“His Own Proper Negro Slave”: Amos Newport & his Descendants in Hatfield, Williamsburg & Amherst
© 2014 Eric W. Weber, president and genealogist of the Williamsburg Historical Society. The following is a slightly modified version of a talk given to the Williamsburg Historical Society in May 2008. The author thanks Prof. Robert H. Romer, Neil B. Todd, and Tracey Newport-Sholly for their invaluable assistance and support in preparing it.
I first encountered the name of Peter Newport in a pastiche of anonymously penned recollections of early Williamsburg that Northampton Gazette publisher Henry S. Gere, a Williamsburg native, printed in serialized form in his newspaper in 1860 and ’61. A paragraph about Williamsburg people who had lived to great ages hinted at an interesting story:
Great numbers of persons have died in Williamsburg at very advanced ages, between 80 and 95 years and some even at 96, 7 and 8 years, while one was supposed to be over 100 years when he died. He was an African, stolen from Africa, when a small boy, brought to Barbadoes in the West Indies, thence to Newport, Rhode Island, and thence to Connecticut River; was freed by the emancipation laws of Massachusetts in 1778, lived many years in Hatfield, in a state of slavery. His master, gave him 60 acres of land and money enough to build a house and stock his farm. His was the only African family in town. His name was Peter Newport.
Plucking at these threads from time to time in the succeeding years, I learned that most of the “facts” in the Gazette’s account were garbled or flat wrong. As I discovered the truth about Peter and his father Amos, with whom the Gazette had partly conflated him, their stories proved even more fascinating than I had hoped.
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These presents witness that I David Ingersoll of Springfield in the County of Hampshire in the Province of ye Massachusetts Bay in New England, shopkeeper, have sold, set over & delivered in Plain St. Green Market a certain young Negro Boy named Teo alias Newport for consideration of fifty pounds to Joseph Billing of Hatfield in sd. County & Province aforesaid, yeoman.
These words scrawled on a slip of paper sentenced the African boy who would later call himself Amos Newport to a lifetime of servitude on the farm of well-to-do Hatfield gentleman Joseph Billings. We don’t know how he came to be called Amos instead of Teo, or even how he had come to be called Teo. But we know he chose to be called Newport, because his master, Joseph Billings, never called him or his children by that name — refused, in fact, to use it even in the most formal legal documents. For Amos to take and use any surname at all, whatever its origin, was an act of defiance in an era when very few black people in Massachusetts had surnames. For a genealogist, people without surnames in America are extremely hard to identify and trace, and many African Americans struggle and fail to discover their ancestors for this reason. For those who succeed through good luck and determination, I have great admiration. It’s because Amos insisted on his surname, however he came by it, that I can tell you the stories that follow.
* * *
Few Massachusetts residents realize that in 1641, three years after the arrival of Boston’s first African slaves, Massachusetts became the first American colony to institutionalize certain forms of slavery, beating Virginia and Maryland by 19 years. It is arguable that the African slave trade was sanctioned in that year by Section 91 of the Body of Liberties of the Province of Massachusetts — the main thrust of which is actually to prohibit slavery. By qualifying the general prohibition against slavery in Section 91, its author clearly intended to leave openings for slavery of specific kinds under specific circumstances, and it has been argued that the African slave trade was meant to fit through one of those openings. The fact that the prohibition was not absolute, but contained several unclear and debatable qualifications, serves to illustrate just how complex the prohibition of slavery was seen to be, even before slavery had really gained a foothold in European New England. Throughout the 17th century and most of the 18th, slavery was practiced as a matter of course and long-established custom all over the world — including pre-contact America, where native people had captured and enslaved each other in various ways for centuries. And whether or not African slavery was truly legal here ultimately makes little difference: it was an established feature of Massachusetts culture from 1638 on.
Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that at least as early as 1703, slaves in Massachusetts had the right to appear, testify, and sue in the courts of the province, including the right to sue their masters. Between 1703 and 1766, at least nine documented “freedom suits” were tried in which Massachusetts slaves directly challenged their owners’ right to hold them in bondage. There would be about 20 more such suits in the 17 years that followed, until a landmark case in 1783 put an end to them.
* * *
By 1766, Amos Newport had been a slave to Joseph Billings for 37 years — at least two thirds of his life. He was well into his 40s or 50s. He had been married, formally or informally, and had at least two sons. He probably lived in or near the Billings home on the west side of Main Street in Hatfield, which still stands near what is now called Billings Way. Beyond these few facts, his life before 1766 is a blank. The records of the town tell us nothing about him, his wife, or their children as individuals. Not people but property, they led lives that are invisible to us. Hatfield’s one-line report prepared for inclusion in the Massachusetts Slave Census of 1754 had read, “This may certify that there is in the Town of Hatfield five male & four female Negro slaves & no more.” That was all the information recorded about them. No names, no ages, no origins, no family relationships: those could all be changed or dispensed with at a slaveowner’s whim. Only the number of bodies sixteen or more years old was of interest to the census. We can be certain that Amos was one of the four men. His sons probably weren’t old enough then to be counted. His wife, if still alive, was probably one of the five women.
In 1766 the smoldering resentment that Amos Newport had harbored throughout his bondage burst out. He filed suit against Joseph Billings, demanding his freedom and damages for the abuses he had suffered. No freedom suit had been filed in the Pioneer Valley before. Imagine the sensation as word of Amos’ challenge spread through Hatfield’s scattered slave quarters and on to slaves elsewhere in the valley.
