African - English, circa 1661 - 1704

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources. Some narratives necessarily contain invented, yet plausible, scenarios and personal attributes. Please see About This Narrative to learn more about how this person's narrative was created.

Frank - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | The March | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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Frank, a man from Sierra Leone, West Africa, was a slave to the Williams family.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

The man who became Frank, the Williams family's African slave, was born in 1661 on the coast of West Africa. He was named Quashi after the day of his birth, a Sunday. Quashi was of the Bullom people, also known as the Sherbro, who still live in the area, which is today part of the country of Sierra Leone.

Quashi's people were great fishermen, and as he grew up he learned to fish from his father and the other men in the village. His village also grew an abundance of yams and other vegetables, as well as rice and millet. The Bullom traded with people to the east, exchanging their surplus vegetables and grains for cotton cloth and other goods.

Quashi learned Mende, the language of the powerful people who dominated the area, so that he could carry his village's produce to market in the interior and bargain with the merchants there. It was on such a trip in his 21st year that he and the four men traveling with him were ambushed.

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Quashi/Frank's homeland was near Sherbro Island, which today is in the country of Sierra Leone.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson.


Quashi's party was attacked by a group of men who spoke Mende and carried firearms like those of the white men who had been building forts along the coast. Quashi and his friends fought back, but the men fired the guns and a bullet tore a great wound in Quashi's friend's arm. One of the attackers, who wore tight pants and boots like the white men, shouted angrily at his men: "Watch what you're doing! The whites won't pay us for cripples!" Quashi found himself thrown on the ground, a foot on his back, as his hands were bound behind him. He and his friends were roped together and marched till nightfall, when they reached a compound filled with men and women sitting on the ground, their hands and feet tied.

The next day, Quashi awoke to see the leader of the men who captured them arguing with another man. They were arguing about the price the man would pay Quashi's captor for the lot of people in the compound. He had to deliver at least one hundred people to the English, he said. Quashi looked past the arguing men and saw a terrifying sight: a long line of men, women, and children with iron collars around their necks, chained together.

The people in the compound were yanked to their feet and shackled together, then prodded with gun barrels and sticks to the end of the line. Quashi was chained to a sick-looking boy who spoke a language he didn't understand. Then the trader walked over to a man at the head of the line, and the two seated themselves in their hammocks, which were hoisted by four porters each. The long coffle began to travel toward the coast.

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Slaves being marched to the coast. The original of this engraving by Josiah Wood Whymper (1813-1903) was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in May, 1866.
Source: North Wind Picture Archives.

During the day, the boy in front of Quashi coughed and stumbled frequently. By late afternoon, he was so weak he couldn't stand. Quashi and the woman chained in front of the boy couldn't help him because their hands were tied behind their backs. The guards halted the caravan, unchained him, and flung him to the side of the trail.

After another day of walking, Quashi smelled a familiar smell: the salt air, just like the air of his village. They were near the ocean; perhaps he would be able to escape and get home, or his father would find him and buy him back from the slave traders. But he despaired again when he saw the white man's stone fort rising above the beach, with its huge iron guns mounted on the high walls. The still-chained people were herded through a door in the wall, and down steep stairs to a dark, dank room.

After an interminable time in the dark, they were brought up to the blinding sunlight of a courtyard. Africans wearing white men's clothes put some buckets of water in front of Quashi's group and motioned for them to take off their clothes and wash. Some were reluctant to disrobe, especially the women, and the guards ripped their clothes off. Two white men walked into the courtyard and began to examine the people in line. They walked around Quashi, looking him up and down; they squeezed his arms to feel how strongly they were muscled. When one motioned to him to open his mouth, he kept it shut tight. The white man slapped him and yelled to the guards, who forced his jaw open so the white man could peer at his teeth.

The captives were separated into two groups: the older ones, very young children, and those who looked sickly were taken away. Quashi remained with the "fit" group, made up mostly of men. He saw one of the white men walk over to a fire-pit and pick up a red-glowing iron brand; two African guards held him as the man pressed the brand to his chest. Searing pain shocked his entire body and he cried out. The guards let him sit in the dirt. He smelled his own flesh, burnt like meat roasting on a cook-fire. He saw the strange marks on his chest: "DY."

