imagining the life of a woman
enslaved in 18th-century New England
Click here to order at Amazon.com.
In August 2022 my husband, John, and I sailed home on the Thomas Leighton after our annual week on Star Island. For decades we have attended conferences on that little rock in the sea and I have always been interested in its history. As I watched the Isles of Shoals recede into the distance I thought back on our week.
As usual I had spent an hour or so in the Vaughn Library leafing through the records of the town of Gosport. The minutes of the town meetings cover 139 years, from 1731 to 1870. The church records kept by John Tucke, the minister whose bones lie under a soaring stone monument on Star, span 42 years, from 1731 to 1773.
Years ago, in one of my first looks through the records, I was stopped cold by an entry from 1742, ten years into Tucke's time on the island. He wrote that he had baptized "Candace, a Negro Child belonging to Mr. John Tucke."
The glowing epitaph on his monument does not mention that he had enslaved a child. I continued through the records hoping to learn more about Candace. Tucke baptized Black children enslaved by other Gosport residents but there was nothing about her until a 1762 entry made 20 years after the first: "Dinah, daughter of Candace, a Negro, was Baptized."
These are the only two entries that mention Candace.
By the time we docked in Portsmouth I had a notion to write about this woman who had spent her life on Star.
Two weeks later I had my left hip replaced. During the long recovery I began writing scenes that imagined experiences that Candace might have had. Each one raised questions about the world she found herself in some 300 years ago. Answering those questions led me deep into the details of how people lived in a world lit only by fire.
Telling Everyone's Story
Throughout this process I have questioned whether it is appropriate for me to write about enslaved people, but I firmly believe that they deserve to be remembered, to be more than just a few lines of fading ink on a page. I tell the stories of many people from the past and it seems especially important to honor everyone with the same level of the attention — more important, in fact, to lift up stories that have been intentionally hidden and erased. We all need to understand and acknowledge the origins of our society, which is still dealing with many of the injustices of Candace's time.
From my comfy chair, while icing my hip, I looked through on-line archives of wills, court records, histories, genealogies, letters, and especially those Gosport records. I printed them out and over the coming months spent many, many hours poring over the entries, figuring out what clues they contained.
My husband, John, has investigated the history of both of our families and is an expert at finding and understanding old documents, and at using Ancestry.com and other sources to trace families across the centuries. His help was invaluable.
I soon realized I needed a timeline to keep track of what was happening when. One of my favorite research tactics is to determine how old people were at any given time, creating a "snapshot" of families, households, and communities.
We tend to look at history with assumptions from the times we know the most about. There are lots of memoirs of Star Island from the 19th century, especially about the famous people who visited Celia Thaxter and her accounts of Gosport fisherfolk across the harbor from her home on Appledore. Those who looked farther back at colonial Gosport usually dismissed it a backward, isolated place.
That was a good description of Gosport in the early 1800s, when the town had lost its minister, church, and school. But in the 1700s Gosport was a thriving, complete community producing a highly valuable commodity, dried cod. Ships from Europe regularly visited to fill their holds and carry it back to provide a durable source of protein. The mainland was not far away and Gosporters interacted constantly with Portsmouth to get supplies. Newspapers were bountiful and nearly everyone could read them. Their minister was a respected and active member of a fellowship of clergy throughout the colonies.
Evoking a World
I was inspired by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, in which she recreated a whole world from cryptic diary entries made between 1785 and 1812. Every few years I re-read the story of Maine midwife and healer Martha Ballard. Ulrich had much more to work with, a whole diary. I had two one-sentence church records.
It was like looking for lost keys under the streetlight in a parking lot, not because that's where you dropped them but because that's the only place where you can see.
The only place to see Candace was in the world around her, especially the world of the man who enslaved her. I necessarily spent a lot of time with John Tucke, looking over his shoulder as he wrote his sermons and reading the hundreds of entries he scratched into his record book. His epitaph praises his good nature, which is hard to reconcile with his mistreatment of a small girl who spent the rest of her life under his control, prevented from living a life of her own.
Still, I wanted to keep Candace front and center. I started each chapter from her perspective and kept circling back to her. I began nearly every one of my imagined scenes with her name. Instead of writing "in the 18th century" I liked to say "in Candace's time."
If we were transported back in time the first thing we would notice would be the general stench, and the second would be how much violence pervaded everyday life. I tried to include enough to be realistic but Candace's circumstances may have been much worse than I have depicted.
An Amazing Photograph
Searching for images from the Isles of Shoals led me to many photographs from the 19th century. Of course there are none from Candace's time. But in the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum I found a black-and-white photo, undated, said to be the original Tucke parsonage, moved to the mainland after the Revolution.
