Visit Ashley House in Sheffield.
Learn more about the Sedgwick Society.
Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant is author of Melville: A Biography (1996 and 1998) and The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals: Poems in the Voice of Herman Melville (2005). She is a Full-Time Visiting Lecturer in the Education Department at UMass Dartmouth.
Imagine that you were born around 1744 to parents who could barely remember their African names and probably could neither write their names nor read. They had no family Bible in which they could lovingly record your birth. The birthdays of children descended from enslaved Africans did not matter to anyone but themselves, and the only number that mattered in America was the price you would fetch at the slave market in Albany, the cruelest in the northern states.
This was the situation when Pieter Hoogeboom, or Hogeboom, of Claverack, New York, purchased Bett, or Betty, and her younger sister Lizzie. After his death in 1758, his daughter Hannah brought them to Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, where she lived with her husband, Colonel John Ashley, a lawyer, politician, and wealthy landowner. According to Catharine Sedgwick, “He was the gentlest, most benign of men; she a shrew untamable…the most despotic of mistresses.”
By the 1770s, relations between Britain and its colonial subjects in Massachusetts were so strained that some citizens of Sheffield formed a grievance committee under the chairmanship of John Ashley, who was by then a judge. Legend has it that one evening while Bett was serving refreshments to the men who were drafting the Sheffield Resolves, she heard Theodore Sedgwick say, “God and Nature have made us free.” She pondered those words until Hannah Ashley’s violent temper finally drove her to seek her freedom.
While baking a wheaten cake for the family’s dinner, Lizzie made a little side cake for herself, and when “Madame” came into the kitchen and saw this, she grabbed a red hot coal shovel from the stove and rushed at the poor girl, shouting “Thief, thief!” Fortunately, Bett was there, and as the harpy swung her weapon toward Lizzie’s head, Bett raised her arm to shield her sister and absorbed the blow, though it seared and scarred her flesh.
Not long after this, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution was read aloud in the streets and when Bett heard the proclamation “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights,” she walked the three miles to the home of Theodore Sedgwick and said boldly, “Sir, I heard that paper read yesterday that says all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom…I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?”