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Slavery did exist in Burlington

Salmon lunch in Burlington MA
THE SALMON LUNCH – The mural in the Burlington Historical Museum showing the salmon lunch at the parsonage on April 19, 1775. From left are Madam Jones, Rev. Marrett, John Hancock, Cuff, Samuel Adams and Dorothy Quincy. Don Gorvette and Jeff Weaver painted the mural in 1973.


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, October 16, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 017)

Slavery did exist in early Burlington

The obituary notices in the Sunday paper for Oct. 7 included Charlie Smith, who had passed away the previous Friday in Barstow, Fla., at the astounding age of 137. Even more astounding: He was a former slave. Brought to New Orleans as a boy of 12, he was sold there at auction to a Texas rancher whose name he adopted. Since he was sold on July 4, 1854, he later picked that day as his birthday. The death notice went on to say that Social Security officials were unable to verify much of the old man’s history, such as the story he used to tell about riding with Jesse James’ outlaw gang in the old West. Fact or fiction, the story of his long life would make interesting reading.

The story of the two slaves known to have lived in Burlington during the Revolution is part history and part folklore. One was Cuff Trot, whose gravestone in the Old Burying Ground still stands in the far corner of the yard, and Venus Rowe, whose gravestone has disappeared, if one ever stood. Both were interesting and industrious people. Short anecdotes of their activities have appeared in print several times.

Slavery had never been an important item on New England farms because many a farmer here considered the practice unethical. It was neither condoned nor condemned, but simply frowned upon. Which makes the story of Cuff the more interesting, since he was the domestic in the home of the Reverend Mr. Jones, the second minister of Woburn Second Parish.

Cuff’s origin and birthdate are a mystery. So is his death, judging by the vague language on his tombstone: “Erected in memory of Cuff, a faithful black domestic of Madam Abigail Jones. He died April, 1813, aged about 67 years.” It was said that Cuff came with the Jones family from Dorchester in 1751 when the Rev. Jones accepted the pastorate here in the Church of Christ. If the stone and the story are correct, Cuff must have been five when he came to Burlington. Here he learned to be a farmer for both the Rev. Jones and his successor, the Rev. Mr. Marrett. Both were farmers.

The earliest record of Cuff is found in the muster roll of the company in his Majesty’s service under the command of a William Jones, captain 1760, the end of the period of French and Indian wars which saw the destruction of Louisbourg and the capture of Quebec. Beside Cuff’s name is that of a Captain Edwards who may have been responsible for his service, but what relation either Jones or Edwards have to the Rev. Jones, or where Cuff served during his 33 weeks in the outfit, is not known. Cuff must have been in his early teens at the time.

The Rev. Mr. Jones died March 13, 1774 from an attack of apoplexy as he was preaching the Sunday sermon in the Old Meeting House. Cuff proved to be a solid and reliable support for the stricken family. He ran the farm while Madam Jones gave most of the orders.

Cuff played an important part in the stirring events of April 19, 1775 when he had the honor of serving salmon to John Hancock and Samuel Adams when they stopped at the parsonage that noon. Then the alarm came, which cut short that meal. Cuff helped hide the Hancock coach in Pathwoods, and with the new reverend Marrett, guided the two gentlemen through the woods to the home of Amos Wyman in Billerica. According to Parker Converse, in his Legends of Woburn (1892): “Cuff Trot, a slave of Rev. Thomas Jones, was in the habit of going to Woburn Centre on horseback to do errands for the family. On one of those occasions, he stopped at Bud Parker’s Tavern (Mishawum House), perhaps to quaff a mug of flip. When he came out, some fellows, thinking to make sport of him, began to treat Cuff with mock deference. One unhitched his horse while another held his stirrups and helped him to mount. But the laugh was not on their side for Cuff, sitting upon his steed in state, took some stray coins from his pocket and bestowed them upon the would-be wits with the most genteel condescension.”

End of slavery in Massachusetts

In 1783, Chief Justice C.J. Cushing, speaking for the court in the case of the Commonwealth vs. Nathaniel Jennison, outlawed the insidious institution of slavery when he said in part, “The idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and constitution.” The decision was based upon the first article of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights which began, “All men are born free and equal.” With this decision, Cuff became a free man. But he never left the only home he had ever known, the parsonage on Lexington Street.

Both Cuff and the Rev. Mr. Marrett died in 1813, having seen the Revolution brought to a successful close and witnessing not only the birth of a new nation but the incorporation of a new town, Burlington. For Marrett’s funeral, all the townspeople attended, as did the divines from many surrounding towns. Cuff’s funeral was a smaller one, yet one which upheld the dignity the man had shown through life and indicated the respect of his fellow townspeople, for he was carried from the simple service in the Old Meeting House across the road to his final resting place on the shoulders of the new town’s selectmen, an honor given to very few.

Venus Rowe, the other domestic in Burlington at the time, seems seems to have been born around 1754. As an infant, she had been given as a gift to the wife of Swithin Reed. Legend tells us that the baby was brought to Burlington by Mr. Reed, comfortably nestled in one of his saddlebags. Venus grew up here in the service of the Reeds, who lived in the southern part of town and operated the two mills on Vine Brook, an area now covered by the Burlington Mall.

As a member of the Reed family, Venus must have felt the tragedy of Swithin’s oldest son, Robert, who drowned while on a fishing trip off Boston Light in 1805. She must have tended to all eight children of Swithin’s second son, James, who attained the rank of captain in the Revolution. She also must have taken care of the five children born to Swithin’s grandson, also named James, and also a captain who served in the War of 1812.

The only time she left the Reed homestead was directly after the Cushing decision, when she left Burlington to live in Lexington for a while. But she soon returned to the only home she had ever known, to spend the rest of her days. She lived past 90, a simple, loyal and devoted servant to three generations of Reeds. She died in 1844 and was buried presumably close to the grave of Cuff Trot. Today there is no indication of just where she lies.