In Search of Venus, an Enslaved Woman at Harvard

by Mark Auslander

(1 September 2020)

On October 25, 1726, Harvard’s recently appointed President Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth wrote in his diary,

“I bought a negro wench (thot to be under 20 years old) of Mr. Bulfinch of Boston, sail-maker. Was to give 85 pounds for her; she came to our house at Cambridge this day, I paid no money down for her, but was to pay in a few months. “Twas Mrs. Bulfinch I discoursed with about this matter, I saw not her Husband, tho he had been discoursed with before.” (Wadsworth, Benjamin. Papers of Benjamin Wadsworth, 1696-1736. Cambridge: Manuscript, 1736. (461). Harvard University Archives.)

When I taught two courses in Harvard’s AAAS department as a visiting faculty member in 2010 and 2011, my students and I were fascinated by encountering the story of this woman in President Wadsworth’s diary in the Harvard Archives. What can we infer about her early life, the circumstances that brought her to Cambridge, the nature of her life under slavery in the Wadsworth household and her subsequent experiences?

Rev. Wadsworth had been elected College President several months earlier, and authorization had been made to build him a new house on the College’s grounds. This structure, later known at Harvard as “Wadsworth House,” would house him, his wife Ruth Wadsworth (nee Bordman), and their two slaves, the “Mulatto Titus” (whom he seems to have had for some time) and this newly purchased woman, who seems to have arrived a week or so before the Wadsworths moved into the partly finished residence. With his new salary, it appears that Wadsworth felt confident enough to purchase a second slave, although he was cautious enough to defer immediate payment. He was perhaps relieved to talk to Abigail Bulfinch, Adino’s wife, who evidently agreed to his deferred payment plan.

The 1726 Slave Sale

Boston Newsletter. Nov. 17 & 24, 1726.. p2

It seem likely that Rev. Wadsworth had learned of the available woman from Boston newspapers advertisements that fall. A few weeks before the enslaved woman arrived in the Wadsworth’s house, advertisements had stated, “A Parcel of Fine Negro Men and Women, lately come over, to be sold at Mr. Bulfinch’s house near the Mill Creek.”  (Boston Gazette, Sept 21-Oct 3, 1726, p. 2; Boston Gazette, October 3-October 10, 1726, p. 2, November 24, 1726) Two weeks after the diary entry, another newspaper announced, “Several choice Gold Coast Negros, lately arrived, to be at Sold at Mr. Bulfinch’s, near the Town Dock, Boston.”  (Boston News-Letter. Nov 11-17, 1726, p. 2.)

It is unclear if Adino Bulfinch had himself directly been involved with the transportation of these enslaved individuals, if he was acting as a middleman, or if he was reselling this human property. On July 18, 1726, the Boston News-Letter printed five separate advertisements for the sale of newly arrived “negroes.” It is possible that all of these were related to the arrival of the ship The Dolphin, which had come from St. Kitts, bearing a cargo of seven enslaved people. One notice stated: “Several Negro Boys, Girls and Women to be sold on board the sloop Dolphin, lately arrived from St. Kitts, now laying at the Long Wharf, and if desired, the buyer may have 3, 6, 9 or 12 month credit. (Boston News-Letter, July 18, 1726. p. 2). The sloop Dolphin, built 1724, is recorded as having in 1725 delivered three slaves from Curacao to New York (slavevoyages.org; British National Archives, Kew, CO [Colonial Office] 5/1223, 89). About a month after the advertised sale of slaves on board the sloop, it was reported that the Dolphin had set sail for London (Boston News-letter. August 25, 1726, p.2).

This same set of enslaved people may be related to those advertised on September 15: “To be sold, A Parcel of Negros, Just arrived, viz. Men, Women, Boys & Girls, they are to be seen at Captain Nathaniel Jarvis’ House near Scarlet’s Wharf. Boston News-Letter, September 15, 1726, p. 2). [ Note 1]

Bulfinch-Lopez Partnership?

Alternately, there is some circumstantial evidence that the seller of the enslaved woman, Captain Adino Bulfinch (1660-1746), was co-owner with the Jewish merchant Isaac Lopez, of the vessel The Eagle, which appears to have been transporting slaves out of Barbados. (Eli Faber, Jews, slaves, and the slave trade: setting the record straight. New York: New York University Press, 1998. p. 302; fn. 8, citing Colonial Office records in the Public Records Office in London.)

What do we know of these two slave traders?