Newport v. Billing came to trial in the Hampshire County Inferior Court of Common Pleas in Northampton at the November 1766 session. Amos was represented by rising Springfield lawyer Moses Bliss, later a notable Judge of Common Pleas himself. Billings was represented by Amherst lawyer Simeon Strong, a future Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, whose home is now the Amherst Historical Museum.
Amos charged that on December 1, 1765, Joseph Billings “an assault made upon him…and…falsely imprisoned and restrained [him] of his lawfull liberty, continuing the aforesaid trespass…for…six months…and many other wrongs and injuries to…Amos…contrary to law & against our peace[,] to the damage of sd. Amos one hundred pounds.” It was implicit in this charge that Amos believed Billings had no just cause or right under the law to do any of these things — that is, that Amos was not Billings’ property but a free man, and had the same right as other free men not to be assaulted or held prisoner.
Billings requested a continuance to prepare his defense, and the case was continued until the court’s Feb. 1767 session. Back in court, Billings did not deny that the events alleged by Amos had occurred. Instead he argued that Amos’ suit ought not to be heard at all. Using a phrase that appeared again and again in Massachusetts freedom suits, Billings claimed that since 1729, Amos had been “his own proper Negro slave.”
Implicit in Billings’ claim was his firm belief that if he could prove ownership of Amos, then treating Amos as he had done required no further explanation or justification under the law. This was, in fact, a matter of settled precedent. While the abuse of a defenseless slave might reflect badly on the slave owner’s character in the eyes of some, it was not illegal. To support his claim of ownership, Billings produced his original bill of sale from David Ingersoll. Through his lawyer, Amos asserted in response that he was “a freeman and not the proper slave of the said Joseph, and this he prays may be inquired of by the Country and the said Joseph likewise.” The record does not show that any effort was made to bolster this claim with evidence or persuasion. If Moses Bliss had supposed that an unsupported assertion of Amos’ freedom would stand up against a written bill of sale, he had miscalculated badly. If he hadn’t, he surely foresaw the inevitable outcome, even if Amos didn’t. The jury’s verdict read:
“Thereupon the jurors…being duly sworn by Mr. Elisha Cook their foreman declare upon their oath that they find for the said Joseph Billing…his Cost of Court.” The judge ordered Amos to pay Billings £16.6.
* * *
Newport and Bliss immediately appealed. The appeal was scheduled to be heard by the Superior Court of Judicature in Springfield in September 1767. The Superior Court was then the highest in the Province of Massachusetts and the court of last resort for Amos. It was a traveling court: the judges and an entourage of lawyers moved around the province and met in various towns in succession. For some unrecorded reason the Newport appeal was not heard that September, and Amos had to wait another full year until September 1768, when the Superior Court again met in Springfield. The record of the proceedings begins with a verbatim transcript of the lower court record, directly and abruptly followed by a terse one-paragraph verdict in favor of Joseph Billings, much like the one in the lower court, and a table of costs for which Amos was held liable, more than doubling what he already owed to Billings. The original bill of sale was attached to the record and remains there today, in the Massachusetts Archives. Amos had no further recourse to pursue. There was nowhere to go but back to Hatfield, still in bondage to the master he had challenged, and now more than £35 in debt to him.
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There is no mention in the Superior Court record of who represented the parties on appeal, but students of American history will be interested to learn that future President of the United States John Adams, who is known from his surviving papers to have abhorred slavery, was one of the lawyers representing Joseph Billings, though in a secondary role. Adams participated in at least four known freedom suits by slaves, of which Newport v. Billing was the first. In each case, setting aside his personal beliefs and feelings and taking clients as they came to him, Adams represented the slaveholder.
Adams recalled the Newport case in a passing mention many years later: “This year 1768 I attended the Superiour Court at Worcester, and the next Week proceeded to Springfield in the County of Hampshire, where I was accidentally engaged in a Cause between a Negro and his Master, which was argued by me, I know not how…”
In the intervening years Adams may well have forgotten exactly how he argued the case, but in fact he took notes during the proceedings which have survived among his papers, and they are the only clues we have to what was said, or may have been said. They show that as any good lawyer would have done, Adams armed himself with every iota of law, precedent, Scripture and common custom that might serve his client’s interest in the courtroom — and, of course, the bill of sale from Ingersoll to Billings. In the end, the bill of sale alone might have sufficed, just as it had in the lower court. The strangest fact about the case for Adams to have forgotten in later years, given that this was his first freedom suit and that he was appalled by slavery, was precisely what he did forget: the outcome. In a 1795 letter to Jeremy Belknap, Adams wrote, “I never knew a Jury by a Verdict, to determine a Negro to be a Slave. They always found them free.”Amos Newport did not recall the verdict in his case that way.
* * *
His suit lost and his hopes dashed, Amos became invisible again. If he returned to Hatfield, he went quietly. I’ve found no mention of him in any record after 1768. His death was never recorded in Hatfield, nor was his burial — but then Hatfield records of slave births, deaths and marriages were always woefully incomplete. What became of Amos Newport after 1768 is entirely unknown.
* * *
The end of slavery in Massachusetts was not clean or straightforward or simple, and it didn’t happen abruptly. It had been a long time coming, and when it did it was the product of decades of growing public support for the emancipation of Massachusetts’ slaves. The debate was familiar to all.
Public sentiment favoring abolition in Massachusetts (and New England generally) had at least two rallying points:
• First, there was the moral and philosophical “rights of man” or “natural law” argument that all men are created equal: the one we would all like to think was decisive, and one that was advanced increasingly often after the Declaration of Independence (mainly in the North, of course; in the South, “all men” was widely understood to exclude nonwhites). As historian Robert M. Spector has written, “It was somehow incongruous to struggle for liberty in the Revolutionary period and at the same time maintain slavery in the province.” Not until the Revolution was there enough moral philosophy “in the air” in Massachusetts to capture the imagination of much of the populace.
