A Slave Trader in Salem

I’ve learned a lot about Salem’s African-American history while writing this blog; I don’t think I would look at the city the same way otherwise. I associate Chestnut Street, where I live, much more with the Remond family and their myriad activities centered on Hamilton Hall than with any particular Salem merchant or sea captain. When I walk to work down Lafayette Street, I pass a neighborhood of parallel streets on my right, beginning with Pond and ending with Cedar, on which numerous African-American families lived in the mid- and late nineteenth century: John Remond had a house on Pond, and his eldest daughter Nancy Shearman lived in the neighborhood with her family, along with his successor as caterer to Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell. I don’t have the same place-association as I do with the Hall on Chestnut Street, as all the structures on these streets burned to the ground during the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but I think about the neighborhood that was there before. The city directories make it clear that this wasn’t an African-American neighborhood; it was rather an integrated neighborhood, just like the Salem public schools from 1844. This neighborhood was so diverse that it was even home to a notorious Virginian slave trader, who resided at 29 Cedar Street intermittently for a decade or so, from 1851 to the beginning of the Civil War, along with his common-law African-American wife and their four children. As they say, you can’t make it up.

Part of Salem’s Ward Five: Henry McIntyre / H. E. B. Taylor / Friend & Aub’s Lith., MAP OF THE CITY OF SALEM MASS. From an actual Survey By H. McINTYRE. Cl. Engr. H. E. B. TAYLOR, ASSISTANT. Philadelphia: Henry McIntyre, 1851.

The slave trader in question was named Bacon Tait and his common-law wife was named Courtney Fountain. Both came from interesting Virginia families. I certainly did not discover their stories: as much as the limited sources allow, Hank Trent pieced together what can be known about their lives in a slim well-sourced volume entitled The Secret Life of Bacon Tait. A White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color (LSU Press, 2017) and you can also read an excellent summary at the Encyclopedia Virginia. But I think we need more Salem context, and I have questions; actually, just one: how did a notorious domestic slave trader maintain a residence in which was supposedly such an abolitionist stronghold as Salem? Obviously there are two assumptions in that particular question: that Tait was notorious (or at the very least conspicuous) and that Salem was abolitionist. To support the first assumption, we’ve got to start in Richmond, the second-largest slave-trading market of the antebellum domestic slave trade (after New Orleans). When he traveled to the United States as secretary to the popular novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1852-1853, the artist Eyre Crowe took advantage of downtime in Richmond to walk several blocks from his fashionable hotel to the slave market to sketch the scenes he saw there (before he was asked to leave), publishing them in the Illustrated London News upon his return to Britain. These sketches were studies for two paintings which illustrated and publicized the process of slave-trading on both sides of the Atlantic: Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia and After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Salem, Richmond, Virginia (1861), Heinz Collection, Washington D.C.; After the Sale: Slaves Going South from RIchmond (1853), Chicago History Museum.

Bacon Tait was a major player in this Richmond trade and in Richmond itself: the pages of the Richmond Enquirer, the Richmond Dispatch, the Richmond Daily Times and the Richmond Whig record his real estate transactions, his political successes, and his slave-trading activities from the 1820s to the Civil War, even after he had moved to Salem in 1851: he traveled back to conduct business and also employed surrogates. His trade is also documented in the Slave Ship Manifests at the National Archives (a chilling source that I had never consulted before: not my period, thank goodness!) Notices of his “holding” facilities are particularly lengthy, and the Visitor’s Guide to Richmond (1871) records that Tait was the original builder of the infamous “Lumpkin’s Jail” (otherwise known as the “Devil’s half-acre”) in 1825. An “under new management’ advertisement from several years later reveals the inhuman dimensions of this particular side of the business.

In Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, printed excerpts from the Richmond papers frequently, with lengthy commentary and annotations. When Tait announced the opening of his new “private jail” in 1834, The Liberator reprinted the copy and commented upon it, and a certain “P.H.” took the liberty of rewriting it for its readers: the entire piece was featured prominently on the front page of the December 27, 1834 edition of the paper. Charles Lenox Remond was the agent of The Liberator in Salem at the time: it’s unlikely that this item escaped his notice.

Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain began in the early 1840s, while she might have been in his employ as a housekeeper. She was originally from Winchester, Virginia and part of a minority (10%) of free blacks in Richmond at the time, but members of her family resided in the North and were active in abolitionist circles in both New York State and Massachusetts. It’s not entirely clear from Trent’s book how they ended up here, but Courtney’s sister Ann and brother John resided in Salem, as well as several cousins. Tait and Courtney had four children in the 1840s: Celine, Constance, Bacon Jr. and Josephine, each two years apart. Salem’s schools were desegregated in 1844 (thanks to the efforts of the Remonds) and Massachusetts abolished its anti-miscegenation law the year before. You can certainly understand the lure of Salem for Courtney, but it’s hard to picture Tait as a doting family man, which seems to be the only incentive for his departure from Richmond in 1852. In any case, he purchased the Leach House at 29 Cedar Street in July of that year: it looks like it was a lovely property, located on a bluff at the end of the street overlooking Mill Pond.

Bacon Tait is listed in the Salem Directories of the 1850s as a “merchant” living at 29 Cedar Street and in the 1855 state and 1860 federal censuses as well: there are no indications that Salem residents were outraged by his residence in their town or even aware of his existence. Charles Lenox Remond was living on Pond Street during the 1850s, just three streets over, and just a few doors down Cedar Street lived Adeline Roberts, a Salem schoolteacher and long-time corresponding secretary of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. Miss Roberts corresponded regularly with William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and other abolitionist leaders, and in the very year that Tait moved to Salem, she was organizing a series of seven lectures on the abolition movement to be held at the Salem Lyceum in the fall. Tait never appears in her letters, but she must have been aware of his residency. Were there whispers at the Lyceum before every lecture? Was Salem society gossiping behind closed doors? I just don’t know. Tait seems like a ghost in Salem, but he was still conducting his business in Richmond: I suspect a lot of family letter-burning later on. That’s the problem: we can’t see (or hear) whispers from the past or letters that have been destroyed, we can only speculate. I’m assuming that Courtney’s family was protecting her and her children (and by extension, him), and I’m also assuming he kept his head down and conducted his trade via post and travel. All census documents from Salem indicate that Courtney and Tait were married, but there is a difference between state and federal censuses in designation of race: the federal census indicates that the entire family was white while the Massachusetts censuses indicate that Courtney and her children were of mixed race. I’m not sure what this means in terms of their presentation or perception.

What happened when the war broke out? Tait seems to have returned to Richmond permanently, leaving his family in Salem. He instructed one of his daughters to sell the house on Cedar Street in 1864, yet they all appear on the Massachusetts census as living there in 1865. Both Courtney and Tait died in 1871: she in Salem, he in Richmond: their four children remained in Salem, residing at various addresses. Tait left several wills, and the most recent one, leaving his fortune “to his illegitimate children by a mulatto woman, who held to him the relation of housekeeper, he having no lawful wife” was contested by various partners and employees in Richmond. Many transactions dissolving his real estate ensued, but I have no idea where the money went. Courney’s death notice was printed in the Salem Register (as “Mrs. Courtney Tait, Richmond papers please copy,”) as was Tait’s, with no further identification or detail. She is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery with a lovely epitaph from her children; he is buried at another Gothic Revival cemetery, Hollywood in Richmond, with no epitaph at all. As for his reception, or lack thereof, in Salem, I haven’t found the answer to my question, but maybe my presumption is wrong. Maybe Salem wasn’t an “abolitionist stronghold;” maybe it was home to only a small minority of very vocal abolitionists in the 1850s who invited William Lloyd Garrison to speak every other month, protested the Dredd Scott decision vehemently, organized August 1st Emancipation Day celebrations, and pushed for Charlotte Forten’s appointment as the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools. We always want righteous causes to be more popular than they generally were. Or maybe Tait just maintained his privacy: this seems more possible at that time than today. As I think about the past and the present I am struck by how wide the gap was between Bacon Tait and many of his Salem neighbors: we tend to think of our own time as divisive, but our divisions seem relatively insignificant compared to theirs.

No stigma in Salem: Celine Tait Burding, Courtney and Tate’s eldest child, commissioned a Tait family plot in Harmony Grove Cemetery for her mother as well as her own family: she married Willard Burding in 1873, had four children, and died in Salem in 1886. Courtney’s gravestone in the center reads simply “Our Mother” and bears an inscription derived from Shall we Gather at the River, published only six years before: “on the March of the Beautiful River that flows by the Throne of God she waits for us.” In Virginia, Tait’s family is described in less reverential terms: Petersburg Progress-Index, June 21, 1871.

16 responses to “A Slave Trader in Salem

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    I see you have been busy during these bleak winter months piecing together this fascinating account of the life and works of Bacon Tait (Dickens would have loved that name). What a double life.

