Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Julie P. Winch

Second Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Third Advisor

Bonnie Miller


The existence of slavery was a fact of life for everyone that lived in Massachusetts in the 18th century. Its New England roots were set in the earliest years of English colonization. The history of bondage in Massachusetts began with the enslavement of Natives, and had incorporated Africans into the category of involuntary servitude by the end of the 17th century. In the early years of the Massachusetts colony, New England slavery was not a particularly widespread institution; there were few places, aside from Boston, where Africans were present in any great numbers before 1700. But at the beginning of the 18th century, new imports began to change the color of Massachusetts labor. Documentary evidence shows the number of African slaves was small but increasing, in towns and cities, as farm and manufacturing laborers, in courts and churches, and in the pages of newspapers.

During the course of the 18th century, small communities of free and enslaved people of color came together in several places in Massachusetts, including Bridgewater. Previous depictions of African-Americans' existence during and after slavery offer examples of the experiences of individuals within these "clusters," as scholar William Piersen termed them. But thus far, no studies have examined the ongoing life of one of these "clusters" as they negotiated their way toward freedom. This thesis aims to present such an examination of one rural community from the early colonial period through the first part of the 19th century.

Vital records, deeds, probate and colonial court documents, church records, newspapers, and military documents provide evidence of families and individuals who lived, worshipped, and fought together as they became acclimated to their new world. As a group, they lived through the monumental changes of the 18th century. Seen against the background of those changes, the life of Bridgewater's black community presents a picture of the time when Africans were becoming Americans.


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