Hope

Hope

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in a 1716 Record

That my two mullatto girls, Hope and Mercy be with my wife or daughters, Woodman and Head till they arrive at the year of twenty five and then to be immediately free and at their disposition & to be allowed forthwith by their masters or mistresses each of them a good new suit of cloaths from top to Toe and twenty shillings of money a piece.

The Will of William Briggs, Little Compton, 1716 [1] 

Slavery in early Little Compton was sometimes temporary much like indenture. Young women like Hope and Mercy might be set free after a term of enslavement that often lasted ten or 12 years. William Briggs wrote Hope and Mercy’s manumission very much like an indenture contract, freeing the young women at an appointed age and giving them a new set of clothing when they left his family. The manumission differs from a typical Little Compton involuntary indenture contract in that the girls are released at the age of twenty-five instead of eighteen, and that they received money. It is also unusual because it appears in William’s will, indicating that the young women did not have a previously negotiated contract. As “mullatto” girls, Hope and Mercy were of mixed race, but their exact ancestry is unknown, they could have been any combination of Indigenous, African American, or European.

After William’s death Hope and Mercy’s remaining time in bondage would have been owned and controlled by William’s wife Elizabeth Cook Briggs. Elizabeth, the daughter of John and Mary Cook of Portsmouth, had been brought up in a household with a variety of enslaved and indentured servants. She lived only a few months after her husband, and so in August of 1716, Hope and Mercy would have passed into the hands, and the households of the couple’s daughters Elizabeth, the wife of John Woodman who lived on West Main Road at the south end of Windmill Hill, and Deborah the wife of Benjamin Head who lived on Maple Avenue. Because the Briggs sisters were married, their husbands would have legal control over their property, including Hope and Mercy, but the law recognized the women’s property rights to a degree and their husbands would not have been able to sell Hope and Mercy’s remaining time in bondage without their wives’ consent. It is likely that Hope and Mercy were separated at this time, one going to one new household and one to the other. At the age of 25 both young women would have been free to stay with their mistresses under some new arrangement or move on.

Hope and Mercy were in limbo somewhere between a clearly defined indenture and never-ending enslavement. Other Little Compton people of Native American, African and mixed-race descent found themselves in similar situations. Their hope for freedom depended on the mercy of their masters. As the seventeenth century turned into the eighteenth, those hopes and mercies evaporated for many of Little Compton’s enslaved people as life-long slavery became more and more commonplace.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

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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[1] William Briggs’ Will, Taunton Probate Records, Book 3, p. 278.