academic historians gratefully cite their work. 

Someone like Bill O’Reilly can publish a series of “history” books that are sheer arguments for his political beliefs and they are best-sellers. The public seems to believe that anyone can do reputable history. I argue it is because the public views history as simply discovering facts, as if they were pebbles lying around waiting to be picked up. Historical interpretation is viewed as a political activity and, since “everyone is entitled to an opinion,” everyone is entitled to say what he or she thinks is historically true.

The scientific process is under attack and Science Communicators are speaking up in defense. The historical process has been under attack for much longer. History Communicators need to defend it as well. They need to show how we construct interpretation according to certain standards and logical argument, how disagreement over interpretation is not just conflicting opinions and to reveal the biases of those who hide their political opinions behind a false front they call history.

This is the poster for the History Communicator conference’s public evening.


Slavery in Topsfield

A video of my January 17, 2016 presentation to the Topsfield Historical Society. It was a standing room only crowd.

Note: My talk begins at the 5:00 mark and, at the 35:00 mark, there’s a short break with a picture of the “Free Soil, Free Labor” banner on display in the barn.

This was the first public presentation of my results. I had researched the households in Topsfield where enslaved people lived. I knew most of my audience didn’t even know slavery had existed in our town. I wanted them to see that, within the boundaries of eighteenth century rural life, enslaved people endured additional onerous limitations. I chose to focus on families because I knew the struggle to stay together as a family would resonate best with my audience. Most of all, rather than feeling pity or guilt, I wanted my audience to gain a respectful appreciation for the efforts of enslaved people to live full lives despite their enslavement and for their struggle against it on a personal and institutional level.

Video courtesy of Bob Sweet and Boxford Cable TV.

HistoryCampBoston 2016

I’m giving my second talk about my Topsfield research. This one will be more “behind-the-scenes.”

The Jigsaw Puzzle of Reconstructing Enslaved Family Stories in Rural Colonial Massachusetts

Jeanne Pickering (, Graduate student, History, Salem State University

In the eighteenth century, Topsfield was a small inland rural town 25 miles north of Salem. Although few in number, enslaved individuals and families lived there throughout much of the eighteenth century. Documentation of their lives lies in fragmented pieces spread across church records, probated wills and inventory, genealogical records and a few sparse archival documents. Reconstructing their stories means assembling these pieces much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle using only a few broken pieces from other puzzles and no guide to follow.

I’ll show the reconstruction of the stories of three enslaved families, each struggling through the death of a household patriarch to keep the family together, only one of whom managed to survive through the waning days of legalized slavery in Massachusetts.


Slavery talks

Talks I’m looking forward to:

March 12, 2015 J.L Bell’s talk on African-Americans in the Revolution Army – this should be very good and very relevant

March 18, 2015 Boston: Origin of Slavery Royall House

March 28, 2015 History Camp 2015

April 2, 2015  Digital Commonwealth Conference – Not strictly slavery but the source of much information!

April 15, 2015 The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory

May 6, 2015 Why This Matters: Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites Twice I couldn’t go to this and twice it got postponed, thankfully.

Online Database of Anti-Slavery and Anti-segregation Petitions

I ran across this via

Yesterday saw the official debut of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions. This online database is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Archives and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Center for American Political Studies, and Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

So I checked it out, looking for Topsfield, of course. I found three items which should be seen here:

There are only three:

1840 To the U.S. House of Representatives to remove the gag rule which is from Topsfield directly;

1845 To the Committee on Public Charitable Institutions of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for “Support for asylum for discharged convicts” which was a wide area petition with some Topsfield residents identified;

1861 To the Committee on Personal Liberty for the repeal of the Personal Liberty Laws

The formatting is not easy for the general reader to figure out but you can see the original petitions and there is a transcription of the names.

They cover my subject topic only tangentially but it is interesting to see who signed it. There are some familiar names there.


The purpose of this blog is to document my journey on researching the existence of slavery in Topsfield.

I”ll begin with the caveats. I’m not a trained academic historian nor a public historian. I’m also not a genealogist, librarian or a member of any of the other professions that usually do historical research. All I can lay claim to is having taken a few graduate courses and read a large set of academic histories and journal articles (yeah JStor!)

Eleven months from now I’m committed to giving a presentation to the Topsfield Historical Society on how slavery existed in Topsfield and in Massachusetts and how it ended. I plan to dig into the archives (our own and wherever else there might be something useful) to find whatever documentary record has been left.

Frankly, I don’t expect to find much. Others have successfully done this in Concord and Burlington but both those towns were larger and richer than Topsfield has ever been. I hope to find at least the names of some enslaved people in Topsfield and the names of their owners.

I’ll have to extrapolate from the work of other historians on slavery in New England. I took a course this fall at Salem State University on this topic so I have some works with which to begin.

My biggest problem is really going to be containing my reading of secondary sources within doable boundaries. Besides the work done on slavery in the New England colonies, I’m thinking about connections to Barbados and the other English slave colonies in the Caribbean, the intercolonial slave trade, the New England economy, the English and Scottish and Irish economies until I’m in danger of starting with the dawn of time (which seems to be when slavery started as well.)

My hope is the discipline of blogging about my activities will constrain my searches.