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The Old Sewall House as it stood at the end of the 19th century. It had been home to Cuff Trot, an African American servant, during the American Revolution. In 1783 the American colonies gained their freedom and so did Cuff Trot.
Copyright © 2011 George Perkins
www.georgeperkins.net All rights reserved ´The Life and Times of Cuff Trotµ is a chapter taken from Stones Stand, Waters Flow, a New England memoir and history by George Perkins.
The Life and Times of Cuff Trot
In 1783 the American colonies gained their freedom and so did Cuff Trot. The bell from Lexington clanged over and over, again and again. In Woburn·s Old Parish, where there was as yet no steeple and no bell on the meetinghouse, those who heard the clamor from Lexington knew immediately what it meant. Other bells in other towns lifted their voices to the skies in joyful celebration of the end of eight years of desperate armed conflict, just as through the years they had announced victories and tolled for the dead. From Church Hill, near the meetinghouse, parishioners had watched the fires of war reddening and smoking the skies over Boston. They had awakened from their beds to the sound of cannons during the Siege of Boston, uncertain from which side the cannons were firing, not knowing which of their friends and neighbors stood within cannon range, which shops and docks and markets suffered the crash of iron balls, or whether it was the streets in Boston, or the heights of Dorchester, or the flats of Charlestown that lay littered with debris and blood. With the end of the war, bells rang, cannons boomed, and bonfires illuminated the night. Although no bells rang, no cannons boomed, and no bonfires blazed specifically for Cuff Trot, he took as great joy in the general celebrations as any man. As much as any man, he believed he had earned that joy. And in the same year that the Treaty of Paris granted the colonies their collective freedom, the State of Massachusetts granted Cuff his personal freedom. The colonies had not waited for the end of the war to organize a government. In 1780, Massachusetts adopted a Constitution and a Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants. John Hancock was elected as first governor under the new constitution, the same John Hancock that Cuff helped to escape from the British on the morning of the 19th of April 1775. First among the Rights of the constitution he was elected to defend was Article I: ´All men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.µ
Near the end of 1783, when the Treaty of Paris granted legitimacy to the new government, these words, immediately tested in court, ended slavery in Massachusetts. Chief Justice William Cushing wrote, in part, ´As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage, a usage which took its origins from some of the European nations, and the regulations of the British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of nose) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, set out with declaring that all men are born free and equal³and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property³and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature . . . In 1783, Cuff was thirty-seven years old. For thirty-two years he had lived in Woburn·s Second Parish as a servant to Madam Abigail Jones of Lexington Street. Perhaps it was time for a change. He had seen some of the world and he entertained the idea of seeing more. Twice he had served as a soldier, fighting first for the English and the colonies against the French and the Indians, and then fighting against the English as a colonial on the side of American independence. He had walked on the docks in Boston and observed the tall ships unloading and taking on cargo for England and South America and Africa and the Orient. He had known the Maine wilderness, had listened to accounts of Benedict Arnold·s march on Quebec, accompanied by Massachusetts men and helped by Abenaki Indians who lived freely in the wide forests and floated their birch bark canoes into rivers that flowed faster and further than Vine Brook.
He couldn·t remember much of his childhood. A small boy that must have been him ran about in a frame house in Dorchester. At night, the small boy slept under the eaves and when the rain beat on the roof he was snug and comfortable. From the Dorchester Heights, he could see across the water to Boston and could watch the tall spars and white sails of ships in the bay and in the wide ocean that extended far out to a straight edge where the ships grew small and dropped off. ´Where did I come from, Miss Abigail?µ ´You came from across the water, Cuff, and landed on the Boston docks.µ ´No, please, Miss Abigail, I mean who made me?µ ´The good Lord God made you Cuff, and sent you to us.µ So that was it, but he didn·t know how or when. Below the heights he could see the town of Boston isolated like the head of a turkey on a chopping block with its long thin neck connecting it perilously to the vast body of the land. Behind him the Great Blue Hill rose in wooded and primitive splendor and behind that were Indians and rattlesnakes. He set the table and picked up things and ran errands to a store that had flour and molasses and biscuits and salt. The home was that of John and Sarah Wiswell, and he was under the particular care of their daughter Abigail, a woman in her twenties who had neither husband nor children. She was kind and life was pleasant. In 1751, when Miss Abigail married the Reverend Thomas Jones, a Dorchester neighbor ten years out of Harvard and newly favored with an appointment as minister to Woburn·s Second Parish, Cuff went with her. When he came to the great house in the future town of Burlington, he was already quick. He picked things up. ´In Adam·s Fall, We sinned all.µ ´The Cat doth play, And after Slay.µ He knew nothing of kings or patriots or rebels in the early days in his new home, for he arrived as child of five, and he was too young and too busy in his role of servant and older playmate to the three daughters that Madam Jones soon gave birth to, Lucy and the twins, Mary and Martha, to give much thought to politics.
