Mum Bet

Next time you’re wandering in the Berkshires, I recommend a stop at the Ashley House in Sheffield, MA.  It’s an interesting house for its period–a mansion for 1735–and the blending of British and Dutch cultures in the Western Massachusetts/Connecticut region.  Colonel Ashley, a Brit, made his fortune producing cannon balls.  Well somebody had to.  Hannah, his Dutch wife, took  a much harsher approach with their slaves, including the seven year old her parents gave her.  Now the story gets really interesting.

Mum Bet grew up in Ashley House, which at the time, wasn’t the worst way of life for a slave.  She had her own room off the kitchen.  Nearness was a necessity, as Mum Bet tended the  2014-07-05 13.28.52only fire in the two-story house.  But this also meant she had a nice warm room.  No sleeping in the stable for her.  She also cared for whatever infant needed her, in the adjacent alcove.

Here’s what her bed on the floor might have been like, in the plain room, but nice and toasty.

Mum Bet, who later took the name Elizabeth Freeman, was inspired to claim her freedom after a pivotal event with Hannah, and then with the Colonel.  Hannah severely burned Mum Bet, when she was trying to protect her daughter from punishment.

Then in 1773, a meeting was held in the upstairs good room.  No women, except Mum Bet, were allowed, and she listened and absorbed.  There the men drafted up the Sheffield Declaration, with Ashley, Ethan Allen, and Tapping Reed, who started the first law school in the colonies, in nearby Litchfield, CT, among others.

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The words they wrote:  “Resolved, That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free and independent to each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.”  Sound familiar?

It was adopted in Sheffield, then Boston, before moving to Philadelphia.  And so we get Thomas Jefferson’s version: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” an apparent direct descendant of the Sheffield Resolves.

Mum Bet heard all this and demanded her freedom.  The Colonel, more liberal than his wife, stated that as a woman she had no rights, so along with a male slave, she sued for her freedom.  A jury of all white, male farmers in Great Barrington granted it to her in 1780.  Hannah said no, but when another slave was emancipated, Mum Bet couldn’t be denied.

Elizabeth Freeman resolved the issue of where to go as a newly freed person by becoming a nanny for the Sedgewick family in Stockbridge, supplementing her income by working as a midwife.


Mum Bet, age 69 or 70.  Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811.

One other story shows Mum Bet’s feistiness.  Shay’s Rebellion was a rowdy tax revolt by area farmers in the 1780s.  Mum Bet, hearing the men were coming to the Sedgwick house, hid the silver, replacing it with pewter.  Then she served the men wine that had turned to vinegar.  So disgusted were they by the wealthy ways of the Sedgwick’s, that they left.  Mum Bet saved the day.  Or so the story goes.

And the story was told by the Sedgwick daughter Catherine, who was raised by Mum Bet and later became a novelist of “domestic fiction.”  The account of Mum Bet appeared in Sedgwick’s essay “Slavery in New England” in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1853.  Pretty cool, eh?

Mum Bet lived to be 87 years old and is a new inspiration for me as I learn about historic, bold women who go after their passion, and their rights.  So glad to have met her!


Fun tidbit:

2014-07-05 13.28.21This tiny iron was used to teach children to iron (hmmm) and for ironing the lace in men’s cravats, cuffs, etc.  I think I believe the latter before the former.

Good eyes will pick out the press mold for making cookies on the left.  The mold depicts a boy on a chamber pot.  Not terribly appealing as a cookie.  Colonial humor is apparently no less scatalogical than today’s.


2 thoughts on “Mum Bet

  1. Yes, she is one of the early heroes of Black American history. She was the great grandmother of W E B DuBois, first black Ph D from Harvard, founder and longtime executive sec. of NAACP and it’s journal, Crisis. Author of “Souls of Black Folk” and leading figure in Harlem Renaissance. Founder of Pan African movement.
    Mum Bett (usual spelling), by suing for her freedom, was central to abolition of slavery in MA, and launch of abolitionist movement. “Mum”was because of her household role. “Bett” is an abbreviation of her given name, Elzabeth. Freeman became her surname after she won her suit.

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