Black Labor at Nightingale-Brown House


Report by Joanne Pope Melish


The World of Joseph Nightingale

Melish_Mr Nightingale's House 1802_JNBC_1.jpg
Mr. Nightingale’s House
In 1802, Alice Pelham Banniter painted “Mr. Nightingale’s
House,” the earliest known depiction of Joseph Nightingale’s
mansion on Benefit Street, now the headquarters of the John
Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural
Heritage at Brown University.
Image courtesy John Nicholas Brown Center for Public

The elegant house built in 1791-92 by Colonel Joseph Nightingale on what was still commonly called Back of Benefit Street represented the culmination of much more than one man’s successful efforts to achieve economic success and social status in Revolutionary-era Providence. The Nightingale family was part of a closely connected community of families that formed trading partnerships, invested in joint ventures, and frequently intermarried. Supporting this network of merchant families and businesses was a small army of enslaved laborers, some claimed as property by the merchants themselves, others legally owned by their business partnerships. Like the merchant families, the people of color who labored in their homes and businesses and on their ships formed their own closely knit network of families.  

Slavery in Early Rhode Island

Melish_RI Merchants Carousing in Surinam ca 1758_St Louis Art Museum_0.jpg
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam
This 1758 painting by John Greenwood, “Sea Captains Carousing in
Surinam”, depicts a group of Rhode Island ship captains in a tavern
amidst African slaves. Of the ten men in the painting who have been
identified, six were future trustees of the College of Rhode Island,
today Brown University, and two became governors of Rhode Island.
Image courtesy St. Louis Art Museum.

Rhode Island was a slaveholding society almost from the outset of its settlement. The first enslaved laborers in New England were Indians, Pequot captives sold as slaves after the Pequot War in 1636-37. In 1638, the first enslaved Africans were brought to New England (Boston) from the West Indies in exchange for Pequot men. The first captives brought directly from Africa to Rhode Island arrived in Newport in a Boston ship in 1696, and four years later Newport ships entered the slave trade, bringing captives from Africa to Barbadoes. The first Providence slaver, the sloop Mary, sailed in 1736; the Mary was owned by Captain James Brown, father of the four Brown brothers who would become leaders in Rhode Island’s commercial and trading elite (and whose descendant, Nicholas Brown, Jr., would purchase the Benefit Street home of the Nightingales in 1814).[1]

Rhode Islanders played a central role in the American slave trade during the 1700s. A total of about one thousand slave-trading voyages, or one-half of all American slaving voyages, sailed from this small state to the coast of Africa, in what has been called the triangular trade—rum exchanged for slaves in Africa, slaves traded for slave-grown sugar and molasses in the West Indies, and molasses processed to make rum in New England.[2]

If Rhode Island anchored the American slave trade, slaving and trade with the slave-based economies of the Caribbean and the southern American colonies also undergirded the commercial development of Rhode Island. The manufacture of iron, spermaceti candles, rope, chocolate, and loaf sugar, and the large-scale distilling of rum, were part of the Atlantic maritime commerce connected tightly with slavery and the slave trade. Even the so-called “middling sort”—artisans, shopkeepers, and other skilled laborers and tradesmen—frequently invested in a few shares of a slaving voyage or purchased an enslaved laborer to assist in their shops and stores.[3]

Between 1700 and 1750, the enslaved population in Rhode Island grew faster than the white population. In 1755, African-descended people constituted 11.5% of the Rhode Island population and a little more than 9% of the population of Providence, most of them enslaved.  (A small number had become legally free by being individually emancipated, either to reward extraordinary service of some kind or because their owners had become convinced that enslavement was sinful.) The presence of such a large percentage of enslaved people distinguished Rhode Island from the other New England states, where Africans never constituted more than 3.2% of the population.[4]

Melish_Moses Brown_RIHS_0.jpg
Moses Brown
In 1857, Martin Johnson Heade painted this posthumous
portrait of an elderly Moses Brown, depicting him in the
unadorned coat and broad brimmed hat of a Quaker.
Image courtesy Brown University, Office of the University

Beginning in the early 1700s, however, the institution of slavery began to come under attack in Rhode Island, led by the Society of Friends (Quakers). A series of attempts to make participation in the slave trade and enslavement itself illegal were met with fierce resistance. The coming of the Revolution, however, eroded the institution of slavery itself in several important ways. A bill permitting the enlistment of enslaved men in exchange for their freedom (and compensation of £120 to their legal owners), passed by the Rhode Island Assembly as a desperate measure to alleviate troop shortages, undermined the argument that maintaining the institution of slavery was essential to preserve public safety. The Revolutionary rhetoric of natural rights also moved public opinion slowly in the direction of emancipation. In 1783, noting that slavery was incompatible with the “Rights of Man,” Quaker Moses Brown introduced a post nati (after birth) emancipation bill making all children born to enslaved after March 1, 1784, free at 18 years of age if female and 21 years of age if male. The bill also removed barriers to individual manumission.[5]

