by Elise A. Guyette
Stories of people around the globe forced to leave their homelands are never-ending sagas of pain and loss. In American history, such stories include native peoples being forced off their lands by colonizers, Africans being kidnapped and forced into slavery, and poor whites being duped and kidnapped into indentured servitude. Their stories are interwoven. Indentured servants and enslaved people helped establish the colonies of Jamestown, Plymouth and others in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a consequence of this colonization and resulting conflicts, the native peoples experienced forced migrations as refugees from their own land. Stories from western Abenaki history in Vermont illustrate the process by which this occurred.
Forced Migrations of the Abenaki in Vermont
As early as 1630 the Sokoki band along the Connecticut River was trading peacefully with the British. In return for their goods, the Europeans wanted furs, mostly beaver pelts, but they didn’t know how to trap or hunt since most of the western European forests had been destroyed by then. Initially, the Sokoki’s traditional hunting territories could supply the needs of the few Europeans they met. However, the family hunting territories that had easily supplied the needs of native communities could not for long supply the needs of thousands across the ocean. Before long, the traditional hunting rules began to break down and they began overhunting their territories to ensure a steady supply of trade goods. The extra time the Abenaki devoted to the fur trade also took away from their traditional gathering and farming routines.
Because they could no longer live in the traditional way, they depended more and more on European goods for survival. Even after they realized the destruction being caused by the trade, it was too late. They were caught in the European web, and their lives were changed forever. As more and more British colonizers, along with their slaves and servants, pushed their way north along the Connecticut River (and the Champlain Valley to the west), refugees from southern tribes sometimes fled north. This put more pressure on the land and the resources and caused increased conflicts.
Abenaki, refugee warriors and their French allies often returned to southern New England along these same routes to raid the British settlements in Deerfield and other Massachusetts towns. These raids often caused another type of forced migration: Europeans kidnapped and taken to Canada to be sold as servants or to be brought up as members of native tribes.
During the Sevens Years War in 1759, The British finally sent Major Robert Rogers from Fort Crown Point, New York north on Lake Champlain to search for and destroy the Abenaki. Not finding any people at Mazipskoik (Swanton) they continued on to St. Francis in Quebec. There, Rogers and his Rangers killed about thirty people, mostly women and children, and burned the village while the men were away hunting. When the Abenaki warriors returned to their burned-out homes and dead wives and children, they had no time to mourn. Immediately, they chased the Rangers to exact revenge.
Other Indians had warned the Rangers that their canoes and provisions they had left at Mazipskoik had been destroyed. They decided to try to reach Fort #4 on the Connecticut River by skirting the eastern edge of Lake Memphremagog, going up the Clyde River and down the Nulhegan to the Connecticut. Rogers sent a soldier to Crown Point to ask the general to send provisions to the Cohase Intervales (near present-day Wells River). As they tried to outrun their pursuers, many Rangers died of starvation and fatigue. Rogers wrote in his journal:
It is hardly possible to describe the grief . . . of those who came to Cohase Intervales. Upon our arrival there (after so many days march over steep rocky mountains, or thro’ wet dirty swamps, with the terrible attendants of fatigue and hunger) to find that there was no relief for us. . . . Our distress upon this occasion was truly inexpressible; our spirits greatly depressed by hunger and fatigue . . . now almost entirely sunk within us. [We had no hope] that we should escape a most miserable death by famine.
Rogers went on alone to Fort #4 and sent back food, saving the remaining soldiers from starvation. The people of St. Francis were forced to scatter for eight years. After they rebuilt their village in 1767, St. Francis again became a refuge for others forced from their land by British colonizers. Later, as European immigrants pushed further west, members of the mid-western nations fled to both Mazipskoik and St. Francis for refuge. Today the villages are called Swanton and Odanak, and they continue to be home for many Abenaki people.
Forced Migrations of Africans
Another huge forced migration was the kidnapping of Africans into slavery in the Americas. (See chart of Atlantic slave trade: Carriers and destinations.) The Spanish, under Christopher Columbus, forced the first African slaves to Central America in 1505. They had tried enslaving the native Taino, but that failed, so the Spanish turned to Africa initiating the longest and largest forced migration in history.
The first group of Africans forced to New England arrived a year after the 1637 war between the Puritans and the Pequots in Connecticut. The Puritans burned the center of Pequot culture and massacred most of the men, women and children there. They took the surviving prisoners to another Puritan colony in the Caribbean, the island of Providence. [Today that island belongs to Honduras and is named Providencia.] They traded the Pequot prisoners for black Caribbean slaves and sailed back to New England.
These first blacks (both in the north and south) were probably indentured servants who served seven to ten years and were then set free, if all went well. The institution of slavery grew slowly from these beginnings, and the history of slavery in America is long and filled with misery. You can read a first hand account of Boyrereau Brinch, nick-named Jeffrey Brace, who tells the story of his capture in Africa, his years as a slave and finally his migration to Vermont and his old age in Georgia, Vermont in 1810 athttp://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brinch/brinch.html. By the 18th century Enlightenment ideas about human rights caused many whites to rethink the institution. (See Thoughts Upon Slavery by John Wesley).
