My umbrella lay pristine, wrapped shut and bone dry on my bookshelf as I walked, sodden, down Tory Row toward the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House. HLN housed the Cambridge Historical Society, where I had an appointment to meet with their executive director. It felt as though I was walking on saturated cork thanks to the surprisingly deep puddle I had stepped in upon exiting the T and my (now regretted) decision to wear sandals. I squished my way up to the broad front door the HLN, a substantial white Georgian building, and rang the bell.
I was getting ready to call the society’s line when I heard a heavy bolt being drawn back and the door was pulled open.
“You would be my 6h15 appointment?”
“About five minutes late, yes. I’m very sorry not to call; I only just got service again.”
“Not a problem. I’m usually here until 7 anyway. I’m Mr. Docent (obvious pseudonym).” He extended his hand and I shook it. Docent was a tall man in his late 30s/early 40s, ergo younger than one would expect the executive director of a historical society to be. His speech was clipped and erudite, with the unmistakable trace of a slight local accent. He led me to a room that had been restored to “tastefully old-fashioned looking-ish” rather than genuinely pre-Revolutionary, belied by the window seats and dropped ceiling. The fact that it had clearly been pressed into service as a conference room likely explained the more basic renovation.
We sat in two of the folding chairs around the table and opened our respective notebooks. “Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your project? You mentioned in your email that you’re still investigating what sources are out there but why don’t you tell me what your overall interests are, your theoretical background, that kind of thing.” Mr. Docent readied his pen.
Ah. I can do that. “Well, I’m an Anthropology student at Brandeis with a focus on West Africa, narrative and post-colonialism. I’m spending the summer digging into New England’s role in the Triangle Trade.” A droplet of water ran down a lock of my hair, diagonally across the left lens of my glasses, down my nose and dripped onto the table in front of me. I struggled not to flush beet red as I removed my glasses and polished them on the one dry corner of my shirt. “I’d like to go somewhat beyond the usual ‘Northern hypocrisy regarding the slave trade’ angle and get at something more . . .”
“Anthropology-ey?” Mr. Docent smiled knowingly.
“Yeah, in a nutshell.” I replaced my glasses. “Obviously no disrespect meant to the discipline of history. It’s just not my focus. The question is how to do that exactly.”
“Well, obviously starting with local families would be a good start. Up in Medford there’s Ten Hills Farm, which there’s a new book about.”
“Yeah, ‘Ten Hills Farm.’ the Somerville Library has a copy of it.” I made a mental note to see if Brandeis’ Library had a copy of it and, if it did, to cancel my ILL from Somerville. I made a second mental note to see why it hadn’t occurred to me to do that incredibly obvious thing until now. “It looks as though it’s a short bus ride away for me.”
“It’s a very good book, but it does seem to have a more generalized ‘the North has been hypocritical regarding slavery’ approach, which you definitely want to go beyond. It might be good background reading for you. I’d imagine Brandeis has a copy,” he prodded.
“Yes I’d imagine it does.”
“Anyway the Royals, who lived in Ten Hills Farm were involved in the slave trade, as were the Vassells who lived in the Longfellow house just down the street. The Olivers were also involved. Frankly, Tory Row generally had connections to slavery and the slave trade — the Fairweathers, the Lechemeres-”
“The Brattles?” I offered, evoking the street the Historical Society was on.
“Yep, the Brattles. I’d definitely recommend looking at the Royal house. It’s much better preserved than this one, and a massive estate.” I thanked him, making a mental note to compare how Ten Hills Farm was presented in contrast to HLN. Pursuing the matter of architecture and layout, I asked whether there was any relationship between how Cambridge was viewed and the style of architecture.
“Well, you’d need to understand that Cambridge was rather out of fashion compared to Boston. It was mostly cut off from the larger city, where the bulk of the political and financial action was taking place. The Charles hadn’t been walled yet and there weren’t any bridges. It was an eight mile trek. Cambridge had Harvard, of course, which made it a unique area but basically it was a backwater.”
“And now it’s the People’s Republic.”
Mr. Docent snorted and grinned. “Back then Cambridgeites also saw themselves as being educated and rarefied, if not worldly. Perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same. Anyway, this isolation was reflected in the rolling gardens the homeowners had that were ‘little spots of heaven.’ These people were also still building Georgians back when the rest of the metropolitan area had moved on to Federal style. Part of this was due to being out of touch but another part was trying to pay as much of an homage to the Revolution as possible for as long as possible.”
“And even though all these houses were occupied by people loyal to the government against which they were rebelling.”
