Bill of Sale for Jenny, 16 February 1808

Bill of Sale for Jenny, 16 February 1808, with signatures of contributors. (The original document is restricted, however photocopies of the original are available for inspection). In the early 1800s a young African-American woman named Jenny Cumfrey, often referred to simply as “Jenny,” moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. Jenny was a self-liberated enslaved person formerly living in New York State, where slavery was still legal. Shortly after her arrival Jenny fell in love with another Springfield resident, Jack Williams. They were married in Springfield’s First Church on Court Square by Reverend Bezaleel Howard in 1802. Jack Williams and Jenny were well-known throughout the town and they set up a modest home on what was then the outskirts of the town on the banks of Goose Pond, near present-day Mason Square. In 1808, Peter Van Geyseling, a resident of Schenectady, New York, arrived in Springfield and claimed Jenny as his property and he brandished the necessary paperwork to prove his claim. Once the news of Jenny’s plight spread through the town, Reverend Howard quickly developed a plan of action. Howard figured the only way to save Jenny was to buy her freedom, so he negotiated a sale price of $100 (a sizable sum at that time) with Van Geyseling. Soon, many of the town’s most prominent citizens came forward with donations to raise the necessary money. The bill of sale was signed by 19 residents, including a man listed simply as “Simon, negro.” The significance of Jenny’s story lies in its early date. It shows the existence of an anti-slavery sentiment in western Massachusetts decades before abolitionist organizations like the Hampden County Colonization Society (1825) and the Hampden County Anti-Slavery Society (1833) were formed. In fact, it may be the earliest example of a community of people purchasing the freedom of an enslaved person in the U.S.

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