Washington Crossing the Delaware
by Emanuel Leutze
Who were John Akley and Sarah Forbus? They are pauper children from Boston whom Ensign Samuel Williams, son of Rev. Stephen Williams, indentured and brought to Longmeadow.
As our regular readers know, the Longmeadow Historical Society has recently been researching paupers and indentured servants as part of our Hidden Voices series. While our archives include indentures for 30 children, through our research dives, we have discovered additional indentures for pauper children, such as John and Sarah, in the online digital archives of the Boston Public Library (www.bpl.org).
We are indebted to The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor for much of the information that we have on the Forbus and Akley families. Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor show that on November 5, 1763, “Receivd, Into the house Margarett Forbush & 3 Children neare her time”. Digging deeper into these records, we can identify and learn more about the Forbus children, three of whom left the almshouse as indentured servants.
Sarah, who was born in 1757, was bound out to Samuel Williams in November, 1764 until October 27, 1775;
Peggy (or Margaret), who was bound out to Joshua Bently of Boston in 1765;
John, who was bound out to Edward Bacon Junr. of Barnstable in 1766; and
Thomas, who was born on November 29, soon after the family arrived in the almshouse (“Margaret Forbush brot. to bed with a Son Nam’d [Thomas]”) and died in the almshouse 20 months later (“Thomas Forbus Abt. 20 Months Old Obit Augst. 8th 1765”).
Two months later, on January 5, 1764, records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor show that the Akley family also entered the Boston almshouse: “Receivd. Into the house Tabitha Akley And 4 Children”. This was not the Akley family’s first visit to the Boston almshouse; sons Francis and Joseph had been indentured from the almshouse in 1762 and 1763. Like the Forbus children, all of Tabitha Akley’s children who entered the almshouse left it as indentured servants. Tabitha’s children under her care in 1764 included:
Thomas, who was bound in 1764 to Jason Haven of Dedham;
John, who was born in 1757, was bound in November 1764 to Samuel Williams until April 1, 1779;
Sarah, who was bound in 1768 to Joshua Clap of Scituate; and
Mary, who was bound to in 1768 to Dr. Edward Russell of North Yarmouth.
While the Boston Overseers of the Poor records give a November, 1764 indenture date for both Sarah Forbus and John Akley, the indentures in the digital collection are dated October 11, 1764. And, the October date correlates with Rev. Stephen Williams’s diary entry of October 23, 1764: “I found my family in Health – my Son was returned from Boston, Brot two children, with him from the Alms/ House…I beg he would help us to do our Duty to the children that are now committed to our care.“
Portion of Indenture of Sarah Forbus from files of the Boston Public Library
Why did the Boston Overseers of the Poor entrust two children in their care to Samuel Williams who lived in the Longmeadow precinct of far-away Springfield? They relied on recommendations from trusted citizens of Springfield. Below is the endorsement of Samuel Williams which is signed by the selectmen of Springfield.
Endorsement of Samuel Williams, from files of the Boston Public Library
Sarah Forbus does not appear again in Rev. Williams’s diary. Perhaps she died, but there is no record of her death. There is a good chance that she spent much of her indenture in Somers, CT on the farm of John Williams, the older brother of Samuel Williams. The Williams family shared their indentured servants and their enslaved servants, collaborating for the good of the greater family. Known indentured servants of John Williams (Betty and Joseph Bumstead) appear frequently in Rev. Stephen Williams’s diary when they are doing work in Longmeadow. Likewise, the diary references times when the Longmeadow Williams households sent their indentured and enslaved servants to Somers. John Williams had lost a daughter on September 22, 1764 (just weeks before Sarah's indenture) and it is likely that his wife needed assistance with household chores. Possibly Sarah Forbus was “lent” to the John Williams family and that she spent much of her time in Somers.
Portion of Indenture of John Ackley from files of the Boston Public Library
John (or Jack or Jacky) Akley (or Ackley or Akeley), on the other hand, appears frequently in Rev. Williams’s diary entries. In January 1776, John Akley enlisted as a drummer in the Continental Army. We do not know what motivated John to join the army but, by enlisting, he broke the terms of his indenture (set to last until 1779) and this caused great consternation in the Williams household. On February 20, 1776, Rev. Williams recorded, “amongst ye other calamities of ye present times is a very Great one – that children, Apprentices – do what they think best - engage in ye military service, without, yea contrary to ye minds, of their parents & masters, an evill this that has a very bad aspect – what shame & confusion is like to come of this – is easy to be seen – oh that it might wisely avert to…” Rev. Williams, who was living in the same household as the Samuel Williams family, was bemoaning the pecuniary loss that the family would experience without John's labors.