Effectively, although Rhode Island’s political leadership now began calling Rhode Island a “free state,” nothing changed after March 1, 1784. Enslaved people remained enslaved; their children remained bound in enforced servitude till their majority. But gradually the number of people enslaved in Rhode Island diminished. The first Federal census in 1790 reported that there were nearly a thousand people enslaved in Rhode Island; by 1820, there were 48. Not until 1842 did a new Rhode Island state constitution make slavery illegal in Rhode Island.[6]  

Slavery and the Nightingales

The historical record yields only a limited amount of information on the narrow question of the role of enslaved people in the household of Joseph Nightingale. We know for certain that he owned enslaved people who resided in his home on Water Street from 1770 through 1791, and we can be reasonably certain that some of them would have moved with Joseph’s family a year later into his new mansion on Benefit Street in 1792; but we do not know their names. Clark and Nightingale, the business in which Joseph partnered with John Innes Clark, also owned at least two enslaved people and apparently employed a third as a store clerk; we know their names, but not in whose house they lodged.  While we can identify a number of other men and women of color in and around Providence with the surname Nightingale whose activities were recorded in town records, business accounts, and private correspondence between 1769 and 1826, all almost certainly slaves, former slaves, or children of former slaves of Samuel, Joseph, Samuel Jr., or Clark & Nightingale, we cannot single out the black Nightingales who were originally claimed by Joseph and received their surname from him.

But to identify the role of race and slavery in the rise of Joseph Nightingale, we do not need to limit our investigation to his personal ownership or employment of particular named enslaved and free people of color. Just as the economic and social status that enabled Joseph Nightingale to build his Benefit Street mansion was not an individual achievement, neither were his individual relationships with enslaved and free people of color the sum total of the role of race and slavery in generating the wealth and status that made possible the construction of his grand house. What we can do is establish the role of people of color in the greater web of commercial and familial relations that structured his commercial and social life, that made Joseph Nightingale’s mansion-building possible, and that shaped his and his children’s ideas about liberty, race, entitlement, and power.

Enslaved People in Nightingale Households

Joseph Nightingale was born in Pomfret, Connecticut, but his father, Samuel, moved the family to Providence in 1751 or 1752, and there Samuel’s livelihood quickly became entirely dependent on the business of slavery.[7] When he arrived in Providence from Pomfret, Connecticut, in 1751 or 1752, he established a distillery with partners and settled his family across from it on Distill House (or Still House) Lane on the south side of Broad Street.[8] Samuel’s Concord Distil House was one of at least thirty in Rhode Island that produced rum, much of it to supply the transatlantic slave trade that brought some 11 million Africans to the Americas in chains.[9] Thus Joseph Nightingale grew to adulthood in Providence with his fate entwined with the fate of Africans, as his family commercial fortunes increased and his father rose to prominence as a Justice of the Superior Court and Associate Justice of the RI Supreme Court.[10]

By the time the Nightingale family arrived in Providence, Samuel may already have owned at least one enslaved person of color. A Harvard-educated minister, he had been of sufficient status in Pomfret to have been elected “town and society clerk” in 1745, a position that identifies him as a member of the elite group of white families for whom at least 50 enslaved people were laboring in Pomfret at about that time.[11] When Samuel moved his growing family to a house on Broad Street in Providence, he and his wife, Abigail, already had five children including Joseph, born in 1747; they would have two more in Providence, altogether a household requiring a considerable amount of domestic labor.[12] However, there is no formal documentation of enslaved people in Samuel’s household in Rhode Island until 1782; this seems unlikely.[13] Their absence in the 1774 Rhode Island census may be linked to the absence of enslaved people in any Nightingale household in the 1778 tax list for Providence, in which slaves between the ages of ten and fifty are listed as taxable property. Some slave holders are known to have underreported enslaved household members to limit their tax liability, and that may have been the case with Samuel, possibly feeling some financial strain in anticipation of the Revolution.[14]

In 1777, with the Revolution underway, Samuel, Sr. wrote to one of his sons, either Joseph or Samuel, to explore the possibility of obtaining enslaved workers for his own use; he may have been seeking labor for the old farm in Pomfret that he still owned. In this letter he notes that his son has just purchased a slave:

