Detail: Map of the Town of Seekonk. (1850)

Primus & Mary Slocum’s Afro-Wampanoag Legacies

Primus Slocum was an African American veteran in a pioneering Revolutionary War unit who became a key ancestor to contemporary Seaconke Wampanoag people and, through adept real estate speculation, purchased land that he and his wife Mary built into a family ‘homestead’ populated by their descendants for generations. This land purchase and subsequent bequest to their children shaped the neighborhood where several of their descendants live today.

American Soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown. (1781). Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger, watercolor.
At left: a soldier in the uniform of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Origins

Primus Slocum was born c. 1755 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts1,2. He was likely born enslaved and one hypothesis tells us that his enslaver was Isaac Howland (b.1726. d. 1811).3 Howland was a member of the large Dartmouth-area Quaker community which also contained several wealthy slaveholding Slocum families. By the 1770s, New England Quakers took a fervent anti-slavery stance. The Dartmouth meeting hounded members to free their enslaved people and in January 1777 Howland manumitted a man named Primus.4

The connection to Howland, of course, is speculation and there could be several plausible hypotheses as to where Primus spent his early years and where his surname came from. It’s fair to speculate that Primus was familiar with the family of Paul (Slocum) Cuffee, the African-Wampanoag merchant and civil rights activist, and perhaps Primus may have once been enslaved by Quaker widow Rebecca Slocum of Dartmouth. It is further plausible that Primus spent some early years in Newport, Rhode Island.

“Isaac Howland 2nd gave in a bill to this meeting Manimiting a Negro man named Primus but yet Some friends Doubting wheather S.d Negro is fully freed therefore S.d matter is Refer’d under the care of the Same Committee as heretofore & they to Report next mo meeting.” 3
Dartmouth, MA: Quaker Meeting Minutes. January 1777.

But what is known is that in 1785 we find Primus Slocum in nearby Rehoboth, Massachusetts, getting married. There are two records for Primus in the Rehoboth Vital Records: a June intention to marry Mary Alibine and an August marriage to Mary Cleburn.5 At this time it is unknown why there is a discrepancy. It is possible that Mary Alibine and Mary Cleburn are two different people, and it’s also a possibility that Mary, who is noted as “negro” in the record and believed by family tradition to be Wampanoag, was known to the English by multiple family names. Perhaps one name is a mistranscription or perhaps Mary, about age 28 in 1785, had been married before and one surname is her maiden name and the other name is that of her first husband? Many Wampanoag women were listed as widows at the end of the Revolution.6

Seekonk’s Cushing Conservation Area lies on or adjacent to land once owned by Primus and Mary Slocum.

Records further show that Primus and Mary had three children: Jerimiah, Elizabeth, and Susan.7,8 In the 1790 U.S. Census, Primus appears in Rehoboth with 5 people in his household.9 In the 1820 U.S. Census, Primus appears in the newly-incorporated Seekonk (formerly the western parish of Rehoboth), but it is impossible to see if there are other people of color in his household.10

Revolutionary War Veteran

Excerpt from Revolutionary War Record Book, First Rhode Island Regiment, 1781-1783. Rhode Island State Archives. Here, Primus’ place of birth is listed as Rehoboth. See .pdf page #46.

Primus was a musician. We know this because Primus Slocum was a Revolutionary War veteran: first, at age 22 in the Massachusetts militia for the town of Rehoboth (in September of 1777, the same year as his possible manumission),8,11,12 and later, on Christmas Day, 1780, enlisting as a professional soldier in the famed 1st Rhode Island Regiment known as the “Black Regiment.” 6,13,14 Primus was enticed to cross state borders to join the regiment by a yearly cash bonus, called a bounty, of “100 silver and 6000 continental dollars” promised by the town of Providence.15 The 1st Rhode Island was the first regiment to be composed of all African, Indian, and multi-racial soldiers; all other units were integrated.16 The regiment received a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal in 2022.17

Original discharge for Fifer Primus Slocum. 25 Dec 1783. 1783 is the same year that slavery was ruled unconstitutional by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Primus’ job in the Continental army was fifer. Dr. Judith Van Buskirk notes that “[t]he best-paid position a man of color could hold in the continental line was that of fifer or drummer.”18 Fifers and drummers were non-combat positions that assisted commanders in directing troop movements. It was easier for a company to hear the continuous pitch of the fife or the beat of the drum than it was to hear singular verbal commands.