Fourteen in 1760 when the French and Indian War neared its close, he left home to spend thirty-three weeks in His Britannic Majesty·s service under the command of Captain William Jones. He welcomed the duty, but sensed that what was most required of him at this time by Madam Abigail and the Reverend Jones was that he be removed to some distance from young Lucy and the twins, who were beginning to follow him about like puppies. What he later remembered from the experience was bivouacs, seasickness, forests, black flies, forts, drum rolls, marches, and rumors of Indian attacks, of captivity and slaughter. General Wolfe had taken Quebec in September 1759, placing the English in position to wrest control of Canada from the French. But the French were not through. After the French general, Montcalm, died on the Plains of Abraham, the Chevalier de Levis, his second in command, remained in charge of a formidable army and the St. Lawrence River continued to provide access to support ships from France. Meanwhile, British supply lines were limited to wilderness routes through upstate New York, down the upper St. Lawrence, and through Lake Champlain. After a hard winter depleted the effectiveness of the British garrison at Quebec, Levis mustered 11,000 men for a second battle on the Plains of Abraham in April 1760. These were difficult days for New Englanders. Older people remembered harassment from Indians acting on their own and in league with the French. Cuff stood in awe of the bloody door on the house where a Second Parish woman was killed by a tomahawk, imagining the scene as it had happened. In 1760, the year he joined the war, the house was taken down and the door removed to a barn, still stained with blood. The legend of that old blow continued to live and the war with the French remained a threat throughout the area. Among the books Cuff had fingered in the library of the Reverend Jones was The Soveraignty and Goodness of GOD, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, with its chillingly factual beginning, ´On the tenth of February 1675, Came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster.µ He had pored over its pages, absorbing the message of God·s goodness and grace and of Mrs. Rowlandson·s suffering and patience. ´Of thirty-seven persons who were in this one House, none escaped either present death, or a bitter captivity, save only one, who might say as he, Job 1. 15 And I only am escaped alone to tell the News. There were twelve killed, some shot, some stab·d with their Spears, some knock·d down with their Hatchetsµ
He had listened to tales of the later attack on Deerfield, where fifty English people were killed, the town burned, and many carried off to captivity, and of attacks on Wells and Saco, in the Maine plantations. Now the talk among the soldiers was of battles won and lost against old enemies and of summary justice meted out. Indians had been hanged in chains or sold into slavery. Barbados came up in the discussions. Barbados. Black slaves, he learned, had come to Boston on ships from Barbados, and he sensed that perhaps in a time he could not remember he had been a child on one of those ships, sold at the dock to a family in Dorchester. Indians had been sent the other way, loaded onto ships in Boston harbor to be sold into slavery in the British plantations in Barbados. He was fascinated with those other dark-skinned people of New England who left Boston as blacks came in. Mustered into the colonial army, he is shipped Down East, away from the ships from Barbados, and into the waters of the multitudinous coastal islands of that wilderness province of Massachusetts that will one day be Maine. They sail into Casco Bay and up the Kennebec River to Fort Western, the farthest point navigable to ships. Their mission involves military intelligence and preparedness, for the Kennebec Abenakis constitute one of the most important tribes in the British colonial Northeast. They have been formidable friends and enemies since the aborted English colony at Popham in 1607 and the trade begun with Plymouth Colony in 1628. Similar contacts, formed early with French traders seeking furs and French missionaries seeking souls, came easily and naturally and the French have been adept at conversion. Situated only a few days up the river from Fort Western, the Abenaki town of Norridgewock has long stood as a formidable fortress outpost of Catholicism. It controls the river route from Quebec into coastal Maine. Since the seventeenth century, the French have supported Indian attacks on the Maine settlements. If they prompt still more in revenge for the taking of Quebec, or if they supplement the Indians with French soldiers for a bold, frontal attack on northern New England coastal towns, they will move through a morass of rivers, swamps, and forests unexplored by the English. As the birches and maples leaf out and the pines luxuriate pale green in the new growth of the spring and summer of 1760, the melt of winter snows and the rise of Kennebec waters rushing from Moosehead Lake toward the Atlantic will provide swift passage for long war canoes. The portages will be easy, deer and other woodland game plentiful. Salmon will be leaping at the falls. The army will try to move before or after the black flies of June and July. At Norridgewock they will refresh themselves and gather strength from Abenakis whose home lies much closer to the English
downriver than to the French along the St. Lawrence. Such an attack will take time and preparation but it will arrive as swift as overnight. What do they know at Norridgewock? What will they divulge to English troops gathering at Fort Western? What might reasonable men conclude from rumors passed through trees, over rivers, and under hides packed for trade in the bottoms of birch bark canoes? The English can send emissaries upriver to Norridgewock, but how much can they believe of the talk they hear from the Indians and Canadian woodsmen? Dominance of the Northeast hangs in the balance. Fifteen years later, when the English stand in control of Canada, these Norridgewock Abenakies will provide invaluable assistance to Benedict Arnold when, fighting for the American rebels, he struggles up this river in an attempt to take Quebec from the British. Captain John Wood of Burlington, a friend of Cuff·s, and a fellow veteran of the French and Indian War, will serve with Arnold in Canada. After eight months of service, when the crisis was over, Cuff returned to the farm. Still a teenager, he had grown into an enlarged appreciation of the value men give to home and the lengths to which they will go to protect it. In springtime he planted corn. As Lucy and Mary and Martha followed, he showed them how to hold the hoe, chopping the plowed and harrowed earth with the flat edge to produce planting mounds, how to turn one corner of the hoe to scrape a crater in the top of each mound, and how to drop the dried kernels in. In that first year, only Lucy could make an attempt with the hoe, but even the small ones could chant the rhyme: One for the cutworm, One for the crow, One for to rot, And two for to grow. They repeated it after him, turning it into a singsong prayer as they dropped kernels from upturned aprons, and he followed after, embedding five kernels in each hill with one scoop and a careful tamp of the hoe. Then the potatoes. Sitting at a wooden bench with a six inch blade thrust through the plank, its edge facing away from him, he warned the girls to keep their fingers far from the work, and drew the potatoes one at a time against the knife, each one passing the blade two or three times as he cut and turned, cut and turned, making sure that there remained at least one eye and preferably a couple of eyes in each piece he dropped into the basket between his knees. He showed them where the eyes were and how they should be planted looking up, for it was from the
eyes that the new shoots would sprout. The blade flashed between his fingers, moist and glistening from the water within the potatoes and a dark pool of damp spread on the planking around the knife as his hands went back and forth, clutched, turned, and gathered, and swept the pieces into the basket. ´What if you cut your fingers?µ ´I won·t.µ ´May I try it?µ ´No, you may not.µ ´What if you do cut your fingers?µ ´I won·t.µ ´We want to help.µ ´You can hand me more potatoes.µ ´What else?µ ´You can take the full basket, move it over there, and hand me an empty basket. No, that won·t do. You·re tipping it over. Let me help.µ The cows gave birth and the crops came in and the snows fell and the seasons passed and Cuff grew older. Relations with England deteriorated in Massachusetts. Men who had fought for the English against the French and their Indian allies began to fret about grievances and talk about taking arms against the English. ´Taxation without representationµ became an issue with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of the next year. A growing cadre of men calling themselves Sons of Liberty insisted on rights they believed had belonged to freeborn Englishmen since the Magna Carta of 1215, and a mob attacked the mansion of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts. In 1766, the British fueled outrage by declaring that Parliament and the King possessed the right to ´make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.µ This was a miscalculation. In Massachusetts, English Puritans for nearly a hundred and fifty years had cherished a belief in their legal and moral rights to a significant measure of selfgovernance. As friction between mother country and colony increased, New England preachers increasingly promoted the call for freedom as a religious and not merely a political matter, as in John Wise·s A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches, first printed in 1717.