Could this really be the building where Candace spent her life? We hunted for it and asked the York Historical Society about it, and it is no longer standing near the harbor in York, Maine. But the building that traveled 12 miles across the ocean apparently survived long enough to be photographed. Several sources state that Mary Tucke Walton and her husband, Mark, moved her father's parsonage to the mainland. I feel confident that my cover drawing based on the photo is architecturally accurate. Even if the photo is not the Tucke parsonage most dwellings at the time were similar.
A bit of the Atlantic ocean is visible at the left, a seagull perches on the roof, and smoke puffs from the big chimney. In the rock-strewn yard I added barrels and chickens and a garden full of pumpkins. Candace walks toward the front door carrying a basket. And, of course, real life is in color, not black-and-white.
I assumed the parsonage should be painted white. Haven't New England seaside houses always been white? In the 19th century they were, and the first available photographs show that. But research into the fascinating history of paint (at least I find it fascinating) revealed that white was not a durable color in the 1700s and buildings were stained or painted in earthy tones — rusts and deep yellows and browns. So I made Candace's dwelling-place a reddish brown.
Another assumption involved the way people dined some 300 years ago. In my first scenes I put Candace in the kitchen, setting tables and washing dishes. Then I remembered that few 18th-century houses had separate kitchens. Life happened in one big room, by the hearth where all the cooking was done. So I removed all kitchens except for the one on a plantation. Then I deleted most of the table-setting and dishwashing, because the crowded households of her time did not have plates and utensils for everyone. People ate in shifts from a common pot, using their fingers or a piece of bread as a scooper. They shared one or two tankards of cider or ale, passed from hand to hand. There were no piles of dishes to wash.
Assumptions specific to me come from being raised as a Roman Catholic, a religion considered positively Satanic by the colonists. I have been a Unitarian Universalist for over 30 years but my psyche holds many theological minefields.
I knew a bit about Calvinism and Congregationalism but deeper inquiry brought up many questions. Surely, I assumed, Tucke prayed a great deal. But did he, given that his religion taught that God had preordained everything that had ever happened or that ever would happen?
I turned to the records for clues as to how strictly he adhered to the official tents of Calvinism, which considered most people evil and damned. God had mercifully saved some, the Elect, whose status was confirmed by their good fortune and a spiritual conviction that they were among the saved. What did baptism mean if everyone's fate was already determined?
Tucke did not write down the topics of the thousands of sermons he delivered from the Gosport pulpit, two different ones each Sunday over more than 40 years. But he did note each Biblical text he spoke about each time he "administered" the Lord's Supper, sharing bread and wine with his flock, which happened every few weeks. He abbreviated them as "Rom. 8. 9" — Letters to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 9 — or "Lam. 1. 12" — Lamentations, chapter 1, verse 12.
I looked them up in an on-line King James Bible, the version Tucke used, and was pleasantly surprised to find a distinct lack of fire and brimstone. He was fond of the Psalms, sensuous poems much concerned with earthly love. He advocated prayer and assured his flock that salvation was theirs if they believed in Christ. He mentioned sin, of course, but did not dwell on it. Only one text mentioned the Devil.
Salvation was supposed to be impossible if you were not among the Elect, but Tucke repeatedly preached that sinners could be converted, that Christ has died to forgive our sins, and that souls could be saved by keeping the commandments. Quoting from Psalm 51, he spoke on verse 13, "Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee."
He performed hundreds of baptisms, many more than just the babies of members. He baptized children and adults as well as infants; it was the main thing that he recorded in his book.
I assumed that Tucke must have presided over many poignant funerals in the Gosport church but that was probably not the case. Once the soul had departed, the body had no significance. People were not buried near the church but at a distance, with little ritual, in a boneyard, graveyard, or burying ground. The word "cemetery," or "sleeping place," was not yet in use. Headstones had winged skulls and verses warning the living that they would soon follow the dead.
The contrast with the beliefs Candace grew up with could not have been more stark. I loved finding out what those beliefs were and placing them alongside those of her enslavers.
Names and Speech
Names were especially challenging because everybody was named after somebody else. John and Mary Tucke called their children John and Mary, and the second John Tucke also became a minister and married a woman named Mary. Yikes! In my scenes I used names directly from the town and church records, turning to the right month and year to select antique names such as Pelatiah or Mehitabel.
We know how people spoke in the 18th century from books and plays and the lyrics of traditional songs and poems. This made it easy to put words in the mouths of the Gosporters. They spoke in the high-pitched "Yankee whine" noted by visitors over the centuries.