“My son, Rec’d yours of the 14th Inst. Take notice you have bought a Negro Man of Mr. Benjamin Green; if of Warwick Neck perceive he is a fellow smart & faithful but violent in his temper…Have been disappointed in the Boy, expected to have had [one] of Lieut. Griffins, he has sold him for Eighty pounds. And no white helpe is to be had on any terms whatever, by occasion of the Demand by the Army & a great Deal to be done on the farm to make it profitable, would advise by all means to purchase another Negro man either young or full grown on Some terms or other…If you Tarry one week or more longer than you expected, by all means get another Negro man or Boy…should be Glad that Negro Man if you have Got him might come up as Soon as possible…”[15]

By 1770, Joseph Nightingale’s household, which was living in a house on Water Street (now South Main Street), almost certainly already included several slaves. Enslaved household members appear in every municipal, colony/state, and federal census from 1774 through 1791 (as they did in his brother’s household, living on the same street a few lots to the south). The 1774 Rhode Island census listed two Indians and four blacks in Joseph’s household, and two blacks in Samuel Jr.’s household.[16] Three years later, Samuel Jr. had posted a notice in the Providence Gazette stating, “To be SOLD, A NEGRO WENCH, about 20 Years of Age.”[17]

The most detailed information on people of color in white households is presented in the 1782 Rhode Island Census, which identifies “Whites,” “Indians,” “Mulattoes, and “Blacks” and disaggregates males from females, each in four age categories. At that time, Joseph’s household included two mulatto males under 16 and one between 22 and 50; two black males between 16 and 22, three black males between 22 and 50, and one black male “upwards of 50,” for a total of 9 people of color.[18] However, the 1782 census does not distinguish slaves from free persons of color who might be residing in a household as indentured or waged servants.  The First Federal Census of 1790 and the Providence Census of 1791 do distinguish slaves from “Other Free” (i.e., nonwhite household members who were not enslaved), but they do not disaggregate them by gender or race; in both of these censuses, Joseph Nightingale is recorded as having 4 free and 5 enslaved people of color working in his household—again, a total of 9.[19]

The four additional people of color in Joseph’s household who were not enslaved were probably indentured servants; one of them, or possibly a fifth, was unhappy enough with his situation to have run away in May of 1790. Joseph Nightingale advertised for him in the Providence Gazette and Country Journal as “a Mulatto indented Servant Job Waterman…about 16 Years of Age, of short Stature, and sturdy Make.” It is unclear whether he was ever returned to the Nightingale household.[20]

Samuel Sr. and Samuel Jr. also continued to report enslaved people in their households as well, four and seven respectively in 1782. Samuel Sr. died in 1786, but in the First Federal Census of 1790, Samuel Jr. reported just three.[21]

By the mid-1700s, many enslaved laborers in Providence were being officially identified, and were identifying themselves, by the surnames of their owners; this practice not only served slave owners by reinforcing the legal relationship between them and those they claimed as property, but also benefited enslaved people by solidifying a connection that could be parlayed into future patronage in the event that they should gain their freedom. By the 1770s, seven men and women of color named “Nightingale” were listed in a variety of sources. The records of First Baptist Society in Providence report that Nancy Nightingale, identified as a former slave of Samuel Nightingale, Sr., was to be admitted “to any Baptist Sister Church in or near Boston…upon her master’s recommendation.” (The notion that Samuel Nightingale was still her master apparently died hard.)[22] And seven people of color named “Nightingale”—three women (Polley, Lydia, and Sukey) and three men (Cuff, Jo, and Nimbel)—were treated in the Providence Smallpox Hospital during a severe outbreak in the fall of 1776.[23]

Less than two years after the 1791 Providence census identified five enslaved people as living in his household on Water Street, Joseph Nightingale moved his family into the elegant mansion designed and built for him on Benefit Street by Providence architect Caleb Ormsbee.[24] There is no reason to believe that Joseph Nightingale would have reduced his household staff upon moving into a more spacious house; therefore, it is very likely that the same five enslaved and four free people of color who had resided with the family on Water Street moved with them to Benefit Street.