By examining Primus’ Revolutionary War pension file closely, it conveys that Primus was proud of his position. As Van Buskirk notes, Primus remembers the exact date of his promotion to fifer. And 35 years after the war’s end, he still had his discharge (posted above) and it was in very good condition.

We learn from an 1820 pension filing that his wife Mary is still alive and aged 63 and, furthermore, Primus states that he was a property owner holding “one acre of poor land and seven acres of old field land” worth $85 dollars. This statement in Primus’ pension file leads us to the Bristol County Registry of Deeds which reveals Primus and Mary were involved in six real estate transactions in Rehoboth/Seekonk spanning the years 1803-1824.notes 19 – 26

Another striking feature of Primus’ pension file is that his service narrative was written in his own hand and Primus’ signature appears several times. Many of the African-descended and Indigenous soldiers could not write English and could only mark an ‘X’. In viewing Primus’ literacy in parallel with his skill as a musician, it is clear that he grew up in a household that educated him and he leveraged those advantages as a free man.

Signature of Primus Slocum

Primus died in Seekonk in 1836 and was cared for enough by family and community to rate a death notice mentioning his Revolutionary War service.1,8,27,28 The notice appeared in papers from Boston to Providence and to New York City.

Primus Slocum’s Death Notice, 4 Nov 18261

Chestnut Street, Seekonk

Above: 1850 map showing the Chestnut Street home of Marcus A. Elderkin and Betsey Slocum Elderkin. (Walling, H. (1850). Detail: Map of the Town of Seekonk.)
Below: Present-day Chestnut Street

The Wampanoags, or the People of the First Light, are the Southern Massachusetts/Rhode Island first nation peoples that were displanted by both the Pilgrims and the founders of Providence Plantations. And while the Massachusetts town of Seekonk had been Seaconke Wampanoag homelands for millennia, tribal identification was outlawed following King Philip’s War, and systems of genocide, slavery, and debt peonage restricted Wampanoag participation in the English-created system of land ownership.

A transcription of an 1842 document that resides with the Bristol County Registry of Deeds shows Primus and Mary’s Seekonk land (adjacent to Chestnut Street) being divided by Betsey Slocum and husband Marcus Elderkin, and Betsey’s siblings Jerimiah and Susan.30,31 Primus Slocum, partly because of the financial advantages gained through Revolutionary service, and through his marriage to Mary Cleburn, serendipitously assisted in the return of a small portion of ancestral land to Seaconke Wampanoag people. This property remained the Elderkin family “homestead” for 150 years and a number of families descended from Primus and Mary Slocum live close to the Chestnut Street property today.

Excerpt from a 1999 Seaconke Wampanoag publication describing the importance of Chestnut Street to the Elderkin clan.31

What is further notable about the Slocum-Elderkin homestead is that Primus built it with a partner. Mary Slocum’s name appears next to Primus on each of the real estate transactions, including an 1824 sale when Mary would have been aged 67. Indian and African families are naturally matrifocal and one cannot help but recognize that, because the family maintained generational affection and loyalty to this plot, Mary Cleburn Slocum must have been the north star for her children. Women and domestic labor have long been excluded from the record, but government documents are not required to conclude that, for this enclave to survive for centuries, Mary certainly put in tremendous work to create an indelible sense of “home” for her clan.

And what about Primus’ service to a country that withheld love and harbored hostility to his kin and community for generations? Primus was clearly proud of his patriotic efforts, but patriotism is not necessary to celebrate his Revolutionary service. In Primus’ story of struggle and survival, the Revolution was a crucible. Primus leveraged the transformative power of the American Revolution to put bond slavery in the rearview mirror and, with his wife, he started a family, earned wages, bought property, and created a durable homestead space for generations of kin and community. And that will always be worth celebrating.

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NOTES

  • For an in-depth genealogical survey of the Seaconke Wampanoag people including the Elderkin clan of Chestnut Street, see: Deborah Spears Moorehead’s. (2014). Finding Balance: The Genealogy of Massasoit’s People and the Oral and Written History of the Seaconke Pokanoket Wampanoag Tribal Nation. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  • A special thanks to Jessica Hoffman and Deborah Spears Moorehead for bringing Primus and Mary Slocum to my attention.

