Sarah Jehu

Sarah Jehu

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in Records 1771-1773

At times people of color avoided indenture even when it was threatened by the Town Council. Sarah Jehu was the head of a free, Native family in Little Compton.[1] She was very likely related to Jehu the minister who preached in the Indian Meeting House on the east side of John Dyer Road across from the Gifford family homesteads, and she was perhaps the daughter of Jehu Fishman ‘“a poor Indian boy” indentured in 1749.[2] In 1771 Sarah and her daughter Alice became ill and received “Docktering” from Benjamin Richmond and food and supplies from neighbor Cannan Gifford. The Town Council reimbursed the men about 16£ for their time and expense.[3] Six months later in February 1772 the freemen of the town voted at a town meeting:

Vote That Sarah Jehu & her daughter Returne of Money Into ye Town treasury and that they paid for them between this & April Next or to Be Bound out to Service to Pay ye same by the Proper Authority.[4]

Two months before her deadline, Sarah managed to repay her debt to the town and maintained her family’s freedom.[5] Sarah was very capable of supporting herself and her daughter as long as all was well, but in times of crisis, like her sickness in 1771, she had no estate nor extended family to support her in her time of need. Poverty and indenture were a constant threat.

Town-ordered indentures were a last resort for people like Sarah Jehu who had very few options, but could still do a day’s work. Without the indentures they would have been supported by the town either in a poor house or “struck out” to a private home whose owners bid for the right to care for the poor. The town would select the lowest bidder and pay them from the town treasury. New bids were held every few months, and the poor were regularly shuttled between caretakers striving to underbid each other in order to get the work.[6] At times impoverished people were sent to the Town Meeting House on the Commons which doubled as a poor house after the Revolution. In 1832 the town established a poor farm on Grange Avenue as a permanent home for most of the poor.[7]

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] Christine Lamar, “The 1774 Census of Rhode Island: Little Compton,” Rhode Island Roots, March 2008, pgs. 26-31.

[2] Jehu the Minister, Richard M.Bayles, ed., History of Newport County, (New York: Preston & Co., 1888), p. 992.

[3] Sarah & Alice Jehu Medical Bills, Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol 1, p. 96.

[4] Threat to Indenture Sarah & Alice Jehu, Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol 1, p. 96. The same arrangement for Rescom Palmer (who was white) appears in next line of the Town Meeting Records.

[5] Sarah & Alice Jehu Avoid Indenture, Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol 1, p. 96.

[6] Striking Out, Little Compton Town & Vital Records, Vol 2, pgs. 325-354.

[7] Janet Lisle, The History of Little Compton: A Home By The Sea, 1820-1950, (Little Compton: Little Compton Historical Society, 2012), p. 26.