“Yep.” He folded his hands and leaned forward. “Which brings us to a potential snag in your research. The trouble with slaveowning families in Cambridge is that they’re chiefly Tories. The idea of loyalists being slaveowners isn’t a massive challenge to conventional thought.”
I nodded. “They’re already evil incarnate, so what’s owning human chattel on top of everything else.”
“Indeed. You’ll want to complicate it. You could perhaps investigate the relationship between Tory Row estates and the citizens of Lewisville, a free black community by Observatory Hill. There were also at least two local black Revolutionary War soldiers about whom there may be a paper trail.”
Uch. This is sounding, like, hard. I jotted the names Neptune Frost and Kato Stedman — the two soldiers killed fighting for a nation that would spend the next few hundred years treating the members of their race as second class citizens — into my binder. “What about the slave culture around Cambridge? The main thing I know about the New England leg of the Golden Triangle is the molasses and rum exchange.”
“Hm. Well, the thing is other than complicity in the trade as a whole the North was not as heavily tied to a slave economy as the South. Massachusetts soil isn’t exactly ideal for large-scale agriculture.”
I chuckled. “Yeah. Back in Western MA I’m glad if I can get a tomato to grow let alone acres of cotton.”
Mr. Docent smiled. “There were farms, but they weren’t revenue generating like southern plantations. For the most part they were getaway estates so slaves usually worked in that context.”
“Yes, there were slave domestics. But also remember these places were huge. There were only seven or eight houses along Tory Row and the property stretched all the way down to the Charles. Slaves were handymen and yardsmen, as well as personal valets. Also, again, the Charles River had not been contained yet so it operated as a tidal pool by the banks which abutted Row property. That land could be planted.”
I continued scribbling, my mind preoccupied with complicating the “Tory Problem.” “Do you think it would be worth going outside the Boston area to do some more extensive research?”
“Medford would be a good step. Ten Hills Farm should be at the top of your list, after all. Newport, Rhode Island would be worth a visit. That’s where most of the loading and unloading took place along with the Charles.” He regarded me curiously. “I don’t suppose you’re interested in exploring the abolitionist movement? Or are you only interested in the Triangle Trade?”
I forced myself to adhere to the topic, despite my strong personal interest in the movement. “Despite my strong personal interest in the movement I’m going to have to adhere to the topic. I’d imagine there is a lot of history around here if I do decide to explore abolitionism, however?” I had already spoken to Friends Meeting of Cambridge, the local Quaker fellowship.
“Oh of course. Ironically enough the Vassell house became occupied by Longfellow. Meanwhile there’s a wealth of literature on WEB DuBois and Harriet Jacobs. Which reminds me.” Mr. Docent rose and exited back to the foyer. He pulled a pair of brochures off of a side table. “The African American Heritage Trail might be worth exploring. You also would want to talk to the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance.”
I tucked the brochures into the pocket of my binder, in the process glancing at Mr. Docent’s watch. 7h15. Fifteen minutes until my dinner plans with a friend down in Kendall Square, which was itself a 20 to 30 minute trip from Tory Row. I sighed, realizing that once again I would be racing (and losing) against the clock. I sighed again, realizing that I would be remaining dressed in sodden clothes. Focus on the cool historical stuff you did today, I ordered myself. And the smell. Don’t forget that sweet, sweet smell of must and knowledge. And bronchitis.
I rose, closing my binder and began packing up my bag. “So far it looks like I have some good ideas to go on. First step is finding out more about these families.”
“Definitely,” nodded Mr. Docent. “Be sure and look at how they lived. Juxtapose the reality of the sugar plantations and estates of Tory Row with the idyllic houses and getaways. Some of them, after the original Tory owners moved out, were maintained as living homages to a time that never was. A Baroness who stayed in one of these houses referred to the days of Tory Row as ‘heaven on earth.’ She had only been told about it.”
“Nostalgia is a universal human emotion, I guess.” I smiled, advancing towards the door. Mr. Docent, in the fashion of docents everywhere, clearly enjoyed talking. Significantly, moreso than I do.
Putting his hand on the door to unlock and open it he paused, turned back to the side table, removed one of his cards and jotted a name on the back of it. “You should also talk to this guy, with the Cambridge Historical Commission. They have access to the archives which will help you track these people down.” As he wrote, I glanced at his watch. There was no way I was going to be any less than half an hour late. I cursed myself for my poor planning, then comforted myself with the fact that this was all very valuable information. At least I had a viable excuse for being late.
Thanking Mr. Docent, I promised to keep him apprised of what I found. I stepped out the front door, into a blast of humidity and rain, and back into the present.