Windham Life and Times – April 9, 2021

Black History in New England

Dinah and the Hemphill Family.

We know very little about the lives of the African American slaves and free-men that once lived in Windham. We have some idea about Pomp and Jeff, who are buried on the Cemetery on the Hill, because of log-books and journals that record when they were leased out by their owners to do work for other residents of the town. We know what their masters were paid and we know to some degree what they did for work. There is one African-American slave for whom we know quite a bit. Her name was Dinah and her life was outlined in Morrison’s genealogy of the Hemphill family.  I looked for more information about her in the Dunstable history but could find nothing. One problem is that so many African American female slaves were named Dinah; the reason why I could not ascertain. Dinah was the daughter of Jacob in the Old Testament and means “judged, avenged or vindicated,” in Latin.

     Captain Nathaniel Hemphill: Morrison Says, “He is called captain in town records; he was probably a captain of the training-band. His is one of the most interesting, prolific, and remarkable families of the town.” He was born on May 11, 1737. He married Agnes, the daughter of Robert Park on December 28, 1764. “They were the parents of eighteen children. I believe the largest family ever raised in town.” He was a signer of the Association Test and served as a Selectmen and Moderator for many years. “This good man was a slave-holder. As his family increased, he and his wife saw the necessity of having more household assistance, so they went to Boston and purchased a colored girl named Dinah, paying forty dollars for her, which was probably cheap, and brought her home. She was a faithful friend and servant. She assisted much in taking charge of the children. Seating herself in a chair with a large bowl in her lap, which held the broth or the pudding, with the little ones gathered in a circle around her, she would ladle out to each the appointed share. Dinah was probably freed by the adoption of the state constitution in 1784, but remained for several years after that date with the Hemphills. The good housewife would go to market and purchase articles for the family. On one occasion the articles for each was mentioned, but Dinah’s portion was not alluded to, though it was the intention to procure articles for her. She was deeply grieved to be thus neglected, and exclaimed, “Me nothing! Me nothing!” Mrs. Hemphill went to market, purchased the several articles, and Dinah’s too; but when she returned Dinah had departed, to return no more as a member of the household. She went to Dunstable, found some of her own people, and was married…she possessed and affectionate, confiding, trusting nature. The kind master who had gone down to the grave, the good mistress and dear little ones were not forgotten; and years after she returned and visited the family bringing her own flock of little ones…” Dinah had named her own children after the names of the Hemphill children.

     “Mr. Hemphill was an active and strong man, of probity and worth, a wise old man, and possessed in an eminent degree that rarest and most uncommon qualities which we call good common sense. He was cut down in full strength of his vigorous manhood. His death was sudden. He was taken severely ill with lung-fever, and in two to three days it was evident that he must die. As the hour was at hand, he called his wife and large family of children about him. And in an unfinished invocation commended them to the God of the widow and the fatherless, in this his last prayer: ‘Lord, look down in mercy on this little squadron before Thee. Take them into thy heavenly care and protection; make them to remember Thee their Creator in the days of their youth…Lord I can say nothing!’ With this petition in his heart and the

sentence unfinished upon his lips, his soul left the earthly tabernacle, and followed the winged petition to God.” He died Nov. 10, 1796 at 59 years old.

    “By the death of her husband, a double share of responsibility and burdens fell upon the widow, but she did not shrink from them. With great mental strength and physical endurance, she managed unaided the affairs of her large family for eighteen years. She had ten daughters, and each had a spinning wheel,—like all their Scotch neighbors. The flax was prepared, and she and her ten daughters in one large room, which also served as the kitchen, spun their linen thread. They would thus work for three months, when the thread would be gathered together . The webs of linen cloth, bleached and whitened, would be arranged and ready for sale, and at two o’clock in the morning, on horseback and alone, Mrs. Hemphill would start for market at Salem, Mass., some thirty or forty miles distant. The children were generally alone during her absence. The journey to market took one day,—one day to trade, and one to return. While at market she would buy the articles for family use, for the succeeding three months, bringing mementos to each, thus adding to the joys of all. In this manner she bore her burdens and managed her family, and prospered. When her daughters were married, each was generously provided for by the mother…”

While Morrison’s story of Dinah and the Hemphill is sympathetic and sentimental in its character, nobody should believe that slavery in New England was benign. One story from the town of Dunstable history will make this point clear: Robert Blood was a slave owner in Dunstable MA. On September 10th, 1756 he sold a five year old slave girl named Dinah to John Abbott of Andover. 

Dunstable, September ye 10th, 1756.

“Received of Mr. John Abbott, junior of Andover, Fourteen pounds

Thirteen shillings and Two pence. It being the full value of a Negrow

Garl, Named Dinah, about five years of Age of a Healthy Sound Constitu-

tion, free of any disease of Body and I Do hereby Deliver the Same Garl

to the said Abbott and Promise to Defend him in the Improvement of

her, as his Servant forever. Witness my hand, “

Robert Blood.

John Kendall.

Temple Kendall.. The paper has this indorsement : — Oct. 28, New Stile, 1756.

This day the Within Named Girl was Five years old.”

     “Robert Blood lived on the place now occupied by Dexter Butterfield, and many stories are told of his peculiarities. He is said to have called an Indian doctor to prescribe for him in a case of sickness; but fearing lest the medicine might contain poison, he administered it to his negro boy, who died from its effects. The place of his burial is called to this day ” Negro Hill.” (Imagine being so monstrous as to test a possibly poisonous medicine on a little boy.) A sheriff once came into church to arrest Mr. Blood, who, seeing his pursuer, raised his handkerchief to his nose as if it were bleeding, and quietly left the meeting. On being asked’ afterwards why he left the church so suddenly, he said, ” The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.” (Job 1, 6.) His wife was a noted swimmer, and frequently swam across the Merrimack River. She was, however, drowned at last, as it is said, among the lily-pads of Massapoag Pond.”

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