Researched and written by Tracy Moxhay Castle, Undergraduate Student of History, Plymouth University, Devon, England. Copyright 2014.
On the 16th February, 1891, the Springfield Republican ran an extended obituary for a woman named Abbie Shaw. Later newspaper articles declared her to be ‘the famous nurse’, who was ‘known far and wide’ in New England. She had rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of her time, travelled extensively, and spoke several languages. These things were, perhaps, not so unusual for a gentlewoman of the nineteenth century, but for a woman born into slavery, they were extraordinary. Abbie Shaw was born sometime 1800-1803 in Georgia. She had not achieved her freedom through escape, purchase or manumission, but through an extraordinary combination of events. Her name was recorded using several different variants, Abbo, Abba, Aboo, A’boo, and finally Abbie, none of which were written in her own hand. Abbie was illiterate and had left not a single, personal, written word. The following account has been has been painstakingly researched, and pieced together from the fragments left behind by those who had known her. By using these fragments, and applying historical context, it has been possible to catch a glimpse of Abbie’s intriguing, and unusual life. Research is still in progress, with the hope that more details will be uncovered regarding this elusive and fascinating woman.
Abbie’s name is first found recorded in Camden County, Georgia, deed books, 1810. She was listed along with sixty-nine other slaves to be received by Catherine Greene Miller as part of the estate of her late husband, the Revolutionary War hero, General Nathanael Greene; her name is documented as Abbo. At the time of the division, Catherine Greene Miller, along with her children and second husband, Phineas Miller, had been living on the Georgia Sea Island of Cumberland for approximately ten years. After the death of Catherine Greene Miller, September 1814, Abbie’s ownership passed to her youngest daughter, Louisa Shaw.
Less than a year later, Cumberland was to become British occupied territory during the war of 1812. Vice Admiral, George Cockburn, second in command of the British forces on the North Atlantic Station, had established his headquarters within Louisa Shaw’s home, Dungeness, at the southern end of the Island. In April 1814, Cockburn’s superior, Admiral Alexander Cochrane had issued a proclamation. Its purpose was to instil fear into white Southern American slaveholders by offering freedom to the American slave population. Any slave able to reach a British vessel or British occupied territory was offered freedom and protection. For many slaves the prospect of freedom was too great, Louisa Shaw’s slaves were no exception. All were purported to have fled to the British. Abbie had also reached for freedom, only to have it cruelly snatched from her when compelled by the British to return, and wait upon her mistress Louisa Shaw.
Cockburn’s occupation of Dungeness appears to have been a cordial affair. Two marriages between British officers and local young ladies occurred shortly after peace had been declared. On hearing of the ratification of the peace treaty between the two countries, 25th February 1815, Vice Admiral Cockburn had applied a very liberal, and inventive, interpretation of the Peace Treaty of Ghent. Under the first article of the Treaty, American commissioners had demanded that he return all public and private property. This included the slaves, he had received on Cumberland Island prior to, and at the point, of ratification. He was unwilling to return any of the one thousand five hundred newly emancipated slaves who had sought refuge with the British on Cumberland Island. On the 10th March Cockburn furnished American commissioners with a list recording the property he was willing to concede. The only slaves to be returned were those previously belonging to Louisa Shaw, or her extended family. Cockburn appears to have returned them out of a duty of courtesy to his hostess.
Over the years Abbie’s position within Louisa Shaw’s household evolved into a relationship of trust, affection, and perhaps on Louisa Shaw’s behalf, even dependence. At some point after her husband’s death in 1820 Louisa Shaw had begun to suffer from ill health. On the 4th of June, 1825, Louisa Shaw, her niece by marriage, Margaret Greene, and Abbie set sail from Charleston, bound for Liverpool. This was not the first European trip that Louisa Shaw had undertaken. She had travelled to Scotland with her husband in May 1815, James Shaw had been ill prior to, and during the journey. In light of her own ill health, it may have been a recollection of the discomfort her husband had endured travelling whilst unwell, that had prompted her to take Abbie for additional support and assistance. Friend of the family, Marquis Lafayette, had been visiting America in 1825, and it plausible to suggest that he persuaded Louisa Shaw that an extended trip to Europe would prove beneficial to her health. Their first stop was Cheltenham Spa, a town in Gloucestershire, England. It had become famous during the regency period for the healing properties of its spring water. England did not recognise the institution of slavery on her soil; the moment Abbie stepped off the ship in Liverpool she would effectively have become a free woman. Louisa Shaw would have been well informed of the possible consequence of Abbie choosing not to return to the United States. It was a choice that Abbie evidently did not choose to make.