Vermont’s Constitution was the first to outlaw adult slavery in 1777. But people did not always obey the law. We know there were slaves forced to Hungerford (now Sheldon), Pawlet, Middlebury, Burlington, Windsor, Springfield, Brattleboro, Bennington, Castleton, Vergennes… The list goes on and on. The case of Dinah White illustrates the plight of Vermonters held in bondage despite a state law outlawing it. Stephen Jacob, Esq. of Windsor bought Dinah in 1783, and she served him as a slave until she became blind and sick. When she could no longer work, he set her free. The town of Windsor began to pay her expenses, but they said Jacob should be paying for her in her old age. After all, she had been his slave, but Jacob refused to pay.
The overseers of the poor took him to court, and the case went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court where Justice Royal Tyler would not allow the bill of sale as evidence. He said slavery was illegal in Vermont, so he could not accept such evidence. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that Dinah had no right to expect Jacob to take care of her in her old age, since there was no such thing as slavery in Vermont. Since the town did not get their money, they warned Dinah out of town. She refused this last forced migration order, and the town kept on paying for “Judge Jacob’s Dinah” until she died in 1809.
Other Vermonters also began to reject the idea of forced movements and enslaving people. When the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which punished those aiding people fleeing slavery with imprisonment and fines, the Vermont General Assembly responded by declaring any reaching the state a free person. Many Vermonters backed up these words with actions by participating in the Underground Railroad network.
Every person along these secret routes, black and white, was disobeying the laws of the United States. The escaping blacks risked return to slavery or even death. The whites, often Quakers, risked imprisonment and fines. By the time escapees reached Vermont, much of the danger had passed, but they still needed food, clothing, medical attention and jobs after their long journeys. African Americans were a part of this lifeline to others. Taylor Groce from Hartland somehow rescued two of his family members from slavery along this underground route. Louden S. Langley, an outspoken black activist from Hinesburg, harbored runaways in his home and he wrote to the Green Mountain Freeman in 1854 asking people to “lend their influence with intent of giving us liberty and equal rights in the land of our Birth.”
Despite all this anti-slavery activity, relatively few blacks migrated to Vermont before the Civil War. One famous African American poet and activist migrated to Guilford about 1770. As a child Lucy Terry had been forced from her home in Africa into slavery in Deerfield, MA. Later she married Abijah Prince after he bought her freedom. They had six children and eventually moved to Guilford where Abijah owned land. Lucy became an outspoken advocate in protecting her family’s rights to land and education.
Forced Migrations of Indentured Servants
A forced migration not given much attention in history books is the experiences of prisoners and indentured servants. Convicts were a very important source of colonial labor because of the small European population trying to colonize such a vast area. For this reason, English courts sentenced thousands of criminals to labor in the colonies to work off their sentences. A 1754 journal that supplies a window into the reasons for forced servitude of poor whites is that of Gottlieb Mittelberger, On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants.
He related that many who migrated to the Americas by choice had saved enough for their passages, they thought, but unscrupulous agents neglected to tell them about extra costs in order to dupe them into servitude. On the way to ocean ports, they had to pay many unanticipated tolls at customhouses. In addition, they unexpectedly had to stay in port towns for 5 or 6 weeks while the ship was “delayed,” further dribbling away their money and forcing them to replenish their dwindling supplies for their ocean voyage. Many had little money left to pay their fares when they arrived in America. Mittelberger describes the experiences of people on his ship like this:
When the ships have landed at Philadelphia after their long voyage, no one is permitted to leave them except those who pay for their passage or can give good security; the others, who cannot pay, must remain on board the ships till they are purchased, and are released from the ships by their purchasers. The sick always fare the worst, for the healthy are naturally preferred and purchased first; and so the sick and wretched must often remain on board in front of the city for 2 or 3 weeks, and frequently die, whereas many a one, if he could pay his debt and were permitted to leave the ship immediately, might recover and remain alive.
Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle; for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained; but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going, it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.
Other methods were also used. In England “spirits” were hired to snatch people from the slums and keep them locked up until time to sail. In Ireland, overseers of the poor often rounded up beggars, including children, and sent them to America to be sold as servants. Political prisoners and prisoners of war were also sold into indenture in the Americas.
Often we don’t think about the forced movements of children, but those born in America were indentured as well. The US Census reports give some clues to servitude of African Americans in Vermont. In 1820, most of the servants were fourteen years old or over. Along the Connecticut River, indentured laborers were needed to work in the tobacco industry. One third of the servants, however, were children thirteen years old or under, probably indentured by parents unable to care for them. They worked as household servants, generally the only black living in the household. Two thirds of these young servants were girls. In 1830 one-fifth of Vermont’s black servants were nine years old or under, two thirds of them girls. Harriet Wilson of Milford, New Hampshire wrote a fictionalized autobiography of her life as an indentured servant. (See the entire book athttp://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/hwilson/wilson.html).
Some Vermonters who were indentured, later became famous such as Lemuel Haynes, a Rutland minister,Alexander Twilight, a Brownington educator and legislator, and Prince Saunders of Thetford who later became Attorney General of Haiti. Indenture waned after the Revolution largely due to the increased importation of Africans held in slavery for life.
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