The Story of the Slave Silvanus

In my novel, Flight of the Sparrow, Silvanus Warro makes a brief appearance when Mary Rowlandson encounters him after her return to Boston in the home of Daniel Gookin.  My first encounter with Silvanus began when I read Diane Rapaport’s fascinating book, The Naked Quaker, which explores stories unearthed from the old court records of colonial New England.  Silvanus was born in Maryland on a plantation owned by the Gookin family.  He was a baby when Daniel Gookin took him to Massachusetts, where he lived with Gookin’s wife and infant daughter in Cambridge.  Gookin was to become an important military and civic leader in the colony, and devoted a lot of time and energy to helping John Eliot convert the natives and organize “Praying Towns.”

In 1667, Gookin promised to set Silvanus free.  However, he “postponed” that promise and rented Silvanus to Deacon William Park in Roxbury.  The understanding was that, if Silvanus gave Park eight years of faithful service, then Gookin would set him free in 1675.

Apparently it was too much for Silvanus.  In 1668 he tried to escape by taking a horse from Park’s stable and riding away.  He was captured and returned to Park, but a few years later he got into more trouble when he fell in love with Elizabeth Parker, an indentured servant from Lancaster who lived in Park’s household, and fathered her child.  The couple prepared to flee.  Silvanus broke into Park’s strongbox and took money, but the robbery was discovered before they left.  Elizabeth gave birth to a son and was sent back to her father in Lancaster; Silvanus went to prison.

Gookin and Park visited Silvanus in prison and presented him with a cruel choice – Gookin could send him to Virginia where he would be sold onto a plantation, or Park could sell him to a Medford slave owner, Jonathan Wade, and use the profits to support the child.  It’s not surprising that Silvanus chose to stay in Massachusetts, where he had a chance of seeing Elizabeth and his son. Park got his money and Silvanus left prison in 1672 with Gookin’s advice that he should make a life with Wade’s “Negro wench.”

Meanwhile, in Lancaster, Elizabeth Parker’s father, Edmund, welcomed her and her son and refused to surrender the boy when Lancaster authorities tried to send the baby back to Roxbury.  The town officials took the matter to court, claiming that the family was too poor to support the child.  Deacon Park, who had received the proceeds from Silvanus’s sale to Wade, never turned over the money.  Instead, he proposed selling Silvanus and Elizabeth’s son and putting him “out to service.”  The court agreed.

Edmund Parker continued to resist, but eventually the child was taken and sold, while Silvanus continued his life as Wade’s slave.  Gookin, who apparently regretted his part in the events, came up with a plan to reclaim Silvanus.

In November of 1682, Silvanus secretly traveled from Medford to Cambridge and signed an indenture agreement to serve Gookin for the rest of his life.  When Wade discovered that his slave was missing, he called the constables and sent them to return Silvanus.  Gookin sued Wade for “holding and detaining” his servant, and presented a compelling case for why Silvanus should be returned to him, but the court ruled against him, and ordered that Wade could keep him for life.

Silvanus was never set free. In 1707, his son, Silvanus Jr., came back to Boston, severely injured – a “lame cripple” according to court documents – but a free man, after more than thirty years as a slave.  It was too late for him to meet with his father; Silvanus had died.  But he discovered that he had a half-sister in service in the Wade home, and he vowed to set her free.  Unfortunately, there’s no record to tell us whether or not he was successful.

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One thought on “The Story of the Slave Silvanus

  1. Wow, what a fascinating and tragic back story. It adds a lot of depth to the part that remained in the book. I find it so hard to imagine treating anyone as a piece of property with no consideration for their needs and feelings. I used to love watching the mini-series “Roots” but now it bothers me so much that I can’t watch it anymore. One of the most haunting subplots in “Roots” was the relationship between Kizzy and Missy Anne. Sandy Duncan did a brilliant job with that role. The look on her face and her comment when Kizzy was sold was devastating.

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