From England they travelled to the continent, where they spent an extended period of time at La Grange and in Paris as guests of Marquis Lafayette. A future employer of Abbie’s would note how Abbie once recalled dipping a curtsy to the famous Marquis when coming upon him out walking in his garden. Louisa Shaw and Abbie are listed on a ship’s manifest as returning to the United States, September 1827.
A few years later in April 1831 Louisa Shaw died of a short illness, and Abbie’s life underwent a dramatic change. The reading of her will revealed some extraordinary requests concerning her slave Aboo, the same women who would later become known as Abbie Shaw. It states that Aboo might go and ‘reside where she pleases’. The language used for the requests regarding Abbie’s future gives the illusion of freedom. However, Georgia slave laws prohibited manumission through last will and testament, unless specifically provided by legislation agreed; no such application or agreement was ever made for Abbie. The will also directed Abbie to be paid a stipend of one hundred dollars along with ‘twenty-five Bushels of corn’ and ‘fifty pounds of bacon’ per year as long as she lived. Louisa Shaw had clearly felt a caring personal, perhaps even maternal, duty towards safeguarding Abbie’s future. Her wish was for Abbie to have ‘full liberty’ regarding her and her daughter’s future. Abbie and her daughter Emily were the only slaves to be mentioned specifically by name in the last will and testament, highlighting their personal importance. The responsibility of ensuring the fulfilment of Louisa Shaw’s wishes fell to her nephew, executor, and chief inheritor, Phineas Miller Nightingale. Following the American financial panic of 1837, which saw the collapse of cotton prices, Nightingale, like many other southern plantation owners, suffered financially. Fulfilling the duties imposed by his Aunt’s last will and testament must have weighed heavily.
Between the time of Louisa Shaw’s death in 1831 and November 1832 Abbie moved to Philadelphia, residing with Mrs Margaret Greene, the same Margaret Greene that Abbie had accompanied along with Louisa Shaw, to Europe. Margaret had been ill during the winter months of 1832, and, in all likelihood, had need of Abbie’s nursing skills, by the end of November Margaret had made a full recovery. In December, for reasons unknown, Abbie decided, very suddenly, to leave Philadelphia and Margaret Greene. She took a passage on the Brig Frances from Philadelphia to Savannah on the 21st December 1832; arriving back in the slave state of Georgia on the 29th December 1832. Initially, Abbie may have returned to Cumberland Island, but by 1836 she had hired herself out to John and Sarah Ingersoll in Savannah. Her position was nurse to their first child of seven, Julia West Ingersoll. Abbie’s responsibilities included transporting two year old Julia to and from her nursery in Savannah. John Ingersoll had moved, 1830, from his home of Norwich, Connecticut to St Mary’s, Georgia; the closest mainland town to Cumberland Island. Here he had worked for a lumber business, Ripley, Clark & Co, the company furnished local plantations with supplies; their patronage would, most likely, have included those on Cumberland Island. It is at this point, while carrying out duties for her mistress Louisa Shaw, that Abbie may have first met one of her future employers, John Ingersoll. The St Mary’s business failed, 1835. John Ingersoll along with his new wife, moved to Savannah, here he set up a mercantile business, partnered by his younger brother Edward Ingersoll, who joined him in Savannah from Springfield, Massachusetts.
The financial panic of 1837 hit the southern states economy hard, the plantations that had done business with John and Edward could not turn their cotton into cash and pay their accounts. The business failed and Edward returned to Springfield. By 1841 Edward had secured the position of military storekeeper for the American Armoury in Springfield. Seven years later, June 1848, John Ingersoll, plagued with ill health, also returned to Springfield, Massachusetts, with his family. It is plausible to suggest that Abbie chose this time to make a permanent move north, accompanying the Ingersolls to Springfield with her own family of four young children. A landmark 1836 court case in Massachusetts, ‘Commonwealth v. Aves’ had presented Abbie with an opportunity. The outcome of the case had concluded that any slave entering the boundary of Massachusetts, providing they were not deemed a fugitive, would become a free person of colour with all the legal rights which that entailed. The Fugitive slave act of 1793 had required citizens to aid the return of any escaped slave. Under the terms of Louisa Shaw’s will Abbie, and her children had the freedom to reside wherever they wished, they had not runaway therefore could not be deemed fugitives.
The 1850 census records Abbie and three of her four children living at 240 Pendleton Ave, Springfield, Massachusetts. However, her youngest daughter, Ethalinda, was residing at the home of Dr Worthington Hooker in Norwich, New London, Connecticut. Hooker was brother-in-law to John and Edward Ingersoll. Connecticut had outlawed slavery in 1848; perfect timing for Abbie to seek employment in her profession of a lady’s or, as it was more commonly called, monthly nurse. This was someone who, in the nineteenth century, cared for a mother and her baby during the first few weeks after birth. The recommended age for a monthly nurse was between the ages of thirty and fifty, old enough to be sensible, but still young enough to cope with the demands of a new-born and postnatal mother. The Hooker and the Ingersoll families were both well respected; it is probable that Abbie gained her first position through their recommendation even though her age was approaching the upper end advocated.