´I shall consider man in a state of natural being as a freeborn subject under the crown of heaven and owing homage to none but God himself,µ he wrote. Taking for granted ´an original liberty instampt uponµ man·s ´rational nature,µ he added that ´he that intrudes upon this liberty, violates the law of nature.µ For Wise, ´The first human subject and original of civil power is the people. For as they have a power every man over himself in a natural state, so upon a combination they can and do bequeath this power unto others; and settle it according as their united discretion shall determine. For that this is very plain, that when the subject of sovereign power is quite extinct, that power returns to the people again. And when they are free, they may set up what species of government they please . . .µ These English Puritans, with their enduring vision of self-determination, found support among Scots and Scotch-Irish immigrants, arriving in increasing numbers in the early eighteenth century, who smoldered with old country grievances against the English. Parliament·s declaration of a right to ´bind the colonies in all cases whatsoeverµ rubbed salt in wounds inflicted in England·s Irish Declaratory Act of 1719, which employed the same phrasing to enforce subservience in Ireland. Scots, who had relinquished their claim to sovereignty by glumly accepting the 1707 Act of Union, brought with them their long heritage of independence that included the stirring Declaration of Arbroath, promulgated in 1320, which named Bruce as King of Scots, but also reserved the right of the people to remove him if he proved unworthy, for ´it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up except with his life.µ In the Boston Massacre of 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd that had pelted them with snowballs, killing five men. Among them was Crispus Attucks, a black man who may have been partly descended from the Praying Indians of Natick. In 1772 a new printing of Wise·s Vindication appeared. In December 1773, in protest of a tea tax, Boston men dressed as Indians and boarded three ships, throwing chests of tea into the harbor. New England turned to coffee. Cuff grew into manhood. He listened to the talk at the parsonage. He attended the Reverend Jones·s church, sitting in the balcony. He assisted Captain Joshua Walker in the building of his new house on Bedford Street, glad to do so in comradeship with a fellow veteran of the French and
Indian War and very likely helped by Captain John Wood, whose house and new tavern stood nearby. He got to know young John Walker, a child when the house was going up, but old enough to take instruction and to help in the building. The son would soon follow his father·s military footsteps and rise to the rank of Major General. The son·s son, born when Cuff was nearing fifty, would head a third generation in the Walker house and serve as President of Harvard College in the years before the Civil War. Meanwhile, about the time the Walker house was under construction, Captain Walker dropped his tools to lead his Third Company of Minutemen into battle at Lexington, while Cuff played his separate part in history on that 19th of April. Cuff redeemed his time. He tilled the soil. He fed the animals. He hunted in the woods. He fished the streams. He built and mowed and hauled and harvested. He read books from the parsonage library. He pursued his acquaintance with Venus Rowe, servant to Captain James Reed, who lived a couple of miles down the road, near the Lexington town line. He accompanied the Reverend and his wife on pulpit exchanges to Woburn·s First Parish or to Concord or Medford or Chelmsford and on social and marketing trips to Cambridge and Boston. When dissatisfaction turned to riot in Massachusetts, John Adams wrote in exultation ´Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted; the crown officers have everywhere trembled, and all their little tools and creatures been afraid to speak and ashamed to be seen.µ Throughout these years, the Reverend Jones continued his ministry, preaching as a quiet man who remained aloof from controversy. He was in his person neither a John nor a Samuel Adams, but beneath his calm exterior he felt the politics of the time. On a Sunday morning, March 13, 1774, three months after the Boston Tea Party, he paused in his sermon and fell into an apoplectic fit. He died at home the same evening. Cuff was now in his late twenties. He became the man of the family, filling the emptiness left in the house by the minister·s death. To the ends of their lives, the Widow Jones kept the books and supervised the household. Cuff ran the farm. His name was recorded in the family Bible: ´Cuff, the faithful Negro Servant of the above Thomas and Abigail, died April 1813, having lived in the family about 60 years.µ
The new Minister, John Marrett, was ordained in the following December.