Issac Lopez had arrived in Boston by 25 October 1716, when he paid 19 shillings and 3 pence for importing “goods”. One source references him as a Jewish London-based merchant who came to Boston in June 1716, in the company of two other Jewish merchants, Abraham Gutatus and Jacob Ruggles, a surprising occurrence given New England’s overt anti-semitism (Saul S. Friedman, Jews and the American Slave Trade, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1998. p. 119) . This Isaac Lopez appears to the same person as “Isaac Rodrigues Lopez commonly Isaac Lopez, Wall Merchant of Saint Alphage , City of London,” who died 1752, and who is referenced in court records in the British National Archives, London.

While residing in the city of Boston, Lopez was elected constable in Boston, a low-status position he refused, paying a fine in consequence. He in time received permission to build a timber house in the town. Isaac, who also appears to have had ties in Barbados, owned with Joseph Lopez the slaving vessel Barthny registered in London, and the Jsp (Joseph) & Isaac, registered in Boston (Faber, ibid, citing Colonial Office records in Public Records Office/British National Archives). (Note 2)

By 1724, Lopez made plans for leaving North America. He asked that all in Boston indebted to him come to settle their accounts, as he aimed to returned to Europe in the fall. (Boston Gazette, May 18, 1724). On January 13, 1726, Lopez, referring to himself as “merchant on the dock,” posted a similar notice in the Boston Gazette, threatening to sue his remaining debtors. In summer 1726, Lopez advertised to rent out of his house (Boston News-Letter, June 16 & 23, 1726). It appears he left the city entirely by 1728.

Adino Bulfinch, who had emigrated from Britain to Boston in 1681, in the early 18th century served as surveyor for Boston’s highways and became a prominent sailmaker and merchant. (A scion of the Boston Bulfinches, Adino was the great-grandfather of Charles Bulfinch, who would serve as architect of the rebuilt US Capitol after the War of 1812.) As a sailmaker, Adino was involved in various aspects of ship building and may have met the slave trading Isaac Lopez in this capacity. Bulfinch eventually built a “mansion house” on the Mill Creek, mentioned in the advertisement.

It is not clear how long Adino was involved in the slave trade, but he had evidently been a slave owner well before the 1726 sale. Commonwealth legal records indicate that an enslaved man named Rochester in Adino’s possession had been executed for arson in 1705. (Daniel Allen Hearn, Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960, McFarland, 2008. p. 109). Three years after the sale to Rev. Wadsworth, Adino advertised for the return of a runaway “servant,” Jeremiah Jones (Boston News-Letter, June 12, 1729, p.2).

When Adino Bulfinch died in 1746, two decades after the slave sale to Rev. Wadsworth, his will bequeathed to his daughter Katherine (after his wife Abigail’s decease) his slave Phillis and to his daughter Sarah (again, after his wife’s decease) his slave Hannah. (Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Probate Records, Vols. 238-40). We do not know if these enslaved individuals were from the same cohort as Venus.

The Enslaved Woman’s Background

Whether the enslaved woman in question had arrived in Boston on The Eagle, the sloop Dolphin, or some other vessel, the wording of the 1726 advertisements indicates that the “negro wench, thot [thought] to be under twenty years old,” was recently arrived from the Gold Coast, that is to say the region of present-day coastal Ghana. It is difficult to say where in West Africa she might have been born. The standard practice of American slaving vessels during this period was to travel down the West African coast from present-day Senegal, and then proceed as far as the Gold Coast only if they had not acquired sufficient slaves to fill their hulls; it is thus possible that Venus had been obtained at some point well to the north of the Gold Coast, and that the advertisement only refers to the point at which the ship had left the African coast to cross the Atlantic. Even if she had first entered a ship on the Gold Coast, her origins are uncertain. Many persons were captured far within the African interior and then marched to coastal castles, such as Elmina, where they were purchased by ship captains and then brought across the Atlantic under horrific conditions.

In any event, we may infer that “the negro wench,” like the other men and women being sold by the Bulfinches was recently arrived in the United States and probably spoke little or no English.

Naming “Venus”

We have no idea of what African names the woman purchased by Rev. Wadsworth in 1726 and transported to Cambridge may have gone by, but we do have a good indication of what name she was given by her white owners. The records of the Church of Christ, Cambridge, which was located immediately next to the site of Wadsworth House, report the baptism of “Venus, Negro servt of Madm Wadsworth” on August 17, 1740. At this point, President Wadsworth had been dead for three years; his widow, Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth, would continue to reside in Cambridge, up until her death at age seventy-three on February 17, 1744/1745. (1744 in the Julian calendar; 1745 in the Gregorian Calendar.)

The other enslaved person in the Wadsworth household, the “Mulatto Titus,” had been baptized in the same church and admitted into full communion on September 21, 1729, three years after Venus had been purchased by President Wadsworth. At one point after 1726 a enslaved man named Titus, presumably the same person, ran afoul of the Harvard administration and was prohibited from the “enclosures of the College” (Harvard University. Faculty records, 1719-1857. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1719-1857: 125). Titus is mentioned twice in President Wadsworth’s diary (Wadsworth, Benjamin. Papers of Benjamin Wadsworth, 1696-1736. Harvard University Archives. Cambridge: Manuscript, 1736: 470,503.)

