Connecticut

“fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis”

Continuing with posts about epidemics in America during the colonial and early national periods in the age of the coronavirus.

Some parents today do not want their children to receive certain vaccinations fearing they may cause conditions like autism. In eighteenth-century America there was controversy over smallpox inoculations. It’s true that there were at times debilitating effects. ABIGAIL ADAMS explained the lapse in correspondence with her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN in 1777: “My eyes ever since the smallpox have been great sufferers. Writing puts them to great pain.” Warren replied that she too had problems: “weakness … feebleness of my limbs, and pains … sufficient to damp the vigor of thought and check … literary employments.”

Attitudes toward inoculation were mixed: some religious leaders considered it “a distrust of God’s overruling care;” some communities supported it, others passed laws against it. MARY BARTLETT reported to her husband (a doctor who was in Philadelphia having just signed the Declaration of Independence) that hospitals were being set up in New Hampshire to inoculate people.

Kingstown July 13th 1776P. S. I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly as boston is Shut up with it & People flocking in for innoculation; the Select men of portsmouth have Petitiond to the Committy of Safty now Setting in Exeter; for leave to fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis for the Small Pox and liberty is accordingly granted and the inhabitance of Exeter intend to Petition for the Same libirty.

MARY SILLIMAN described to her parents how her husband dealt with people intent upon preventing inoculation.

[Fairfield, Connecticut] April 11, 1777You know Mr. [Gold Selleck] Silliman is state attorney … he has frequently pressing desires sent him from the neighbouring Towns that he should do something about stoping Inoculation. Then he has to send Guards to collect the infected to one place and order to let none come in or go out with out liberty. But at Stratford they have been so unruly and dispers’d the Guard, he has been oblig’d at the desire of about 80 respectable inhabitants to issue out positive orders to desist and as the civil law could have no affect they should be punnish’d by Martial. This has had its desired effect. None that we know of has transgress’d since.

As the War shifted to the South, British promises of freedom attracted thousands of runaway slaves, both male and female, who performed many useful services. This population, however, soon became a liability to the British because of their susceptibility to smallpox. Thousands contracted the disease and were cruelly quarantined and left to die. Thomas Jefferson believed that of the 30,000 Virginia slaves that had joined the British “about 27,000 died of the small pox and camp fever.”

For comments and letters by women, see In the Words of Women, pages 177 and 179. The religious objection to inoculation and Jefferson’s estimate can be found on pages 36 and 133 respectively in Pox Americana, the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A Fenn (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), an excellent book on the subject.

“sort of a little biography”

A couple of months ago there was an article in my local paper that described a situation in a nearby middle school. The social studies teacher had included creating a newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave as one of the independent activities available to students for extra credit. Several parents objected and the principal ordered the teacher to remove the project from the list. As a former high school teacher of social studies (not in the district referred to) I found myself conflicted. I would really appreciate comments from readers about whether you think such a project is appropriate and acceptable.

SOME CONTEXT: From a historian’s point of view it has been very difficult to find primary sources in connection with the slave population. Clothing is not likely to exist as it was usually worn out and discarded. Written accounts by enslaved workers in colonial America and later in the United States are rare. Few slaves could read or write; teaching them to do so was a crime in several states. References in plantation account books were usually limited to the sex and age of the slave, perhaps the name, date of acquisition, and the purchase or sale price. Census listings were equally limited. There are precious few details about how enslaved workers looked and dressed, what their lives were like, what skills they possessed.
Ironically ads for runaway slaves often provide answers to these questions because owners not only posted a reward for the return of the “absconded,” a word that was commonly used, but often provided a description of the runaway: color, height and stature, clothing worn and other information. Historians have been working to create archives of advertisements for runaway slaves. Joshua Rothman, a historian at the University of Alabama has said: “They [owners] wanted to provide as much detail about their appearance, their life story, how they carried themselves, what they were wearing . . . Each one of these things [ads for runaway slaves] is sort of a little biography.”

Transcription of the ad: New London, May 16, 1768. Stolen or Run-away from the subscriber, on the 14th Instant (of May), a Negro Woman named SOBINER, between 30 and 40 Years of Age, of a slender Body, and middling Stature, talks good English, and can read well; carried off with her one homespun check’d Woolen Gown, one blue and white striped Linen Ditto, two Linen Shirts, and one Woolen Ditto, three check’d Aprons, two or three pair Woolen Stockings, one quilted Coat, one Side brown, the other striped, a red short Cloak, a chipt Hatt, a Pair white Woolen Mittins, a Cambric Handkerchief, several Caps, and sundry other Articles. Whoever takes up and secures said Negro, so that her Mistress may have her again, shall receive FOUR DOLLARS Reward, if found within twenty Miles of this Place, and FIVE DOLLARS if further, and all necessary Charges paid by LUCRETIA PROCTER. N.B. All Persons are forbid entertaining or concealing said Negro under Penalty of the Law.

I chose the ad above because it was placed in a Connecticut newspaper and shows that slavery was more common in the North than we are likely to admit. And I believe that the list of particular clothing in the ad for Sobiner is due to the fact that the slave owner was a woman.

Back to the use of runaway ads in the social studies curriculum. While readers may have mixed feelings about a student-created ad as a project, I hope that there would be little objection to a teacher’s using several ads as a topic for discussion and critical evaluation in class. Students could look up the numbers of runaways, discuss motives, the risks involved, destinations, penalties for those who helped them, the likelihood of capture, etc. And they could evaluate the ads as primary sources of information: are they accurate, representative, useful, historically significant?

This SITE is the source for the quotation and provides information on this subject as does this SITE. The above ad is one of the many compiled for a PROJECT by students at Wesleyan.

posted August 27th, 2018 by Janet, comments (5), CATEGORIES: Clothes,Connecticut,Lesson plans,Research,Runaway slaves

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