• Secondly, and much closer to the ground, there was an economic argument that resonated strongly with white working people: slave labor, available at minimal cost to slave-owners and often hired out by them to other whites, was seen to diminish the value of and need for white laborers, keeping wages and opportunities for the white underclass depressed. On the other hand, these same white workers also feared free blacks as competitors for work — so what many lower-class white people actually wanted was for black people just to disappear. This largely explains whatever white support there eventually was in the North for the American Colonization Society’s scheme to send free black Americans back to Africa: the scheme that gave rise to what we now know as Liberia.
Public sentiment opposing abolition in Massachusetts had at least four components:
• First, stark racial antipathy: fear and avoidance of those perceived to be different, and a failure to recognize commonalities. This was inflamed by opinion leaders in and outside Massachusetts who baldly asserted the mental and moral inferiority and less-than-humanness of black people.
• Second, the fear that freed slaves would become paupers and costly wards of the communities they lived in (resulting in the 1705 enactment of a law requiring those who manumitted slaves to post bonds for their maintenance in case they fell into poverty). This fear too fed support for the American Colonization Society, a largely Southern-based and white-run organization whose unadvertised hope was to rid America of all free black people without abolishing slavery.
• Third, reluctance to deprive slave-owners of valuable human property, for fear of having to compensate them for their losses.
• And fourth, especially among those involved in trade and banking, a recognition that the slave trade was an enormous economic engine for Massachusetts — particularly for the all-important port of Boston, where up to half the shipping tonnage in some years participated directly or indirectly in aspects of the slave trade. The immediate, total abolition of slavery and criminalization of the slave trade would have devastated the Massachusetts shipping industry.
Abolition in Massachusetts is most commonly said to have occurred in May 1783, though it was far from absolute. It took the odd form of a judge’s charge to the jury in a case closely related to the last Massachusetts freedom suit, Walker v. Jennison. Nathaniel Jennison had been the owner of slave Quock Walker, and Walker had already won his civil suit and been declared free when the criminal case of Commonwealth v. Jennison, in which Jennison was accused of viciously beating Walker, came before Massachusetts’ newly created Supreme Judicial Court. Chief Justice William Cushing was a quiet supporter of abolition, and was favorably disposed toward the “natural rights” arguments that Walker’s renowned attorney, Levi Lincoln, had brought to bear in Walker v. Jennison. Cushing professed to find those same arguments enshrined in legal black and white in a document that had never before been considered in a slavery case: the Declaration of Rights in the new Massachusetts Constitution, written in 1780 by John Adams. The Declaration said in part that all men were “born equally free and independent” with certain “natural, essential and inalienable rights.” Adams had copied this language from the constitutions of Virginia and Pennsylvania, where — as he well knew — it had done nothing at all to end slavery. But Cushing opted to take the language at face value and give it the broadest possible application: he interpreted “all men” to include black men. As historian Emily Blanck writes, Cushing “declared that the concept of natural rights bound the framers to ‘declare that all men are born free and equal’ and, thus, that ‘every subject is entitled to liberty.’”
In case his message wasn’t perfectly clear, Cushing wrote in his charge to the jury, “Slavery is as effectively abolished as it can be,” and wrapped up his notes on the case afterward with the resounding summary, “The preceding Case was the one in which by the foregoing Charge, Slavery in Massachusetts was forever abolished.” It seems likely that no one was more pleasantly surprised by Cushing’s novel and radical interpretation of the Declaration of Rights than its author, John Adams.
The practical effect of Cushing’s charge was to put slaveholders on notice that they could never again expect the backing of the courts in Massachusetts. No law was enacted here that declared all slaves free, and no official proclamation went out. But within a short time after Commonwealth v. Jennison, it was widely understood that masters could no longer resort to the courts if their slaves refused to work, demanded arrangements more to their liking, or simply walked away. Any black person who was detained or abused by anyone claiming to own him could go to court and be assured of victory and damages. Freedom suits came to an end: slavemasters couldn’t hope to contest them successfully.
Left unresolved, though, were a thicket of thorny issues, including the status of runaway slaves fleeing to or through Massachusetts, slaves visiting Massachusetts temporarily in the company of their masters, slaves taking up residence in Massachusetts with their masters, and all the many forms and shades of participation in the slave trade. Most of those issues weren’t and couldn’t be laid to rest by any action taking place only in Massachusetts. Coordination with every other individual state or the development of a muscular and overarching federal policy on slavery would be required, and both of those were impossibilities until after the Civil War. So although legislative acts and court decisions in Massachusetts continued to limn the particular consequences of Justice Cushing’s 1783 decree for decades, there was no law that abolished slavery in all its forms in Massachusetts until after the South’s objections had been crushed and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in December 1865.
We can only guess at what Amos Newport felt if he lived long enough to hear of Judge Cushing’s order, and to learn this shattering fact: every freedom suit that went to trial in Massachusetts after his own was decided in favor of the slave. Amos Newport was the very last Massachusetts slave to lose a freedom suit and remain in bondage.
* * *
Amos’s heroic but tragic story seemed at first blush to be all that posterity really needed to know about the Newports. But as I dug further into the family, I realized that generation after generation, his descendants had quietly and inconspicuously built a distinguished history for themselves in the Pioneer Valley. What follows is an introduction to a few of the later Newports.
