Enslaved in the House of the Seven Gables
Wait. There aren’t any Africans, or enslaved peoples, or anything about Africa or the trading of enslaved peoples in House of the Seven Gables, right? Well reader, sometimes the very absence of something can say just as much about how a culture remembers that something as its presence.
Even though our history books teach us that only the Southern people of colonial America and the early United States developed their societies around human slavery, their Northern counterparts participated fully in this barbaric atrocity, compilicitly and directly. Rather than being isolated to white planters in Virginia and South Carolina, slavery was a persistent fact of life in Northern colonies into the early 1800s. This is true even of that bastion of freedom Massachusetts, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own Salem and Boston, where two of his most famous novels take place.
In today’s post I want to examine the history and forgetting of human enslavement in New England through The House of the Seven Gables - as both a historic home and a nineteenth-century novel.
When Nathaniel Hawthorne publishedThe House of the Seven Gables in 1851, he told the story of a fictional Pyncheon family. Hawthorne did not entirely fabricate this history, though. On the contrary, he closely linked the novel’s backstory to his own sense of guilt over his ancestor John Hathorne’s participation in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693. Even though Hawthorne set his novel in an unspecified New England town in the 1820s, Hawthorne chose the Salem Witch Trials as the moment where the Pyncheon family both originated as a New England dynasty and became stained with human sin.
The Pyncheon family’s progenitor, named Colonel Pyncheon, begins the story as a powerful member of society, but he does not cement his family’s wealth and social standing until he acquires Matthew Maule’s property. Maule is unwilling to sell his property to Pyncheon, yet Pyncheon overcomes this obstacle by fabricating claims to Maule’s land, and then accusing Maule of witchcraft.
Maule’s execution for witchcraft allows Pyncheon to assert his false property claim, build the fabulous House of Seven Gables, and establish the wealth that allows his descendants to lead lives of luxury and privilege. If we read Hawthorne’s imagined history of the Pyncheon family as a metaphor for the founding of the American nation (we must), the Salem Witch trials become the United States’ original sin.
Hawthorne was right to recognize the Salem Witch Trials as an atrocity of New England history. Between May of 1692 and February of 1693 over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Puritan New England, and 20 of them, mostly women, were executed. Hawthorne ruminated over his ancestor John Hathorne’s role in condemning these women to death. As Hawthorne implies through his fictional account of the Pyncheon family, the author knew that the Salem Witch Trials were at least in part a means of the more powerful members of Puritan society to seize the property of the politically weaker, less affluent members.
Yet in positioning the Salem Witch Trials as the original sin of the American nation, Hawthorne overwrites a far more widespread and long-lasting sin of Northern society - its participation in the practice of human slavery. And while the Salem Witch trials ended in 1692, Northern slavery would persist throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, through the eighteenth, and into the early nineteenth where the novel takes place.
This historical fact runs contrary to most Americans’ understanding of slavery, and to the narrative we are taught in school. As the story goes, there existed always in America a clear contrast between the beliefs and practices of Northerners and Southerners - white Southerners supported slavery, and they enslaved people of African descent. Northerners opposed slavery and would never enslave human beings. Besides omitting Northern slavery, this narrative erases the enslavement of another group - Native Americans - from the history of American slavery.
This false historical memory is grounded in the post-civil war narrative promulgated by Northern publishing companies who sought to exculpate the North’s role in U.S. slavery. As early as 1625, the Dutch brought enslaved Africans to New Amsterdam, which would later become the English colony of New York. The New England colonies imported African slaves, but like other colonies also enslaved Native Americans captured in conflicts such as the Pequot War of 1636. During King Philip’s War of 1676, New Englanders not only enslaved Wampanoag, Narragansett, Mohegan, Nipmuc, and other indigenous peoples, but sold them to slavers who exported them to plantations in the West Indies.
The most prominent difference between Northern and Southern slavery is simply when the atrocity became illegal. Yet this varied widely among Northern states. Most Northern states abolished slavery following the American Revolution, although some states chose to end slavery more gradually than others. While most New England states ended slavery in the 1780s, for example, slavery did not become completely illegal in the state of New York until 1827. Even after Northern states ended human slavery, they continued to economically participate in the atrocity by profiting directly through trade with Southern states. Indirectly, the North profited from slavery through taxation and supported slavery politically through various appeasements such as the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Act in 1851. And some Northern states, like Maryland, only stopped slavery after the Southern states seceded in 1861 and Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation.