Cambridge in 1741, he was thirty-three years old and single at the time of his arrival. A graduate of Harvard, class of 1763, he had preached in various towns in Massachusetts and Maine prior to the call to Woburn. On January 13, 1775 he recorded in his diary ´Moved to Woburn. Board at Madam Jones·s for 40 s. per week, and keep my horse myself.µ On his first visit he had tied the horse to one of the recently planted elms, which were still slender saplings. Now, Cuff removed the horse and hitched it elsewhere, observing that if he left it where it was, ´he·d eat up the trees me and Massa planted.µ The Reverend John Marrett remained in the pulpit for nearly forty years, a witness to the Revolution, the forming of a new country, and the transformation of Woburn·s Second Parish into the town of Burlington. Famous in Burlington lore, the trees where he first tied his horse were noted for their age and great girth a century later at the centenary of the Battle of Lexington and still withstood the seasons of nearly another hundred years after that. Five years before his move, Marrett had observed the burial of the victims of the Boston Massacre: ´1770, March 8 Went to Boston. Saw the largest Funeral perhaps that ever was in Boston. 8 or 10 thousand present, four men buried in one grave who were shot by the Centry Guard of Regulars on Monday night last.µ He had been present at the planning of the Boston Tea Party: ´1773, Dec. 16 A meeting of the town of Boston & the neighboring towns about landing a Quantity of Tea. In the evening about 300 Chests of Tea a Board the Ships in the harbor all flung over Board & destroyed by the people. They met with no resistance.µ He recorded the forming of a ´provincial Congress at Concordµ on October 11, 1774, and on the next day ´rode from Lex. to Concord to see the Congress.µ This background accorded well with the temper of the Woburn congregation, recently bereft of the milder Reverend Jones. In mid-November Marrett was informed by Captain Johnson and Deacon Reed, both Minutemen, that Woburn had agreed to his terms. When he was ordained, the Reverend Clark came from the church at Lexington Common to preach the sermon. Supper followed, at the home of Lieutenant Walker. The 19th of April, 1775 began for Minutemen in Woburn·s Second Precinct in a variety of ways. For Sylvanus Wood, ´about an hour before the break of day on said morning, I heard the Lexington bell ring, and fearing there was difficultly there, I immediately arose, took my gun, and, with Robert Douglas, went in haste to Lexington, which was about three miles distant.µ Douglas was a Maine man, visiting relatives. He had been awakened by a knock and a shout, ´There is an
alarm³the British are coming out, and if there is any soldier in the house he must turn out and repair to Lexington as soon as possible.µ Joshua Walker heard the news about the same time and summoned Jonathan Proctor, the company drummer, to beat the call to arms. They assembled at the parish church. Those who possessed guns had brought them. Others expected to be furnished with arms when they arrived in Lexington. By foot and horse they traveled down Lexington Street and past the Widow Jones·s house, where they alerted the family as to what was about to happen. Meanwhile, Paul Revere had arrived in Lexington, where Hancock and Adams were spending the night with the Reverend Clark, down the street from the Common. His house was on the Bedford road, near the turn-off to the Second Parish of Woburn. With them were Hancock·s fiancée, Dorothy Quincy, and his aunt, Mrs. Thomas Hancock. Escorted by Revere and a Lexington Minuteman, Hancock and Adams left the Clark house and took the right turn to the home of James Reed in Woburn, where they rested briefly, until news of the fighting in Lexington sent them further along the road to the house of Madam Abigail Jones, Cuff Trot, and the Reverend John Marrett, who stood ready and willing to assist. What they were about to do was treasonous. In his diary entry for that day, Marrett summarized the public actions in a way that suggests how effective the lines of communication were, how great were the dangers, and how fast the news was traveling, but he remained silent about his own actions on that day: 1775 April 19 fair, windy & cold. A Distressing Day. Abt 800 Regulars marched from Boston to Concord. As they went up they killed 8 men at Lexington meetinghouse, they huzzard & then fired as our men had turned their backs, who in number were abt 100 & then they proceeded to Concord. The adjacent Country were alarmed the later part of the night preceding. The action at Lxn was just before Sunrise. Our men pursued them to and from Concord on their retreat back. Several killed on both sides but much the least on our Side as we pickt them off on their retreat. The Regulars were reinforced at Lexgton to aid their retreat by 800 with two [or] three field pieces they burned 3 houses in Lexgton & one barn & did other Mischief to buildings they were pursued to Charlestown Where they entrenched on a hill just over the neck. Thus Commences an important Period.