The Trade

Quashi had been branded with the mark of the British Royal African Company: DY for the Duke of York. It was 1682; the Royal African Company had been granted a monopoly by the British government on trade along the West African coast—at least, those parts of it not controlled by the Dutch West India Company or French slave traders. The company had a trading post at Sherbro Island, near Quashi's home village. It bargained with African traders and middlemen—often local kings or their agents—to buy slaves, most of whom had either been kidnapped or captured during warfare. Others had become slaves as punishment for crimes or to satisfy debts. Some were from far in the interior, and had been sold many times over before they were offered to the Europeans. The price and currency varied greatly. The journal of the London-based ship "Arthur" recorded a bargaining session at New Calabar in 1677: "after a long discourse came to agreement . . . for Negro man 36 copper bars; for Negro woman 30." (1) Other ships' logs report payment in muskets, cloth, tobacco, rum, gunpowder, and knives.

During this period, most slaves were destined for the sugar plantations of the West Indies (islands in the Caribbean) and South America. The ship that carried Quashi and 250 others was bound for the English colony of Barbados.

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Diagram of the hold of a slave ship, from an Abstract of the Evidence given to a committee of the British House of Commons in 1790-91 by anti-slavery groups.
Courtesy of the Lilly Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana University.

The Middle Passage

The journey from West Africa to Barbados was one of unimaginable horror. Quashi was chained in the hold of the ship, packed tightly against others, without enough room to straighten his legs or stand up. He and the others had to lie in their own waste, breathing the stench of excrement, vomit, and sickness. People died, and remained chained to the living for hours and days. People went mad. Sometimes they were brought up to the deck, a few at a time, to keep their muscles from wasting away completely; some who could break free threw themselves overboard, choosing to join their ancestors rather than continue this half-life of horror. Nearly 50 people died during the two-month journey, and their bodies were flung carelessly into the sea.


Quashi survived the Middle Passage. On reaching land, he again found himself examined like livestock, bargained for, and sold. His new owner was English, like the sailors on the ship, and called him "Frank." After being fed and allowed to rest in a barracks-like building for a few days to regain his strength, he was put to work in the sugar cane fields. It was hard work in harsh conditions—under the hot sun from dawn to dark, bitten by insects, cut by the cane stalks, and stung by the overseer's lash if he slowed his pace. Many people sickened from strange diseases and died; some fell in the fields from dehydration and exhaustion; some killed themselves.

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Barbados was an English colony dedicated to sugar production based on slave labor.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson.

There were people from many nations on the plantation, Africans who spoke Sherbro or Mende and many other tongues Frank did not understand. The bosses spoke English, though, and gradually Frank learned enough of that language to understand what he was being told to do. The slaves lived together in barracks and huts, and on Sundays they could gather together. Drums were forbidden, but they could play other homemade instruments, sing, and dance. Free blacks who had been on the island for many years held markets on Sundays, where they could gather and trade such things as they could make or grow.

In time, Frank married a Mandingo woman, and they had four children. Three of the babies never seemed to thrive. They remained thin and sickly, and died before their first year passed. After many seasons of hard work on the plantation, Frank could feel himself slowing down. His left arm, with which he usually cut cane, was stiff in the elbow and shoulder. He tried to speed up whenever the overseer came around, because he knew that older slaves were often sold away from the island.

When they came to take him, Frank fought them. His heart ached at the thought of leaving his wife and child, and he didn't think he could face the horrors of a slave ship again. The overseer's henchmen struck him on the head with a truncheon, and when he woke up he was on a ship headed for New England.

Sold North

The ship that took Frank from Barbados to Boston in 1695 was not a dedicated slave ship like the one that carried him from West Africa. At this time, only a few slaves were imported to New England each year in "small retail lots." (2) With some exceptions, such as in the Narragansett Bay area, New England did not have the climate or economy for the plantation crops that demanded slave labor. With some exceptions, the few affluent New England households with slaves had at most one or two, who lived and worked alongside their masters. In 1690, there were fewer than 1,000 blacks in New England, one percent of the total population. (3)

Some of the slaves sent to New England and New York from the West Indies were "refuse" slaves like Frank; at 33, he was considered past his prime for the brutally hard work of the plantation. Others were sold north because they were troublesome, even criminal. There are some records of northern authorities complaining about such slaves being "the worst sort of Negroes." (4) On the other hand, Africans who had first worked in the West Indies had the advantage of being "seasoned"—immune to New World diseases and familiar with the English language and culture. New England's Africans were concentrated in the larger cities and near the coasts, so those few slaves in western Massachusetts experienced greater cultural isolation than their compatriots to the east.

