Charles E Wainwright
Presentation at the Old Planter’s Reunion and Balch Family Meeting, 27 September, 2014.
It’s a charming story: Thomas Woodbury, a benevolent Beverly planter promises Mingo, his slave, freedom if the tide around Mackerel Cove ever drops low enough that he can walk out to Aunt Becky’s Ledge. One day the tide lowers miraculously, the ledge appears, and Mingo’s dream comes true. True to his word, Woodbury gives Mingo his freedom, and gives him the land where the event took place. He builds a house and lives out the remainder of his days with his wife a free man, opposite Aunt Becky’s Ledge on what the local residents call Mingo Beach (Strohmeier, 2003).
Hmm. Only in Massachusetts would we find this Machiavellian tale worthy of a children’s book; and yet, here it is. “Mingo” by Lenice U. Strohmeier was written in 2003 and I confess I had a hand in some of Ms. Strohmeier’s research for the book. The legend of Robin Mingo is one of those colorful pieces of local folklore that is so improbable that it must include some element of truth. But does it really? I’d like to explore with you the reality of Robin Mingo and the curious status of slaves in colonial Beverly Massachusetts.
In 1641, the Colony of Massachusetts Bay became the first in the English New World to enact a law legitimizing the possession of human beings as chattel property. Slaves could be purchased in Salem, Newburyport or Portsmouth, and purchases were often recorded in the Registry of Deeds along with real property transactions. Tituba, the woman who is believed to have launched the Witch hysteria in Salem Village was a slave from Barbados. Our first minister, John Hale, owned slaves. His grandson Dr. Robert Hale owned slaves. And Thomas Woodbury owned slaves, including Robin Mingo.
Nevertheless, the concept of slave ownership was never very popular in Beverly, and with good reason. Initially labor was in great surplus in the colony. Prospective immigrants to Massachusetts typically entered into a contract of indentured servitude, an agreement to be bound to service to work the land for a period of seven to ten years in return for passage to the colony. At the end of the term of indenture, a man would take the Freeman’s oath, join the Church, and allowed to become a property owner. As the seventeenth century came to a close, the practice of indenture became less popular and the number of indentured servants brought into Massachusetts plummeted. The children of the first generations of Puritan planters provided plentiful cheap labor to replace them. Farming in the 1600s was lousy, and most “planters” in Beverly had to resort to keeping livestock because their land was too rocky and the growing season too short to plant commercially. Indentured servants were instead put to work in trades like fishing or carpentry, where they learned valuable skills. Puritans had little experience with the institution of slavery, but much experience in indentures. The “Body of Liberties” enacted by Colonial Massachusetts in 1641 laid out explicit rules regarding all forms of indenture. Thus slaves were treated as indentured servants to be freed at the end of their term of indenture, and with the same liberties of any other indentured servant. They could sue and give testimony in court, they could “own the covenant” in their Church, and they could own land.
By the Revolutionary war, the concept of the Rights of Man had taken hold in the Colony, and the number of slaves in Essex County steadily declined. Many slaves were freed in the wills of their owners. Some slaves sued their owners because the terms of their indenture had been ignored. Many simply ran away. In 1754, the first year in which they were enumerated, there were 28 slaves in Beverly. By the first US census in Massachusetts in 1790 the number was 0. Many historians feel that the 1780 Massachusetts constitution abolished slavery as an institution in the Commonwealth. Others argue that the final spike in the heart of this evil practice was not driven until the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled on the final appeal of the Quock Walker case in 1783 ( Commonwealth v. Jennison) (Spector, 1968).
