The Cato Hanker Dossier
UPDATE: Cato Hanker’s digital footprint has grown! Cato’s biographical sketch can be read alongside the sketches of 34 other enslaved Framinghamers at the Framingham History Center’s Framingham’s Top 10 virtual exhibit.
Last night I stumbled upon Cato Hanker. Cato was kidnapped in Africa, grew up in Framingham, and served in the French and Indian War and the Revolution.
The Massachusetts State Archives holds two information-rich petitions filed by Cato in 1760 and 1794. Those petitions are posted and loosely transcribed below (corrections welcome!). Cato is not unknown, but his digital footprint is tiny; he is overlooked. I feel out of my depth trying to do a deep dive on Cato, but I wanted to compile vital documents that reveal and support Cato’s biography and give him more profile. Below is a brief life sketch of Cato Hanker followed by documents that attest to his life. Please share this on your social channels with others interested in Revolutionary history; perhaps a skilled, trained eye can flesh Cato’s story out further.
Cato Hanker was born in Africa and stolen from his parents around age 6. In Boston, Cato was purchased for £50 by Deacon Moses Haven of Framingham, Massachusetts. Cato states in a petition that he was educated by Haven and taught the shoemaking trade. Moses died in 1747, and Cato states that he purchased his freedom for £26. Cato does not appear in Moses Haven’s probate file, but he may have purchased his freedom for Moses’s son Joseph circa 1750, approximately at age 22.
As a free man, Cato continued his shoemaking trade in the Cambridge, Medford, and Charlestown area. Eventually, Cato enlisted in the colonial armed forces and served in the French and Indian War. We glean from two petitions filed by Cato that he served at Castle William, Crown Point, and Fort Ticonderoga. In a 1760 petition we see that while at Crown Point, Lt. Joseph Ingley threatened to abandon the infirm Cato unless he signed over his wages to the lieutenant, seemingly a retaliatory move because Cato would not purchase from Ingley supplies gleaned from dead soldiers.
We further learn in a 1794 petition that Cato served in the Revolution and suffered chronic health issues and could not provide for himself. Now close to 70 years old, he had returned to Framingham and the Haven family, who had been providing for Cato for several years, chose not to provide for him. Additionally, the Town of Framingham has refused requests for support, therefore he petitioned the state legislature directly. Cato last appears in the 1800 U.S. Census, and I have not uncovered his death record.
Petition of Cato Hanker, February 23, 1760.
Province of the Mass Bay Feb 23 1760
To His Excellency Thomas Pownall Esq Captain General & Governour in Chief. This Petition of Cato ^Hanker a free negro in Cambridge humbly sheweth that in March last he inlisted himself a soldier in the Provincial Service against Canada by your Excellencies’ order went to Castle [William] from there went to Crown Point where he remained well orderly [dismissed?] – –
during which time Lieutenant Joseph Ingly of Taunton under whose command your petitioner was- would not suffer him to purchase any thing of the companys or soldiers told him of the ded. He would just your petitioner ^under [defend?] told your petitioner what he wanted [through?] labor would supply him wills as cheap as he could purchase of them. Wherefore your petitioner for fear of getting punished was constrained & actually purchased of them all that he purchased – at cost he threatened your petitioner who was then sick that he would be confined there & not return home unless your petitioner signed an order for his whole wages which he was constrained to do – not withstanding all that he had of him was twelve pounds of sugar four pounds [rations?] & an order upon Josiah Brewer for a dollars worth of what he wanted. Your petitioner humbly [purveys??] your excellency consideration of the promises & that you would [illegibe?] as [holy?] shown wisdom & justice____________
shall seem [merit?] of your petitioner as under power shall [everything?]
Middlesex Feb 7th 1760
Cato Hanker aforementioned made oath to here forth of the forgoing Declaration by him Subscribed. [Illegible signature]
Petition of Cato Hanker, June 9, 1794
To the honorable the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the petition of Cato Hanker, an Afri-can, humbly showeth,
That your petitioner was born in Africa, and when about six years of age, was stolen from his parents and brought to Boston in the Commonwealth, and imm-ediately sold to Deacon Moses Haven of Framingham, since deceased, for the sum of fifty pounds; that his master gave him a good common education, learnt him the shoemaking business, and at the age of 22, or 23 years liberated him, on receiving the sum of £26..13..4; that your petitioner worked at his trade a number of years in said Framingham, and afterwards moved to Cambridge, and there carried on his business largely, paying taxes and doing the usual duties of a citizen; the in the year 1757 he enlisted into the public service, and went to Ticonderoga and Crownpoint, and in the year 1762(?) enlisted for another year; that he lost considerable property by the burning of Charlestown, and afterwards enlisted into the service of this country again, and went to Westpoint in Capt. Richardson’s Company of Cambridge; that he was exposed to much hardship in the service, and thereby lost his health which he has never since wholly re-covered, but by hardship and other misfortunes, has been ^reduced to po-verty, and is now in the decline of his life, being about 70 years of age and unable to support himself; that he has for 9 or 10 years last past lived in Framingham aforesaid, and been in a great measure supported by the children of his late master, who refuse to be at any further expense on his account, not
conceiving themselves bound to it, by law or justice, your petition-er being liberated so early an age, and receiving many more advantages that are usually granted to persons in his situation, their father’s estate was not benefited by him. Your petitioner further shows, that he has petitioned the town of Framingham for assistance, which they have wholly refused to grant, he, therefore, prays your honors to take his distressed situation into your consideration, and grant him much relief as to your wisdom shall seem fit, and in duty bound shall [we?] pray.
Framingham June 9 1794
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Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
Key words: slavery in Massachusetts, slavery in New England, Slavery in Framingham, Cambridge, Charlestown, Medford, Cato Hanker, African Americans in the Revolution, Massachusetts in the Revolution, enslaved