#1: Rebecca Amos, North Road, Chilmark

To understand the full extent of William Martin’s success, it is necessary to reflect on the lives of his mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Their experience included enslavement, imprisonment and the marginal existence of a public pauper. The story begins with a woman known as Rebecca or “Beck.” She was William Martin’s great grandmother.

Portrait of Rebecca Amos by Levon Coveney

Portrait of Rebecca Amos by Levon Coveney

Rebecca was born in Guinea in West Africa. She was taken from her home and endured the degradation and misery of the Middle Passage to live out her life as the property of Cornelius Bassett of Chilmark. Rebecca’s life is shrouded in the mystery of the long gone and largely unrecorded past, but research reveals pieces that help create a picture.

The information available tells the story of a life of cruel servitude. I know that Rebecca had two sons, Pero and Cato, and one daughter, Nancy. It is possible she had other children. I can find no information on Cato’s fate, but at the time of Colonel Bassett’s death in 1779, Nancy aged 7 and Pero aged 18 were sold to Joseph Allen of Tisbury. Rebecca, their mother, was still alive at the time but she was not included in the inventory of property that listed her children. She may have been granted freedom at the time, but there is no record of her emancipation. Based on the evidence, it is a reasonable assumption that during her life Rebecca saw all of her children sold away from her. Rebecca was married at one time in her life to a man named Elisha Amos.

Information on Rebecca’s life in Chilmark comes from a deposition given by a woman named Remember Cooper. The deposition was given during litigation between the Towns of Edgartown and Tisbury (SJC #6563 Barnstable). Remember’s recollections of Rebecca’s life in Chilmark were clear. When asked if she had known Elisha Amos, she replied that she did and that he was an “Indian man” and that Rebecca was his wife. She specifically stated that Amos was not the father of Rebecca’s daughter Nancy. This information is obviously correct because Amos died in 1763, nine years before the birth of Nancy.

Rebecca Africa Doll by Jen Coito

Rebecca Africa Doll by Jen Coito

Remember Cooper stated that Rebecca and Elisha Amos lived together part of the time. “I never knew they were married, they separated and got together again and he died then. She lived most of the time with Colonel Bassett. The place where Amos died was five or six miles from Colonel Bassett’s.”

When questioned as to Rebecca’s status on Colonel Cornelius Bassett’s estate, Remember Cooper responded: “She was called a slave all the time: he used to whip her like a dog. I have heard Colonel Bassett’s boys call her a slave all the time.”

Elisha Amos left a will (1/272 Dukes County Probate) that provided for his “beloved wife Rebecca.” She received livestock and Amos’s dwelling house for as long as she lived. Upon her death, the house reverted to his nephew. The land he possessed was willed to another nephew with the stipulation that he provide hay for Rebecca annually. The disposition of property suggests that none of Rebecca’s children were the children of Elisha Amos. It is possible that Rebecca’s sons Pero and Cato were his children and that he did not leave any inheritance to them because of their enslaved status. Before his marriage to Rebecca, Elisha Amos was previously married. Records show that he was married to Esther Nunneck on August 28, 1745. The ceremony was performed by Zachariah Papamick and the ceremony translated by Experience Mayhew.

rebecca-amos-memorialResearch at the Dukes County Registry of Deeds shows that Elisha Amos, described as an “Indian man and laborer” whose Indian name was Jonoxett, acquired much land during the 1740’s and early 50’s. His original dwelling place appears to have been Christiantown, then in Tisbury, but he bought land in Gay Head Neck and in Roaring Brook in Chilmark. He seems to have bought most of his land from other Native Americans and eventually had eighty acres in Chilmark in the area of Roaring Brook and the Great Field. The land is described in detail in a judgment given against Mr. Amos’s neighbors on July 6, 1751. In this case, Samuel Allen, yeoman, Ruth Hillman, widow and Matthias Sheetup, Indian man and laborer, were found guilty of unjustly withholding or removing Mr. Amos from his Chilmark property. They were fined eight pounds and eleven shillings, and ordered to pay an extra two shillings for damage to Mr. Amos’ “goods and chattels.” This property in Great Bight, North Chilmark was where Elisha Amos lived and this is where Rebecca lived with him “some of the time.” The property of Cornelius Bassett, now known as the Flanders Farm, where Rebecca was enslaved, is about four miles away.

A Student's Portrait of Rebecca Amos

A Student’s Portrait of Rebecca Amos

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank has recently acquired land at Great Bight, North Road, Chilmark which includes the property owned by Elisha Amos. A map of the area prepared by the Land Bank shows that Rebecca Amos owned a field in that area until the time of her death in 1801. A story exists that Rebecca was the person who first saw Charles Grey’s flagship, Carysfort, as it struggled through Quick’s Hole during the 1778 raid on the island. The same map shows that the land adjoining Rebecca’s field was owned by Cooper, presumably the family of Remember Cooper.

The institution of enslavement in New England seems to have been ambivalent. It certainly existed on Martha’s Vineyard as it did elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There is evidence to suggest that Rebecca was “allowed” to have some freedom as witnessed by the relationship between her and Elisha Amos, and under Massachusetts law she was entitled to inherit property. The property she inherited from Elisha Amos was for her lifetime only, but the stipulations of the will suggest that Mr. Amos did believe that Rebecca could live in his dwelling house.

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