Indentured at the Wilbor House
In 1757 a deadly epidemic moved through Little Compton’s Native American community and led to the indenture of three orphaned children. Fal Solomon was one of them.
Reverend William Emerson, the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited Little Compton in 1803 and wrote, “About fifty years since a most destructive fever carried its ravages among the Indians in the quarter. From that time they have been rapidly wasting. There are now not more than ten Indians in the town.”1 Town Council records dated May 1757 show that the deadly disease struck mainly Native people, leaving their sick, dying, and dependent children at the mercy of their white neighbors.
Vote That the sum of 105-9-6 [Pounds – Shillings – Pence] be allowed and paid out of the Treasurey to Oliver Devenport for what he did for the Indeons
Vote That the sum of 22 pds be allowed and paid out of the Treasurey to George Bardens for Coffins & other Nessesarys for the Indeons
Vote that the sum of 4-8-0 be allowed & paid out of the Treasury to Grace Grinel for Sunderies she let the Indeons have
Vote that the sum of 12-6–10 be allowed & paid out of the Treasury to Gedion Tompkins for what he Let the Indeons have
Vote That the sum of 25-19 be allowed and paid out of the Treasury to William Brown for service and Sundry things he let the Indeons have
Vote That the sum of 2-10 be allowed and paid out of the Treasury to Isaac Simmans for sheat that he Let the Indeons have
Vote That the sum of 5-15-6 Be allowed & paid out of the Treasury to George Pearce for Coffins and digging of graves & other things for the Indeons2
And the list goes on:
Samuel Gray was paid 13 pds for what he did and provided for the Indeons
Robert Carr 2-2-6 for what he let the Indeons have
Eseck Carr 12-12 for what he provided and did for the Indeons
Nathaniel Pearce 4 pds for a coffin made for the Indeons
Edward Church 10 Shillings on account of ye Indeons
Doctor William Wilbour 8-2-0 for what he has done and let the Indeons have
Stephen Hart 2-10 for a Sheat he let the Indeons have
William Richmond 1-10 for what he did for the Indeons
William Snell 22-17-0 for what he provided and did for the Indeons3
The accounting amounts to more than £250 for care and provisions and includes at least five coffins. The sheets in the list were needed for burial shrouds. Sixteen people, probably all white, participated in the care of the sick during the course of the epidemic. In the 1750s most of Little Compton’s Indians lived either as servants (or perhaps in a few cases slaves) in white households, or clustered together in two small villages, one near the Indian Meeting House on John Dyer Road and the other at the corner of East Main and Snell Roads. Each of the sixteen caregivers was compensated for his or her efforts by the town. There may have been additional acts of uncompensated charity, but by and large the community’s efforts were more businesslike than charitable.
Once the epidemic was over and its victims laid to rest, the town turned its attention to their orphaned children. Prior to 1757 there had been only two town-ordered indentures in over seventy years. Now in response to the epidemic there were three in just a few months. As always, the town looked for ways to mitigate expenses. They voted: “That Thomas Cooper be Bound out by the Town Council to any man that will give the most for his time & the money to go towards paying the charge of the Town.” Thomas, who had been living and working for Elihu Woodworth, was now indentured to Thomas Church, the highest bidder, and had to move to a new home.4 A few months later Amos Amos was formally indentured to John Gifford with whom he was already living.5
Fal Solomon became formally indentured to Dr. William Wilbor who had been “keeping” her for some months.6 The Town paid the doctor £60 for her care, but voted to pay no more. From that point until Fal turned eighteen, William was to “Discharge the Town from all futer Charges on ye account of ye sd Indeaon Girll.”7 William actively participated in the care of the sick during the epidemic and had already been paid £8 for the treatments and supplies he offered the Native community. Fal was a special case. William took the sick child home to the Wilbor House on West Main Road where he and his family nursed her back to health. Almost a year after the epidemic William submitted his bill to the Town Council for Fal’s care, and they paid it, but at the same time the council determined that Fal was well enough to work for her keep and indentured her to the Wilbor family to avoid any future expenses.
When Fal first arrived in the Wilbor’s home she was most likely installed in a small, sunny bedroom just off the kitchen. There, just steps away from the cooking hearth, the doctor’s wife Esther Burgess Wilbor and the other women in the household could have easily nursed Fal back to health. When she was well enough, the family might have set up sleeping quarters for Fal in a simple room on the second floor directly above the kitchen. Many early New England homes had a space like this called the “open chamber” that was often used for servants’ quarters. The space was essentially a wide hallway allowing members of the household to move freely from the kitchen to the second floor rooms or the attic without intruding on each other’s private rooms. Open chambers were simply finished, often just whitewashed, and were used to store foodstuffs and other items needed in the kitchen below. The room’s location right over the main hearth meant that it was much warmer than the attic in the winter time and so provided a relatively comfortable place to sleep, but because it functioned as a hallway and storage room, and because it had no fireplace of its own, it was a less desirable room than those used by the white members of the family.
Fal probably took very little with her from her parents’ home. Town officials and medical practitioners were starting to understand that the belongings of the sick somehow carried disease and needed “cleansing.”8 The Wilbors would have provided her with the basic necessities, including a box for her belongings, a simple bedframe and perhaps a “flock bed” which was a mattress stuffed with wool rather than expensive feathers. Everything the Wilbors provided to Fal during her first year with them would have been included in the £60 bill to the town.
As soon as Fal was able she would have worked in the Wilbor household alongside the women and girls, and when the season demanded it, out in the fields with the men and boys. The house in 1758 was a busy one, sheltering not just one Wilbor family but two. Dr. William and Esther Wilbor occupied one portion of the house while their son William, his wife Hannah and their growing family of ultimately ten children occupied another. Fal would have participated in the cooking of meals, the care of children, the washing of clothes, the feeding of animals and perhaps the milking of cows. The Wilbor family also produced linen and wool cloth. Fal may have been taught to help with the spinning and weaving, or she may have been restricted to more menial tasks so that the Wilbor women had more time to generate income for the household making textiles. On Sunday, in observance of the Sabbath, her chores would have been minimal, and Fal may have attended religious services with the family at the Friends Meeting House on West Main Road.
Fal’s age at the time of her indenture is unknown, so we do not know when she turned eighteen and was free to leave the family. It is possible she never fully regained her health and passed away at a young age. If so, she was likely buried in the Wilbor family plot with an uninscribed field stone. If she did survive to the age of eighteen, the Wilbors, according to the custom of the time, would have given her a new set of clothing from her head to her feet in a simple style suitable for a servant. She probably also received a Bible as was stipulated in almost every known Little Compton indenture document. Fal may have continued to work for the Wilbors as a wage-earning servant, or she may have moved on to another white household. She may also have moved back to the dwindling Indian community in Little Compton, or the larger one in nearby Tiverton. Fal, whose full name was probably Fallee, does not appear in any other local records. Her story after her indenture is unknown.
Fal’s indenture made her the first, and probably the only, Native person to live in the house that is today the Little Compton Historical Society’s Wilbor House Museum. In 2016 the Historical Society undertook an effort to reinterpret the home’s open chamber to represent Fal Solomon’s quarters. The room, and Fal’s history, is now part of the Wilbor House Tour.
Marjory O’Toole, Executive Director, Little Compton Historical Society
First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.
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