For a long time I knew of only one child of Amos Newport: his son Peter, mentioned briefly in the Gazette’s 1861 reminiscences of early Williamsburg. I had found a scattering of other black Newports around Massachusetts in early census counts and other documents dating from 1790 and later, but I had nothing with which to link any of them to Amos, and I frankly doubted that most of them were related to him. Then Neil Todd of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, with whom I corresponded about the Newports occasionally for several years, called my attention to a black man named Dan Newport who appeared nowhere in the records of the town of Hatfield, and whom I had only found on record in Worcester County. Neil told me that Dan Newport had been involved in some sort of court case in Northampton in 1767 — and was “of Hatfield” at the time. I went immediately to Forbes Library and found the court record on microfilm. Sure enough, Dan Newport of Hatfield had sued white farmer Reuben Belding of Hatfield in August 1767. Astonishingly, the suit he filed was an identical twin of the one filed by Amos Newport a year earlier against Joseph Billings, right down to the specific abuses with which each
suit charged its defendant. Dan’s suit was another freedom suit, cribbed almost verbatim from Amos’s — and one that all published lists of Massachusetts freedom suits have overlooked. Alas, that’s probably because after Belding asked and was granted a continuance, just as Billings had, Dan failed to appear at the next session to press his suit, and it was dismissed. He was ordered to pay Belding £1 in court costs, and that was the end of the matter. Dan’s suit had no significance in the slow advance toward abolition in Massachusetts — but it practically assured me that Amos Newport had had another son in addition to Peter.
There is no record of what passed between Reuben Belding and Dan Newport in the ten years after the lawsuit. But Dan was apparently a free resident of what is now Warren, MA in April 1777, when he enlisted in the Patriot army from there. He served, despite wounds and illness, almost continuously from then until February 1782, a longer stretch of service to the Revolutionary cause than almost any other I’ve seen. His military record described him as 38 years old in 1779, so he was born in 1740 or ’41 — about right for a son of Amos Newport.
Joseph Billings and the Newports
As for the man Amos had sued, one of the places where Amos was conspicuously not mentioned after 1768 is the will of Lt. Joseph Billings, drawn up in October 1781. Billings, born in 1700, was as old as the century, and by this time he seems to have had regrets and wanted to make amends. His wife, who was 15 years his senior, had died in 1770. Their only child, a son, had gone to northern Vermont many years earlier and died there without issue. Joseph’s brothers Samuel and Zechariah were also dead. He left legacies to his last surviving brother and to several nieces and nephews living in other towns. He ordered the rest of his considerable estate to be divided between two nephews (whom he called “cousins” in the parlance of the day): David and Silas Billings of Hatfield. He also named them as his executors. And after disposing of his other property in the will, he went on to write: “It is also my will that Peter my Negro manservant shall be from and after my decease, and is manumitted and set free. Also the children of the said Peter, to wit Jonah, Peter, Eliphalet and Amos, shall be manumitted and set free as soon as they shall arrive, respectively, at the age of twenty-one years; in the mean time they shall be subjected to, under the control of, and in the immediate service of, my aforesaid loving cousins David Billing and Silas Billing… And it is my will, and I do hereby direct and order my executors…that, in case my Negro man Peter, [or] his boys…shall fall into poverty and want, they take due and seasonable care, to relieve and help him [or] them, as need shall require.” In light of this solicitude that Billings however belatedly extended to Peter and his sons, I find it inconceivable that he wouldn’t also have freed Amos, had Amos still been his slave after 52 years. So I suspect that Amos had died since 1768, or been freed already, or perhaps even been sold. Maybe he was living with Dan Newport in Warren. There’s no way to tell.
Promises of freedom and emergency support weren’t all that Billings had provided for Amos Newport’s descendants. On June 24, 1776, five years before he made his will, Joseph Billings and his nephew David Billings of Hatfield had sold to “Peter Negro Junr of Hatfield, widower” for £5, a tract of land in Williamsburg “being part of the lots No. 67 laid out to John Coleman & No. 68 laid out to Saml Billings Heirs in that tract called Hatfield Third Division of Commons, to begin at the west end of said Lots and to extend the whole width of them east to the brook called Joseph Wrights Brook.” Peter was still a slave at the time of this conveyance, as Joseph Billings’ will makes clear. I was astounded, when I finally discovered this deed in Springfield, to learn that a black man in 1776 could own real estate in Massachusetts while he remained a slave. But it’s also interesting to note that Peter did not appear on a Williamsburg tax list of 1779 (the earliest one that survives today) as either a resident or nonresident property owner. Was he not listed because he was not taxed, and if that’s true, was he not taxed because he was a slave? Because he was black? These are questions for further investigation.
Joseph Billings was very much a man of his time, and he made it a bad time for Amos Newport. I thought him an irredeemably repellent figure early in my research, but his will has shown him in a kinder light. He died on April 26, 1783, about a month before Chief Justice Cushing declared that slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.
Amos Newport’s son Peter, who benefited the most from Billings’ late repentance, was the only child of Amos I knew of before Neil Todd alerted me to his brother Dan. In the late 1980s I began researching what I hoped would be a book centered on Williamsburg’s Graves farm, which now belongs to Massachusetts Audubon. I was interested in exploring how land ownership and use had been locally controlled in southern New England before the advent of zoning and other modern regulations, and the short answer was “through family relationships and inheritance.” In the course of my research, I investigated the past ownership of every parcel of land that had ever been part of the Graves farm, and nearly every other parcel within a mile of it. I read everything I could find about the history of Williamsburg, including the Gazette article from 1861 that I quoted above, and I looked into the ancestry of every person who had lived on or near the Graves farm before 1920.
