A Pair of Six Foot Oxen
-- by Beth Tykodi
“When she was four years old she was purchased by Captain Samuel Lord, the price being paid, a pair of 6 foot oxen.”
These words introduce William F. Lord’s 19th century memoir entitled “Black Sara.” Lord was a Berwick historian and a descendant of Captain Samuel Lord. His account is most likely based on oral family tradition passed down through several generations.
In this memoir, Lord gives a nostalgic account of Sarah, an 18th century slave who belonged to the Lord family of Berwick. Throughout the article he recounts her many virtues and accomplishments. She was “strong and energetic, of great endurance, had common sense and a kind and sympathetic hear, and she was versed in all the home remedies for the sick and watched their bedside with patience and sympathy.” He indicates that she attended church regularly, had full charge of the family’s grist mill, helped care for the neighboring Sullivan family children, created clothing for the revolutionary soldiers of Berwick, and lovingly bade them goodbye as the marched out of town for the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Lord gives a bit of information about Sarah’s personal life. He relates that she married a man named Ceasar who was the “servant” of a neighboring farmer. One child, a daughter Amy, came from this union. Ceasar died of an accidental drowning soon after Amy was born and Amy died at 6 months of age. Sarah outlived her husband and daughter by many years. The Lord family discovered her dead when they arose and found that she has not begun preparing the morning meal. Lord recounts her funeral remarking that “nearly every colored person and most of the members of the parish came to the funeral…the colored people remained until the grave was covered and until the undressed stones were set which mark the grave to-day.”
There are few original sources that tell us much about Sarah’s life. South Berwick’s First Federated Church documents show that she and her daughter Amy were baptized on November 7, 1742 at the church’s early location on Brattle Street. Her grave lies in a Lord family cemetery in Berwick, just off of Route 236, marked with a stone etched with the name “Sarah.” Next to this stone is another etched with the name “Ceasar.”
This leaves us wondering what Sarah’s life and the life of other slaves held by Berwick’s residents were really like. A 2010 article in the Boston Globe by Francie Latour , “New England’s Hidden History” sums up what many of us were taught about slavery in New England. “Slavery happened in the South, and it ended thanks to the North. Maybe we had a little slavery, early on. But it wasn’t real slavery. We never had many slaves, and the ones we did have were practically family. We let them marry, we taught them to read, and soon enough, we freed them. New England is the home of abolitionists and underground railroads.”
In some ways, William F. Lord’s memoir seems to typify this argument. At first glance his article seems to be a fond story about a well-loved and respected community member. But re-reading the article with twenty first century eye, unsettling phrases begin to jump out. “Sara was an important acquisition to the new settlement…”, “Her master was a constituent member of the new church….”, “She was allowed to live with Master Lord’s son, who had recently married….”, “She was allowed to take all her worldly goods….”, and perhaps most significantly “When she was four years old she was purchased…..” . This was clearly slavery and not some kind-hearted New England imitation of it.
There are some clues that suggest Sarah was treated better than some slaves of this time period. She did marry and she was buried in the family cemetery with a grave marker. However, “treated better” is obviously a relative term. Who were her parents? Did she ever see them again after she was bought? Did she have siblings? What work did she do as a newly purchased four-year old? It is not likely that we will ever know the answers to these questions or how she felt about the family she served, the community she lived in and her role in it.
Despite the bias of William F. Lord’s memoir, it does bring Sarah’s life to light. Each time we pass her grave driving down route 236, we can wonder about and acknowledge the many other undocumented slaves that lived in the South Berwick area.