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Searching for Susan Freedom

by
Melissa Cybulski, LHS Board Member
(contributions by Elizabeth Hoff, Al McKee and Betsy McKee,
LHS Board Members)
July 1, 2021


Susan Freedom d.1803, 
Springfield Cemetery
(image courtesy of Betsy McKee)

Under the shade of evergreen trees in a section of Springfield Cemetery near Pine Street, Susan Freedom is buried under a stone with an epitaph which reads,

Tho’ short her life,
and humble her station, 
She faithfully performed all the duties of it.
“The wise and great could do no more.”

Susan Freedom’s epitaph doesn’t tell us much about her life or circumstances, but two details on her inscription are of note:  her last name “Freedom” and the words “humble her station.”  Among the few details we know for sure about Susan Freedom are that she was a woman of color, she was 18 or 19 years old at the time of her death, and that at some point in her short life she was a pauper under the care of the town of Longmeadow.  In recent months, an email from one Longmeadow Historical Society board member to other board members has triggered an eager and urgent search to learn more about Susan Freedom more than 200 years after she took her stories to her grave.  


Indenture Document
for Susan Freedom, "a pauper"

In the process of sharing her fastidious research on the 18th and early 19th century indigent and indentured members of the Longmeadow community, board member Beth Hoff sent off an email with a list of names and details she was able to pull from the pages of fragile, yellowed documents residing in our archives. One name was Susannah Freedom, who was indentured out to Thomas Dwight and his wife Hannah for a period of four years in 1798.  A little quick math indicated that Susan Freedom must have been approximately 14 years old. It was a common practice to indenture children who were otherwise considered wards of the towns in which they resided.  It was a way to provide a needed home, and had the added bonus of giving them an opportunity to learn a trade.  

This email sparked the memory of our board president, Al McKee, who remembered encountering the name in local historian Bob Drinkwater’s 2020 book, In Memory of Susan Freedom: Searching for Gravestones of African Americans in Western Massachusetts.  Was it possible that Susan and Susannah were the same person? Surely the time period fit.  Looking again at the details in Drinkwater’s book and the indenture document in our archives confirmed that Susan Freedom and Susannah Freedom were in fact the same person. The person buried in Springfield Cemetery resided with Thomas Dwight and his wife, Hannah - the same name on the indenture certificate signed just five years before her death.

Now we felt great responsibility to uncover as much as we could about the life of this young woman whose name appeared before us.  As a Historical Society, we strive to tell the stories of all aspects of early life in our community, and feel particularly compelled as of late to step back and look for the previously untold stories and long forgotten names that help us piece together a more authentic view of Longmeadow in its colonial and post-colonial years.  Unfortunately, history of this period is often documented by white men of means about other white men of means.  For example, the nation’s first census was compiled in 1790 and lists only the names of heads of households.  In most cases, this was white men.  Their wives, mothers, sisters, children and servants are unnamed and simply noted as a number in a column.  For the poor and for people of color there was likely not even a count.  

If we wanted to find out details for Susan Freedom’s life, we would need to combine what we knew to be true about the time she lived and think of where she might appear in town records.  Taking what we knew from her headstone, her indenture document, and the two and a half pages about her from Drinkwater’s book, we set out.  We knew her birth year, her death date, her name and that she was a pauper of the town of Longmeadow in 1798.  We know that she was connected with the Thomas Dwight family of Springfield.  Being born in 1783 as her headstone says (or more likely 1784 per her indenture document), meant Susan was born just after the Revolutionary War, and if she was born in Massachusetts she was born just as our state was transitioning away from being a slaveholding colony.  Bearing the last name “Freedom” indicates that she was likely born free, perhaps the first generation of her family in this country to be free from slavery.  Most indenture documents for minors in our collection name parents, but Susan’s does not.  Had her parents died or had she been separated from them?  So far we haven’t been able to find an answer to that.

Her indenture document was very much a standard form that was filled in with name, the dates her service was to begin and end, the expectations of her work and behavior, the responsibilities of her master, and what she could expect to  receive upon the completion of her time.


Susan Freedom's official Indenture certificate 
signed by Longmeadow Selectman, 1798

On August 18, 1798, fourteen year-old Susannah Freedom was indentured to Thomas and Hannah Dwight of Springfield “…To learn the Art, Trade or Mystery of a spinster and housewife…”  The document begins, “This Indenture witnesseth, That We … Selectmen and Overseers of the poor of the town of Longmeadow and in the County of Hampshire & Commonwealth of Massachusetts Do by these Presents bind Susannah Freedom a pauper of said town and with the free Will and Consent of the said Susanna she is hereby bound an Apprentice to Thomas Dwight of Springfield in said County of Hampshire and Hannah his wife To learn the Art, Trade or Mystery of a spinster and housewife; and with him the said Thomas Dwight & wife, after the Manner of an Apprentice, to serve from the Day of the Date of these presents, until the sixth Day of August, which will be the Year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and two – when the said Apprentice will arrive at the Age of eighteen Years.”

