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Colonial times witnessed slave labor in Townsend

TOWNSEND — In 1754, the governor of Massachusetts called for a census, interested in counting the number of slaves over 16 years old.

Altogether, the 119 towns that participated reported 2,720 adult slaves, according to No other information was included; no names, ages or places of birth.

Townsend selectmen reported three slaves in town, two males and one female. One of the selectmen who signed the accounting was John Conant.

A list of his property prepared in 1757, after his death, gives a clue to his economic standing. The list is included in a paper in the collection of the Townsend Historical Society, prepared by Jane Boyes Stonefield.

At his death, he owned the “clothing of his deceased Negro slave (Ceasar).” …”Negro woman and boy” appear further down the list.

Ceasar was mentioned in church records included in “History of the Town of Townsend” by Ithamar B. Sawtelle.

The “negro servant of Mr. John Conant” withdrew from his communion at the church by behaving in a “disorderly and schismatical way,” Sawtelle wrote.

Church members met and prayed for direction about what they termed a public scandal. They voted to suspend Ceasar from the church until he could give “good grounds of repentance for his misconduct.”

As Sawtelle pointed out, Ceasar’s rebuttal to this action was not recorded. The record does not say what Ceasar did that was so unacceptable.

The meeting house, used by the town for religious and government purposes, was replaced in 1771, just a few feet away from the original site on Meeting House Hill. The new building was used as a meeting hall and by Congregationalists and the Unitarian Society, according to a history of the Townsend United Methodist Church written by Susan Gerken.

“Over the stairs, at the west end, were the seats for the negroes, the small remnant of the race that were here at the commencement of the present century,” Sawtelle wrote.

The building was moved to the center of town by oxen in 1804 and purchased by the Methodists in 1852. They again moved the building, rotating it so the front looked south rather than west.

Today, the “slave pews” are still accessed by a stairway up to the bell tower.

The Conant family kept a tavern in the house that stands on the south side of Harbor Pond in Townsend Harbor, the eastern-most part of town. After John’s death, his widow Sarah and then his sons ran the Conant Tavern, according to

When Conant first purchased the old house, he also purchased a grist-mill, a privilege and certain other land, according to Sawtelle. A water privilege grants the use of the water to an individual or business.

Water in the mill pond, now Harbor Pond, could be released to power mills. The Cooperage, a building on the opposite side of the pond from the Conant Tavern, now owned by the Historical Society, was built as a mill to saw boards, according to the THS website.

A 1791 map owned by the society indicates that a bridge six rods long, around 100 feet, crossed the Squannacook River just east of the mill pond. The map also indicates “mills” on the Conant land, but does not specify their purposes, shape or exact locations.

In 1792, said Sawtelle, the younger John Conant purchased water rights to run a fulling mill. The mill treated cloth, making it denser. The process was probably loud, using mallets to beat the fiber and foul-smelling. Urine was a traditional solution used to remove oils.

With a tavern to keep and mills to run, the Conants must have had plenty of work to be done.

No record of Ceasar’s duties or the duties of the other slaves have turned up. Likewise, any record of their relationship to each other is missing.

It appears that the slaves were welcome in church.

Every town in the area that reported in the 1754 census had slaves, but they were few in number. Groton had the most. The town, which still had what would become Pepperell and Ayer within its borders, had 14 slaves. Shirley had one.

Five or six families in Townsend had “Negro servants,” Sawtelle said. He listed two births found in the town records: Phillis, a servant of John Stevens born in 1752, and Annie, a servant of Benjamin Brooks, born in 1756.

“Ama, a Negro servant of Mr. Benjamin Brooks was received into full communion with the church of Christ in Townshend,” Sawtelle quoted from the church book of records.

Ceasar, with no last name given, lives on, if only in the written history of Townsend.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.