The Firm of Clark & Nightingale

At least two, and perhaps more, of the enslaved people recorded as living in Joseph Nightingale’s household were actually owned by the business partnership that he had formed with John Innes Clark sometime before 1769 rather than by Joseph personally. Following in the footsteps of Joseph’s father, Clark & Nightingale, too, established a distillery, initially with Clark’s brother-in-law, Ephraim Bowen, Jr. It produced “between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons of run per annual quarter,” here again to support the slave trade.[25] In addition, Clark & Nightingale set up a retail shop on the east side of Main Street (later further south on the west side of the street, together with a warehouse ) that advertised imported textiles, stationery, and hardware for sale, also selling such goods wholesale to their competitors.[26]  

Enslaved African Americans appear very frequently in the accounts of Clark & Nightingale and of Samuel and Samuel Jr., showing shillings and pence owed to their owners for their labor: “To Negro higher [sic] to Discharge Salt…1..4..” and “To Cash pd 15 Negros for Runing [sic] Sugar…1..5..” (1769); a notation of an amount owed by Samuel Nightingale to John Brown, Providence merchant and slave trader: August 11, 1773 to 8 b Rice dld [delivered by] your Negro…..0..2..”[27]  Clark & Nightingale also employed one enslaved man to serve as clerk in their retail shop on at least one occasion. The receipt reads:

Providence, 16th Nov. 1782

Henry Bowen Bot. [bought] of Cudg Nightingale

1 BBl [barrel] Soft Soap –  £ 0..18..0   

Recd – ten Shillings & Ps in part pay for the above, the other to be paid in goods in Said Bowen Shop                                                                                         his

                                                Cudg    +    Nightingale



Cudge Nightingale was almost certainly one of the seven black and mulatto males reported to be living in Joseph’s household in the 1782 Rhode Island census, but he may have been owned by the company. In any case, he was trusted to conduct business and collect cash for Clark & Nightingale, even though he was illiterate. (It is also interesting that the customer would be trusted to make out his own receipt for Cudge.)[28]

We know for certain that the business partnership did own at least three other enslaved men. On July 14th, 1790, either Joseph Nightingale or John Innes Clark recorded in the Providence Record of Deeds that “Clark & Nightingale of Providence for Fifty Spanish Milled Dolars paid by Quam a Negro Man late a Servant to us for life & diverse other good considerations us thereunto moving,…have manumitted & set free the said Negro man named Quam.”[29]  Eight and a half years later, and less than two months after Joseph’s death, John Innes Clark appeared before the Providence Town Council on January 1, 1798, with two men who were “servants of John Innes Clark and the late Joseph Nightingale Esq.,” seeking to manumit them. The Council, finding that “Nimble Nightingale, a Black man, and Joseph Nightingale, a Mulatto Man, both of about forty years,…desired to be manumitted and set free” and appeared to the Council “to be of sufficient ability to support themselves and Families,” voted to manumit them. By their ages, it is almost certain that these were two of the men of color living in Joseph Nightingale’s house in 1782—Joseph, the mulatto male between 22 and 50, and Nimble, one of the 3 black men between 22 and 50—yet owned by the partnership.[30]

Clark & Nightingale employed enslaved African American laborers, and some indentured and free black workers, in other contexts apart from their retail trade. Three of the firm’s ships were active as privateers during the American Revolution, and careful records of debts incurred and shares of prize money owed to officers and crew of one of them, the ship Blaze Castle, for voyages in 1778 and 1779, identify one man of color who was clearly enslaved (Mingo Easton, for whom C&N “settled with Nicho. Easton who claims the sd Mingo as his property”), another six who might have been either enslaved or indentured (referring to cash “paid in full to his master”), and six free blacks. In addition, one “Negro wench J.C.” serving in some capacity incurred about £ 193 in debt but was awarded no prize money.[31]

Joseph Nightingale had personal knowledge of and relations with at least one of these enslaved or indentured sailors, Cato Mumford. Joseph had led a Rhode Island State militia regiment from December 1776 to May 1779 (hence the title “Colonel”), and Cato had apparently enlisted in Joseph’s militia regiment following his stint on the Blaze Castle, serving from November 1778 to February 1779 (possibly gaining his freedom thereby).[32]  In April of 1797, some twenty years after the Revolutionary-era voyages of the Blaze Castle and only seven months before his death, Joseph Nightingale appeared before the Providence Town Council to ask that Cato Mumford and his family, who had been warned out of Providence to Newport as “transient” (i.e., having no legal settlement in Providence), be allowed to return to live in Providence. Joseph was familiar enough with Cato to be willing to post bond to insure his good behavior.[33]

Clark & Nightingale also hired York and Newport (no last names), Bristol Olney, Cudge (who may have been the same Cudge Nightingale who had worked in the retail shop six years earlier), Ceaser Tillinghast, Jack Skiler, and “Jack W. Arnold’s Negro Man,” for a month in the fall of 1788 to build a new fountain in Providence (location unclear). Cudge and Bristol Olney brought many cartloads of stone to the work site on November 13th, and Clark & Nightingale seem to have paid them at three-quarters the rate they paid a white man named George Brown for doing the same work.[34]