As you might expect, there is very little in Beverly records about Robin Mingo. We can infer from his age at death that he was born about 1661. He first appears in Beverly records on June 20, 1707 as a slave owned by Thomas Woodbury seeking to marry Deborah Tailor, a free Native American woman. Before agreeing to this marriage, Woodbury required that Deborah publicly promise to live with the slave owner as long as her husband Mingo lived, “…and then to be dismissed with only two suits of apparel suitable for such a Person”. Thomas Woodbury, a grandson of John Woodbury, the original immigrant, lived in the section of Beverly we now call Beverly Cove. Specifically, his homestead was located north of the Cove, where Endicott College is now located. His land abutted the Mackerel Cove Cow Pasture, a common area used by Woodbury and his neighbors to graze their livestock. Thomas died around 1719, and his will, dated 11 December 1716 and proved in Essex County Probate court on 20 April 1719, explicitly specified his intentions for the disposal of his estate: After providing for his wife, he directed his children to distribute his land in portions, of equal size and quality. He did not mention the disposition of his slaves in his will, but he does identify a certain small plot of land of around 25 poles to be given to his son William.
Perhaps Thomas Woodbury’s slaves had been freed or perhaps they had been given to Thomas’ children before his death- we cannot be sure; but on July 15, 1722 our Church baptized Mingo, “a Negro of about 60 years old, on a personal and publick profession of faith and repentance”. Notably absent from the entry is any indication that he was owned by anyone, as there was in his marriage record. Robin Mingo, it would seem, was now a free man.
In 1727 the Town of Beverly decided to divide and distribute the Mackerel Cove Cow Pasture to abutting owners. A Committee of Proprietors was appointed to carry out the effort including Thomas’ son Jonathan and Joshua Bisson, a Woodbury neighbor. The pasture land was distributed successfully by agreement of the Proprietors on January 3rd, 1728-9, with the exception of three parcels of land that were withheld to be sold separately. One of these, a triangular strip of beach about 2 poles (31 linear feet) wide and about 50 poles in area (about 1/3 of an acre) bordering the beach and land of William Woodbury, was sold to Robin Mingo on March 2nd, 1728-9 for the sum of 46 Shillings (Essex Deeds, Volume 61 page 57). The lot constitutes the center of what is now called Mingo Beach. Off the rocky shore sits a flat ledge now known as Black Rock that is nowhere elevated more than a few feet above the tide level, and could be the place known as Aunt Becky’s Ledge. The area around Mingo Beach today features a college campus and many elegant residences but, to the seventeenth century eye, the area would have been seen as a worthless strip of shore, unfit for grazing, farming, fishing, or shipping. It is easy to imagine that the Woodbury family might have fulfilled a promise made by Thomas Woodbury to his slave by giving him (well, selling him) this small piece of land.
The story does not end there. According to the legend, Robin and Deborah built a house on the beach and lived there happily for the rest of their lives. After their death the house was left to the elements and soon all evidence of habitation had been swept away by the sea. In fact, Robin died in 1748, and his wife in 1759. Both deaths are recorded in Beverly Vital Records, not under the “Negros” designation, but under their Christian surname Mingo. With no heirs to watch over his property, ownership of the beach parcel was never sold out of Robin Mingo’s estate. Most likely, its ownership was forgotten and the land was included with the abutting property.
So, is the legend of Robin Mingo true? We have no prima fascia evidence that there was ever a specific promise made by Thomas Woodbury to free Robin Mingo and give him land, but circumstantial evidence certainly supports the assertion that the legend contains more than a grain of truth.
Blanck, E. (2002, March). Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts. The New England Quarterly, 75(1), 24-51. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1559880 .
MacEacheren, E. (1970, October). Emancipation of Slavery in in Massachusetts: A Reexamination 1770-1790. The Journal of Negro History, 55(4), 289-306. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2716174
Spector, R. M. (1968, January). The Quock Walker Cases (1781-83) — Slavery, its Abolition, and Negro Citizenship in Early Massachusetts. The Journal of Negro History, 53(1), 12-32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2716388
Stone, E. M. (1843). History of Beverly, Civil and Ecclesiastical, from its Settlement in 1630 to 1842. Boston: James Munroe and Company.
Strohmeier, L. U. (2003). Mingo. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.
Upham, W. P. (1905). Records of the First Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, 1667-1772. Salem, MA: Essex Institute.
Vickers, D. (1994). Farmers & Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Von Franck, A. J. (1994). John Saffin: Slavery and Racism in Colonial Massachusetts. Early American Literature, 29(3), 254-272. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25056983