Hancock and Adams arrived at the Widow Jones·s early in the morning without having breakfasted. Hancock had earlier been given a salmon, ´the first of the season,µ but in the hurry to escape, it had been left behind. According to tradition, Abigail Jones, determined that the party should have their salmon, sent back to retrieve it, and then personally cooked it for the group. Unfortunately, other events outpaced the timeframe of a leisurely meal at the parish house. As Hancock and Adams sat to eat, a messenger from Lexington broke in with chilling news of the battle. ´My wife, I fear, is by this time in eternity. And as to you,µ turning to Hancock and Adams, ´You had best look out for yourselves, for the enemy will soon be at your heels.µ This time they left the public road and took to the woods. The coach that had brought Hancock and Adams stood by the barn, in plain sight of Lexington Street, where it would be recognized by anyone who passed or took the time to look into the barn should they attempt to store it there. Behind the house, a path ran down the hill and into the trees, but it was a rough, partially frozen, bumpy, and muddy way of escape, and not one made for horses and a coach. Still, the coach had to go. The horses were in the barn. In minutes Cuff and John Marrett joined with Hancock and Adams to pull the coach up the rise and past the well-sweep until it was behind the house and out of sight of Lexington Street. They said good-bye to the women, and wished them well. Then they left. Abigail Jones apologized to her guests for the interruption, but hard though the time was, it was a sin to waste what the Lord had provided. Abigail Jones, Dorothy Quincy, and Mrs. Hancock looked once more to the road, saw nobody coming, and sat down to finish the salmon. Behind the house, the men edge the coach into motion. Hancock and Adams remove their coats, fold them and place them on the interior seats. John Marrett keeps his on. Cuff imitates the minister, though his is the short jacket of a serving-man. Then the four are running the coach down the hill behind the house, arriving panting at the near edge of the Jones woods, where a pile of uncut logs and small brush remains still unused as winter·s cold begins to moderate into springtime. It is necessary to pause here for a moment to remove fence rails. Then they come to a particularly hard part, where but for the trees, which in April are not fully leaved, they are still in sight of the house. Whatever else happens, they need to get past this part quickly. Plunging from the daylight into the dark of the woods, pulling iron-clad wheels over ruts and roots along the narrow logging path, pushing aside broken and snow-toppled branches, bracing to prevent a downward careen and destruction as they approach the place where the water from a nearby hill and meadow come
together to pool by a large granite rock, and then cascade from a small waterfall into a brook, the brook gushing now with April run-off from marshy and skunk cabbaged lands, its waters refreshed and gathered for this rush to the ford by the pool above the falls. Pausing then to consider, the breeze soughing through the tops of the pines and oaks, whispering through the birches and maples. A blue jay squawks in protest at the cawing of a lone crow. A gray squirrel flicks its tail and disappears behind a trunk high in an oak. No human sounds assault the morning air. Shots do not carry this far from the Lexington green or the Concord bridge. No hue and cry arises from the house they have just left. For a distance of maybe ten feet within the brook, the washing of the run-off water of eons has left a pebbled and sandy bottom that provides a ford. Cuff has traversed this place frequently as he hauled logs from the woods, but never without a horse or an ox to pull them. Hancock and Adams pull like draft animals, placing themselves between the shafts of the coach. John Marrett lifts and pushes from the back. Cuff grapples the wheels, first on one side, grasping spokes to lift, pulling and pushing on the rim for the leverage transmitted to the axle, easing forward on the oozy bottom and slurring the coach to the right, then shouldering on the other side, grasping, easing, and slurring to the left. Their lives may depend on getting this coach to the other side of the stream. Hancock and Adams strain in front. Marrett pushes from behind. Cuff grabs and shoves. The ford is stony and more suited to the runners of a sledge carrying wood or sand or stones than to the wheels of a coach, the coach lurching, leather straps creaking, axles holding, not breaking. Then they are over. As they pause, gasping for breath, Cuff turns and looks back over the hill to the house, which stands outlined in brown isolation against the gray sky. The white smoke of a wood fire spreads from the center chimney in a plume of warmth and serenity, a testimony to home, hearth, and honest industry. He can almost smell the salmon. Framed against unpainted shingles on the back wall, small windowpanes reflect a dull burnishing left by the morning mist. Above the house, to the left of the plume of smoke, a nimbus of sun shows dimly where morning rises toward the high point of noon. To the right of the house, no human figures with uplifted flintlocks silhouette themselves on the hilltop in clear menace to the fugitives. There is only the well, with the well-sweep pointed northeast from Lexington, scraping the sky like the arm of a sundial counting the hours to the cloak of invisibility that night will bring. Meanwhile, for darkness and hiding, there is only the forest. All this he absorbs in a moment. He wipes an arm against his brow, and vows to himself that one day
he will bridge this ford and later he does, with a granite slab that rests on boulders so placed that they seem to have waited there forever for that slab and will carry it into eternity. ´Next time, gentlemen,µ he says, ´you won·t find the way so hard.µ The answering grins are weak. All are tired. Dorothy Quincy later reports that Hancock had been awake all night, sitting up to clean his gun and polish his sword. Now both weapons lie unused across the seat of the coach, under the jackets. Cuff looks again at the stream they have traversed. Fresh water is clearing away the clotted debris of their passing. Clouds of sticks and soil are roiling now past the point of their exit. Where they passed, wheel-ruts and footprints are smoothing and sifting toward the condition just upstream, where the clear water continues to run over gray pebbles and golden sand. Near the small waterfall, skunk cabbage, violets, and cowslips announce the spring. The men bend to rub icy ankles, and then they are pushing and pulling again. On the other side of the ford they traverse a flat, curving path, hard and resistant under its surface of pine needles, well-drained, that hugs the edge of a small hill where the land falls away to the marsh that borders Sandy Brook. From the brook, the path is mostly level, except for tree roots and stumps, until it reaches Bedford Street. There they have to stop and reconnoiter, for this is an alternative route British Regulars might take returning from Concord. Coming up Bedford Street, they would march into the town center and onto the Cambridge road. Seeing nobody coming from