Saturday, June 7, 2014

#20 - Phebe Willets Frees Her Slave before Rev War: Westbury, NY & Gets Other Quakers to Free Theirs!

My mother (the descendant this Phebe Willets) made it clear to us all from our youngest days that all people are of equal value. I did not know that there was a racism problem in this country until I heard about it on radio.  Both my parents set a good example for us and their children imitate what their parents embrace (and, by extension, the culture will be affected).

These ancestors had embraced ideas regarding people’s equality first on religious grounds, and some of them paid heavily for it. 

In this ancestral line some fought the Civil War for the Union, others were engaged in helping escaped slaves make it to safely to the North, and others spearheaded the first manumissions in New York.

Phebe Willets, my 7th great grandmother, was born in 1699 a Quaker home. Phebe became Quaker preacher and traveled and preached. She is the subject of Post #22 on this blog (with regard to her preaching).

Eventually, she married first at 32, a much older man, Adam Mott. They had three children, including my 6th great grandmother Elizabeth Mott. After Adam died, she married widower Tristam Dodge (she was in her 40s). She died in her 83rd year.
I find scattered references to Phebe Willets Dodge (or Phebe Willets Mott Dodge) in history books now and then. They usually say something like this:

However, what this doesn’t reveal is that she actually began the ball rolling at Old Westbury Meeting: beginning with her, the Friends at Meeting eventually manumitted all their slaves. This wasn't as light a matter as it sounds: people often found they had serious financial loss when they manumitted a slave. Long Islanders needed manpower to get jobs done: if you pay someone it makes a dent in your pocketbook. 

In 1939, Marietta Hicks (the niece of my great-great-great grandmother Marianna Hicks) turned over the original manumission papers which were witnessed (or "affirmed") at Old Westbury Meeting to {name?} someone for safekeeping.

The papers were transcribed, and someone eventually copied them, and we now have digital versions of these papers. (Though only some of the originals are available).

The typical wording of the manumission paper was similar to Elias Hicks’ and it went this way:

However, Phebe Willets (Dodge) was the first person in Old Westbury to manumit her slave. 

In contrast to the others, Phebe’s commitment to her faith rings out in her manumission paper: it was a cause based in her faith, not a statement for the Meeting.  Her conscience provoked her sense of obligation, and her ethics derived from that, not the other way around.  By this time, she was elderly,  she had nothing to gain, yet she felt it unChristian to keep another person as a slave.

Her manumission has a distinctly different tone to it (as its transcription shows). 

Phebe had been considering this issue for "some years" and it was a concern. It was her "duty as a ..Christian act to set her at Liberty." ["her" is Rachel, a slave her 2nd husband had left her when he died]

I would guess since she had been a Quaker preacher of some notoriety, she probably also urged others passionately (along with several other Friends who felt similarly, such as Elias Hicks) to do the same, and to stimulate the Friends in Meeting on this.  
Indeed, by the end of the Revolutionary War Old Westbury Meeting had manumitted all their slaves.
But what is striking to me--having lived in other cultures--is that the faith was proactive in its goodness.
Below find the transcribed manumissions--there might be an ancestor of interest in here:

Richard Willits manumits Jean, affirmed by Elias Hicks and William Valentine, of one several originals left.


  1. I am related to Tristram Dodge, Phoebe's second husband. His family was from Block Island, original settlers.

  2. I'm related to both the Willets and Dodge


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