President Wadsworth’s 1737 will makes no mention of his slaves; however, as noted above, it is clear from the Christ Church records that as of 1740, when Venus was baptized in Christ Church, President Wadsworth’s widow Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth still owned her. At this same ceremony, Lucy, an “indian servant” owned by Ruth’s brother Andrew Bordman, was also baptized.

It seems likely that Venus’ primary responsibilities were domestic labor within the Wadsworth household, including cooking and cleaning, although she may perhaps have been assigned work of caring for Harvard students as well. Rev. Wadsworth choice of the name “Venus,” the Roman goddess of beauty and love, may have implied he found her beautiful. (Classical names were not uncommonly assigned to enslaved people in colonial New England: we know of at least one aother enslaved woman named Venus in nearby Menotomy during the late colonial period.)

It is not entirely clear what happened to Venus after Ruth Wadsworth’s death in 1744. The Wadsworths had no children, and there are no probate records related to Ruth Wadsworth, which suggests she died with very little in terms of material resources. Perhaps she had sold Venus before her death, or Venus, if she survived, simply passed into the ownership of Ruth’s natal family the Bordmans, the prominent Cambridge family, closely intertwined with decades of Harvard’s history, with whom she evidently was living after her husband’s death in 1737. Ruth seems most likely to have resided with her brother Andrew Bordman, a Cambridge merchant and town official, whom Benjamin Wadsworth designated as his “natural brother” in his will.

It should be noted that the Bordman’s owned several slaves, including the Native American woman Lucy, noted above, as well as Cato, Cuffee, and Jane. The Bordmans had significant managerial responsibilities at Harvard College across four generations, as stewards, cooks, and so forth. It is surmised that many of their slaves labored to provide for Harvard students. Ruth’s brother Andrew Bordman served the Harvard College steward and college cook. Thus, if Venus survived, it is possible that she continued to cook, clean, and otherwise look after Harvard students for many years.

Was she “Venus Whittemore” ?

It is possible that this Venus is in fact the same person as “Venus Whittemore”, the only other person named “Venus””to appear in the Church of Christ Cambridge records. “Venus Whittemore, negro,” died in 1825 at the age of 107, according to several newspaper accounts, and was buried in the Old Cambridge Burial Ground, across from the gates of Harvard College. This Venus, formerly enslaved by Deacon Samuel Whittemore (1693-1784), is referenced in Cambridge and Commonwealth judicial records from 1793 to 1818 as having been in effect sold during a “poor auction” in the early 1790s arranged by the administrator of the late Samuel Whittemore’s estate. The Poor Auction’ was a post- slavery practice through which the labor of destitute, previously enslaved persons was made available to white property-owners, who were compensated for ‘caring for’ the destitute person: the bidder who accepted the lowest amount from the municipality generally speaking, won the auction. By 1783 or so, slavery became unenforceable in Massachusetts, and previously enslaved individuals such a Venus Whittemore passed into rather ambiguous slates, not legally enslaved but still in precarious economic and legal positions, subject to Poor Auctions and other strictures that approached slavery by another name.

Through the 1793 Poor Auction, William Watson of Cambridge (the son of Deacon Samuel Whitemore’s daughter Elizabeth) purchased rights to Venus Whittemore’s labor. Yet Venus, apparently cognizant of her rights under Commonwealth judicial precedents, refused to comply with this arrangement. The Cambridge town leadership eventually consented to support her as a public charge for the rest of her life.

The case led to some subsequent litigation, which stretched into 1818, in which William Watson’s widow Catherine Watson (nee Lopez) attempted to recover a bond her husband had paid associated with the poor auction. (Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusettts, Volume 15, October 1818 term. pp. 286-88). ) Venus Whittemore for some time resided in in the home of her late master, Samuel Whitemore, on the southeast corner of Mount Auburn and Brighton (now 44 JFK Street, near Harvard Square, the plot currently occupied by the Fox Club). She later was housed in the Cambridge almshouse. She died a member in good standing of Christ Church Cambridge.