Candace's speech was more of a challenge. I wanted her to command respect. She was most likely not from a Southern colony so she would not have used the dialect we know from minstrel-show songs and Huckleberry Finn. She probably spoke as those around her did, so I did not give her any particular accent beyond shortening words, something common in her place and time.
I never once call her a slave. She was a person enslaved by other people. I also avoided saying that she had "owners" or was "bought," because no human being can truly be the possession of another no matter how much violence is used to try and make it so. Only once in the book does Candace call Tucke "Massa," although she probably did call him that. Her main dealings were most likely with Mary Tucke, whom she would have called "Missus." That title is not nearly as loaded with evil as "Master."
To imagine Candace's experiences I turned to those of others in her situation. Frederick Douglass wrote vividly about his childhood in his autobiography, an amazing document of a life spent fighting for freedom. A memoir about Black Portsmouth is a treasure trove of knowledge about the continuous presence in New Hampshire of people like Candace, a rich history long ignored, belittled, and erased.
I found tons of information on-line, where it's important to know how to recognize falsehoods and misinterpretations. When I came across mentions of intriguing-sounding books I added to my already hefty collection about early New England and the Isles of Shoals. I kept running across a bit of poetry about the importance of pumpkins in the early days of the colonies:
Stead of Pottage and Puddings and Custards and Pyes,
Our Turnips and Parsnips are common Supplies.
We have Pumpkin at morning and Pumpkin at noon,
If it was not for Pumpkins we should be undone.
Further inquiry found that this was one of 16 verses of a ballad written in 1643 entitled "New England's Annoyances." How perfect — New England's favorite sport is still complaining. Everyone in the small community of Boston knew and liked this song, so even though no original copies exist it was preserved in oral tradition, simply by being sung.
I eagerly ordered a copy of "New England's Annoyances," America's First Folk Song, by J. A. Leo Lemay. In a feat of historical sleuthing Lemay figured out that the author was Edward Johnson, a colonist writing to amuse his Puritans neighbors. Even though their situation was, as sailors liked to say, "All ahoo," Johnson made them perversely proud of their endurance. Lemay recreated a version as close as possible to the original, working from the many versions preserved through the centuries, and I use verses to enliven my text throughout the book.
Music was a rich source of information and I already knew many songs from Candace's time. I scattered them about to show how people used music to spread news, promote political positions, speed their work, ease aching hearts, soothe babies, and woo sweethearts. The way they sang in church was particularly interesting.
Another rich source of information are estate inventories and wills. Reverend Tucke's tells us what was in the parsonage, which of course includes the tools Candace used every day and the furniture that surrounded her.
It's especially intriguing what was not in the estate. Candace is not listed, and we have no information about her. She may have died. She may have been given to one of Tucke's daughters, both of whom lived in Gosport. She may have been sold to someone on the mainland.
We have to hope and pray that she was still in Gosport because her daughter, Dinah, was listed in Tucke's estate. Dinah was 11 years old when Tucke died.
When I first read the inventory I saw "Diana, a negro Girl of about 12 years of age." Who the heck was Diana? Then I realized that the ages are so close that this must be Dinah. The two names sound very much alike and spelling was still hit or miss. The estate recorder did not bother to find out exactly how old she was.
The inventory is missing something else that should have been there. Mary Tucke surely had a porcelain tea set, a status symbol she enjoyed as the wife of the most socially prominent man in Gosport. She died a few months before her husband of 49 years. You have to think she gave her tea set to one of her daughters before she died, or maybe Tucke let them choose items they wanted after she passed, and either Mary or Love took home the tea set and fondly remembered their mother whenever they brewed a comforting pot.
Write What You Know
I have drawn on my own experiences in bringing Candace's world to life. I delivered a baby with no painkillers and breastfed that baby for nine months. I have used a drop-spindle, hand-sewn garments of all kinds, and done sampler-like needlepoint. I have made biscuits and pies and gingerbread from recipes in old cookbooks. I have built many fires. I have been afflicted with fleas from a pet cat.
If you string all my weeks at Star Island together I have lived there for almost six months. Many weeks were beautiful but some were dreadfully hot and some miserably cold and wet. I have watched violent storms sweep through with lightning and damaging winds. I have made some wild crossings and been seasick.
I have never milked a cow but enjoyed learning techniques from farmers posting on their dairy websites.
My final scene is probably too optimistic. But Candace's daughter may very well have lived to gain her freedom, given the dramatic fall in the numbers of enslaved people in New Hampshire. I do not say that she is free, but it's implied. The odds are with her. We can dream that Dinah found a measure of happiness.