Cuffee Josselyn and the Aftermath of Slavery in Hanover, Massachusetts

Cuffee Josselyn and the Aftermath of Slavery in Hanover, Massachusetts


A version of this essay was originally published in my report on Slavery in Hanover, Massachusetts, in February.

Wealthy Hanover resident Joseph Josselyn left an extensive will. His 1787 probate file is 74 pages long and on the second-to-last page we find the bequests to Josselyn’s wife, including an item leaving her “the service of My Negro Man Cuffe during her Natural Life.” This is a curious bequest: we are taught that the Massachusetts Constitution abolished slavery in 1783. Why, then, does a human appear in Josselyn’s 1787 will?

Also I give to my Said Wife the use of my Clock & the service of My Negro Man Cuffe during her Natural Life…
Plymouth County Probate file papers, Case Number 11678

Historian and Western Washington University professor Jared Hardesty provides an answer in his 2019 book, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England:

The Judicial and gradual approaches to emancipation in New England created gaps and loopholes that could be exploited by slave owners, kidnappers, and government officials. This problem was most clear in Massachusetts. The 1783 decision Commonwealth v. Jennison did not abolish slavery. Rather it stipulated that slavery was contrary to the Massachusetts constitution and had no standing in the law. Worded in such a way, judicial emancipation placed the onus of ending enslavement on the slaves themselves. If an enslaved person could not access the courts or run away, such as vulnerable children and the elderly, they remained effectively enslaved. Often owners would refer to the enslaved people living in their households as indentured servants, a category that was still legal. Although the 1790 U.S. Census did not enumerate any slaves for Massachusetts, evidence suggests that most enslavers just listed their slaves as servants or census takers did not bother to record them. This use of legal loopholes and subterfuge meant slavery lingered in Massachusetts until the mid-1790s if not later.

(pp. 150-151)

Hanover death records show that Joseph Josselyn held at least two other people in slavery: Phillis, who died in 1742, and an unknown person who died in 1756. In Joseph Josselyn’s will, Cuffee was the only human to appear as moveable property. Josselyn also petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for compensation for his service of his enslaved Indian “Servant” Prince Osgood during the French and Indian War.

Mrs. Josselyn died in 1801 and it is unclear if Joseph Josselyn’s bequest was enforced and if, without legal resources to represent himself, Cuffee was coerced or convinced to stay as a servant in the widow Josselyn’s household. Local historians do mention Cuffee further:

NB: Cuffee’s revolutionary service is unverified. It’s likely that the author is conflating Cuffee Josselyn and Pvt. Cuffee Tilden.


Dwelley, J., Simmons, J. F. (1910). History of the town of Hanover, Massachusetts: with family genealogies. [Hanover, Mass.]: Pub. by the town of Hanover.

From being trafficked as a child out of his homeland, to slavery in Hanover, to “barbarous” pauper auctions: life was not easy for Cuffee. 

Bidders at pauper auctions competed for two prizes. First, by agreeing to board and support the pauper for the year, the bidder received a sum of money from the town. Naturally, if the bidder did not spend the entire sum on food and support for the pauper, the bidder kept the surplus. Secondly, the bidder was entitled to the pauper’s labor without having to pay her or him. This was made explicitly clear by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1822:

A town has undoubtedly a right to the services of a pauper to aid in his support. So has any person who may have become liable for his support by virtue a contract with the town.   

(quoted in Klebner, p.13

If you’ve read Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery, you know that the period after the American Revolution was a time of recession and many New England men were leaving farms to seek wages in more industrialized areas. White men were flooding the job market and racism was rampant. Mellish tells us that white workers at times resorted to violence to intimidate their Black competitors to protect job prospects. The segregation laws created during slavery stayed on the books for decades. It is not surprising, then, that the formerly enslaved people who were often illiterate, landless, and competing against white men in a racist job market, people like Cuffee Josselyn, would end up on the pauper rolls. 

This was the case in neighboring towns as well. A look at census records concerning the Scituate almshouse, which stood at what is now the site of the Cushing Center in Norwell, we see that many of the Black families who appear in the colonial-era records of the town have members living in the almshouse in the early 1800s. 

Unfortunately, the most widely-cited scholarly source for pauper auctions is Benjamin Klebaner’s Pauper Auctions: The “New England Method” of Public Poor Relief, which was published in 1955. Rest assured that it did not take race into account nor did it acknowledge the proximity of the rise of pauper auctions to the decline of slavery in Massachusetts.

Pauper auctions were not a race-based practice. Still, the system of auctioning off people, splitting up families, and requiring paupers to perform labor that they did not own while enriching someone else plainly echoes slavery and it was a system ripe for abuse. 

Without additional scholarship, it is impossible to say if African Americans were over-represented on late 18th/early 19th Century Massachusetts pauper rolls. And we should certainly acknowledge the barbarity faced by white paupers, especially those in vulnerable categories such as children, the disabled, widowed mothers, and the elderly. But there is no reason to believe, until scholarship says otherwise, that, given the racial climate of the post-Revolutionary era, Black paupers did not face unique sets of challenges when navigating the slavery-to-pauper pipeline.  

Taking what we learn from Cuffee Josselyn’s story and Dr. Hardesty’s analysis, we turn a critical eye to Hanover’s 1790 U.S. Census data. Here we learn:

Image from the 1790 U.S. Census with an overlay of households housing people of color.
  • 17 out of 184 Hanover households housed people of color, or 9.2%.
  • Only 2 households were solely people of color; Joseph Nicholson and his family of 4 and single man Charles Turner. The remaining 15 households listed a white man as head of household. 
  • 35 people out of a population of 1,084 were nonwhite, or 3.2%. This is more than double the state-wide population of people of color, 1.4%.

The overlap in surnames from my Hanover Slavery Census—Bailey, Barker, Bass, Brooks, Estes, Jacob, Sylvester, Turner, and Tilden—is conspicuous. Zaccheus Estes is the grandson of Quaker Matthew Estes who held 5 slaves. Remember that Estes bequeathed to his daughter Sarah his “negroes,” but Sarah manumitted only Bilhah. Zaccheus lived with 4 people of color. Slaver Job Tilden housed 3 people of color; it strains credulity to believe he did so out of benevolence. 

Ezra Damon housed 7 people of color; note with interest that Cuffee Josselyn died in 1831 at the home of Thomas Damon. It seems the Damon family may have been in the pauper business.  And what to make of the names of those who were boarding “other free persons” who do not appear in the slavery census? What is the relationship between the white head of household and the people of color living under the same roof? More research is required to determine who were paupers, who were compensated for their labor, and who suffered in conditions resembling de facto slavery. 



Creative Commons License
Copyright Wayne Tucker 2023. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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