Source photo: Portrait of Phillis Wheatley, attributed by some scholars to Scipio Moorhead / Public Domain
In September 2021, University of Connecticut historian Cornelia Dayton broke the news that three “lost” years of African American poet Phillis Wheatley had been accounted for: the first three years of her marriage to John Peters, a free Black New Englander who she married in 1780. In an article published in New England Quarterly (vol. xciv, no 3), Dayton tells a story about Peters’ attempt to give his now-celebrated young wife a “writer’s life”—and how it may have failed. But she also points to the work that might be done to learn more about this key figure in American literary history.
Claire Potter: What do historians know about Phillis Wheatley Peters, and what gap does the legal case you discovered help to fill?
Cornelia Dayton: Many people consider her to be the foremother of African American literature. In 1773, she was the first person of African descent to publish a book of poetry in English. At the time, this was remarkable because she was both an enslaved person and a teenager. Phillis was probably about 18, having arrived in Boston as an enslaved child of probably six or seven.
Mostly, we have known her biography from the records of her enslavers, John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston. And then the biography has holes in it. In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man, and she lived another four years. But we’ve known nothing about Peters before the marriage, very little about the marriage, or how they fared as a couple.
Then there is her name. Literary scholars refer to her as Phillis Wheatley, and the schools named after her do too. But very recently, the scholarship has begun to acknowledge that in the last four years of her life she signed her letters with the name Phillis Peters.
So, maybe we should pay more attention to the Peters part of her life.
CP: How do we understand Phillis Wheatley Peters on her own terms—her poetry?
CD: Yes, and I would add her letters. If you look at the complete writings that Vincent Carretta has edited and is issuing a new edition of, we have letters that Peters wrote to Obour Tanner, another free black woman who lived in Newport, Rhode Island. They were both quite devoted Congregationalists: they wrote about their friendship, but also about their faith and reading. One of the missing pieces is that those letters stop in 1774. Why? We assume they kept writing.
Where are those letters?
CP: How did you find the legal case that started to reveal “the Peters part of her life?”
CD: As so often happens for historians, I stumbled across it because of another project. I was trolling through a fat folio volume in the reading room of the state archives in Boston, researching how New Englanders coped with mental and cognitive health challenges. These were cases where a will, usually written by a man with property making bequests to his heirs, was challenged on the grounds that the testator might not have been of sound mind. They’re called testamentary capacity cases, and they generate some of the most interesting testimony by neighbors about mental health challenges.
I saw the name John Peters in a 1779 case: he was an appellant with a woman who did have a more African-sounding name, Dinah Cubber. But they were not tagged racially. This was around the time that Massachusetts court clerks stopped writing “Negro” or “Indian” for people perceived to be non-white. To track Black New Englanders, you must already know who they are.
CP: Why do clerks stop noting race?
CD: In Connecticut, they never or rarely included racial designations, so some of it is a regional pattern. But one of the fascinating things about Massachusetts, unlike neighboring states, is that there was no legislation that ended slavery; such legislation ended slavery very grudgingly and slowly. Many African New Englanders are walking away from slavery in the 1770s, and that’s how it is ending in Massachusetts. The ground for freedom is then established by the 1780 state constitution, and its Bill of Rights, which says, “All men are created equal.” Then there are continuing freedom suits: by 1783, the Massachusetts Superior Court confirms that people can’t be enslaved.
CP: So, you come upon the name John Peters, you say to yourself, “There was a John Peters who was married to Phillis Wheatley.” And you went down the rabbit hole.
CD: Exactly. And I confirmed it because, although the big folio book has only a summary of what the governor and council are hearing, when I jumped to what we call the file papers, I quickly discovered that the John Peters in this case was perceived to be a black man and was probably Phillis Wheatley’s husband. I also knew from teaching about Phillis Wheatley in my women’s history classes that we didn’t know much about him.
The key thing we hadn’t known about John and Phillis Wheatley Peters is where they went when they left Boston for three years in 1780. They came back at the end of that time, and unfortunately, she died about a year after they returned. But it’s been a strange hole in the biography, and these legal papers answer that question. They were in Essex County.
CP: That’s north of Boston. How did they end up there?
CD: What we learned from the case is that Middleton, where John and Phillis Peters moved, is where John grew up. He had been enslaved to John and Naomi Wilkins, who owned a sizable farm. Depositions of other people who lived in that household reveal that Peters was sold, as an adolescent, by his enslavers because he had, according to them, challenged their authority.