It is interesting to note that Andrew Bordman, the brother-in-law of the late President Benjamin Wadsworth) and brother of Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth, to whom the “Wadsworth’s Venus” belonged, does seem to have had close connections with the Whittemore family, including the uncle of Deacon Samuel Whittemore the noted Captain Samuel Whittemore (1694–1793), the oldest known combatant in the American Revolutionary War, who is commemorated by a monument in Arlington, Massachusetts for his heroic encounter with British regulars. On January 22, 1724/5, two years before President Wadsworth purchased Venus, a Samuel Whittemore secured a loan for Andrew Bordman from Nathaniel Hancock and James Reade. (Harvard Archives, Bordman papers). In 1731, Samuel Whittimore in turn secured a loan from Andrew Bordman. Samuel Whitemore later was involved in a land sale to Andrew Bordman 1769 April 8. On May 12 1766, In the lead up to the American Revolution, a Cambridge Committee composed of Captain Samuel Whittemore and two others instructed Andrew Bordman as their Representative to the Massachusetts General Court of their unwavering opposition to the Stamp Act. Given the close relations between these two slaveowning families, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Venus may have passed from the ownership of the Wadsworths/Bordmans to the Whittemores at some point in the latter half of the 18th century, following Ruth Bordman Wadsworth’s death (Note 3).

Having said that, the ages of the two Venuses do not quite match up. President Wadsworth estimated the age of the “Negro Wench” whom he purchased in 1726 to be “under twenty” years of age, presumably meaning nearly twenty, which might mean she was born around 1707 or 1708. If Venus Whittemore died in 1825 at age 105, she would have been born around 1718. For the moment, then, any connection between the two Venuses must remain rather speculative.

Remembering Venus

In any event, it is noteworthy that in 2016, two hundred and ninety years after Venus was purchased by President Wadsworth, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Congressman John Lewis unveiled a plaque honoring Venus and Titus, as well as the enslaved individuals Bilhah and Juba, owned by Harvard president Edward Holyoke, installed near the Wadsworth Gate at Wadsworth House.

In her 1773 poem “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Phillis Wheatley addressed herself, from the position of the enslaved, to those who were privileged to study the great mysteries of the universe at Harvard College: “Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights / Above, to traverse the ethereal space / And mark the systems of revolving worlds.” How fitting that Venus, however ill treated she was in life, now has a position in the firmament, at a gateway to the university campus which she helped sustain through her uncompensated labor across the decades. To seek to understand her life, and the lives of the other individuals enslaved at Harvard College, is indeed to “scan the heights,” to ponder the mysteries of past failings and triumphs and to consider whom we might, in time, strive to become.

Notes.

  1. Captain Nathaniel Jarvis, a shipwright, the fourth of his name in his family line, was evidently born 1693. He is referenced as having sold at least one slave in Antigua. Eight months after the sale to Rev. Wadsworth. (June 12, 1727) a group of “likely negroes” were being sold by Benomy Waterman, “to be seen at Captain Nathaniel Jarvis’ house.” (Samuel Gardner Drake, The History and Antiquities of Boston, 1856. p. 574) Jarvis continued to sell slaves into the 1730s, as indicated in this notice: ““Several likely young Negroes of both sexes, lately imported from the West Indies, fit for either Town or Country Service, among who is a choice Negro Man suitable for a Gentleman’s Family: To be sold. Inquire at Capt. Nath Jarvis’s near Scarlet’s Wharff at the North End, Boston” (Boston News-Letter. December 28, 1732).
  2. .I am unsure if Isaac Lopez was related to the prominent slave trading Portuguese-derived Jewish family the Lopezes, of Newport RI, centered on Aaron Lopez, who owned around thirty vessels in the 1760s and 1770s, many of them slaving ships (Saul S. Friedman Jews and the American Slave Trade, p.123. ) The name “Isaac” has at least one instance in the Newport Lopez family line: An Isaac Lopez, aged 6 months and 2 days, son of Moses Lopez, (older brother of Aaron Lopez) was buried in 1762 in the Sephardic Jewish Touro Cemetery in Newport, R..I (Whitmore, William, H. , compiler. Port Arrivals and Immigrants to the City of Boston, 1715-1716 and 1762-1769. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973. Also see Lopez entries in the American Jewish Historical Society, Oppenheim Collection, Vertical Files.)
  3. Deacon Samuel Whittemore, the owner of Venus Whittemore, appears to have been kin to the slaveowner William Whittemore, a Harvard College graduate and school teacher in Menotomy (later West Cambridge/Arlington) who owned the enslaved individuals Dinah Whittemore and Cuff Cartwright/Whittemore (c. 1746-25 Jan 1826) . The latter served as a militiaman with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and received a government pension for his services. (Beverly Douhanl. Buried Secrets of Menotomy’s Slaves; Quintal, George Jr. Patriots of Color, “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill. 2nd edition. Gardner, Maine: G .Quintal, 2007, p. 209) Toby, an an enslaved servant of
    “Samuel Whitemore.” was baptized at First Church Cambridge in 1740, the same year that Venus, the servant of Madame Wadsworth, was baptized there.

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