One day at the Registry of Deeds I was reading a deed that conveyed a parcel abutting the Graves farm when Peter Newport’s name leapt off the page, and I recalled the 1861 passage in the Gazette about the early black centenarian of Williamsburg. I had found Peter’s farm. At the time I had never heard of Amos Newport; I had no inkling yet of the legal saga recounted above. But I knew I would have to find out more about Peter, and in time I did. I abandoned the book project soon after then for other reasons, but the research for it metamorphosed into a compilation of genealogies of Williamsburg’s early families, including the Newport family. Big breaks came when Tracey Newport-Sholly contacted me from California in reply to a Newport query I had posted on the Internet, and when Neil Todd replied to another query.
Tracey knew only that her Newport ancestors had lived for many years in Amherst. Inquiries in that town led me quickly to Jim Smith’s History of the Black Population of Amherst. In that book I first encountered Amos Newport. From Neil, whose daughter gave birth to a new Newport descendant in 2004, I got tips on connections to pursue and information about branches of the family I knew nothing about because they’d never been in Williamsburg or Amherst. Then in 2008 I had a voluminous exchange of correspondence with Bob Romer, whose Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts was published the following year.
In short order I learned that the Gazette’s 1861 account had been comprehensively mistaken. Peter Newport hadn’t been born in Africa; his father had. He wasn’t 90 or 100 years old when he died in 1821, because his father had been described as a young boy in 1729. A long life of hard labor probably made Peter look and feel older than his age in years. There were no emancipation laws in Massachusetts in 1778 (or ever), and Peter was still a slave when Joseph and David Billings sold (not gave) him land in Williamsburg in 1776. He was still a slave in 1781 when Billings made his will, and probably remained one until Billings died in 1783. He was not freed by the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts; he inherited a clear title to his own life from Joseph Billings. His four sons were effectively freed by Justice Cushing’s order, years before most of them reached the age of majority specified in Billings’ will, and some of them undoubtedly lived with Peter in Williamsburg until they were grown or nearly so. The Williamsburg farm was in fact about 60 acres, but not all of it had come from Billings; part had been added a few years after Billings died. The boundaries that defined it at the close of 1788 and when Peter died in 1821 remain unchanged to this day, except for 3/4 of an acre that was added in 1864. The Newports were not the only African American family in Williamsburg during their time here; there were several others at different times between the Revolution and 1820. But those families were essentially transient, while Peter’s family was here for 40-45 years — by far the earliest black family to become long-term residents, and the only one to own significant real estate.
Peter did not appear on Williamsburg’s oldest surviving tax list, early in 1779. The second list for that year showed him with 5 a. of improved and 35 a. of unimproved land. From then through 1790 he continued to be listed, though his reported acreage inexplicably fluctuated. His son Eliphalet was also listed from 1790 through 1797, and by the tax list of May 1794 Eliphalet owned 131 acres of land, though no deed is on record to show where it was, how he acquired it, or who bought it from him before September 1797, when Eliphalet vanished from the tax lists for good. Nor do any recorded deeds explain the varying acreage on which Peter was taxed. In 1788 a Joseph Smith of Hatfield deeded a parcel of land to Peter Bulkley of Williamsburg, bounded on the east by Joseph Wright’s Brook, on the south by John Graves, and on the north by other land of Peter Bulkley, containing about 13 acres. There can be no mistake about where this parcel was, and therefore Peter Bulkley was identical with Peter Newport. The Bulkley name will appear again later in this narrative.
We know from Joseph Billings’ will that Peter Newport had four sons — Jonah, Eliphalet, Peter and Amos — and that none of them was 21 by 1781. So all were born after 1760, and it follows that Peter probably wasn’t married much before then. His marriage could have been several years later, if one or more of the boys was born during the 1770s. Hatfield’s vital records show the birth of a baby girl, identified only as “daughter of Peter, slave of Jos. Billings,” on April 26, 1775. A week later on May 1, the town clerk recorded the death of “Azubah, maid servant of Lt. Joseph Billings.” And on May 13, the baby girl died. This sad sequence must be the childbirth-related death of Peter’s wife, followed by that of her infant daughter. A year later, the Joseph and David Billings deed to Peter for the land in Williamsburg called him a widower.
In 1779, probably in his middle or late thirties, Peter started a new family by marrying Elizabeth Oliver of Hardwick, Massachusetts. One might well wonder how they met, separated as they were by the Connecticut River and 50 miles of bad roads while Peter, at least, remained a slave to Joseph Billings in Hatfield. The answer may lie in the fact that Joseph Billings’ brother Samuel had lived in Hardwick until he died in 1778. Perhaps Elizabeth had been his servant — slave or free — and she and Peter met through the Billings family connection. After their marriage, Joseph Billings seems to have let them take up residence on the farm in Williamsburg. That may explain why Peter appeared on the second Williamsburg tax list of 1779, but not the first.
Peter and Elizabeth had two children. Azubah, named after his late first wife, was born about 1781 and died of consumption, aged 26 and unmarried, in Williamsburg in 1807. Census data suggests that she lived on the farm all her life. And Rebeckah, Peter’s last child, was born in 1787 or ’88.
Peter appeared as head of a household in Williamsburg in the federal census counts of 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1820. His household, including himself, consisted of five free nonwhite people in the first three of those counts and three in the last. His wife Elizabeth died in Williamsburg in 1816 aged 57, according to church records. And his grown son Peter Jr., about whom I know nothing except that he was born between 1760 and 1774, died in Williamsburg in 1818, apparently unmarried. Of Peter’s seven children in all, the only one whose birth had been recorded anywhere was the daughter who died as a newborn in 1775.