    Are you considering enlarging this narrative for some scholarly journal? Again, a great piece of work.

    • daseger

      Thank you, Helen: means a lot coming from you! I don’t know. Trent’s book includes all the documentation: there just aren’t many records. I wasn’t able to solve the problem of how he was able to live in Salem without causing a ruckus: if I found more evidence of the latter I certainly would!

  • Larry Posner

    For what it’s worth, Bacon Tait received a full amnesty and pardon for his involvement in the rebellion against the US. He was pardoned in 1865 by Andrew Johnson. Perhaps this allowed him to live under the radar in Salem. The document is available in the National Archives.

  • william legault

    I tend to lean toward contemporary Salem wearing a sweet looking rose-colored glasses when they look back in time to the abolitionist era. There were far to many wealthy families in town who made a lot of money in the slave trade at the time. It really wasn’t until 20 or so year ago that Salem, including the National Park Service began acknowledging that many of our revered sea Captains were involved in the slave trade. For years the story told was that “Salem’s involvement in the chattel business was only incIdental.”

  • Pam Burns

    There is a new novel called “The Yellow Wife” by Sadeqa Johnson that portrays some of this story. I thought it was really good at describing the “devil’s half acre” and the peculiar, and horrific, relationships these slave traders engaged in, alongside the difficult situations some slaves had to endure to survive and protect their children. It’s worth a read.

  • lisebreen

    Great post.
    Even the Unitarians in Salem continued the practice of segregated pews during the height of abolitionist activity.
    Robert Morris (1823-1882), born in Salem, and one of the first Black attorneys of Massachusetts, stated that he was forced to sit in the negro pews in the upper gallery of Salem’s Unitarian church around 1839. The wife of his mentor, Ellis Gray Loring, had suggested he do so when he was fifteen or sixteen years old. He said the pew was covered with dust and dirt, he never returned to that church.

    Could you confirm that it is likely that Robert Morris referred to the Salem Unitarian Church, also known as the Independent Congregational Church as well as the Barton Square Unitarian Church? The Church was located at the corner of Washington St.

    Abolitionist Nancy Prince (1799-1859) called out the Davenports for their heinous views that could have cost her freedom.
    Nancy Prince recounted that in 1842 the Captain who sailed her from Jamaica to New York had to make repairs to the bark at Key West. He told her that if she had disembarked during the four days at the dock she would have been beaten and then enslaved. Prince was well aware of the danger from seamen contagion laws and refused enticing offers to leave the vessel and refresh herself.

    But to make the threat sting, the captain told her that John and Lucy Davenport of Salem bet $10 “toward a hundred for that person who should get you there.”

  • Eilene Lyon

    I think it really is difficult to get the pulse of a community at this remove. Papers tended to be very one-sided and only some of them survive to the present. It does seem an unusual situation.

    • daseger

      I agree; I really spent a lot of time on this post–far more than others—and I came up with nothing! But that’s happened before, that’s doing history.

  • Nancy roney

    Thank you. Very interesting story

  • lindamzak

    Fascinating story. Among other things, I am wondering why, as a free black from an abolitionist family, Courtney “married” him and/or had four children by him unless (as his housekeeper) she was forced to. But even then, presumably she could have left him.

  • Jen

    Just got to read this post. Thank you for this research! Having studied American Studies in grad school, I completely enjoy this type of research- especially family research. I looked at the 1860 Fed Census and according to it, none of the Tait’s were listed under color and no one on their page was counted in the total number of black people. I’m wondering if, as could happen, they were very light skinned and could easily not be noticed as anything different from the neighbors around them. I would think an area proud of it’s abolitionist culture (if it was proud…) would have wanted to list it if they clearly appeared to be black citizens.

    The parents could both read but neither listed schooling, and all of their children are listed as attending school. I read this as Courtenay having a strong mind to educate her children. Perhaps this was the way to get it done- move them to Salem and stick with Tait. Mothers have done such things. Any reason could be true, but no mention of the father at the mother’s grave is a leading comment.

    Folks did leave comments on grave stones in the 19th C. I gratefully found a “lost” relative from the 1850s because the town where he died a single young man listed “from Warren Maine” on his memorial stone. (thank you to them!) The Tait children went to great expense for their mother’s stone and the epitaph indicates they shared a long view of life with their mother. Strong bonds. I’m thinking those bonds were not the same with their father. Boy, to be able to travel back in time as a fly on the wall….
    thank you!

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