In Deerfield, Massachusetts, the Reverend John Williams's African slave Robert Tigo, who worked Williams's farmland and tended his livestock, died in May of 1695. The minister needed to replace his field hand. He may have traveled to Boston when a ship was due to arrive from Barbados, to buy a man directly from shipboard, or a middleman may have bought Frank from the ship's captain and sold him to the Reverend Williams. The family also had a 13-year-old girl slave, Parthena, who helped Mrs. Williams take care of the children and household.


Frank was surprised when he arrived at his new master's home and was brought into the house. It seemed larger even than the overseer's house on the plantation, a palace compared to the shack Frank had lived in with his wife and children. He was given the same food as the family, and ate in the same room they did. At night, he was shown to a pallet on the second floor of the house, under the eaves. He was pleased at the relative comfort of the arrangement, but at the same time uneasy to be living so closely with the white master and his family. He was used to living separately, among other Africans, even if many spoke languages he didn't know and had customs strange to him.

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Frank suffered with the cold of Deerfield's winters.
Photograph by Freda Brackley.

The work was hard, but not as hard as on the plantation, and much more varied. Frank arrived in June, so the plowing and planting had mostly been done. He worked with his master, the Reverend Williams, and the oldest son Eliezer, hoeing and pulling weeds in the fields. There was no sugar cane grown here, but fields of corn, barley and hay; and plots of squash, beans and other vegetables. Frank also tended the minister's cows and pigs, split firewood, and built and repaired fences. Later in the summer, he mowed and brought in the hay and plowed up the field.

When Frank first arrived, the young African girl Parthena showed him around and told him how things were done in the household. She had been brought from Africa when she was quite young, five seasons or so before, and seemed to have forgotten her native tongue. Her English was very good, and she was strong in her Christian beliefs. Still, she was fascinated when Frank told her stories about his village in Africa and the large slave community in Barbados, where African ways prevailed for important ceremonies like funerals: how everyone danced and sang as they carried the deceased's body all through the slave-town, and buried rum and the person's favorite things in the grave. Parthena told Frank that it was not like that here. It was necessary to be very serious and quiet at funerals and Sabbath services.

Frank found that what Parthena said was true, but he didn't mind the daily Bible readings and prayers they shared with the Williams family, nor the catechism lessons he and the younger children were given by the Reverend and Mrs. Williams. Reverend Williams told Frank that God had brought Frank to him to be saved from idolatry and become a servant of the Lord. Frank did not find that argument persuasive; he was not interested in a religion that would make him a servant to anyone else.

The years passed. Frank suffered during the long, cold winters, when all the color was drained from the world for months. He missed his family in Barbados, and he missed having friends with whom he could talk at the end of the day, play paw-paw, or go to the Sabbath market. But he and Parthena became closer as she grew up; she was someone he could confide in, and he was able to help her as more Williams children were born and her chores became more burdensome. In June of 1703, when Frank was 42 and Parthena was 21, the Reverend Williams married them in a Christian service.

In the early winter of 1704, Frank was uneasy. The previous October, Indians had kidnapped two men who were tending sheep and cows in the town pasture. He had vivid memories of his own capture, and dreaded becoming a captive again above all else. Frank had heard that the Indians burned, tortured, and ate their captives.

Frank - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | The March | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Attack on Deerfield
February 29, 1704

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For the second time in his life, Frank was taken captive.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Frank woke up to his wife Parthena shaking him. The Williams family's 42-year-old African slave had had trouble sleeping that night, and had finally dropped into a dream of fishing in the West African village of his childhood when Parthena grabbed his arm. She was hissing something urgently in his ear. Then he heard it: the sound of crashing down below, loud cries, and heavy footsteps on the stairs.

Red-painted Indians with hatchets and clubs appeared at the top of the stairs and moved quickly into the two second-floor chambers. Frank saw one of the two soldiers garrisoned in the house pick up his gun, but the Indians were on him immediately, striking the gun out of his hands and knocking him over. Frank didn't see the other soldier, Lieutenant Stoddard. Six-year-old John Williams screamed, and Parthena ran to him and picked him up, glaring at the attackers. Frank leapt from his bed; he had a wild thought that he and Parthena and John could jump from the window and run. But as soon as he moved, an Indian ran toward him with his club raised. A heavy blow to his skull knocked him out.