The House of the Seven Gables offers one way to see a facet of this largely lost history of Northern slavery. The region’s participation in human slavery is preserved in the Turner-Ingersoll mansion - the house that many regard as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s inspiration for the Pyncheon House of his novel, and the foundation of the current House of Seven Gables Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
The House of the Seven Gables Museum openly acknowledges its own entangled history with American slavery. The original structure, built by John Turner Salem, a sea captain and merchant in 1668, pre-dates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional Pyncheon house by almost thirty years. The structure was later expanded and passed between generations of the family before being sold to another seaman, Captain Samuel Ingersoll, in 1783.
Thus, the Turner family’s ownership of the property runs concurrently with the general span of human slavery in Massachusetts. As we might expect from a wealthy family during this period, the Turners held people, possibly some of them indigenous but certainly Africans, in bondage as slaves. As the museum stated as part of last year’s “Life and Labor” exhibit:
At least five people were enslaved by the Turner family between 1728 and 1768. We know their names and a little of their life from several surviving primary source documents.
In March of 1728, Titus was baptized at the Second Church of Salem. The baptism of enslaved persons was often a way for masters to signal their control over their property, though some enslaved persons found meaning and agency in their new religion. In 1731, the intention of Titus and Phillis to marry, a Puritan custom, was published. In the intention both Titus and Phillis are listed as “servants” of Col. John Turner II.
At the time of John Turner II’s death in 1742, three enslaved people are mentioned in his probate inventory, a document made to assess his estate: Titus, Rebeckah, and Lewis. Their assigned prices give us another clue, suggesting that Lewis, at £130, was worth more to Turner than Rebeckah (£95) or Titus (£85). By 1742, Titus had been in John Turner II’s service for at least 14 years.
When Mary Kitchen Turner, the wife of John Turner II, died in 1768, she left £80 to her son John Turner III for taking three enslaved persons- Titus, Rebeckah, and Jane – “as his owne property & he engages to support them during their lives.” Joseph Felt notes in his history that in 1758 (likely mistaking the year), the heirs of John Turner II paid bonds to the town of Salem after freeing Titus and Rebeckah. Such bonds were required to prevent freed people from becoming financial burdens on the town. At that point, Titus had been in the service of the Turners for at least four decades.
I reproduce this account of the Turner family’s enslavement of African people here not to villainize them - it’s totally horrible, but common for the time period and geographic region - but to show how crystal clear their ownership of people remains through historical records. And by extension, how clearly the memory of Northern slavery has been preserved in historical records when we open our eyes to it. Many of these are freely available online. For example, Volume 36 of the Historical Collections of the Essex Historical Society (1900), available in Google Books, notes that “Slavery continued in Salem until after the Revolution. It is estimated that at that time there were 100 slaves in town.”
I have to admit to you that my literary training goes bonkers when I read that sentence. “Slavery continued” as if no person was doing the enslaving, and no person was enslaved. “Until after the revolution” appears to denote a specific time, when in reality the revolution is a broad period (1776 (?) to 1783), and “after” can indicate anything. “It is estimated” - who is doing the estimating? I assume the Essex Historical Society. Why does the writer distance himself and/or his source of information from historical fact through the passive voice. “Slaves in town” - again, as if the enslaved people are not held in human bondage. So much equivocation over so many facts.
Slave ownership was, unfortunately, an everyday fact of colonial society. The Turner family was made of wealthy merchants participating in an increasingly global trade network. They led lives of luxury, and in the colonial era, participating in human slavery was a part of their lifestyle. So common as to be unremarkable, accepted, uncondemned in the same newspapers and pamphlets in which white colonists like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson accused British metropolitans of treating colonists like slaves. The Turner family’s ownership of enslaved people was, in this context, unsurprising and in some ways barely worth noting to the people of the time.
Instead of fiction, we can most see the quotidian fact of slavery through probate records, like those referenced in the House of Seven Gables’ aforementioned exhibit. Thanks to the magic of the social medias, I’ve also become aware of the pervasiveness of New England slavery through newspaper advertisements. The account @slaveryadverts250, curated by the inimitable @tradecardcarl, regularly tweets advertisements culled directly from the archives of The American Antiquarian Society - my favorite archive, which I’ve visited several time and where, as a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to hold a fellowship. The twitter account is a facet of the The Adverts 250 Project. Each advertisement was printed in ink on paper 250 years prior to the date of the digital tweet.
