Ipswich MA sale of a Negro girl slave named PatienceHistory

Her name was Patience

This article was first published by Shelley Barber,  Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library, Boston College


Sale of “Negro girl Patience” by Thomas Burnham to Robert Dodge, both of Ipswich.

Patience is a “virtue name” like Grace or Hope, and celebrates the Puritan attribute of the acceptance of delay, trouble, or suffering through faith in God.

This document – a receipt of the sale of a woman only identified as Patience – provides a few important pieces of information, but also leaves us with a good deal of mystery. The buyer and seller are both identified by name, occupation (yeoman 1), and town (Ipswich 2). The names of the witnesses can be read; they were probably both adults, and related in some way to the buyer or seller. Patience, though, has no surname, or specific occupation, and is called a “girl.” What was her age in 1769? Was she born in or near Ipswich?  How did her life change with this transaction? Did she eventually become free, and what were her circumstances then? Did she marry or have children? Was she a church member? Where are her remains buried?

“Know all men by these presents I, Thomas Burnam 3 of Ipswich in the County of Essex and Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, yeoman, for and in consideration of the sum of thirty two pounds lawful money to me in hand before the ensealing hereof well and truly paid by Robert Dodge of Ipswich aforesaid yeoman, the receipt whereof I do hereby acknowledge, and myself therewith full satisfied contented and paid, have bargained and sold and do by these presents bargain, sell, sett over and confirm unto the said Robert Dodge his heirs executors administrators or assigns a negro girl known by the name of Patience —–

To have and to hold said negro girl Patience during her natural life unto the said Robert Dodge his heirs executors administrators or assigns —- And further I the said Thomas Burnam, for my self my heirs executors and administration, against the lawful claims or demands of any person or persons whatever, forever hereafter to warrant secure and defend — In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal, this thirteenth day of December Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and sixty nine.”

Thomas [Burnam] [seal]
Signed sealed and delivered in presence of
Samuel Patch
Lucy Whittneg 4

Resources for genealogical research in Massachusetts’ Colonial and Revolutionary eras are plentiful and might be used to identify Burnham, Dodge, Patch and Whittredge with certainty. Information about Patience could be found in many of the same resources, but with her surname unidentified and her age unrecorded, she is likely to be very challenging to find. Guides that offer strategies for locating African American records include those from American Ancestors, and FamilySearch.

When genealogical evidence is hard to find, it is important to look for clues about the known associates of an individual – their family and neighbors, or members of religious, fraternal or military groups and the like, to which they belonged. Since her records are elusive, what information can be gleaned about Patience and her circumstances from the others whose names are on the document?

By 1769 when this document was produced, the tide was beginning to turn from slavery toward abolition in Massachusetts, where approximately 2.2 percent of the state’s total population were enslaved  and was generally concentrated in industrial and coastal towns like Ipswich. Enslaved people in Massachusetts could file suit in court to gain their freedom, and the Massachusetts Constitution abolished slavery in 1783. The Massachusetts Historical Society’s web presentation, African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts includes a section, The Domestic Sale of SlavesIt includes a number of examples of documents like the one about the sale of Patience. 

Image of cover detail of Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Cover detail, Thomas Franklin Waters, et al. Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony … The Ipswich Historical Society, 1905-1917.

The seller and buyer – Thomas Burnham and Robert Dodge respectively – are both described as yeoman farmers of Ipswich. One individual who could have been the buyer is Robert Dodge (1743-1823). He was born in Beverly and married Mary Boardman of Ipswich in 1765. They raised a large family in the part of Ipswich that would become the town of Hamilton in 1793. Two of the couple’s ten children had been born by the date of Dodge’s purchase of Patience in 1769. Robert built a substantial farmhouse after inheriting property from his father in 1769. The Dodge-Gibney House, as it is now known, was completed in 1772.

Robert Dodge was an officer in the Continental Army and served in several campaigns. The sword he carried at the Battle of Bunker Hill still hangs in the house, which is now the Myopia Hunt clubhouse. Robert Dodge died in 1823 and his widow, Mary, the following year. Their birth, marriage, and death dates, locations, and other circumstances match well with the receipt for the sale of Patience, but since this Robert Dodge was not the only one living in that area at that time, further research is needed. An important clue, though, is that the sale was witnessed by Lucy (Dodge) Whittredge, the younger sister of Robert Dodge (1743-1823), and a newly married woman who was about 20 years old at the time of the sale. 

The receipt for the sale of Patience is a single sheet of paper, unconnected to the others in its collection or other material held at Burns Library. But the lone document represents connection – connections between one individual and another, and of people to places – and it allows the reader to connect with Massachusetts history.


Notes from Gordon Harris, Ipswich Town Historian:

    1. A Yeoman in Colonial New England was a man who owned his own modest farm and worked it primarily with family labor. 
    2. In 1769 Hamilton and Essex were still parishes of Ipswich known as the Hamlet and Chebacco.
    3. Thomas Burnham may have been one of the Thomas Burnhams of Chebacco
    4. John Whitteridge of Beverly married Lucy Dodge of the Hamlet, Aug. 13, 1769.

Sources & Further Reading:

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