In 1754, Governor William Shirley had ordered that an enumeration of all slaves, both male and female, over the age of sixteen be completed by each town. This included Maine since it was still part of Massachusetts.
In total, the records of 119 towns have been preserved with a total of 2,720 slaves being counted. According to the Massachusetts Legislative House Reports #46 “Free Negroes and Mulattoes” (1822), the records of many of the towns were not preserved. The report does not say if something happened to the missing records, such as being destroyed by fire, or if they were simply lost over time. It could also be a possibility that some towns just did forward their records as they had been instructed to do so.
Unfortunately, one of the towns that is not included in the 1754 slave census is Dracut. That does not mean Dracut did not have slaves in 1754. Either the town never completed the enumeration or their records were lost. In either case, it is likely that there were some slaves in Dracut in 1754 though the exact number cannot be known. However, the records of Dracut’s neighboring towns have been preserved. Billerica reported eight slaves (three male and five female). Chelmsford also reported eight slaves (one was listed as 90 years old and described as a “perpetual charge”). Tewksbury reported two slaves (one male and one female). Groton reported fourteen slaves one of whom was a female cared for by the town. So, though Dracut’s records are unavailable, it is clear that there were slaves in neighboring towns and most likely were also in Dracut especially considering that Middlesex County had the third highest reported number of slaves at 361. Only Suffolk County and Essex County had more; 1,270 and 442 respectively. This is not surprising since Massachusetts’ major seaports are located in these counties such as Boston and Salem. It was through these ports that slaves would be imported into Massachusetts either from the Dutch colony of New York or from Africa. New England rum would be traded for African slaves. In 1769 alone 292,066 gallons of rum were exported to Africa. Apparently, New Englanders were also importing slaves from the Caribbean from places such as Antigua, Bermuda, and St. Kitts according to records at the Massachusetts State Archives. In 1712, Nathaniel Harris was importing slaves from Antigua according to his account records. John Welsh of Boston was granted permission from the Lieutenant Governor of Bermuda to sell two slaves in 1688 and in 1695 Abraham Samuel went to St. Kitts and brought back a slave from the island.
Even though the 1754 slave census did not immediately answer the questions we had in terms of African Americans in Dracut, it did shed new light on African Americans in Massachusetts during the colonial period.
5 Prior to 1740, most merchants engaged in what has become known as the Triangular Trade. The reason for stopping in the West Indies was to “season” the slaves. Seasoning a slave meant that he was introduced to plantation work, western clothing, and etiquette in dealing with the white man. Often slaves were seasoned in Barbados for two to three years. During this period, death rates among slaves were about thirty percent. After 1740, merchants who left New England to Africa returned to their home ports with the cargo. They eliminated the trip to the West Indies. Oscar Reiss, Blacks in Colonial America, Jefferson, NoC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1997, p. 37.