Peter Newport made his will in June of 1819, six months after Peter Jr. had died. He signed it with a wobbly “X”, revealing that he was infirm and illiterate and someone else had penned the document for him. It named his three surviving sons, Jonah, Amos and Eliphalet, and “beloved daughter Rebecca Newport.” After the payment of his debts, Peter’s will specified that Rebeckah was to receive all of his remaining estate except $30. Two years after their father’s decease, each son was to receive $10, which “together with what I have already given them, I think will be their proportion of my estate.” No conveyance of real estate from Peter to any of his sons (or to anyone else) appears in the Registry of Deeds, so what he had given to them before making his will may have been personal property or cash. The will named Peter’s white neighbors John Graves and Southworth Jenkins as executors. It was submitted for probate soon after Peter’s death on April 30, 1821, but in an August session of the probate court, Judge Samuel Hinckley disallowed the will and declared it null and void, recording no reason for his decision — so Peter was deemed to have died intestate. Despite his best efforts, in death he again lost control of the fruits of his life’s work. The voided will remains on file today.
Peter’s son Amos Newport and a young Joseph Billings, both of Hatfield, were then appointed administrators on his estate. Billings was a son of Silas, one of the earlier Joseph Billings’ nephews, executors and principal heirs. Amos was an administrator in name only: even if he was literate — and he did haltingly sign his name — he was certainly ignorant of probate court proceedings, so it was Billings who actually handled the disposition of the estate. John Graves, Moses Nash and Elisha Hubbard, all neighbors and well acquainted with the farm and the Newport family, were appointed to inventory and appraise Peter’s estate. They valued the farm at $514 and all of Peter’s personal property at $44, of which $27 was a horse. Because the personal property alone was insufficient to cover the estate’s debts and expenses, the Newport farm was auctioned in 1823 to raise cash. John W. Miller of Williamsburg paid $473 for it, but no deed of sale to him was ever recorded. Receipts for monies paid out by an estate are normally obtained from the payees and kept on file, but Peter’s probate file contains no receipts from anyone. In a just world, each of his four surviving offspring, all adults, would have stood to inherit about 1/4 of the $300 that remained after debts and expenses. There is no record at all of what happened to that money.
John W. Miller sold or mortgaged the farm to its abutter John Graves for $600 in 1826. If this was a mortgage, there is no record that it was ever discharged. But neither is there any indication in public records or in the papers of the Graves family, which include a number of unrecorded deeds, that John Graves ever thought he owned the Newport farm, or that he or his heirs ever conveyed any interest in it to others. In fact this was only the first of three different times that John W. Miller conveyed the farm, to three different grantees, and in no instance does the deed have the conventional form of a mortgage, nor was any discharge ever recorded. What these transactions really were remains a mystery. Miller’s sons Ebenezer and Jason finally sold the Newport farm in 1853 to Quartus Warner, a son of neighboring farmer Aaron Warner. Quartus owned and occupied it until 1901.
As late as the 1990s, the cliffbound, talus-strewn gorge through which Joe Wright Brook flows between the old Newport farm and part of the farm founded by Peter Newport’s friend John Graves was known to great-grandsons John and Dwight Graves as “Peter’s Ledges.” The place had always been called that in their family, they told me, but they didn’t know why. They had never heard of anyone named Peter being associated with it. Knowing what I know now, it seems obvious that the name was a dim remembrance of Peter Newport, who died when John and Dwight’s grandfather was a small child. Furthermore, the portion of their farm that lies across Joe Wright Brook from the Newport property was always known to the Graves family as the Billings Pasture, because for more than a century before the Graves family bought it in 1884, it had belonged to members of the Billings family. It was, in fact, the residue of the two Hatfield Third Division lots that Joseph and David Billings had sold in part to Peter Newport in 1776.
Jonah, who was Peter Newport’s eldest child if Joseph Billings’ will listed them in the order of their births, apparently made the curious decision not to use the Newport surname to which his grandfather had clung so tenaciously. He went by the name of Jonah Bulkley in the few records I’ve found of him. I would never have recognized him where he does appear if I hadn’t found the 1788 deed from Joseph Smith to Peter Bulkley, mentioned above. Peter Newport had been called Peter Bulkley in that deed, so when I found 1805 and 1806 deeds from a Jonah Bulkley to Amos Newport for land in Hatfield, I was sure Jonah Bulkley must be Jonah Newport. Why he took Bulkley as a surname is a mystery. Hatfield’s vital records give no indication that anyone else surnamed Bulkley had ever lived there. Likewise, Peter Newport’s son appears to be the only person named Jonah who had ever lived in Hatfield. The Biblical story of Jonah, swallowed by a whale, may have had a special resonance for Africans engulfed in the dark maw of slavery.
Jonah Bulkley sold a parcel of land in Williamsburg in 1787, but there is nothing on record to show how or when he had acquired it, and his name never appeared on a Williamsburg tax list. Ten years later he bought a small homestead in Hatfield at the intersection of the Williamsburg and Deerfield roads — now Rocks Road and Routes 5/10. He and Amos may have lived there together until Jonah moved to northern NY state late in 1805, possibly to escape a large court judgment that was levied against him soon afterward. The last we hear of Jonah is his sale of the Hatfield homestead to Amos in 1806, when the deed said Jonah was living at Loville [Lowville], NY. No record has been found of him there or anywhere else after then. If he was fleeing a court judgment, he may have taken yet another name.