I find reading these advertisements particularly enlightening because one can clearly see how printers portrayed slavery to readers, and how readers consumed the practice and incorporated it into their daily lives. The above example, for example, lists a 15-year old boy for sale under the category of furniture - a boy is like a table, a chair, a looking glass. Another:
This advertisement reveals how little, if any, shame this printer felt when implicating himself in the African slave trade. If he does not own this 14-year old African boy, the printer appears to have at least set himself up as the broker for selling this enslaved person. I subscribe to @slaveadverts250 because I think it is important to remain cognizant of how commonplace slavery was, not long ago, in a place like New England, which our history books teach us to associate with abolitionism and freedom.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was not obligated to practice the same historical self-awareness shown by @slaveadverts 250 and The House of Seven Gables museum (which was, yes, inspired by his novel, which was, in turn, inspired by the House). Hawthorne was extremely well-versed in New England history. Even a casual glance through the titles of his short stories, let alone a pleasant afternoon spent reading his novel The Scarlet Letter, shows the author’s extensive knowledge of New England, from colonial times up to his own day, garnered from years of study during and after his college years at Boiden.
In the introduction to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne steeps the Pyncheon family line in New England history. He is not shy to acknowledge the less savory aspects of the region’s founding. Hawthorne bases his plot around the idea that the founder’s original sin of accusing Matthew Maule of witchcraft and taking his property haunts the Pyncheons of the novel’s present. Hawthorne even allows unpopular political positions within the Pyncheon line when he makes one of Pyncheon’s descendants a loyalist to the British empire during the American Revolution.
Given their social standing, a wealthy seventeenth-century Massachusetts family like the Pyncheons would most likely have owned enslaved Africans. A structure such as The House of Seven Gables may have been at least partially built through the labor of enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, or both. And Hawthorne’s Pyncheon family would likely have held enslaved Africans and/or indigenous peoples as household servants at some point in its history. Yet Hawthorne does not include a single mention to ownership of enslaved peoples in his fictional history.
Hawthorne chose the Salem Witchcraft trials as the “original sin” of his Pyncheon family, the curse that would follow the descendants of the Pyncheon line as they reaped the material and social benefits of this original sin.He could just as easily have noted his earlier ancestor William Hathorne, his great great great grandfather, achieved his rank of Major based on his celebrity as an Indian killer.
One wonders which of Hawthorne’s four ancestors who made their living as sea captains on merchant trips engaged in trade with ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Hawthorne largely avoided topics of Indian genocide and African holocaust in his fiction. He was definitely aware of them.
However much we love him for his writing, and recognize his contribution to American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, like many of his contemporaries of 1850 New England, was far more troubled by the unjust execution of white women and men in the Salem Witch Trials in 1682 than the ongoing slavery and genocide against Africans and Native peoples. Studying The House of the Seven Gables from this perspective expands our understanding of the breadth of the historical practice of slavery, as well as how writers of the nineteenth century - intentionally or not - publicly erased Northern slavery from cultural memory.
I don’t point out Hawthorne’s massive failure in historical accuracy to condemn him. But I do think it is worthwhile to point out the way that novelists like Hawthorne - the ones we have decided are emblematic of our national literature - have also tended to participate in an active forgetting, some have even argued an erasure, of the less savory practices, such as slavery and genocide, upon which the United States has been built.
It may be OK for Hawthorne and others to have been limited in their ability to see this. We may, based on the social mores Hawthorne grew up with, the times Hawthorne lived in, forgive his blindness to the horrors of slavery - both in his own time and Salem's then-recent past. But it is our duty in the 21st century to recognize them, to make reparations for the crimes of our ancestors, and dispossess ourselves of, as Hawthorne calls them in his Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, “ill-gotten gains.” This is, I like to think, what a more racially and historically enlightened Nathaniel Hawthorne would want today. This is the whole lesson, after all, of his novel The House of the Seven Gables.
I want to thank David Moffat at the House of the Seven Gables, who prompted me to think of the history of enslaved peoples that is embedded in the property, and for his advice and correspondence in composing this blogpost. Thanks David.