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The truth about my ancestors

Reckoning with the discovery of slaveholders in the family.

Ben Jacques reads a headstone at the Old Burying Ground in Stoneham, which holds unmarked graves of the slaves of prominent Stoneham families.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It started when I found out about Phebe.

Delving into my town’s history, I was reading the diary of the Rev. James Osgood, the first minister of the Congregational Church of Stoneham. A 1727 graduate of Harvard, the minister nevertheless had terrible handwriting, and it took me awhile to make out this sentence, dated Feb. 2, 1744:

Paid away in part for a Negro woman named Fibby, 20 £.

A week later the Puritan cleric recorded another payment of 12 pounds. Then on April 2:

Paid for my Negro woman in full, 43 £.

I was stunned. I knew that a few of the early colonizers in Massachusetts had owned slaves. But the minister of my own church? In my own town?


About Fibbe, or Phebe, as her name is spelled elsewhere, I found little more information. Assigned to the daily chores of the parsonage, she most likely cooked, cleaned, washed, split wood, and kept the fireplaces stoked. She may also have tended the garden and chickens, provided child care, served meals, and waited at Sunday dinner. Her age is not listed, but she must have been an able young woman, based on the comparatively high price of her purchase: 75 pounds.

Page 26 of Rev. James Osgood's diary, in which he records having paid 75 pounds in three installments for an enslaved woman named Fibby, or Phebe.Ben Jacques

Her master, Rev. Osgood, was highly esteemed in Stoneham, then a village of about 350 souls. From a Salem family, which also owned slaves, he would have been the only person educated beyond grammar school. Besides his pulpit duties, he was responsible for the religious education of his parishioners, their children, and slaves. Church records show he baptized and officiated at the marriages of several “Negroes.”

Osgood had built a large house in Stoneham, and the town supported him with a salary and wood for heating. In 1735 he married Sarah Fisk, age 17. In 1744, when Phebe was purchased as a house “servant,” the Osgood family had two children, Abigail, 8, and John, 6.


In March of 1745, in his 40th year, Osgood suffered a fatal stroke. A procession of villagers, including area clergy, followed him to the cemetery.

The Puritan minister had not made a will, but in a probate inventory, sandwiched between “a Rasure pen Knife and hone” and “a looking Glass/2 oval Tables/a Desk and Tankard board,” is found this chilling entry: “A Neagroe Woman £70.” Bought in installments, Phebe had devalued in two years by five pounds.

Now the property of the minister’s widow, Phebe was married three years later to a slave named Quecoo, belonging to Peter Hay, III. In 1752, her mistress remarried Captain Ralph Hart of Boston. I could find no further mention of Phebe.

I thought about her the other day as I walked through the Old Burying Ground. Passing among the gravestones of the town founders, I paused at a grassy area in back, where in unmarked graves were buried the slaves and paupers.

My research was about to get even more personal.

In the summer of 1998, my parents, who then lived in Duxbury, visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. They also stopped at the excavation site of the Littletown Plantation, four miles downstream on the James River. The plantation was founded, my mother had claimed, by her eighth great-grandfather.

A year later she sent me a binder of research about her side of the family. I set it on the shelf and forgot about it. Recently, however, I decided to give it a look. I started with the oldest entry, that for Colonel Thomas Theodore Pettus. An Englishman, he arrived in Jamestown around 1640 to claim 800 acres deeded to him by the Third Virginia Charter Company. Here he cleared land and planted tobacco.


The plantation site, undergoing excavations, was described in an article in the November 1974 National Geographic titled “The Virginians.” It included a timbered manor house with brick chimneys, glass windows, a brick-lined well, and an ice house.

A historic marker on Route 634 in Lunenburg County, Va., for Thomas Pettus, great-grandson of the first Thomas Pettus, who was a prominent Virginian, a slaveholder, and an ancestor of the author's. Ben Jacques

Colonel Pettus became a leading figure in the Colony, serving as councillor to the governor. He was also clerk of the vestry, the parish council that ruled on both ecclesiastical and secular matters. The colonel’s son, Thomas, also served on the vestry.

When my parents toured Williamsburg, they entered the Bruton Parish Church and sat in the family pew, marked by a little brass plate that read: “Thomas Pettus, Vestryman.” It was a highlight of their visit.

Now, as I examine the Pettus genealogy, I feel a deep sadness that what was a source of pride to my parents — the claiming of distinguished ancestors — is for me a sense of shame. For what my parents never mentioned is that Thomas Pettus and his descendants were slave owners.

The first recorded purchase of slaves in the British colonies occurred in 1619. So it is no surprise that Pettus would avail himself of this resource. Over the years he acquired both American Indian and African slaves and quickly established a profitable plantation, increasing his landholdings to 3,000 acres. Family wealth would, in turn, benefit successive generations.


The nature and extent of the family’s slave holdings came into focus when I found the 1779 will of a great grandson, also called Thomas. Master of a plantation in Lunenburg, Va., Thomas begins by recommending his soul to the Almighty and thanking him for “what worldly goods it has pleased God to bless me with.” He then divides these goods among his four sons and two daughters. Included in his possessions are the human beings he holds as chattel. He begins with his son, John.

I give bequeathed unto my son John Pettus one negro woman named Fanny and her children now in his possession and one negro man named Harry and all their increase to him and his heirs forever.

As I read this, I am seared by the awful judgment of the phrase: “and all their increase to him and his heirs forever.” The list goes on as Pettus assigns other slaves to other children:

Harry, Peg and her children, Sam, Glasgo, Judy and her children, Judith and her children, Windsore, Jimmy, Rose, Sampson, Warwick, Massilve, Lydia, Mercy, Damiel, Squire and Sarah.

And, finally, to his daughter, Anne, he wills:

…one negro woman Rachael and her children now in her possession and one named Ned, and their increase to her and her heirs forever.

As I copy their names, my hand is shaking.


It’s been said that we choose the version of history that makes us feel good about ourselves. We look for ancestors we can admire. I often think of my Russian ancestors on my father’s side. Mennonite farmers, they were peaceful people and prospered until the Bolsheviks seized power. Under Stalin they suffered famine, relocation, forced labor, and death.

Escaping from Siberia, my grandfather fled to China, then to San Francisco. Knowing about him helps form my identity. But what do I do with the slave owners? How does my knowledge of the Pettus family affect who I am? And what now is required of me?

For starters, I will continue to tell stories of my town and family as honestly as I can, even when that causes discomfort. Discomfort can be a positive thing if it leads to humility, awareness, insight, and healing.

To my children and grandchildren I will say: Among our ancestors were both heroes and villains and many in between. There were some who fought for freedom and others who denied it to others. There were both oppressors and oppressed.

I will also tell them: Each of us is capable of great harm or great good. We can act to deny the humanity of others or to safeguard it. For the sins of past generations, we can work to make amends. We have a choice.

Ben Jacques is a retired English professor and freelance writer. He is the author of “In Graves Unmarked: Slavery & Abolition in Stoneham, Mass.”