By breaking his indenture, John had decided to forego the items that he was to receive at the end of his indenture: “Two good Suits of Wearing Apparel fitting for all part of his Body the One for Lords Days & the other for Working days suitable to his Degree – Also pay or cause to be paid to the said Apprentice the Sum of Thirteen pounds Six Shillings & Eight pence Lawfull Money of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay when he arrives at the Age of Twenty One years.” The financial payment in the indenture was intended to provide the pauper with funds so that he could make his own way and not be a burden to society after he was free. I suspect that John felt the loss of this financial compensation in later years when he was ready to get married and start a family.
Portion of Indenture of John Ackley from files of the Boston Public Library
John Akley served in the Continental Army for four years and Rev. Williams corresponded with him throughout his military service. He completed his first term of duty in January, 1777 after participating in the December 26, 1776 Battle of Trenton and he returned to Longmeadow. There were two Battles of Trenton, but the December 26, 1776 Battle of Trenton was the one that was immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware which is at the top of this article. Rev. Williams wrote: “at Evening John Ackley came home – he had been down, as far as Trenton and was there ye day ye Hessians were taken - he Seems to be in Good Health - ye Lord make him thankfull & humble - he has lost his pack - his Shirts, Stockings - and came Home poor…”
John did not stay in Longmeadow long and, on February 1, 1777, he reenlisted for another three years. According to his pension application, John Akley participated in many battles, including those at Ticonderoga, Burgoyne, and Cherry Valley. He was mustered out on February 1, 1780 at West Point, NY.
John returned to Longmeadow in March, 1780 and we can track him sporadically in diary references as Rev. Williams expressed his concern over what he felt were John’s imprudent ways. For example, on February 26, 1781, Rev. Williams wrote: “John Ackley - & others (among which our two Eldest Girls) were Gone out in Sleighs – to Somers – for a frolick – it gives me – uneasiness that when God by his providence calls to mourning & weeping – there should be carouseing - & frolicking – ye Lord help us to attend to ye calls of his providence as well as word”
In 1781, John Ackley decided to become a privateer. Privateers were legalized pirates who were empowered by the Continental Congress to interrupt enemy trade by seizing merchant vessels. While it was a risky enterprise, privateers also had the opportunity for considerable personal gain – they could keep or sell all of the plunder from the trade vessels. The actions of the privateers disrupted the British military campaign and the British Navy was forced to divert some of its ships to protect the merchants from the privateers; this limited the Navy's ability to support British troops fighting in the colonies.
Accompanied by two other Longmeadow young men, Elihu and George Colton, John responded to an advertisement for the Hunter, similar to the earlier advertisement below.
Connecticut Gazette, July 20, 1781
Rev. Williams fretted about this adventure in his diary:
July 31, 1781: “this day John Ackley – went off with a design to go a privateering (accompanied by Elihu Colton) – I am not pleased with his scheme – I pray God – to keep him from sin - & all evill, & harm – and be pleased oh Lord to give him to realise future & eternall things.”
September 19, 1781 “…in ye evening – twas reported that ye ship Hunter (in which J. Ackley, E. & G. Colton were) was taken & caryd into New York.”
This privateering voyage of the Hunter was not successful and the young men were back in Longmeadow by October without plunder. But, that did not dissuade John from future privateering.
On October 26, 1781, Rev. Williams wrote: “John Ackley – came home toward/ night – he had been at sea, since we heard from him – (before) & they have taken two row boats that had been plundering upon the coast – but ye men escaped – ye company that John was with had two men wounded but John hopes not mortally – John appears to be in Health – and designs to go again on another trip, ye Lord be pleased to have mercy upon ye youth - & to forgive his sins – Lord be pleased to seize his heart for thyself.”
On October 30, 1781, “John Ackley is gone off – designing still to go a privateering – ye Lord be please to keep from sin.”
On November 4, 1781, “in ye Evening John Ackley came in, ye vessel he designed to have gone in having sailed before he got to New London – thus he is disappointed…”
We do not know what motivated John to continue in his privateering - most likely a combination of financial need and patriotic fervor - but we do know that John needed money because he was getting married. On October 29, 1781, John married Miriam Ward of West Springfield and he left Longmeadow on January 8, 1782. John and Miriam lived in Wethersfield, CT for awhile and he died in 1819 in Oxford, NY. John Akeley is buried in Center Cemetery in Rocky Hill, CT.
Longmeadow Historical Society archives
Diary of Rev. Stephen Williams
The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor, Eric Nellis & Anne Decker Cecere, 2007
Connecticut Gazette, July 20, 1781
U.S., Compiled Revolutionary War Military Service Records, 1775-1783
U.S., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783
U.S. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files 1800–1900
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, LHS Board Member
Originally published November 11, 2021