Frank awoke with his hands tied and hot, sticky blood trickling down his face. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious. Two Indians pulled him to his feet and pushed him down the stairs. They took him to the parlor, where the Reverend and Mrs. Williams's bed was. Everyone was there, except Parthena, John, and the baby. Mrs. Williams looked at Frank with sympathy and gave Esther a warm coat to take to him. Then they heard a scream: Parthena! She was outside. Frank tried to bolt from the room, but the Indian guards pushed him down and raised their hatchets over him.

After a time, an English-speaking Indian told them all to get up and move to the door; it was time to leave. For the second time in his life, Frank was taken captive.

Frank - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | The March | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

The March
February 29 - March 1, 1704

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Frank at the rendezvous point.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Trudging across the Meadows through the snow, Frank couldn't escape the thought that he and his masters were now the same. The Reverend Williams no more commanded his own fate than did Frank; they were all at the mercy of the Indians. The thought didn't comfort him. His head ached from the clubbing he had taken. The Indians had killed young Parthena, the innocent infant Jerusha, and six-year-old John. They had shown no mercy. And Frank had heard stories about torture, burning, and cannibalism. He said a prayer to the Christian God and also clenched the amulet in his pocket.

The raiders and many captured townspeople reconnoitered on a rise across the river about a mile from Deerfield, waiting while some of their number beat back English pursuers in the Meadows below. The Indians provided some of the captives with moccasins from stores they had brought along, and otherwise readied the group for a journey. They seemed most concerned with the children and young women. The white men in the war party, whom Frank understood to be French, seemed to leave the captives to the Indians.

Both the Indians and French had many wounded to carry and help along. The Indians seemed downcast, perhaps mourning the loss of their comrades in the assault on the town. Frank was uneasy with the dark looks some of them cast his way as groups of two or three conversed.

The deep snow made walking exhausting as the group climbed a wooded mountain. Frank felt sorry for his mistress, still weak from childbirth, and the other women struggling to walk as their heavy petticoats became sodden. Finally, they reached a place where they would spend the night. The Indians made some wigwams to lodge in and gave the prisoners some food. As Frank ate the dried corn, he saw his master bound and tied to a tree, and wondered if they would burn him.

Frank huddled in his coat, trying to stay warm, and watched the Indians rooting through the bundles of things they had looted from the town. They found what they were looking for: some bottles of rum. As the Indians drank, they began talking excitedly and gesturing; it looked like they were recounting their deeds in the battle. Then some of them looked toward Frank, pointing and talking loudly. They came for him.

Frank - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | The March | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


John Williams wrote in his account that "in their drunken fit they killed my Negro man." (5) We don't know if Frank was first tortured, which was a traditional ritual of wartime retribution among the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and Wendat (Huron). He was the only adult male killed on the march; unlike most of the women and children who were killed, it is unlikely that he would be unable to survive the journey or would slow the group's progress. At the least, the murder of Frank indicates a breakdown in discipline among the allies in the raiding party. There is not much evidence about the relationship between Native peoples and African slaves, but there are a few records of Native groups killing blacks in wartime raids, and that "Even during times of peace, African Americans and Natives got into drunken brawls in Albany." (6)

Frank - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | The March | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

We have three historical facts about Frank, other than the name by which the Williams family knew him: first, he was the family's slave (John Williams calls him "my Negro man"); second, the Reverend Williams married Frank to his female slave Parthena in June of 1703 (the year is Deerfield historian George Sheldon's educated guess, as the last digit is obscured in the town record book); third, Frank was killed by some of the Native raiders on the first night of the march to Canada. The Reverend Williams had another male slave, Robert Tigo, who died on May 11, 1695; we don't know when Williams acquired Frank, but it is reasonable to suppose that Frank was a replacement for Robert. Otherwise, Frank is a "composite" character, based on the overall pattern of the slave trade in the late 17th/early 18th century, slavery in New England during that period, and information about the Bullom people of Sierra Leone. Specific events and emotions are imagined, other than events during the raid on Deerfield and beginning of the march to Canada that are described by John and Stephen Williams. This narrative was written by Freda Brackley.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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