When Peter Newport made his will in 1819, he apparently believed or hoped that Jonah was alive. How or whether they stayed in touch after Jonah left Hatfield is unknown.
I noted above that Peter’s son Eliphalet Newport had been taxed on real estate in Williamsburg during the 1790s, but had vanished from tax lists there after 1797. He had evidently bought or been given land at least two or three different times and disposed of it at other times, but no one involved in those transactions had ever recorded a deed. The absence of records leaves us no way to tell where his holdings were or how he came by them.
The only federal census in which an Eliphalet Newport ever appeared was that of 1800, when he was counted in the First Ward of New York City with a household that included two other free black people. Nothing else is definitely known of that man, who was not found anywhere by the census of 1810.
I’ve mentioned the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816. The motives of its founders were somewhere between impure and detestable, but it kept good records that now reside in the Library of Congress. When the Elizabeth, the very first of the Colonization Society’s many emigrant ships to Africa, left New York in January 1820, a 49-year old man named Eliphalet Newport was on its passenger list. His age at that time places his date of birth near 1770, in the right time frame for the births of Peter Newport’s four sons. He traveled with two other Newports: Sarah, 40, and Ralph, 17 — presumably his wife and a son. The Elizabeth anchored off Sherbro Island, the Colonization Society’s first settlement on the coast of Sierra Leone, on March 20, 1820, and the Newports trooped ashore with their shipmates in an alien landscape rife with diseases to which they had no resistance. The Colonization Society hadn’t thought to provide them with any medical care. Within weeks, Eliphalet and Sarah and many of their companions were dead of unnamed tropical fevers. The orphaned Ralph survived longer, but ACS records show that in 1833, when he was about 30 years old, he died of drowning. Whether he had married or fathered any children in Africa is unknown.
If Eliphalet Newport weren’t such an unusual name, I would hesitate to link the 1820 emigrant to Africa with Peter Newport of Williamsburg. But the name is so unusual that there may have been only one man who ever bore it in America — I’ve found no trace of any other. And this man’s age and his appearance in New York City shortly after Peter’s son Eliphalet disappeared from Williamsburg reinforce my belief that they were the same person.
Peter Newport knew or hoped when he made his will in mid-1819 that Eliphalet was alive. There is no way of knowing whether word of his emigrant son’s sad death on Sherbro Island ever got back to Williamsburg.
The “beloved daughter Rebeckah” to whom Peter Newport tried to leave the bulk of his estate must have lived on the Williamsburg farm until the end of Peter’s life, caring for him and his house for five years after her mother died. In 1824, the year after her father’s farm was sold, Rebeckah was living in Northampton when she married Philip Allen, a black man living in Cummington. By then she may have received whatever was allowed her from Peter’s estate, if anything, and after postponing a life of her own until she was 36, she must have delighted in embarking on it. It didn’t last: she died in Cummington in 1830, 42 years old and childless.
Amos and Melita Newport
Amos, the other son named in Peter Newport’s will, bought his small West Hatfield homestead from his brother Jonah in 1806, and was married that year to Melita Paine of Deerfield. She may have been a descendant of one of the slave families in Deerfield that Bob Romer has lectured about; that remains to be determined. The first of their ten children was born in 1807 and the last about 1831, all in Hatfield. Five of the ten died before reaching the age of three; the rest lived to adulthood.
In April of 1823, with the auction of his father’s farm impending but not yet scheduled, Amos borrowed $39 from a Whately man against his presumed 1/4 interest in the Newport farm. The loan had the form of a mortgage, but it couldn’t have been a real mortgage, because Amos never held title to any portion of the farm. The so-called mortgage must have been seen by the lender as a friendly loan, secured only by the hope that Amos would inherit something of sufficient value to repay it. The loan suggests that Amos was living beyond his means in anticipation of an inheritance.
From about 1800 until 1844, Amos probably scratched out a living farming his own small Hatfield plot and hiring himself out to other farmers, as many black freemen of the time did. There is no indication that he was as determined as his grandfather or as hard a worker as his father. He got into scrapes: four times between 1807 and 1823 he was sued by other local men, failed to show up in court, and was ordered to pay damages and costs. And in 1826 he was convicted of criminal assault — twice, the second time using a club — and spent two months in jail.
Amos and Melita also had trouble with each other. By 1844 he was living in Amherst; whether Melita was with him or not is unclear. In 1846 Melita, in her own name, bought a house on Northampton Road (Route 9), near the foot of the hill. She was the first African American of either sex to own any real estate in Amherst. Her home remained in the Newport family for a hundred and sixty years.
In 1851 Amos, still of Amherst, sold the old Hatfield homestead. What he did in Amherst is uncertain, but then he was old by the time he got there. His mother had died in 1775, so he was at least 70 by 1845. He may have been “retired,” though it’s unlikely that he could afford to be; he probably relied on his children and perhaps his wife for support. Friction with Melita continued: Neil Todd says the files of the Supreme Judicial Court contain a suit and countersuit for divorce, filed by Amos and Melita in 1856. Yet Amos was still described as married when he died in 1859, and Melita was called a widow in the census of 1860. The next year, aged about 72, she gave her son Wells Newport a narrow strip of orchard along the west side of her house lot, and in 1865 she sold him the house and the rest of the property. In 1866 she married Spencer Brown of Amherst, and on July 29, 1868, Melita died at the age of 80. She had made her best effort to provide a solid center in Amherst for some of her scattering family, apparently with little help from her husband. The effort would be repaid more than a century after her death in a most unexpected way.
Wells and Dwight Newport
Of Amos and Melita’s progeny, only their youngest son, Wells, and his son and grandson are of significant interest here.