    NOTE: There are over 50 links in the body and notes of this story, but my chosen WordPress theme does not underline the link on mobile devices. For checking sources, reading this story on a laptop or desktop is advised. But if you have any questions, reach out.
  1. Mortuary Notice. (1826, November 4). Providence Patriot & Columbian Phenix, 24 (88), p. [2]. online: Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. (See image posted here.)
  2. Primus evidently listed Rehoboth as his place of birth upon enlistment into the Continental army. This is, so far, the only mention of his birthplace. The record is found in:
    Revolutionary War Record Book, First Rhode Island Regiment, 1781-1783. Rhode Island State Archives. See .pdf #46.
  3. Emery, W. M. (1919). The Howland Heirs: Being the Story of a Family and a Fortune and the Inheritance of a Trust Established for Mrs. Hetty H. R. Green. New Bedford, Mass.: E. Anthony and Sons, inc.
  4. Dartmouth, MA: Quaker Records, 1699-1920. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2021). From Dartmouth Historical Arts Society images and indexes. Dartmouth, MA. Transcription here courtesy Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society.
  5. Arnold, J. N. (1897). Vital record of Rehoboth, 1642-1896: Marriages, intentions, births, deaths. Providence, R.I.: Narragansett historical publishing company. [see pages 103 and 417]
  6. “At that time, there were no less than seventy widows on the [Mashpee] plantation.” Frederick Freeman (1869) quoted in: National Society Daughters Of The American Revolution (2008). Forgotten Patriots: African American And American Indian Patriots In The Revolutionary War. online: dar.org. See page 86.
  7. Arnold, J. N. (1891). Vital record of Rhode Island: 1636-1850… v.9. Providence, R.I.: Narragansett Historical Pub. Co. [See pages 262 and 276].
  8. FamilySearch.org: Sources for Primus Slocum LDVM-PVB.
  9. United States Census, 1790. online: FamilySearch.org. National Archives and Records Administration.
  10. United States Census, 1820. online: FamilySearch.org. National Archives and Records Administration.
  11. Massachusetts, Revolutionary War, Index Cards to Muster Rolls, 1775-1783. online: FamilySearch.org Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
  12. Massachusetts. Office of the Secretary of State. (1896-1908). Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A compilation from the archives. Boston, Vol 14: Wright and Potter Printing Co., State Printers.
  13. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application File S. 39844, for Primus Slocum, Rhode Island. National Archives and Records Administration.
  14. fold3. Primus Slocum: Sources.
  15. Providence (R.I.). Record Commissioners. (1892-1897).First-(fifth) report of the Record Commissioners relative to the early town records. [Providence]: Snow & Farnham [etc.] City Printers.
  16. Wikipedia: 1st Rhode Island Regiment
  17. CICILLINE, WHITEHOUSE SEEK TO HONOR FIRST RHODE ISLAND REGIMENT WITH THE CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL.
  18. Van Buskirk, J. L. (2017). Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution. University of Oklahoma Press.
  19. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. Grantor – Grantee Index Book Images: Grantee 1795-1840. Ref p. 339.
  20. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. Grantor – Grantee Index Book Images: Grantor 1795-1840. Ref p. 316.
  21. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1803: Pero Morse to Primus Slocum. Page 1Page 2This case is of particular interest as Primus wins a judgment for $200 against Morse. Morse is further threatened with “gaol” (jail) until the debt is paid.
  22. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1805: Primus Slocum to William Moulton. Page 1Page 2.
  23. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1817: Abel Chaffe to Primus Slocum. Page 1Page 2.
  24. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1817: Primus Slocum to William Ormsbee. Page 1Page 2.
  25. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1817: Primus Slocum to George Hill. Page 1Page 2.
  26. Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds. 1824: Primus Slocum to Church Gray. Page 1Page 2.
  27. United States Revolutionary War Pension Payment Ledgers, 1818-1872. online: FamilySearch.org. National Archives and Records Administration.
  28. Arnold, J. N. (1891). Vital record of Rhode Island: 1636-1850… v.21. Providence, R.I.: Narragansett Historical Pub. Co.
  29. Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001. Elizabeth Slocum in entry for Markus A. Elderkin, 24 May 1821; citing Marriage, Seekonk, Bristol, Massachusetts, United States, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Boston.
  30. For the 1842 document dividing the land of the deceased Primus Slocum between his heirs Jeremiah Slocum, Elizabeth/Betsey (Slocum) Elderkin, and Susan (Slocum) Freebody, see Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds: Page 1Page 2Page 3.
  31. Merkley, M. (1999, August 22). (1)Chestnut St. The Seaconke Wampanoag Tribal History. see .pdf #33.

Creative Commons License
Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Key words: slavery, slavery in Massachusetts, slavery in New England, slavery in Bristol county, American Revolution, slavery in the Revolution, Massachusetts in the Revolution, Bristol County in the Revolution, South Coast Massachusetts

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