Saul’s Wife

Saul’s Wife

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in an 1897 Book

[The Colonel] found a negro woman and bought her, and had Saul marry her. They had children, one of whom he gave to Rev. Mace Shepard, his minister, and others to some of his friends. One was named Jeffries, in derision of the Chief-Justice of England. Saul was complete master of ceremonies and affairs about the farm. An ox could not be bought without his presence and counsel. Mr. Shaw, a member of the Senate of Rhode Island from Little Compton, said of the Richmonds in Little Compton, “D—d proud family; they esteem their negroes better than common folks.”

Joshua Bailey Richmond, The Richmond Book [1]

 

As kind as the Richmonds’ neighbors thought they were, and as responsible and respected as Saul was on their farm, slavery’s absolute oppression is glaringly apparent in this story. If what Joshua wrote is true, William exerted complete control over Saul and his wife’s choice to marry. He treated their children as his own personal property and used them to curry favor with his friends. Saul and his wife did not have the right or the power to keep their children with them. William even had the honor of naming them.

Joshua wrote about William and Saul one hundred years after these events took place at a time when the history of slavery was simplified and romanticized by its authors. Wives were bought. Children were given away, and both occurrences were horrible, but in reality there was a degree of complexity in the relationships between enslaved people and their owners that is easily lost in nineteenth-century anecdotes. Let’s consider for a moment that this story may not be completely true.

Owners like William relied on the cooperation of their enslaved men like Saul. In many cases the best way to secure that cooperation was with privilege and incentives rather than punishment and oppression. It is very likely that William gave Saul, his most trusted and valued worker, some choice in whom he married. Knowing that they could not stop their children from being sent away, it is possible that Saul and his wife advocated for their placement in specific homes among William’s elite friends where they knew their children would be well-treated, taught specialized skills or close enough to visit.

Without question, the balance of power in eighteenth-century Little Compton was hugely and unjustly weighted in favor of free, white people, but enslaved people did have voice and the ability to sometimes sway or influence their masters.

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] Joshua Bailey Richmond, The Richmond Book, p. 75.