3: The life of Nancy Michael 

“She was a professor of religion, and we believe at one time adorned the profession. May her good deeds live long in our remembrance, and her evil be interred with her bones.”

- The Vineyard Gazette, 1857

Colonel Cornelius Bassett’s personal estate at the time of his death in 1779 included “one Negro boy, Pero, 33 pounds. One Negro woman, Chole (Chloe?) 27 years … 150 pounds. One garl (girl), Nancy 7 years … 80 pounds.” Sold to Mr. Joseph Allen of Tisbury in that year, Nancy did not disappear into obscurity. Her story is one of grueling hard times, enslavement, legal problems, public pauperism, and eventually a position of influence in the maritime community of Edgartown.

Portrait of Nancy Michael by Joe Murphy

Portrait of Nancy Michael by Joe Murphy

At this time, Nancy became known as Nancy Michael. The origin of the name Michael is unclear. There was another Michael whose name was Caesar who had a connection with the Bassett estate in Chilmark. In 1789, Nathaniel Bassett of Chilmark was appointed the guardian of Caesar Michael “a mulatto boy.” His authority as guardian was to protect the property rights that Caesar had inherited from his mother until Caesar reached the age of 14. (Dukes County Registry of Probate). The possibility exists that Caesar was related to Nancy Michael. Caesar Michael married Elizabeth Sectom in Edgartown in 1797 (Edgartown Vital Records). Another connection exists with the name Michael. On December 20, 1819, Nancy Michael “spinster, sister and only surviving heir to James Michael”conveyed land inherited from her brother to Isaiah D. Pease of Edgartown for $10.00. (Dukes Country Registry of Deeds 21/72).

Nancy Michael lived a long life. Following her sale to Joseph Allen, he “held and used her as a slave for a series of years.” (SJC #6563 Barnstable) She “fell into distress in Edgartown in 1812.” (ibid) The Town of Edgartown eventually brought suit against the Town of Tisbury in 1851 to claim “reimbursement of money spent supporting Nancy Michael, a public pauper”. In the view of Edgartown, Nancy was the responsibility of the Town of Tisbury because she had been enslaved in that Town.

The case was heard at the Superior Court in Barnstable in 1851. The verdict was taken for the defendants, Tisbury, who had claimed that Nancy had never in fact been enslaved because slavery was no longer legal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the time of her enslavement. A previous court action had been taken by Edgartown in 1813 to force Tisbury to pay for the maintenance of one of Nancy’s children born about 1810. Judgment had been rendered against Tisbury in 1813, but all records of the Court in Barnstable had been destroyed by a fire in 1827.

Portrait of Nancy MichaelNancy’s obituary published in The Vineyard Gazette in 1857 presents a picture of a complex woman. The obituary states that Nancy was “naturally possessed of kind feelings, she was very fond of children and unusually attentive to their wants.” This seems at variance with the later statement that she was “possessed of a strong natural mind, she acquired great influence over some of our people, by many of whom she was looked on as a witch.” It is stated that Nancy professed to have the power to give good or bad luck to those about to leave on long whaling voyages. Mariners about to leave on a whaling voyage sought her protection before leaving and those who did not incurred her anger. The obituary states that “in case of bad news from any vessel commanded by one who had defied her power, she was in ecstasies, and her fiendish spirit would at once take full control of her.”

It is a fascinating and paradoxical picture of the woman, Nancy Michael. She obviously performed a service and profited from the gifts of superstitious sailors. It may be that she practiced the religion of her ancestors, including the emphasis on the supernatural element of water. It is quite likely that she may have learned the traditional rituals of the conjure woman from her mother. Perhaps she was mentally disturbed or shrewd enough to feign mental disturbance for her own ends. It seems likely that she used the skills of a “conjure woman” as a strategy to gain advantages for her family. What is perfectly clear from the wording of the obituary is that Nancy Michael was feared in the sea faring community of Edgartown, and that she had a position of influence over the sailors. The obituary refers to her as “Black Nance” and states that her appearance had changed very little in forty years and that “those who knew her fifty years ago knew her as an old woman.” The obituary concludes: “Her strange power and influence over many continued until the day of her death, though for two or three years past she was mostly confined to her room. Taking her all in all she was a most singular character, and it will doubtless be a long time before we shall look upon her like again. She was a professor of religion, and we believe at one time adorned the profession. May her good deeds live long in our remembrance, and her evil be interred with her bones.”

The 1855 State Census shows Nancy living in the home of Charles and Julia Vincent in Edgartown. There are five elderly women listed as living in their home, and four of them were white. The probable explanation is that the Vincent family were paid by the town to provide a home for these impoverished women all of whom are referred to as public paupers. There was no building in Edgartown specifically designated as a home for paupers.

Nancy Michael had a daughter, Rebecca, born in 1809. Rebecca was the mother of Captain William A. Martin. There is incomplete information about Rebecca, but we do know that in 1820, Rebecca was found guilty in a court case and was sentenced for twenty days. At the time of her imprisonment she would have been eleven years old. This brief story offers some insights into Rebecca’s life. Research by Arthur Railton published in the Dukes County Intelligencer shows that Rebecca was imprisoned in the Dukes County Jail on two occasions. Interestingly, the records show that the complainant against Rebecca on charges of theft and non-payment of debt was her mother, Nancy Michael.

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