By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – They slept in the kitchen garret, high under the eaves in a room whose ceiling was so low they had to stoop.
With only two small windows, they sweltered in summer; in winter, they huddled around the stone chimney for warmth.
They were the slaves of Richard Smith Jr. – two men, one elderly woman and five children – and their existence is confirmed in a 1691 property inventory of Cocumscussoc, more commonly called Smith’s Castle.
When Daniel Updike died here in 1757, the slave population had risen to “18 Negroes and a baby.”
The lives of the slaves who passed through this house are of paramount interest to Neil Dunay.
A past president of Smith’s Castle, he has been collecting historical data from documents, seeking to understand what it was like for the slaves and indentured servants who toiled here. His goal is to obtain a grant to hire a scholar to carry out the project that, ultimately, will define the role of the Smith/Updike family in the institution of slavery.
“Smith’s Castle is not a newcomer to slavery,” he notes. “In the late 1990s, a doctoral candidate at Brown University, Robert Fitts, wrote a dissertation on ‘Inventing New England Slave Paradise’. Its purpose was to dispel the myth that slaves in Rhode Island had it so much better than southern slaves.
“It documents the brutality
which was pretty much equal” to that in the South.
Although considerable archaeology has been undertaken at Smith’s Castle, says Neil, “we could tell people about slavery as an institution but not [define] who they were as individuals.”
His desire to change that has already unearthed the names of many slaves – and their monetary values – listed in inventories after their owners died. He has photographed hand-written lists and narratives which he carries around in an electronic notepad and eagerly shares.
Recently, the focus at Smith’s Castle has been on “restaging the house” which was full of objects from the wrong period.
A large chunk of a $7,000 grant went to remove a gift shop from the house and restore the room to what it had been – the law office of Daniel Updike, the longest-serving attorney general in state history.
“Now we want to document slavery at Smith’s Castle,” he declares. “We’ve applied for a grant to hire a scholar to pursue this. The last slave would have gone between 1810 and 1820; we haven’t found any descendants yet.”
What Neil has learned on his own has been drama-laden, complicated by the inter-marrying of the Smith and Updike families and by the tradition of giving slaves their owners’ last names.
There’s even a death which appears to be the cover-up of a murdered black child.
According to the account unearthed by Dunay, in 1639 Gysbert Opdyck was sent to Fort Good Hope (Hartford, Conn.) by the Dutch West Indies Company. The report says Opdyck “gave his black boy the pan to fry cakes” but it was too hot. Meanwhile, Opdyck grabbed it, gave the child a knife to hold and in the ensuing confusion, he kicked the boy causing him to “fall” on the knife and die.
The little boy was named Louis Barbese (or Barbice) and he was a slave from Surinam.
“It’s the first slave mentioned in Connecticut and the first Updike contact with slaves. We know bits and pieces but to get more, it’s a struggle.”
When the British took over New York, Updike moved his family north to live at Smith’s Castle. One by one, relatives congregated: Richard Smith Jr. came to Rhode Island first; the former Abigail Smith, widowed by the death of her slave-ship captain husband, arrived here and married her first cousin, Lodewick Updike.
It is through Richard Smith Junior’s will that we learn of Cesar, his wife Sarah and their five children, all slaves. His will frees the adults and leaves them a piece of land; he promises freedom to their children when they reach the age of 30.
“We don’t know if they were freed or if they got the land,” says Neil.
Typically, when the property owner died, neighbors would come in, count the slaves and put a value on them. When Daniel Updike died, three or four field hands were appraised at 600 pounds apiece; the older slaves were worth less. In fact, one man was so elderly he was determined to be worth nothing.
There are stories of star-crossed lovers who were slaves owned by separate masters; freed slaves who returned to work as “volunteers” to gain food and shelter; a small, scarred slave who repeatedly ran away; Cesar and Moses who enlisted and served at Valley Forge.
Dunay is dedicated to unraveling their lives and telling their stories.
He wonders, “Who were the fathers of which children? What became of the children? What happened to the slaves when they died?”
In a long-ago survey of all the old North Kingstown cemeteries, the graves of 81 slaves were discovered.
“I have 20 names,” Neil says. “We have a long way to go.”
Dunay will talk about the project at 2 p.m. Feb. 18 at the North Kingstown Free Library and registration is required. For information, call 294-3306 or go online at www.nklibrary.org .
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .