African - English, circa 1682 - 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.

Parthena - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

1682 - 1704

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Parthena, a Fulani woman from Senegambia, West Africa, who became the Williams family's slave.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

In 1682, the girl who would become Parthena, a slave of the Williams family in Deerfield, Massachusetts, was born in Senegambia, the region between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers in West Africa. She was of the Fulani, a nomadic people who, at that time, tended their herds of cattle on the grassy savannas of the Sudan from the Atlantic coast to Lake Chad. The Fulani were Muslim, which set them apart from some of the other peoples in Senegambia, such as the Wolof. Their appearance was also distinct. They were light-skinned, tall, and thin, with North African Berbers or, some say, people from Arabia among their ancestors.

The girl was named Jemma, which means "evening." She was as pretty and serene as her namesake. As she grew, she spent her time playing with her cousins and helping her mother milk the cows and make soured-milk cheese and other dishes. Jemma and her older sister also gathered firewood and looked after their young cousins. Her two brothers helped their father tend the cattle.

When Jemma was seven years old, her village began to have difficulties with some of their Wolof neighbors. These neighbors cultivated grains and vegetables, and complained that Fulani cattle were getting into their fields and trampling their crops. Jemma's father and the other men had already been talking about moving east to find more open land and better grazing for their herds. Now, the men were also concerned for their families' safety. Jemma began to help her mother dismantle and pack up their house and belongings, which were few and portable.

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Parthena's people, the Fulani, originated in Senegambia, between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers in West Africa.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson.


The day before they were to begin traveling, while the men and boys were away with the cattle, a group of Wolof men suddenly emerged from the nearby thorn woods and surrounded the three huts that made up Jemma's part of the village. No one was nearby except Jemma and her mother and sister, her two girl cousins, and her aunt. Although they all fought and struggled, the men overcame them easily. The men quickly tied their hands and carried or drove them into the woods. They traveled for many hours, sometimes through the woods and sometimes on roads. When the women cried and wailed, the men tied rags over their mouths. Several times they had to hide in the bushes as other people passed nearby; the men threatened to kill Jemma and her sister and cousins if they cried out. Finally, they reached a small house, where the kidnappers rested and offered some food to their captives. The women refused to eat, but they encouraged the children to do so.

That night, Jemma and her sister comforted each other by sleeping in each other's arms. But in the morning, some Malinke traders came and took her family away, paying the kidnappers some rifles and gold and leaving Jemma alone with them. She cried and grieved so for her mother and sister that the men had to carry her as they resumed their journey away from the country where Jemma was born.

Sold and Sold Again

Jemma was sold to a goldsmith who wanted a young girl slave to help his wife. The wife was kind to Jemma, and after awhile she felt safe, though she still pined for her family, especially her dear sister. She helped the goldsmith's wife carry water and gather firewood, feed the chickens and make stew. After a few months, though, the goldsmith took on another wife and sold Jemma to a passing slave merchant.

Jemma joined a group of slaves being driven along by the merchant and his men. They walked for many days until they came to a large river. Jemma had never seen such a large body of water; she was afraid to get into the large canoes assembled on its banks. The river that carried them along became ever wider and faster. Each night, the group stopped and slept on the riverbank or in the canoes. No one in the group spoke Fulani; although Jemma could understand some of the other languages, she felt more alone than ever, and despaired of returning to her family and country.

At last, the party reached the sea, the most amazing and terrifying sight Jemma had ever seen: the endless expanse of water, and on it a tall castle, taller than many trees and all hung with white cloth. It was an English slave ship, anchored and waiting for its cargo. The canoes went straight to the ship, and Jemma was handed aboard, along with the other captives. On the ship were horrible-looking men with red faces and long hair, who spoke a language very different from any she had ever heard. She saw a large furnace and many black people chained together, all looking sorrowful and despairing. She was sure that what she had heard was true. She would be killed and eaten by these creatures, who were likely bad spirits. She fainted. (1)

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The canoes brought their human cargo to the waiting English slave ship. (This woodcut, 19th-century artist E.W. Kemble's vision of such a scene, appeared in Scribner's Magazine in 1891.)
Source: North Wind Picture Archives.

The Middle Passage

Jemma became ill in the foul hold of the ship, where people were packed together so tightly that they could not turn or straighten themselves out. The heat and stench of so many bodies made the air suffocating and poisonous. Along with others who were ill or dying, Jemma was brought up on deck. Her youth, her European-type features, and her ill health won her a protector among the ship's officers, and she was allowed to stay on deck for much of the journey. There she saw daily floggings of slaves who refused to eat, or who had tried unsuccessfully to escape their misery by throwing themselves overboard. She also saw white men flogged—one of them until he died—and wondered at the cruelty of these people who knew how to harness the wind to make their great ship go. Jemma found some people who could speak a language like Fulani; they told her that they would not be eaten, but were being taken to the white men's country to work.

West Indies

One day, after many weeks on the ship, the whites suddenly began shouting excitedly and pointing across the water. It was land, the West Indian (Caribbean) island of Barbados. The Africans, who were all put below deck as the ship approached the harbor of Bridge Town, were afraid of the fate that awaited them now.

The slaves were brought to a large yard surrounded by merchants' shops, where they were penned up together like animals. They were to be sold the next day. In the morning, they saw a crowd of men gathering at the market's front gate. At the sound of a pistol-shot, the men rushed to the pens to claim the parcels of slaves they wanted. There was much crying and wailing among the Africans as families were separated, their members sold to different masters.

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Parthena was too young to produce the hard work demanded by sugar plantation owners in Barbados.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson.

Jemma was not among those purchased. She was young and weak. Sugar plantation owners wanted immediate productivity from their slaves. They did not want the expense of raising a child until he or she could handle the crushingly hard work of the plantation.

After a few days, Jemma and some other children, young women, and older men were taken to a different ship, smaller than the one that brought them from Africa. The captain was sailing for his home port of Newport, Rhode Island, with a cargo of sugar and molasses, as well as a dozen slaves. He was sure he could sell Jemma and the others back home. People in New England preferred young slaves because their slaves became members of their household, so New Englanders therefore wanted to raise them with their values, manners, and religion. New England households typically had only a few slaves because their farms were relatively small, the land and climate not suitable for plantation crops.

Jemma was relieved that the voyage north was very different from that on the slave ship. She was given good rice to eat, and enough of it, but she refused to eat the salt pork because her mother had taught her that pork was unclean. They were not shackled. One of the older male slaves, Kofi, taught her a few words of English.

New England

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Parthena saw a similar scene as her ship entered the harbor at Newport. This engraving is of the New York slave market circa 1730; original source unknown.
Source: North Wind Picture Archives.

As they sailed north, the weather grew colder. Jemma shivered in the cotton shift she'd been given. The ship finally arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, on a day when the deck and ground were covered in what looked like salt. Jemma was amazed when she touched the white substance and found it so cold, and tasted it and found it without taste. (2)

A merchant from Hartford, Connecticut, bought Jemma, two other children, and the man Kofi from shipboard. He planned to take them to the English settlements in the Connecticut River valley and sell them to families there who could afford slaves. Jemma's new master told her that her name was Parthena. She tried to tell him her real name, but he didn't seem to understand and kept calling her Parthena. They rode in his wagon a long way, lodging in public houses at night—that is, the merchant spent the nights at an inn, while the slaves stayed in a stable with the horses.

The merchant sold two of the slaves at Hartford, then traveled further north to the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, where he put out a notice that he had two likely young slaves to sell. The Reverend John Williams came down from Deerfield to look them over. The year was 1690; Williams and his wife Eunice had been married for three years and had a two-year-old son and an infant boy. John Williams already had a male slave, Robert Tigo, to help him with farming. A strong young girl could help Eunice in the house and with the children. Parthena seemed slight, and didn't speak much English, but she was appealing—with her light skin and straight nose, she didn't seem as wild and foreign as some Africans did to him. Williams considered that she had been traveling for a long time and would probably gain weight once she was eating and working regularly. He purchased her and carried her back to Deerfield with him on his horse.

The Williams Family

Parthena was eight years old when she joined the Williams household. With no one to talk to, she was lonely, and cried at night as she lay on her pallet under the eaves on the second floor of the house. The other African slave, Robert Tigo, slept nearby, but he couldn't speak Fulani and was not much comfort to Parthena. The two were the only black people in the town.

Parthena communicated with gestures and her few words of English. Her limited English made it hard to understand what her mistress wanted of her. She could bring in wood and carry water and build fires. She enjoyed taking care of young Eliezer and infant Samuel. And, of course, she knew very well how to milk cows. Parthena was delighted when she saw the family's herd. She had new respect for her master, who must be a wealthy man to have so many fine cattle.

Gradually, Parthena learned English as well as the religion of the Williams family. The Reverend Williams instructed the children in the catechism every week, and read the scriptures to the family every day. Parthena was included, and was even taught to read the scriptures along with the Williams children, although she was not taught to write. She and Robert went to Sabbath services at the meetinghouse with the family, but could not sit with them. The Reverend Williams told her that she was fortunate to be there: God had saved her from a life of idolatry and savagery. From the stories Robert told, Parthena knew she was lucky not to be in Barbados or Virginia, but she felt unfortunate indeed to have lost her family and her homeland, and to be exiled in this cold, dark place. She was sure that her parents, as Muslims, did not worship idols.

As Parthena grew, she became skilled at cooking, spinning, and sewing, and took on more of the chores. Mrs. Williams gave birth almost every other year, so there were many times when she was lying in and could not do much of the household work. And, of course, the number of children to care for increased, but Parthena loved them. Esther was born the year after Parthena came to Deerfield, and Parthena thought of her as the sister she had lost. Parthena also cleaned, washed clothes, tended the garden, carded wool, and made beer. She hated butchering meat, but she had to help with that, as well as with salting, smoking, and pickling it.

After Robert died in 1695, Parthena again felt the isolation of being the only African in Deerfield. The nearest others belonged to the Reverend William Williams, her master's cousin, 10 miles to the south in Hatfield. Her master soon bought another field slave, though. Frank had come from Barbados, and had horrifying stories of the cruelty practiced there. He also told Parthena fascinating tales about his home village and customs. Parthena showed Frank around the house, yard, and barns, and helped him understand how things were done in the household. He in turn helped with some of her heavier chores as the number of children she cared for increased.

In June of 1703, when Parthena was 21 years old, the Reverend Williams married her and Frank in a Christian ceremony. Frank gave her a bridewealth present of two brass buckles. Parthena was happy to have a husband who lived in the household; she was confident that John Williams would not sell them apart.

That fall and early winter, everyone was worried about a rumored attack by Indians in league with the French enemy. The master was concerned and spoke about it often. In October, Indians had kidnapped two men who were tending sheep and cows in the town pasture. Frank vowed that he would never be a captive again. He had seen many slaves tortured in the West Indies and dreaded such a fate; he heard that the Indians treated captives thus, and even ate them.

Parthena was tired from the extra work she had to handle, with Mrs. Williams still weak from her travail with Jerusha, and two great soldiers lodging with them. There were seven children and six adults crowded into the house, and all of them needed to be fed.

Parthena - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Attack on Deerfield
February 29, 1704

Parthena woke with a start. The Williams family's 22-year-old African slave, she was sleeping next to her husband, Frank, when a loud noise below roused her. She listened: a crash, splintering wood, loud yells. She shook Frank, who was deeply asleep. "Indians! Frank!" she whispered urgently in his ear. They slept under the eaves, behind some bins and barrels of dried corn and flour. Perhaps they wouldn't be found. Just as Frank woke up, Parthena heard the Indians mounting the stairs. Then six-year-old John, whom she had cared for all his life, screamed.

Parthena forgot her fear and jumped up, running to the bed John shared with Stephen. She reached him just before the Indians and snatched him up, shielding him with her body. The Indians continued ransacking the place, grabbing blankets and taking jugs from the shelves. Frank got up and started toward Parthena, but an Indian ran between them and brained Frank with his war-club, and Frank dropped to the floor. Parthena shouted "No!" The Indian wheeled toward her and grabbed her arm and pushed her down the stairs. She struggled not to let go of John, and to hide his face from the horror around them as she stumbled down the stairs. The Indian shoved her out the front door, where she heard screams and gunshots from all directions and saw a sudden shaft of flame. She looked up, and saw the Indian's club silhouetted against the sky.

Parthena - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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Parthena was killed in the dooryard of the Williamses' house.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Parthena was killed in the dooryard of the Williamses' house, along with six-year-old John Williams and six-week-old Jerusha. We don't know why she was singled out to be killed, when young women were favored as captives and potential adoptees among the Kanienkehaka. It may be because she resisted the raiders and fought back. It may be because she was black. Her death was recorded in John Williams's narrative, The Redeemed Captive, and by Stephen Williams, who compiled a list of the raid's captives and deaths when he returned from his captivity in Canada.

Parthena - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

About Parthena, the Williamses' female slave, we know only that she worked for the family; was married by the Reverend Williams in June of 1703 (the year is not legible in the Deerfield Town Records, so it is a best guess) to the family's other slave, Frank; and died in the attack on Deerfield. Her life as imagined in this narrative is based on historical studies of the slave trade and slave life in 17th- and early 18th-century New England; as well as information about the Fulani, one of the peoples living in Senegambia, West Africa, at that time; and the first-person narrative of Olaudah Equiano, an African slave captured in the 18th century. The Fulani are still a nomadic, Muslim people who live across West Africa. 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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