Caesar Watson of Plymouth and His Freedom Suit
December 17, 2021
In which Founding Father Robert Treat Paine and merchant Elkanah Watson, Sr. get crushed in court by Caesar, a Black man, and his attorney Benjamin Kent. Caesar accused Watson of assaulting him, unjustly imprisoning him, and enslaving him.
Paine was one of the four Massachusetts signers of the Declaration of Independence and, in his official capacity as Massachusetts Attorney General, was the chief prosecutor of record in Commonwealth v. Jennison, the third trial in the Quock Walker case that lead Massachusetts to abolish slavery by statute in 1783. Paine’s Deputy Attorney General was Caesar’s Benjamin Kent, Esq.
Senior Watson made his money by trading with the West Indian slave societies and the junior Watson is well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, as “a visionary traveler and writer, agriculturist and canal promoter, banker and businessman”. But J.L. Bell suggests that the junior Watson may have some memory issues.
The court case in question dates back to the French and Indian War. “Ceasar was living in Plymouth in 1758” enslaved by Elkanah Watson “when Great Britain and France were at war. The British sent 27,000 men into Canada to attack the French fortress of Louisburg and among them was a contingent from Plymouth that included Ceasar Watson.” Frank Mand wrote for Wicked Local in November 2016. He continued, “[s]omehow, as the British bombarded it with cannon and lay siege to it, Ceasar managed to get into the fortress, meet the French commander – the Chevalier de druCour – and convince him to do something extraordinary. On 1 July 1758, the Chevalier issued a certificate to Caesar Watson granting him his freedom.”
However, the French fort fell and Caesar returned to Plymouth and remained in bondage under Elkanah Watson for more than a decade.
In 1771, though, Caesar made his move. He took Elkanah Watson to court for:
…assaulting the plaintiff at Louisbourg on 1 August 1758 and imprisoning him “in a vessel, where he was with force as aforesaid, close confined by the said Elkanah fo the space of thirty days from that time. And the said Caesar further saith that the said Elkanah afterwards, towit on the first day of September , he the said Elkanah at Plymouth aforesaid with force and arms again assaulted, and bound and imprisoned and unjustly held him at the said Caesar in bondage and servitude to him the said Elkanah for a long time afterwards…whereby the said Elkanah has made great but unjust gains, and many other wrongs and injuries he [did to] Caesar during the time…wherein the said Elkanah has unjustly restrained him the said Caesar of his Lawful liberty, all which is against our peace, and to the damage of the said Caesar as he saith the sum of one hundred and eighty pounds. Appealed by deft…
Elkanah Watson’s appeal fared no better and it’s worth noting that Watson did not retain Paine on appeal, rather he enlisted the services of John Adams. And that’s not Caesar’s entire story.
Strikingly, his narrative becomes more remarkable when we examine events previously to his freedom suit. A few years after Louisbourg, Caesar married Hester Winslow (enslaved by Edward Winslow) and in 1768 the couple had a daughter Eunice. The industrious Caesar did not want a life of enslavement for little Eunice; when the child was aged 3 months, Caesar asked Edward Winslow for Eunice’s freedom and Winslow granted her manumission. But Winslow would not materially support the child and with both parents being held in slavery, Caesar and Harriet needed to find support for the child
At age 2, the Watsons apprenticed their daughter to Isaac Lobdell of Plympton for 17 years. In exchange, Lobdell agreed not only to provide food, shelter and apparel, but Eunice would also be taught to read and write. Caesar was never not freedom-minded; from Louisbourg to his newborn daughter and to the court system, Caesar Watson spent 12 years plotting liberation for himself and his family.
[A note on Source material: I ran across the court case for Caesar Watson in the Plymouth County court database cited above. The rest of Caesar’s story comes from, as best as I can tell, original research by Dr. Karin J. Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein passed away in 2015. Pilgrim Hall Executive Director Dr. Donna Curtin presented the story at a Select Board meeting in November 2016; that meeting was reported in Wicked Local, from which I pulled the above quotes. This article does not seem to be currently online. Curtin also tells the story in a virtual presentation detailing Plymouth’s first African Americans. The relevant section starts after 42:30 of this Facebook Zoom recording. (I enjoyed the rest of the presentation, too.)
Mand, Frank (2016, Nov 27). “Caesar Watson’s tale highlight of 1749 Courthouse Thanksgiving ceremony”. WickedLocal.com]
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