We don’t know what happens when he is sold. Is he trafficked to someone in nearby Salem, or to New York, which often happened? All we know is he ends up back in Boston, free, by 1776, and becomes a traveling merchant in partnership with a white man. So, knowing what I know about Peters’ savvy and his many skills, he either negotiated for his freedom, or he walked away. In the 1770s, more people of color are turning up in Boston, and this is what we’ve always known: if you go to the biggest city around, you have anonymity.
And increasingly, white enslavers in the North are deciding not to pursue. Legally, they could, but something is happening in the 1770s that allows us to infer restraint. Timothy Breen argues that public opinion permitted self-liberation, and then on the other hand, if we look at most counties in Massachusetts, there are also a dozen or more freedom suits in the 1770s.
What’s the relationship between these specific acts of challenging one’s enslavement in law, and what seems to be a larger pattern of self-liberation? Gloria Whiting showed that if you read all the probate inventories of Bostonians in the 1770s and look for people who are enslaved, the numbers fall radically to almost none by 1780. So, these things suggest that there are important patterns promoting freedom.
CP: So, Phillis Wheatley, who is talented, educated, cultivated, and devout, falls in love with Peters. After they marry, he renews his relationship with the Wilkins family, and when John Wilkins is in decline, he reaches out and says, “I would like you to be the steward of my property and the caretaker of my dependents.” What can we divine about Peters from these facts?
CD: Some of it is an indication of his savvy and his perception. He does renew his relationship with the Wilkins family, assuming there was a temporal gap. The Wilkinses have no sons and no sons-in-law. They have a daughter who survives into adulthood and has cognitive disabilities. They must be concerned about her future, and so these two white people in their 60s become convinced that Peters would make the best manager of the estate.
But when John Wilkins writes his will a day before he dies, he doesn’t give Peters a large legacy, only 10 pounds. But the depositions tell us that Wilkins talked to his wife about getting Peters to manage the farm, or perhaps that Peters should be hired. Again, we don’t know.
We do know that a few months after Wilkins dies, their daughter dies too. And Mrs. Wilkins recalls that in my “weak disconsolate state,” I asked Peters to bring “his small family” from Boston and move into her household. She lived in a house that was very likely two-and-a-half-stories, with a lean-to, with her companion, a free black woman, Dinah Cubber, who had been left a sizable legacy from John Wilkins. And by inviting the Peterses to move in, Naomi Wilkins creates a blended household.
Of course, Wilkins and Cubber have their routines. They’ve been mistresses of the household together, in a way, for years. They invite John and Phillis Peters, and possibly an infant, we’re not sure, to move from Boston with property they own. We know there was a mahogany table, very valuable books that Phillis was given and bought in London, and other things. Phillis also had many of the attributes of a gentlewoman, in her education—poetry, theology, Latin—in her carriage, I’m sure, and in her experience. She had stayed in London for a couple of months and met all fellows of the Royal Society, Benjamin Franklin, abolitionists like Granville Sharp, and other prominent people.
So, this couple moves to Middleton, a rather impoverished town with not a lot of highly educated people. It’s a place where John Peters was enslaved. On the one hand, he has an intimacy with the land and lots of knowledge about how to run the farm. On the other hand, there must have been emotional and psychological trauma associated with the land and community, which may explain his drive to do well as a yeoman farmer.
But the key thing is that Peters drives a very hard bargain. According to Naomi Wilkins, he insisted that she deed him 110 acres of the homestead. In exchange for that, and we have the document, he writes what we would call a conditional deed (he called it a mortgage deed), re-conveying the property to her if he failed to support her, as her social station deserved, for the rest of her life.
CP: Was this arrangement unusual?
CD: My legal historian friends say that usually a mortgage deed was what a mortgage deed is today. This is different: it’s a promise of care-taking: I think it’s quite unusual. I’ve never seen one in the 1700s, but I don’t study deeds.
CP: So, Naomi Wilkins may not have expected John and Phillis Peters to come and take over the house. They move in, and they bring their belongings, and they rearrange things. Peters even refers to Cubber as his servant. And this upsets the apple cart.
CD: Right. The only thing we must be cautious about is that all the depositions are hostile to Peters. They’re written some months after the rupture between him and Naomi Wilkins. We don’t have his side because he’s the appellant to a case, and neither he or his wife can testify. He can question witnesses, and we can guess a bit from his questioning, but the structure of the legal case creates silences.
