The headstones sit beneath a billboard on the Columbia Road side of Dorchester North Burying Ground, a 400-year-old cemetery in Uphams Corner. Battered by time but still legible, the headstones mark the graves of three enslaved people who lived and died in this neighborhood: Betty, “aged about 25,” d. 1748; Bristol, “aged about 30,” d. 1748; and Cambridge, age 3, d. 1747.
Like many headstones of the enslaved in the United States, these are carved with the names of the deceased and their enslavers. Thus we know that Cambridge and Betty were owned by Col. Robert Oliver, and Bristol by M. James Foster.
Because details about the enslaved were not routinely recorded in the historical record, it’s hard to know more than this.
But that doesn’t mean we know nothing. Robert Oliver was a wealthy and influential Bostonian in his time. From the copious information about him that has been preserved, it is possible to piece together a fuller picture of the lives of Cambridge, “a negro boy belonging to Robert Oliver,” and Betty, two enslaved people who lived and died — and, in the case of Betty, labored — right here, in Dorchester.
Oliver was born in 1700 in Antigua to a prosperous English merchant family that owned two sugar plantations. He remained on the island, overseeing up to 400 enslaved people, until 1736, when a rumored island-wide rebellion was preemptively and violently quashed, resulting in the deaths of 88 of the enslaved. Historians today believe the rebellion conspiracy was conjured by nervous European landowners.
Many fled the island, including Oliver and his family, who settled with a number of enslaved people in the area we now call Uphams Corner. His enslaved people built his house. Their efforts yielded an imposing mansion, one adorned with a gambrel roof and wooden balustrades. The mansion’s grandeur, praised in an 1873 essay, was a testament to the skill of its enslaved builders. Later famous as the birthplace of Massachusetts’ 15th governor, Edward Everett, the house no longer stands.
There is a myth that enslaved people in the North were not treated as cruelly as those in the South, especially if they, like the men and women who built Oliver’s house, were skilled. But advertisements Oliver placed in Boston newspapers cast doubt on this assumption. In one from 1743, Oliver offered to give away “a lusty negro child, 3 weeks old” to anyone who would have her — a testament to the casual and ruthless family separations in the North. An advertisement run in 1747 offered a reward for the capture and return of an enslaved man named George, who, after being imprisoned for stealing from Oliver, escaped from jail. The tensions that defined enslaver-enslaved relations course through the advertisement’s short text, which describes George as “very black” and having “had nothing on when he went away but a check’d shirt & Trousers.” The ad concludes with a warning against harboring the fugitive.
The probate accompanying Oliver’s will offers the most information I could find about the men, women, and children he owned at the time of his death. Nine people are listed among his possessions, including Cato, Buff, Jack, Mirah, and Jude. The other four names are illegible, marred by rips, water stains, and time. These people, like all of Oliver’s worldly belongings, are listed in a room-by-room inventory. That Cato, Buff, and Jack were listed in the cellar, with the livestock and farm tools, suggests that they worked and slept away from the house, in the fields, barns, and outhouses that dotted Oliver’s 36-acre property. Mirah and Jude are listed among the furnishings of the front parlor, suggesting that they lived and worked inside. The beds, bolsters, and pillows listed in the kitchen chamber inventory hint that they, or other enslaved women, slept there.
When Oliver died in 1762, the enslaved people in his household were given to his children. Some went to live with his son Thomas, who later moved to Cambridge and built — or more likely had his enslaved people build — a house even more splendid than his father’s. Since 1971, that house, christened Elmwood in the 19th century by its poet resident James Russell Lowell, has been home to Harvard’s president.
Thomas Oliver, the last royal lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was forced to flee Elmwood with his family in 1774 by a mob of 4,000 Patriots on the eve of the American Revolution. We can only speculate about what became of his slaves. They may have remained in the Oliver home, working independently to support themselves, as did Tony and Cuba, a married couple who had been enslaved in the nearby Vassal house. They may have joined the Revolution; or they may have been among the men and women who, freed from their Loyalist owners, formed Black communities across the city.
But we know that not all of the people Robert Oliver enslaved made it to freedom: Cambridge’s and Betty’s crumbling gravestones attest to this. They are remembered only through their enslaver and paired with his name in perpetuum; their enslavement endures. Their headstones remind us that slavery happened not just in the South but in Boston. In Dorchester. And for many who reside here, in our own backyard.
Gianna Cacciatore is a writer living in Dorchester. She has also contributed to Ed. Magazine.