Jenny (Cumfry) Williams resided in Springfield, Massachusetts, and was a self-liberated slave, whose freedom was secured in 1808. Although her exact origins are unknown, it is believed that she was born into bondage near Schenectady, New York, around 1778. Slavery was legal in the state of New York in the final decade of the 18th century, and this probably prompted Jenny--and others-- to escape to neighboring Massachusetts, where the institution was abolished in 1783. A gradual emancipation law of 1799 freed the children of enslaved people born in New York after that date, but left Jenny and thousands of others born before the passage of the law in bondage.
The only evidence of Jenny’s early life is recorded in the Springfield vital records for 1802, which read: “Jack Williams a negro Man and Jenny Cumfry a mulatto woman both of this town enter their Intention of Marriage this second day of Sept. Anno Dom 1802. Notification posted 4th inst.” (Springfield Vital Records, 1802, p. 266). Their marriage was also recorded in the records of the First Church (Congregational) of Springfield where they are simply listed as “Jack and Jenny.” During this time the First Church was the main church in Springfield and their membership included most of the town’s prominent (and overwhelmingly white) residents; therefore, it can be assumed that Jack and Jenny were well known and were at least to some degree accepted as part of the local community.
In 1808, however, a man of Dutch descent named Peter Van Geyseling (or “Van Gyseling”) whose family owned land around Schenectady traveled to Springfield to capture Jenny, claiming she was his property. The citizens of Springfield, led by Rev. Bezaleel Howard of the First Church, rallied to Jenny’s assistance and, negotiated a sale price of $100 with Van Geyseling. On February 16, 1808, the bill of sale transferred ownership of Jenny, a thirty year-old negro woman whose alias was Dinah, to the Selectman of Springfield.
Local records state that Jenny and her husband Jack lived in a small cottage, located on Goose Pond near what is now known as Mason Square in Springfield. Although the 1810 U.S Census evidences “Jack Williams” as head of their household “with two other free persons,” further details of the couple’s life and details of their deaths are unrecorded.
Jenny Cumfry Williams’ life is significant because it evidences the opportunities for New Yorkers seeking to escape slavery and the limited freedom of “gradual emancipation” and highlights early anti-slavery sentiment in western Massachusetts. It is perhaps also the earliest example of a community working together to purchase the freedom of an African American captive in the United States, a practice that became more common with the growth of abolitionism in the 1830s.
Read the full, original biography by Cliff McCarthy in the African American National Biography.
Slavery in New York
Slavery in Massachusetts
Morris, Henry. “Slavery in the Connecticut River Valley.” In Papers and Proceedings of the Connecticut Valley Historical Society, 1876–1881, as presented at the meeting of 2 June 1879.
Johnson, Clifton. Hampden County, 1636–1936. vol. 1 (The American Historical Society, Inc., New York, 1936), p. 277.
Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.