the direction of Concord, the Hancock party rushes across and plunges into the woods again, where they finally feel a measure of safety. They hide the coach among the trees and stop once more to breathe. The Path Woods are still nearly wilderness in the eighteenth century. Keeping uphill from Sandy Brook, the men follow old paths around by Butters Pond to the edge of the Shawsheen Meadows, where Indians camped not so long ago, and find lodging for Hancock and Adams in the home of Mrs. Amos Wyman, on the other side of the line in Billerica. Cuff and John Marrett return to the parish house on Lexington Street, where Cuff resumes his chores. Marrett makes a quick trip to Lexington to see how things are going and later sits down to his diary. The next day, after the British retreat to Boston, they retrieve the coach, reunite Hancock and Adams with Dorothy Quincy and Mrs. Hancock, and send them onward toward the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Six months later, the Reverend Marrett ended his stay with Madam Jones, recording the event tersely in his diary, ´Octr 9 Moved myself from Mrs. Jones·s to Dea[con] Johnson·s.µ He gave no
reason, but the Jones girls were young ladies now. Lucy was in her early twenties, and Mary and Martha were seventeen. They had grown a lot since the days when the twins were two, Lucy five or six, and a teenage Cuff left home to fight the French and Indians. Now, with the girls grown, a congregation that might have raised questions about a single young minister living in the house of a widow with three daughters did not raise their eyebrows or look askance at a household where the only male was a young black man. Mrs. Jones lost her boarder and her board money, but she still had Cuff. And in the eyes of the congregation, Cuff was already taken. In 1775 Venus Rowe was in her early twenties, about the same age as Lucy Jones, and of the poet Phillis Wheatley, of Boston. Venus had come to Woburn·s Second Parish as a baby carried in a saddlebag, arriving at about the same time as Cuff. Since the Reed home was west on Lexington Street from the Jones house, the two had known each other from childhood. At first, she was nothing more to him than a small curiosity who happened to share his skin color. But he admired her spunk. He laughed at the story told by Reed children of the day when Venus mysteriously disappeared in the bushes as they all picked blueberries together. Taking little notice, for even small children could understand a sudden call to nature, the Reeds kept filling their pails, occasionally looking back over their shoulders to see if she was returning. Suddenly there was a violent thrashing in the bushes. The Reed children dropped their pails and fled, but stopped running when they saw that nothing was following them. They shushed one another and listened, hearing only the wind in the trees and a blue jay calling ´Thief! Thief!µ The blue jay stopped its cries and the air grew still. ´Venus?µ they called. ´Venus?µ They were discussing whether they should go back to look for her or leave for home when she came skipping along the path, happily swinging a pail full of berries. Bear? Oh, yes, she said, there had been a bear, but he left. When the Reed children went back to retrieve their pails, they found them scattered helterskelter on the ground. ´Venus?µ they said, ´Where are the berries?µ ´The bear ate them,µ she said. Venus grew until she filled out the figure of a woman. Cuff noticed. They met on Sundays in the balcony of the meeting house, where they looked down over the congregation, segregated in
those days into benches for men on one side, benches for women on the other. They rose and joined in the hymns, sat and listened to the sermon, and watched over children too small to be allowed downstairs with the adults. In this plain building, with no ornamentation, a white light from the diamond panes of small casement windows infused a majesty and a stillness that hung in the air and commanded respect for the words spoken and sung within. After meeting, there was time outside for exchanges of news, of births and babies and crops and, increasingly, of British Regulars mustering in Boston, of outrages committed and feared, of God-given rights of man and longstanding legal rights of Massachusetts citizens, of Sons of Liberty, and of companies of colonial militia who had fought to protect their homes against French and Indians and would fight to protect them from Redcoats, and of guns and gunpowder gathered and stored for coming emergencies. Cuff and Venus were not the only blacks in the Second Parish, not even the only blacks attending John Marrett·s church. A woman belonging to George Reed died at the age of twenty in 1776. A man belonging to the widow Tidd died nine years later, at twenty-two. Their names are unrecorded. There were blacks in the First Parish of Woburn as well. The number in 1775 is unknown, but the census of 1800 lists 19. On the 19th of April, circumstances forged a historical link for Cuff and Venus. While Cuff was helping Hancock and Adams escape, a half dozen British soldiers captured at the Battle of Lexington and another half dozen brought in after the retreat from Concord were jailed at the house of Venus·s owner, Captain James Reed, which became that day the first prison for British soldiers during the Revolution. In time, local tradition developed a story of fated love between the two servants, but tradition forgets the other blacks they knew in Woburn and Boston and Cambridge. In any case, Cuff and Venus never married. The war continued. Citizen soldiers came and went, enlisting for short periods, returning to till the fields and tend the livestock when they were needed at home. Among these were Cuff and John Marrett, who became two of the twenty-two veterans of that war interred in the Old Burying Ground, near the meetinghouse. An additional thirty or forty men from the parish were buried in other cemeteries or in fields where they fell. When and where Cuff performed his war service remains unclear. It is likely that he and Marrett were swept into duty for short periods during and after the Siege of Boston, when militia gathered, sometimes for only a day or two at a time, to assist with entrenchments to oust the British and then defend the city from their return. For June 15, 1776, Marrett·s diary reads, ´Night before last, 5000 of our people went down and intrenched on an
