By 1775, Lexington was not immune to the institution. The largest slaveholder in 1771 was Samuel Hadley with three enslaved servants. Other slaveholders included Samuel Bridge, William Tidd, Robert Harrington, William Reed and Benjamin Estabrook.
In some Lexington households, male slaves worked side by side with their masters as coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers and wheelwrights. In other homes, they ran errands, functioned as valets and performed heavy work for their masters. The few female slaves in Lexington were required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded.
The enrolling of enslaved men in the colony’s militia system was considered illegal on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In 1652, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law requiring all African-Americans and Indian servants to undergo military training and serve in the militia. However, four years later, as fears of a slave revolt grew, Massachusetts reversed the law and prohibited Blacks from entering military service. According to research conducted by Minute Man National Historical Park, In 1709, the Massachusetts legislature slightly reversed itself and declared that “free male negro’s or molattos” would be exempt from military training but would still be required to “make their appearance” with their local militia companies “in case of alarm”.
Lexington slaves were not completely without rights. Unlike slaves in the southern colonies, New England slaves could hold limited amounts of property, and testify in court against both whites and other Blacks.
Still, slavery was a degrading and inhumane institution.
Understandably, these horrific conditions motivated many enslaved people from New England to run away from their masters. In turn, slaveholders would publish advertisements in area newspapers describing the enslaved person, the clothing they wore when last seen and any items they carried with them.
Here is Reed’s advertisement from the September 17, 1753 edition of the Boston Gazette:
Bly’s book also identifies an incident that involved Lexington tavern owner John Buckman. The account appeared in the January 18, 1776 edition of the New England Chronicle. According to the newspaper account, an eighteen-year-old male slave named Cato had escaped from Hampton, New Hampshire in the Fall of 1775. Surprisingly, Cato did not flee to Portsmouth or Newburyport to join a sailing vessel (18th century New England sailing vessels were notorious for taking on escaped Black slaves). Instead, he traveled into the Massachusetts interior and by November 1775, arrived in Lexington.
According to the New England Chronicle, Cato approached John Buckman seeking work. “He offered his service to Mr. John Buckman, innholder in that town, and called himself Elijah Bartlet, and said that he was free born.” Buckman was suspicious of the young man and believed Cato was “a runaway”. Aware that the tavern keeper was on to him, Cato “stopped but a few days [in Lexington], and went off privately.” It appears after Cato fled, the Buckman reported the runaway to the authorities, who in turn relayed the information to Cato’s owner.
As far as the Nerds can tell, Cato was never apprehended.