Nicole Hayes is smitten with 19th century Wellington. And she’s hot on the trail of one of the village’s first settlers — a freed slave woman named Dean.
Hayes has been writing a blog called “19 Century Wellington: An Exploration of a Town’s Past and My Present” for the past several years.
Dean has occupied her thoughts, haunted her in such a way that Hayes has done more research on her than any of the 135 topics she’s written about.
“I have a running list in the back of my head about things that I’d like to write about for the blog and whenever I read something I find particularly interesting, I file it away to kind of percolate on,” Hayes said after making a presentation about Dean called “Into the Wilderness: A Massachusetts Household Emigrates to Ohio,” at the Wellington Genealogy Group on March 2.
She often trips across information at odd times in the course of genealogical work and the research begins to snowball, Hayes explained.
That was the case when she came across two passages about Wellington, written 20 years apart, that both mentioned Dean, a “female servant, a relic of Massachusetts slavery who had continued to live with her old mistress… and had followed her into the wilderness.”
“I was gobsmacked when I read that quote because I had never heard that one of the first people who founded this town was of African descent and I thought that was astonishing that nobody knew that,” she said.
Women and people of color are notoriously difficult to track down in historical records, which made Hayes’ research difficult.
She knew Dean was affiliated with the Isaac Howk family, one of the original Wellington pioneer families, but when it came to locating primary sources of Wellington history, 1818 might as well be the Stone Age, she said.
Hayes finallly found Dean listed in the 1820 census, the first donducted by the federal government. Dean would have been among the first 45 people in what was then a township.
Dean shows up in census records dating back to 1790 as living with the Howk family in the Hudson River Valley area of New York and Massachusetts.
The Howks were from a Dutch community of immigrants and Dean, it turns out, was a common name to be assigned to a such a family.
It was probably, however, pronounced “Day-Ahn” and was Angilicized to Dean. She would likely have been multilingual in the family that was well off.
Slavery was quietly phased out in Massachusetts in 1783. “I have no idea what it meant for people who transitioned if today you are a slave and tomorrow you are not, but still live with the family that claimed they owned you,” said Hayes. And she has no idea how Dean came to the family, but she probably lived in the household as did many of the slaves in northern cities.
“What was the relationship of this woman to this family? Was she treated like a member of the family?” Hayes wonders.
Sometime around 1815 the Howk family’s estate was thrown into probate and the family ended up coming to Wellington. They probably walked, as was common before the Erie Canal opened in 1835. Back then, Wellington was a virtual swamp with mosquitoes, bears, and timberwolves.
Hayes loses track of Dean sometime between the 1830 and 1840 census. Depending on when she was born, she might have been in her 60s or 70s. “I assume she stayed in Wellington as the whole family was here,” she said.
The Howks are buried in Wellington’s Pioneer Cemetery on East Herrick Avenue. Hayes is not certain where Dean is buried: “Would she have been permitted burial in this cemetery? Would the color of her skin have barred her from being buried there? I don’t know.”
The only other place Hayes can think Dean would be buried would be on what was John Howk’s farm, which is near the Wellington Veterinary Clinic on East Herrick Avenue.
“I would love to know where she is buried,” said Hayes, who has 15 years of experience in museums and archives and a degree in history and historical archaeology.
Catherine Gabe can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @ReporterGabe on Twitter.
Photos by Catherine Gabe | Wellington Enterprise
Nicole Hayes’ presentation highlights the story of one woman named Dean, a freed slave who was one of Wellington’s first pioneers.