Wells was born about 1831 in Hatfield and probably moved with his mother to Amherst in 1846. He married first a woman whose name has not been found, and she bore him two sons in 1853 and 1855 before she herself died. In 1856 Wells was married again to Martha Thomas. She bore their only child in 1859: Frederick Dwight Newport, always called Dwight.
Wells and Martha had lived together just three years in the house he had bought from his mother when he died, a month before Melita, in 1868. He was only 37. The census of 1870 found the widowed Martha and 11-year-old Dwight still living there; her two older stepsons lived and worked elsewhere in Amherst. Dwight grew up in his grandmother’s house and was married in 1882 to Julia Ann Taylor. Their son Edward Foster Newport was born the following year. In 1889, at the age of 30, Dwight took a job at Amherst College. Excerpts from his obituary in the Gazette of July 1, 1937 tell more about him:
Dwight “Doc” Newport, trainer of Amherst College athletes for more than 40 years, died yesterday morning after a long illness, and thousands of Amherst graduates will miss him. “Doc” occupied a place that was unique, both on the campus and in the hearts of the sons of Amherst. It has been said that there was not a living alumnus or undergraduate of the college who did not know and remember “Doc” Newport, and what is more remarkable, there was hardly a man who had graduated from the college in the past 45 or 50 years whom this veteran trainer did not remember and call by name.
A faithful member of Hope Congregational Church, Mr. Newport was said to know the Bible from cover to cover, and could quote apt passages in any discussion of religion or ethics. He was friendly, tolerant and warmhearted. In addition to those who gather today for his funeral services, a host of Amherst men will be present in spirit, mourning the death of a good and kindly friend.
Edward Foster Newport
Dwight’s son Edward entered Amherst as a student in the class of 1909, but did not graduate. He then took a two-year course in pharmacy at the University of Maine, returned to Amherst and went to work under his father. When Dwight retired, Edward succeeded him as college trainer, continuing until 1964, and was also custodian for one of the fraternity houses. He was as beloved among students and alumni as his father had been, and for some of the same reasons.
Amherst College social life in the first two thirds of the twentieth century revolved around fraternities. All or most of them were local chapters of national fraternities, and most of those had racially and ethnically discriminatory membership policies that grew increasingly offensive as the early civil rights movement gained momentum. After WWII, all the fraternities at Amherst — voluntarily or under pressure from the administration — broke their national ties and became local entities without explicitly discriminatory policies. Nevertheless, fraternities and the forms of social life they fostered began to seem antiquated and silly to much of the student body by the end of the 1960s. Pressure to admit women also increased, and Amherst went coed in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s if not before, most of the fraternities had become embarrassing and troublesome anachronisms. In 1984 the college abolished them all, bought the houses it didn’t already own, and turned them into non-membership residential houses — all of which needed new names. The college was asked by alumni to name the former fraternity house where Edward Newport had worked in his honor. They wrote:
As college trainer and house man at Phi Delt for over 50 years, he not only knew the students, but knew them well…He took an interest in all his students, could tell you about their families and achievements. He also knew about their problems, though he did not discuss them except with the students themselves, for some of whom he served as a remarkably effective counselor.
On his own initiative, he had also found local jobs for many black students at Amherst to help pay the costs of their education.
Newport House, a handsome brick structure that was built about the time Edward Newport went to work at the college, stands on the south side of Route 9 near the top of the hill, just west of the intersection with Pleasant Street, and a short walk from Melita Newport’s milestone 1846 purchase. Edward bought his great-grandmother’s homestead from Dwight’s estate in 1938. When Edward died in 1968, aged 85, it passed to his son Ralph. Six generations of Newports had owned it when Ralph’s youngest daughter sold it in 2006.
There may well be other Newport descendants who have distinguished themselves in the many fields of endeavor that have opened up to them since Amos’s day. I look forward to learning about them. But as a resident of this valley for nearly all of the last 48 years and a graduate of Amherst College, these are the Newports I feel most pleased and honored to have come to know:
Amos Newport, an illiterate black man who may never have had a day of his adult life to call his own, carried his demand for liberty to the highest court that could hear it and, tragically, he became the very last slave to be rebuffed there. Yet he inspired his two known sons to struggle for their own freedom and, in at least one case, to achieve the small measure of prosperity that was open to him.
Dan Newport followed his father into court, lost heart when Amos’s suit was brushed aside, then gave nearly five years of his life fighting for the new nation he hoped would one day treat him as any other man’s equal.
Peter Newport, who didn’t own the first half of his life, spent the second half turning a gravelly patch of woods into a modest estate of $550 that he did his best to pass on to his children. It was a stunning feat of determination and perseverance.
Peter’s son Eliphalet Newport risked leading his own little family aboard the very first ship bearing free black Americans back to the strange and distant homeland of their ancestors, of which they knew nothing at all. His act of enormous courage and optimism was made all the more poignant by its disastrous outcome.
Melita Newport overcame the loss of five children as infants, the trials of a 43-year marriage to a weak husband, and the prejudices attending her race and gender, and created by hard work and force of will a home that anchored her family for six generations: another signal achievement.
Over a continuous span of 75 years, Dwight and Edward Newport made themselves indispensable to a great institution of learning, and were beloved within and outside it for their
wisdom and humor. They started and succeeded without any advantages other than the roots Melita had put down in Amherst for her family. Their accomplishments surely would have made Amos and Peter Newport proud, and they richly deserve the admiration of their descendants.
All of us, in fact, can draw inspiration from the achievements of this obscure but remarkable family.
Revised April 4, 2014