The lives of Ephraim Williams and those he enslaved

January 10, 2021

Born in 1715 in Newton, Mass., Ephraim Williams Jr. became a soldier and land speculator like his father, Ephraim Williams Sr. 

The younger Ephraim Williams moved to Stockbridge in roughly 1742. He served as a captain in King George’s War, a conflict in the 1740s that pitted England and the Iroquois Confederacy against France and the Wabanaki Confederacy. His troops were stationed in Fort Massachusetts, in what is now North Adams.

After a group of Indigenous men charged Fort Massachusetts, men under Williams’ command shot at them, pursued them, and eventually found one man who had been recently buried. Williams’ men dug him out of the ground and scalped him, according to a Boston Gazette article from May 1748. 

Williams enslaved at least five people over the course of his life. One bill of sale shows that in 1750, Williams sold to his cousin Israel “a certain negro boy named Prince, aged about 9 years a servant for life.” In 1752, Williams purchased from his father three people being held in slavery: an adult named Moni, a boy named London, and a girl named Cloe, according to A History of Williams College (1917) by Leverett Wilson Spring and Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013) by Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at M.I.T. who taught at Williams from 1995 to 2002. A bill of sale from February 1755 states that Williams bought a “Negro boy named J. Romanoo aged about sixteen years.” Besides their names and ages, little else is known about those Williams enslaved.

At the time he bought Romanoo, Williams was serving as a major in the British army in the French and Indian War; he was promoted to colonel that March. In July 1755, about to embark on a dangerous military expedition to New York, Williams wrote his final will. He was killed by troops under French command at the Battle of Lake George two months later. 

Williams’ will provided for “the support and maintenance of a free school” in what was then the town of West Hoosic, provided that “the Governour & General Court give the said township the name of Williamstown.” The Williamstown Free School opened in 1791 and became Williams College in 1793. 

In that same will, Williams bequeathed the largest portion of his estate, including his homestead at Stockbridge, to his brothers Josiah and Elijah. He also left them his “Stock of Cattle and Negro Servants now upon the place, to be Equally Divided between them.” The will does not mention the names of these enslaved people — or as he described them, “Negro Servants” — or how many of them there were. There are no further known records of the fates of Moni, London, Cloe, and Romanoo, or of Prince, who had been sold to Israel Williams five years earlier.

In the mid-18th century, it was fairly common for wealthy white people in Massachusetts to be enslavers, though slavery was less widespread and less central to the economy than in the South. Between 1755 and 1764, according to an estimate cited on Mass.gov, roughly 2.2 percent of the total population of the colony were enslaved Black people. Slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1783, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court effectively abolished it.

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