island and another place in Boston Harbor, and yesterday morning drove all the enemy·s ships down below the lighthouse. A 50 gun ship was obliged to cut her cable and be towed down by boats, etc.µ On July 2 he wrote one word, ´Independency,µ in celebration of the completed Declaration, signed two days later. After the British evacuated Boston, the New England front turned to the north. On July 6, 1776, Marrett wrote ´Small-pox in Boston, inoculating there. Ten men, of the fifteen enlisted out of this parish for the expedition for Canada.µ That expedition failed, and in the next summer General Burgoyne brought his troops down Lake Champlain to attack American forces weakened by smallpox, desertions, and dysentery. New England towns rallied again, sending thousands of militia to assist in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga. Most of the rest of the war was fought in the South. Cuff likes stones. He likes the smooth texture and rounded shape of a granite rock turned up in the spring plowing. He piles such rocks in a wooden stone boat, hauls them to the side of the field, and piles them in rows that slowly mount to walls. He likes to turn such stones over in his hands, rubbing the moist soil from them with his thumbs, noting the pinks and whites and glassy flecks of feldspars and quartz, and the surprise of an embedment of mica, smaller than the end of a little finger, that he can prize off in layers with the edge of a fingernail. Sometimes the stones are accompanied by small pockets of white clay, wet, smooth, and fine, like fuller·s earth, or clay for a pipe. He sets them aside to dry, or puts a lump he likes into his pocket next to an arrowhead of flint that he has also found while plowing and keeps always with him as a talisman, wrapped in a rag of course linen to protect against accidental cuts. Flint in the lock of a gun will set off an explosion that propels a killing bullet of lead. Flint at the end of a wooden arrow shaft can kill you just as dead, more quietly. Another talisman is the bracelet of horsehair and snake rattles he wears on his left wrist, over the vein that pulses with his heart·s blood. The bracelet reminds him of the coarse rope a woman will sometimes wear knotted around her belly, under her clothes, to prevent conception or rid her of an unwanted child before the belly swells. The things of the world intersect and connect. He likes things he can handle with his hands. He likes to put them where they will stay. When the cattle are let loose for grazing, he knows the cows will be back at milking time. He doesn·t like to hunt them through the woods, following bells. A bull on the loose is a public menace. When he is a young man, Second Parish fences are often makeshift affairs of stumps and fallen logs. Others are fashioned of split rails. The rails do more than stumps and logs to assert the dominance of man·s hand over nature and are also more effective at containing livestock. As he grows older, he prefers
the still more solid walls of stone that increasingly thread the fields and woods and line the roads of the Second Parish. These have permanence. The Second Parish is a land of hills and valleys. For every hill rising toward sun and sky, there is a valley that attracts and gathers the downhill flow of rain and the melt of winter snow. Lexington Street runs level in front of the Jones house, but it dips both to the east and west, and run-off from the fields and hills on the south side of the street muddies the public way and gathers into rivulets and bogs in the fields on either side of the hill on which the house sits. As a public work, the road for a hundred yards or so on both sides of the house has been filled and corduroyed with logs, but these shift and decay. What is needed is a retaining wall, both east and west, and this is a task Cuff can appreciate and understand. Year after year, he helps to wrestle large, round stones to the side of the road, where they are chinked and fitted together in layers two or three wide and several deep until a wall rises and the road becomes level. When a stone is too large to move, a hammer and a star drill will make a hole and then another. Carefully placed along a fault grain in the granite, these holes will help a man to split the stone. All he needs is time. A dry well of loose stones will allow the water that gathers on the high side to flow under the compacted surface of sand and soil without washing it away. Such a road will last for many more years than a man like Cuff will live to build it. The granite slab he places on stone supports to create a bridge over the ford where the coach of Hancock and Adams nearly floundered will remain in place a century and a half after his death. There is a rhythm to time. In the spring the alewives at Alewife Brook in Medford run for only a few days, when all the countryside turn out to capture them. Salmon are best when the season is new. The heart-aching blue of a field of flax in bloom is but a short-time thing. Hops thrust upward in verdant tenderness and swell and darken for serial plucking as summer slides toward fall. Fireflies flicker in the dusks of August. Wedges of geese honk high overhead, flying northward as planting begins, southward in cider time. When pigeons shadow the sky so that a man can shoot a hundred in a day, they pass for only two or three days and are gone. Witch hazel thrusts its spindly yellow blossoms over and around leafless vines on stone walls after Concord grapes have been picked and the snows of winter are about to cover the land. Stones last forever, and next to stones, the tall trees of the forest, or the houses that men build of their wood. For many years the Jones house remains unpainted, its clapboards aging into graceful browns and grays. Eventually it takes on a New England white and it lasts then, home for over a hundred years to ministers of the Church of Christ, until razed by fire in 1897. Three successive houses rise
on its foundation. The elm trees Cuff plants on opposite sides of the driveway where it meets Lexington Street, just past the barn, continue into the twentieth century as living wine glasses raised to the skies, the hanging tips of their branches festive with the nests of Baltimore orioles. They outlive the last chestnut, which remains as a stump with a sign. They survive the great hurricane of 1938, weather the Second World War, and succumb finally to the Dutch elm disease that brings a diminished beauty to landscapes across North America. Much of Cuff·s life is transitory and passes like yesterday·s rain. He travels to Cambridge with John Marrett on the occasions when the minister addresses the troops in Cambridge and with the minister he watches and assists in their work. It is pleasant to believe that he was present when Washington addressed the troops, and to imagine that he was not far away in the winter of 1776 when the general received Phillis Wheatley to thank her for the poem she wrote in his honor a few months after the battles of Lexington and Concord. He would have approved of its vision of an America empowered to create its own destiny, freed from the ´cruel blindnessµ and ´boundless powerµ of Britannia: Fix·d are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Columbia·s arm prevails. Anon Britannia droops the pensive head, While round increase the rising hills of dead. Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia·s state! Lament the thirst of boundless power too late. Proceed, great chief, with virtue on they side, Thy ev·ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine. On December 16, 1779, a snowy day a little over four years after he moved out of the Widow Jones·s house, John Marrett married Martha Jones, one of the twins. A week later, two days before Christmas, he entered in his diary: ´Moved to Parish. (at Mrs. Jones again).µ In his absence from the house, he had continued as minister to the Second Parish, and he continued to grace its pulpit for another thirty-three years after his return. In November 1783, the Marretts· daughter Martha was
