By Blake Maddux
“The idea that slavery was not economically important to New England as a whole is just emphatically not true.”
Northwest Ohio native Jared Ross Hardesty developed a great fondness for Boston while visiting an uncle who at the time lived in Worcester. As a result, he was determined to receive his graduate training at one of the city’s many colleges after collecting his bachelor’s from Ohio Northern University (where I spent my freshman year) in 2008.
Hardesty selected Boston College and received his doctorate in 2014. That same year, he shifted from one coast to the other after accepting a faculty position at Western Washington University. He is now a tenured associate professor who has created new classes such as Slavery and Film, Atlantic Piracy, and The Salem Witch Trials.
Hardesty’s first book, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, was based on his BC dissertation and published by NYU Press in 2016. For his second book, Hardesty opted to widen his geographical focus, resulting in Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: Slavery in New England, which the University of Massachusetts Press imprint Bright Leaf published last year.
This volume will be the focus of his lecture at the Salem Regional Visitors Center on Thursday, February 6.
The Arts Fuse: Did you arrive at BC fully intending to study slavery in Boston?
Jared Ross Hardesty: I always knew I wanted to study slavery in graduate school, but I thought that it would be slavery in the Caribbean or the South. When I got to the point that I had to write a dissertation, I needed to be practical about it. You have to figure in the amount of time it takes to do the research. So I thought about a more New England–based topic, something that I would have access to. Then I realized that no one had actually written a book about the history of slavery in Boston. There are histories of slavery in New England and Rhode Island, but not about Boston proper and what slavery might have looked like there. So I thought that I could do that. That dissertation became the first book.
AF: Why did you follow up that book with one about slavery in New England?
JRH: One of my frustrations writing the dissertation was that I wanted a short overview of slavery in New England that gave me a set of facts on this topic that I could then reference and build upon. And I couldn’t find that. There is an old book called The Negro in Colonial New England by a historian named Lorenzo Johnston Greene, published in 1942. It’s a great book. The problem is that it is now 80 years old, about 350 pages long, and it’s all built on primary source research. My idea was that someone had to do an update about this that would be largely built upon secondary sources and serve as a kind of true and proper introduction to the subject. Researchers and readers could then use the book to then find other works.
AF: Which truths about slavery in New England are less clear when one focuses on Boston only rather than the entire region?
JRH: My own thinking on the subject has changed. When I wrote what became Unfreedom, I bought into a lot of the stereotypes and tropes about New England slavery, which is to say that it that was relatively unimportant economically, there weren’t that many enslaved people in New England, and it didn’t particularly matter for the region as a whole.
But revisiting the region as a whole caused me to kind of push back on a lot of those myths that I was not thinking critically about. I’m much more critical of them now. The idea that slavery was not economically important to the region as a whole is just emphatically not true. When you start to look within different parts of the region, slavery is really important. Otherwise it wouldn’t have existed. The other thing is the issue of demography. At the time of the Revolution, only about 4% of the population of New England was enslaved, so it’s very easy to dismiss it as unimportant. But once again, when you start looking at localities — places like Boston or Deerfield or the Narragansett Country — there are much larger enslaved populations. Newport, RI, was 25% enslaved in the 18th century. The entire economy of the region is tied into slavery even if there isn’t a particularly large presence of enslaved people in New England. The entire economy’s driven by trade with the West Indies. It is supporting the plantation complex in the Caribbean, eventually helping to support the plantation complex in the American South. The reason to write the book was not only to write this short account and starting point for further research, but also to push back on some of these more pernicious myths about New England slavery.
AF: What was slavery’s significance to Salem specifically?
JRH: There was a slightly higher proportion of enslaved people living in Salem than most other rural communities. Enslaved people were employed in the maritime trades. Some were sailors, some were stevedores, that sort of work. There were probably more enslaved men than women because of the type of labor market available. The enslaved population may not have been particularly large, but nonetheless its economy is still deeply tied to slavery. It’s a major port in northern Massachusetts for the timber and fish trades and most of that timber and fish went to the West Indies. So much of the town’s wealth and economic productivity is built upon supporting the plantation complex.
AF: You teach a class of your own design on the Salem Witch Trials. What is the enthusiasm level of students on the West Coast for such a distinctly New England topic?
JRH: There’s an interest that’s long on myths and short on facts. The course was a capstone course for seniors. All of our senior history majors have to write a substantial research paper. The Salem Witch Trials translates really well to this situation because most of the documents have been published in one thing, this huge book by Bernard Rosenthal that has all the legal documents pertaining to the Salem Witch Trials. And the Salem Witch Trials has a fairly confined secondary literature, so you can see the way historians have discussed and argued about the Salem Witch Trials. So students can see the way arguments build on each other, how people disagree with each other, how they agree, and how they augment one another. And they have direct access to the primary sources to check against. Students walk in with all these kind of myths and preconceived notions and they walk out having learned a lot about the actual events.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.