To learn the “Art, Trade or Mystery of a spinster and housewife” would have provided Susannah Freedom with useful and practical skills.  To be a spinster had to do with the practice of spinning yarn or thread and housewifery skills related to domestic management and household and family care.  During her indenture period, Susannah was to:

  • Well and faithfully serve her Master and Mistress, keep their secrets, and duly obey their lawful commands;

  • Do no damage to her Master or Mistress, nor suffer it to be done by others, without giving feasonable notice thereof to her Master or Mistress;

  • Not waste her Master’s goods, nor lend them unlawfully to any;

  • Not play cards, dice or any other unlawful game;

  • Not absent herself without leave, by day or by night;

  • Not haunt or frequent alehouses, taverns, or gaming places; and

  • Not contract matrimony nor commit acts of vice or immorality.

In turn, her new Master and Mistress, Thomas and Hannah Dwight, were to:

  • Instruct Susannah how to be a spinster and housewife;

  • Provide Susannah with good and sufficient wearing apparel so that she could appear properly dressed at public worship on Lord's Days and on other days;

  • Teach her to read and write; and

  • Upon completion of the indenture, provide her with two good and complete suits of wearing apparel and a new Bible.

While there is no mention of her race on her headstone, local historian Joe Carvallho III in his book, Black Families of Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865 cites an 1850 book called Inscriptions on the Gravestones in the Graveyards of Northampton and Other Towns in the Valley of the Connecticut by Thomas Bridgeman who identifies her as “(A Colored Girl) bro’t up by Col. Worthington.”   It would make sense for Susan Freedom to have been connected with the Worthington household and then the Dwights since Thomas Dwight married Hannah Worthington.

With the help of archivists Cliff McCarthy and Maggie Humbertson at the Wood Museum of Springfield History who pulled ledger books and other records to shed more light on the Dwight household, Longmeadow Historical Society board members Betsy and Al McKee were able to piece together more of a picture.  In his ledger book, Thomas Dwight recorded details about expenses incurred by and paid to Susannah.  Like most ledger books, Dwight’s included an alphabetical index to people listed in his account book.  Susan’s name was not included in this index.  Thankfully, Al and Betsy dove into the book page by page anyway and eventually found written in ink across the top of two pages in beautiful script the name: Susannah Freedom.  From those pages in Dwight’s record we learn that her indenture ended as scheduled in 1802 and that she then began her services “on hire” for which she was paid.  Between August 1802 and her death in December of 1803, Dwight records purchases of “sundries,” a bureau that she had recorded in her own record book, and then, abruptly, a coffin, a grave stone, and doctor’s bill for her “last sickness.”  Records from Springfield’s First Church indicate that she died of “canker rash,” a form of scarlet fever.


From Thomas Dwight's Account Books
Wood Museum of Springfield History

One final note before signing off with the words “Done with” mentions, “Susan had several small articles of furniture but after her death were delivered over to her sister who then lived with Mrs. Terry relict of Colonel Terry of Enfield.” 

There is one more mention of her in print that we know about.  The fact that it exists is curious.  Someone, likely in the Dwight household, thought it important enough to publish a notice of Susan’s death in a newspaper. The Federal Spy includes among a few other regional death notices in January, 1804: “At the house of Thomas Dwight, Esq. Susan, a negro girl, aged 19.” 


Mortuary Notice
Federal Spy, January 3, 1804

But what about the Longmeadow piece?  Why would Susan/ Susannah appear as a pauper in Longmeadow?  What is her connection to our town?  That is a question we have as yet been unable to answer.  So what’s next?  Off to Enfield we go.  Into their archives and vital records to search for the sister that is mentioned as the recipient of the few worldly items Susan Freedom left behind.

Sources

  • Longmeadow Historical Society archives

  • Bridgeman, Thomas, Gravestones in the Graveyards of Northampton and Other Towns in the Valley of the Connecticut, 1850

  • Carvalho, Joseph,  Black Families of Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865, New England Historic Genealogical Society: Boston, 2011

  •  Drinkwater, Bob, In Memory of Susan Freedom: Searching for Gravestones of African Americans in Western Massachusetts, Levellers Press, Amherst, MA, 2020

  • Dwight, Thomas, Account Book, Box 16.52; Springfield History Library & Archives, Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum

  • Federal Spy Jan. 3, 1804 via Genealogy Bank

  • First Church [of Springfield] Records, Book 1, 1736-1809 transcriptions in Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1620-1850

  • Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016


Check back to the History Notes Archive often to read new articles as they are posted.


Longmeadow Historical Society

697 Longmeadow Street
Longmeadow, MA 01106
(413) 567-3600
LongmeadowHS@gmail.com
 
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