born. At almost the same time, the Treaty of Paris recognized the freedom of the colonies, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court confirmed the freedom of the slaves. Cuff thinks about the future as he cuts wood for winter fires, harnesses the horse to drag logs on the sledge through the snow, cuts the logs into cord lengths, and then splits them for burning. He thinks about it as he brings the splits into the house and stacks them by the fireplace, and as he lights the kindling each morning and coaxes the fire into flaring. His mind wanders from the wellsweep as he brings water up by the bucket and carries it along the path and into the house, some for drinking, some to be heated for cooking and washing. The cows need milking each morning, and steam arises from the pails as they are carried through the snowdrifts and into the house. The churn handles pump up and down to make butter. Fodder is spread for the oxen, and for the horses and cows. Manure is shoveled and piled and mucked through floorboard holes into the cellar, where it lies steaming like the milk in the winter cold. ´You are a free man, now, you know, Cuff,µ Madam Jones tells him. ´You can go anywhere you want.µ He walks to the top of the hill and past the church and stands outside for a long while, looking at the house he helped to build for Captain Joshua Walker at the time the great conflict was beginning. In 1775 Captain Walker·s son John was a teenager, but Cuff has watched him grow and has talked to him in the home intervals of his life in the Continental Army. John is now a veteran of twenty-two, well on his way toward the commission of Major General that President John Adams will grant him early in the coming century. The Walkers are busy by the barn in the back. Cuff is a free man now, he tells them. They know that. ´It·s a great thing to be free. It·s what we all fought for.µ ´What do you think? Should I leave?µ ´Sure, if you want to. You certainly have that right.µ ´But . . .µ ´But what will you do? Where will you go?µ ´I think I could get work in Boston.µ ´What if you should be sick? Who will take care of you?µ ´And if you go, who will take care of Madam Jones?µ
The war is over, life goes on, and Cuff remains with Madam Jones. He is free now. He rides on horseback as he always had, and he bows to no man. A story is told of how at a hitching post outside the tavern at Mishawum House some Woburn locals decide to have fun with the upstart Negro. As he mounts to leave, they make a great show of holding and steadying the horse. ´Here you go, sir,µ they say. ´We·ve got him for you. No need to be afraid, it·s only a horse. He can·t bite. Much.µ ´Watch the heels, there. They can give a nasty kick, you know.µ ´It·s the left side you want, sir. Never mount a horse from the right.µ ´Let me hold the stirrup for you.µ ´That·s right, left foot up and in the holder there, the little thingamabob kind a like a cup, then the right leg over.µ ´Look, boys, he·s got it now. He·s facing forward in the saddle.µ ´Whoa, there. Careful. Make sure you have a good hold on the reins.µ Grins spread across the faces of the men, and some double up with laughter. Cuff takes it all in good grace. Seated, he doffs his wide-brimmed hat in a sweeping gesture. ´Thank you kindly, gentlemen,µ he says. Then he reaches into his pocket, throws a few coins on the ground at their feet, and calmly rides off. Venus Rowe tested her freedom by leaving the Reed home for three months and living in Lexington, but after that she came home to stay. Martha Marrett grew, matured, and married Samuel Sewall, the minister who followed John Marrett in the pulpit of what had by that time become the Burlington Church of Christ. Years later, a granddaughter of Madam Jones remembered sitting as a child in the church balcony, where Cuff was assigned to watch over her and keep her quiet by feeding her cakes. When she misbehaved, he threatened to ´throw her over the gallery rail.µ When Cuff died in 1813, three Burlington Selectmen served as pallbearers. Chief of these was Major General John Walker, Moderator of the Town Meeting. The other two were John Wood, Jr., a tavern keeper and son of the John Wood who, like Cuff, had served in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and Lieutenant Nathaniel Cutler, Jr., a Revolutionary War veteran about the same age as Cuff. These men had known Cuff all their lives. The Reverend John Marrett could not preside at the service, for he had died two months earlier and now lay fresh in his nearby grave
with the grass of spring scarcely beginning to cover his mound. The Widow Abigail Jones, then ninety-one, stood by as the coffin was lowered, propped on a cane, which she gripped with veined hands and whitened knuckles. After the lowering, the mourners watched in silence as the earth fell, spread, and slowly rose upon the fleshly remains of Cuff Trot. ´He was a good man,µ said John Walker. ´He was a faithful friend.µ ´None better,µ said John Wood. ´We will miss him.µ ´He could stand as straight as any man, and be justly proud to do so,µ said Nate Cutler. ´Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,µ said the Reverend Sewall, ´They may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.µ The Widow Jones bowed her head and wept. She and Cuff had shared the same household most of their lives. She died a year later and was buried not far away in the same burying ground. Venus Rowe lived to see the passing of another generation, dying in 1844 at over ninety years of age. By that time Captain James Reed, whom she had served since her youth, was twelve years in his grave. In the last year of her life the people of Burlington voted a sum to help the Reed heirs support her. In Burlington the lives of Cuff and Venus turned into romantic legend. Parts that I didn·t hear from my family in childhood I learned from a column by Vera Merrigan, the Burlington town reporter, in the Lowell Sun in the nineteen-forties. But the legend had been told already in the nineteenth century by Martha E. Sewall Curtis. As Mrs. Curtis tells it, Cuff and Venus were lovers, fated never to marry, who died with their love unrequited. Her telling ends, as did Vera Merrigan·s, with the love knot motif most familiar in the old English folksong ´Barbara Allenµ: ´So in the Precinct Burying Ground, where the brier roses blush in the long grass and the goldenrod nods and beckons among the mossy headstones, we may see the blackberry vines wreathing around the graves of those humble lovers and tying many a love knot on the low hillocks.µ
Some of the graves in the Old Burying Ground, including Venus Rowe·s, have lost their original markers. On some stones, including General John Walker·s, time·s chipping and flaking has erased most of the stonemason·s painstaking lettering. On Cuff Trot·s stone, the message still catches the lights and shadows of each day·s passing, still survives each night that follows, and still emerges with each dawn: ´Erected in memory of Cuff, a faithful black domestic of Madam Abigail Jones, who died April, 1813, Aged about 67 years.µ
´The Life and Times of Cuff Trotµ is a chapter taken from Stones Stand, Waters Flow, a New England memoir and history by George Perkins. A Google search will find Stones Stand available in hardcover, softcover, and as an e-book. Go to www.georgeperkins.net for more information about George and Barbara Perkins and their many other books..