That said, we have very similar testimony from Naomi Wilkins, Dinah Cubber, and some neighbors, which says the rupture happened because one day in the middle of summer, Peters was standing out at the barn talking to a neighbor and then rushed into the house in a rage with Cubber, threatening to kill her. She fled and went to a neighbor’s house where Naomi Wilkins happened to be visiting, and the two women refused ever to come back. They said: “We fear our lives are in danger,” and they rent a house.
Of course, from then on, Peters finds it impossible to provide for the widow because she won’t let him. Eventually, after two years, he will be ejected from the property because she can prove that he didn’t fulfill his promise.
CP: But Peters also believed Cubber had harmed his child.
CD: Yes. One thing that these documents establish for the first time with certainty is that John and Phillis Peters had at least one living child at some point in these three years. We only have 28 words in a legal document called a recognizance, in which Peters accuses Dinah Cubber of assaulting his infant child and attempting to destroy the life of said child.
He’s accusing her of attempted murder. She’s brought before a justice of the peace and made to give bail. But then the record stops because he drops the charges: in this period, the complainant had to pursue a case for it to go forward. So we have no trial, no depositions. Was this an altercation where Cubber shook their infant, or a more deliberate attempt to murder the child? We don’t know.
But it tells us there was a child, which for Wheatley scholars is quite significant because we have wondered whether she was a mother. There are no birth, baptism, or death records. But Phillis was in her 20s. It would make sense that she had one or more pregnancies in Middleton. And there’s evidence that the first summer she was there she had to hire a teenager as a nurse for one month. That suggests she had either given birth in June or July or had a miscarriage and needed nursing.
CP: What else does all this teach us about Phillis Wheatley Peters?
CD: The new information is really about her marriage. I infer that John Peters had a vision of their life in Middleton, where he would be, he must have hoped, a successful yeoman farmer. A steady livelihood from a sizable farm would allow him to provide Phillis with what we would call a writer’s life. And one of the hints here, besides the fact that he knew he had married an intellectual and poet, is that Cubber and Wilkins complain that they didn’t know when they invited John and Phillis Peters to move into their household that he would force them to be “the only to cooks.”
This infers that Phillis was exempt from cooking and other tasks that enslaved, and servant women did every day—hard, physical tasks like carrying water. The two women who had so long managed the Wilkins homestead are offended by that. Secondly, John insists that Dinah Cubber not sit at the table with himself, his wife, and the white widow. She’s relegated, like many household servants, to the second table, the table in the kitchen, and she’s understandably offended by that too.
In other words, Peters is insisting that his wife is a gentlewoman.
CP: This is such an interesting story about race and class. As you show in the article, John is an astute businessman, probably one of the reasons it was attractive to John and Naomi Wilkins to bring him back in the first place. Then we have the very worldly Phillis, and two women, an interracial pair, bumped aside.
CD: This also begs the question: what was John and Phillis Peters’ relationship to other Black people and to what we would like to think of as a Black community? Now, in Middleton, there isn’t a large Black community. There are John’s brothers, one of whom, Snow Francis, survives by being deferential to whites for a patchwork of jobs, a critical strategy for many people of color.
And we know that Snow Francis is forced, or persuaded, by Naomi Wilkins, once she has a rupture with Peters, to trespass on Peters’ land and take corn and apples. So, he’s there doing the bidding of John Peters’ enemies.
CP: It seems like there is much more to know about what it meant to be Black in white New England.
CD: Yes, and there is more to know about Phillis Wheatley Peters and John Peters. If I found this material, my hunch is there’s more. As Tara Bynum said in an early conversation, we should re-examine all the family papers of elite Bostonians that are at the Massachusetts Historical Society and other repositories. I’m convinced there’s a strong Salem connection here with John Peters too, because one of his frequent bondsmen is a physician in Ipswich. He also has relationships with all the lawyers of Essex County.
If researchers poured over the account books of tradespeople and professional men in Salem and Boston and nearby towns, they may find references, if fleeting, to John Peters. He lives another 16 years after Phillis dies. He has a very interesting life mostly in Boston, and he’s a frequent litigator —until in a very unusual move, the attorney general charges him with barratry (bringing too many lawsuits). Throughout the 1790s in town tax records, he lists himself as a lawyer, a physician, a gentleman, and a pintlesmith, which means a mender of bolts.
The other area of research would be comparative emancipation in New England. I’m very interested to know how many other Black landowners met this sort of resistance—or other kinds of resistance—to their aspirations, as slavery ended in Massachusetts?
Cornelia H. Dayton is Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).