Hempsteads inspire historian’s dissertation

Cover image of "For Adam's Sake - A Family Saga in Colonial New England" by Allegra di Bonaventura

Folks in New London probably pass the two Colonial-era structures at Hempstead and Jay streets on a daily basis. Some even realize the property is one of those "historical plaque" attractions and contains an actual museum.

The original buildings comprised the homesteads of the expanded Joshua Hempstead family as well as servants and a slave.

Hempstead, a respected farmer and tradesman in 18th-century New London, is now remembered for having kept a meticulous diary from 1711 to 1758 that provides a nearly unprecedented look at life during Colonial New England. That diary, published in 1901 by the New London Country Historical Society, attracted the attention of Yale historian Allegra di Bonaventura pursuant to a PhD dissertation.

The more she investigated, though, the more she knew she had to write a book about her research. "For Adam's Sake - A Family Saga in Colonial New England," just published by Liveright/Norton, is a multifaceted, astonishing portrait of the master/slave relationship in those times - a topic often minimized in New England history - as well as a view of the intertwining nature of Colonial families and culture.

Earlier this week, di Bonaventura answered five questions via email.

Q. Is it fair to say that the idea of slavery was ingrained in Colonial New England and that, within those accepted parameters, Joshua and Adam interacted with one another almost as friends or at least comfortable acquaintances?

A. I think that ultimately we cannot truly know what their relationship really was. My hope is that my readers would be able to make their own judgments based on the evidence. I would hesitate to call them friends or comfortable acquaintances. Theirs was an inherently intimate relationship, but it was also entirely unequal and as such would have been experienced very differently by each man. Nevertheless, this was a world in which people were very comfortable with social stratification and hierarchy, to a degree unknown today, and this acceptance would also have informed their interactions.

Q. In your research, what did you discover about slavery in the North, long before the Civil War, that you were maybe unaware of, and was Adam's situation typical of those times?

A. Adam's situation was very typical for a New England slave in the early 18th century. He did farm work, had a significant amount of autonomy, he worked alone and in groups, he traveled relatively freely within the locality, he was very much connected socially and professionally to all branches of New England society. He was the sole slave in the household.

I guess the attribute that is probably the most confounding for me is the intimacy of slavery in the north. Because these were not large farm operations, most New England slaveholders held slaves in small quantities - typically one or two per household. Looking at the individual households, however, we find that slaves, masters, servants (not to mention the families of masters and slaves) are sharing pretty small accommodations - close quarters at home and in their working relationships.

When Adam came to Joshua's house in 1727, for example, the household already contained up to 10 people - all sharing three rooms. How English New Englanders could enslave people with whom they shared their homes and lives with so intimately is hard for contemporary Americans to understand.

Q. You set out to research the Hempstead diary in an academic capacity. What happened to those obligations once you decided to write this book?

A. Thankfully, scholarly demands for my dissertation were not so rigid that they could not accommodate this kind of shift. In fact, this is exactly what the scholarly enterprise is for, I would argue. Beyond earning a PhD, I had no official or academic obligations. I knew early that I wanted a trade publication - and I was fortunate enough to have my choice of publishers. I wanted a trade press, because I knew that I wanted to write a book for a general audience - and I very much wanted to get Joshua and Adam's story out there! I felt that ordinary Americans would easily connect with these everyday historical figures. In fact, there is no greater compliment to me than a reader who tells me that they connected emotionally with the material.

Q. How has "For Adam's Sake" changed your overall thoughts on life in New London and Colonial New England?

A. The reality depicted in Joshua's diary, court, local and colonial records does defy certain ideas we have had about one of our great cultural icons, the colonial New England family.

There has been a great deal of wonderful research and writing on the New England family, but to date we have tended to regard it as a relatively static entity, or a series of "types" easily categorized. When scholars have looked at certain sub-sets of families - whether African-American, members of religious communities, or Native-American, for example, they have tended to see these again in a kind of social isolation.

The research for "For Adam's Sake" revealed an interconnected world of families across the social divide. I was astounded by the degree to which enslaved, servile, yeoman and even elite families were tied together through bonds of law, religion, family, and sometimes even blood. This messy, intertwined social world was at the heart of the New England town and the domestic experience of most New Englanders.

Q. The book has an incredible amount of information about the life of slaves at a point in our country's history where there's actually very little data.

A. An important step the book takes is to tell the story of one early African-American family with unprecedented depth - going back to the mid-17th century - but also placing them directly in the mainstream of family history and the history of New England, rather than as a separate, distinct story disconnected from broader social, political and economic life.

Author Allegra de Bonaventura
Photo by Andrew Hogan Author Allegra de Bonaventura

IF YOU GO

Who: Allegra di Bonaventura, author of “For Adam’s Sake”

What: New London signings/
appearances

When, Where, How Much: 2 p.m. Sunday, Community Room, Public Library of New London, 63 Huntington St., New London; free; (860) 447-
1411, plnl.com.

Also, 6 p.m. Sunday, Oyster Club, 53 W. Main St., Mystic; Dinner with the author; $75 includes signed first edition of the
book, a three-course dinner, and reading/discussion; (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com

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