I wasn’t sure what to make of this document when I saw it listed in the papers of William Shepard at the Westfield Athenaeum as ‘indenture 3 year old negro girl.’ At first I was indignant at the hypocrisy of yet another revolutionary figure fighting for the rights of all [white, rich, men] yet dealing in slavery, but after reading over the document I wasn’t really sure what to think. So I decided to dig into the matter.
From what I understand, regarding this document, William Shepard, along with several other men (who were also relatives of Williams’), were overseers of the poor in Westfield, and on the 16th day of November 1791 signed over:
“a female negro child aged three years the first day of October last past, as an apprentice & servant girl unto Capt. Ezra Clap of said Westfield & Grace his Wife.”
Three year old Phoebe ___ was being indentured to Capt. Ezra Clapp for the term of 15 years (until she was 18). And according to the indenture, they were to teach and instruct “or cause the said apprentice to be instructed in the art, trade or calling of a: Housewife” they also had to provide “meat drink, cloathing & prove[provide?] for her in health & sickness & to teach her to read[?] English”. After her term was up, which would be in 1806, she was to receive “two suits of apparel for all parts of her body suitable for such an apprentice[?] & dismiss her from his said service at expiration of said term.”
According to online sources, Ezra arrived in Westfield in 1743 and built his house a few years later. The house was used as a tavern and later as a meeting place for Revolutionary War plotting. It’s operation as Clapp Tavern occurred from 1766 to the 1790s. I would assume that Phebe’s responsibilities were related to those of someone working in a tavern. Although what duties one expects a 3 year old child to perform is beyond my ken.
Ezra appears to have tried to owned slaves, it is unclear at this time if he actually purchased any outright. In 1781 he was sued by a gentleman by the name of Tony “a negro man of Westfield,” for unlawful imprisonment when Ezra tried to enslave him. Tony won the case.1,2 This evidence from Ezra’s past makes me doubtful that Ezra and this wife Grace were looking at this situation as benevolent parental figures. They were most likely looking to get themselves some cheap slave labor, apparently with the full cooperation of the overseers of the poor, which included William Shepard.
Thankfully Phebe’s indenture would be over when she reached 18, so her years of ‘slavery’ were at least legally finite. I am sure they were not joyful ones. (There is no mention of Phebe or any other indentured persons in Ezra’s household when you read any biographies about him, nor his court case with Tony.)
I have been unable to find out any more about Phebe. Having lost her family when she was a child, I am hoping that she eventually married and had one of her own.
1. Tony Negro vs. Ezra Clapp, Case No. 30, Sept. 1781, pp. 204, 216, v13, Inferior Court of Common Pleas Records, Hampshire Co. Commissioners Office, Northampton.
2. Hamden County, MA: Black Families in Hamden County, 1650-1865. by Joseph Carvalho III. Boston: New England Historic Genealogy Society. 2011.
3. “Clap’s Tavern then and now,” Edwin Online, accessed October 9, 2016, http://edwin.westath.org/items/show/476. Courtesy of the Westfield Athenaeum, 6 Elm Street Westfield, MA 01085.