A monthly nurse’s duties began a few days before a woman’s confinement, her length of employment determined by the individual woman’s post natal recovery period. She would attend to all her mistress’s needs and that of the new-born infant. Her status was deemed higher than that of a domestic servant due to the personal nature of her duties. The work was sporadic, with periods spent unemployed; the financial instability must have been a constant worry for Abbie with four children to support. In 1856, a letter was sent by Mrs Ellen Clark Taft, wife of Dr Cincinnatus Taft of Hartford, Connecticut, to Mr William Mackay of Savannah. The letter was sent on Abbie’s behalf and was addressed to Mr William Mackay of Savannah; MacKay was acting for Phineas Nightingale in managing the trusteeship set up for Abbie. In the letter Ellen Taft refers to Abbie as Abbo, and was requesting the release of money from Abbie’s trust fund. She wrote that Abbie’s health was failing, and that she needed the money to travel to Springfield for the winter to be with her family who were poor. Mackay sent an advance of $50, which meant that Abbie could support herself without having to work over the cold winter months.
Whether it was age or ailment that affected Abbie in 1856, five years later Susan Dickinson, close friend and sister-in-law of poet Emily Dickinson employed Abbie as her ‘monthly nurse’. Abbie was well known to Samuel Bowles, a leading citizen of Springfield, and his wife Mary. As the Bowles’ were family friends of the Dickinson’s, it is likely that they had recommended Abbie as a monthly nurse to Susan Dickinson. Susan’s first child, Edward (Ned), was born the 19th June, 1861 at the family home, Evergreens, in Amherst Massachusetts, In a later essay discussing the attributes of monthly nurses Susan Dickinson comments on Abbie’s ‘gentleness’, and ‘rare gifts’, noting that she was ‘overflowing with love and devotion’. However, Abbie’s stay within the household was not to be a lengthy one, the demands of taking care of a new mother, and a crying new-born day and night, were to prove too much for Abbie. Susan Dickinson ‘gently’ removed her back to her own home and family in Springfield. [Abbie is recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census in the Springfield home of her daughter Louisa & Eldridge Jones.] The relationship between Abbie and the Dickinsons appears to have remained warm and cordial, with Abbie replying enthusiastically, in October 1861, to a letter she had received from Susan Dickinson. The letter dictated by Abbie was scribed by Mrs Julia W. Coggeshall of Poughkeepsie, New York.
Abbie was employed in the Coggeshall household at the time the letter was written. Mrs Julia West (Ingersoll) Coggeshall, eldest daughter of John Ingersoll, had delivered her fourth child on the 28th of August. Taking care of Julia Coggeshall’s new baby must have brought back many memories of her time in Savannah with the Ingersoll family. The familiar ties that bound Abbie to the Ingersoll family in the south appear to have been equally as strong and enduring in the north. Where Abbie went on leaving Poughkeepsie is unknown, she told Susan Dickinson in her letter that if she could not secure another position she would join her youngest daughter, Ethalinda Ritter, and her family, in Yonkers, New York. The Ritter family had moved back to Hampden County, Massachusetts by 1864, whether Abbie moved with them at that time is again unknown. However, the federal census for 1870 and 1880 record Abbie living in Springfield, Massachusetts with her daughter Ethalinda, and her family. The last known record of Abbie, while she was still alive appears in the Springfield city directory for 1890, “Mrs Abbie Shaw, Nurse, 240 Pendleton Ave.”
Abbie died the following year after a short illness, but her name and her memory were kept alive for decades through newspaper articles celebrating her life, the achievements of her children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Abbie’s life was one of two halves, a time enslaved, and a time free. She had experienced war, journeyed across the Atlantic and travelled through Europe; she had absorbed different languages and cultures. Abbie had tasted freedom, but had returned to Georgia and slavery, not once, but twice. Importantly, the decision on each occasion was her choice. For her return, from Philadelphia, in 1832, all that can be said is that she must have had a powerful reason yet to be uncovered. Her return from Europe is perhaps not so surprising given the bond of genuine, mutual affection reflected in Louisa Shaw’s last will and testament. By granting Abbie the freedom to follow her own judgement regarding all aspects of her future life, she had given her ‘faithful servant’ a future of opportunities and choice. One of those choices led Abbie to the Ingersoll family and eventually freedom.