Kate Hilliard

Kate Hilliard

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in a 1816 Record

Excerpt from “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold”

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

An excerpt from Col. David Hilliard’s 1810 will regarding Kate Hilliard.

Excerpt from “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold”

Colonel David Hilliard (Hillard) wrote his will in 1810, but Kate waited until his death in 1816 for her freedom.

I furthermore give my Black Woman Kate Her Freedom immediately after my descease but in case she should at any time afterward become chargeable to my Estate I order my Grandson William Hilliard to provide for her all things comfortable in sickness & in health she being obiedient unto him and labouring for him as far as she may be able.

Will of Colonel David Hillard [1]

During Kate’s lifetime she passed through three different owners in the Hilliard family. She married Prince Brownell on March 7, 1784 and had two children with him who lived with her in the Hilliard’s house while her husband lived with the Grinnells. David Hilliard was a tavern keeper and also ran one of Little Compton’s poor houses after the Revolution.  Kate’s labor was a vital part of his business operations. David’s will provides Kate with a promise of support in her old age with a particular choice of words “to provide for her all things comfortable in sickness & in health” indicating a genuine wish for her comfort in old age. David continues to offer hints about the relationship between himself and Kate. When he instructs Kate to be “obiedient unto” his grandson William, perhaps David is recalling his own years with Kate, a woman who may have been strong willed. His final words, “and laboring for him as far as she may be able” recognize Kate’s humanity and frailty in her final years. Kate Hilliard was the last person enslaved in Little Compton.[2] She gained her freedom on the day her master’s will was probated, August 5, 1816.

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.

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Kate Hilliard received her freedom from slavery on August 5, 1816, the day Colonel David Hilliard’s will was proved in probate court. Kate was the last person enslaved in Little Compton. Slavery wasn’t outlawed in Rhode Island until 1843.

Throughout Kate’s lifetime she was owned by three different Hilliard family members. She worked in their tavern and the poor house they ran after the Revolution. Kate married Prince Grinnell in 1784 and had two boys, possibly twins, around that time. Her boys were born free because of Rhode Island’s 1783 Gradual Emancipation Act. Kate had to wait for her freedom and was elderly when she finally received it. David’s will instructed his grandson William “to provide for her all things comfortable in sickness & in health she being obedient unto him & labouring for him as far as she may be able.”

Kate likely died in Little Compton and was buried in the Negro Burying Ground at the west end of the Old Burying Ground on the Commons. Her sons seem to have moved away like many of Little Compton’s 19th-century people of color.

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[1] Colonel David Hillard, Will, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 5,  44-48.

[2] For a full listing of records see The Index of Enslaved and Indentured People. Some examples follow:

Captain David Hilliard, Will, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 1, 248 (2) See back of book. Book 2 p. 245.

Susannah Hilliard, Inventory, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 2, 395.

Poor House, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 3, 104,113,116.

Colonel David Hillard, Will, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 5, 44-48.

Marriage Record, Little Compton Vital Records Vol. 2, 12.


[1] Deborah Pearce, Will, Little Compton Town Council and Probate Book 2, 345-6.