Meanwhile, by the early 1780s the volatile economy of post-Revolutionary Providence apparently had begun to jeopardize the profitability of Clark & Nightingale, because for the first time Joseph Nightingale and John Innes Clark contemplated entering the slave trade. They must have discussed this possibility with other Providence merchants, because by the summer of 1783, the plan had come to the ears of Moses Brown, ardent foe of slave trading and of slavery itself who had just succeeded in getting the RI legislature to pass a gradual emancipation law limiting the length of servitude of children born to enslaved women.  In August of 1783, Moses wrote a carefully worded letter to Joseph Nightingale and John Innes Clark, slyly flattering them by noting “I have ever entertained a respectful Opinion of your humanity, as well as integrity as Merchants.” He wrote,

Being informed yesterday that you had in contemplation sending a vessel to Africa for the purpose of getting Negroes and selling them as slaves in the West Indies… I am induced to write to you and desire your serious consideration on the subject... as will preserve your characters as Men of Humanity and feeling for the distress and affliction of others, which I Have observe[d] with much satisfaction, on some occasions to be very conspicuous.

To emphasize his point, Moses made a startling confession:

“One of your slaves apply’d to me, some time past to afford him relief under the burden of slavery, which he seemed sensibly affected with, and much desirous of being released from. I advised him, as he had a kind Master and hired well, to return and patiently endure his situation, til way for his relief opened. [The letter was addressed to both Clark and Nightingale; the reference to “Master” appears to refer either collectively to the firm or to the residence of the slave in question with Joseph.]  I mention this to help your conception of the state of mind those must be in, under the usage of the West Indies, for if your sensible Domestic Servants under your treatment and living, still have a part of what inspires us to love of Liberty, remaing [remaining], what anxiety must their Wretched States afford –”

Who was this enslaved person who had gone to Moses Brown to try to gain his or her freedom? It may have been one of the two enslaved men who came before the Town Council fifteen years later, after Joseph Nightingale’s death, having said (again?) that they “desired to be manumitted,” and this time, achieved their desire; but there is no way of knowing.

In any case, Moses Brown concluded his 1783 letter with the following: “You are Men of Feelings & Abilities to live without this Trade; why then should you be concerned in it against your own, against the feelings of your Friends. I rest in hope, that my last has been a mistaken information.[35]

It was not “a mistaken information,” although perhaps a bit premature. In October of 1784, the firm of Clark & Nightingale, along with Peleg Greene, Nicholas Power, and Cyprian Sterry (a major Providence slave trader), sent the brig Prudence from Providence to the African coast to trade for slaves. The Prudence boarded 88 African captives and returned to the United States, arriving in Georgia nine and a half months later, in August of 1785. There, the 79 captives who had survived the grueling Middle Passage (a death rate of 10% for the voyage) debarked and began a life of enslavement.  The return on this investment was apparently satisfactory but not sufficient to spur Clark & Nightingale to launch another voyage right away; but five years later, in July of 1789, financial pressures led John Innes Clark and Joseph Nightingale to underwrite a second slaving voyage, this time as individuals and sole owners. The ship Providence, captained by Oliver Bowen, one of John Innes Clark’s brothers-in-law, boarded 87 African captives and debarked 78 survivors in Havana almost exactly one year later.[36] That appears to be the last time Clark & Nightingale or either of its partners invested in a slaving voyage, although the firm continued to participate in the rum trade and the provisioning trades to the slave societies of the West Indies.[37]

As the 1790s wore on, the firm of Clark and Nightingale apparently experienced escalating financial difficulties, including the sudden cessation of payments by Cyprian Sterry on his very large debts to C & N; then Joseph Nightingale died suddenly in 1797.[38] “I am now to inform you of the melancholy death of my late worthy Friend & Partner, who expired in an apoplectic fit on Friday morning between 9 & 10 O’Clock without the least complaint or even a groan,” Clark wrote to his attorney, Robert Murray.[39] In a letter to his wife, Lydia Bowen Clark, he announced that he had decided to close the firm and turn its debts over to Murray. “I have come to a resolution to close the business here so far as it can be done without embarking on any new arangements & to complete the old as well as I am able and as quick as possible… where it will end GOD only knows.”[40] Because Nightingale apparently died intestate, there is no record of who took ownership of his slaves, except for the two owned by the firm, Nimble and Joseph, who were manumitted by Clark in January of 1798.

Joseph’s first probate inventory, which may have included slaves, was presented to the Providence Town Council in May, 1798, by the second appointed executor, his brother-in-law John Corlis (Joseph’s widow Elizabeth having excused herself after six months in that role to assume legal guardianships of their minor sons); but it was never acted on by the Council (which was highly unusual), and only one tantalizing final signature page remains in miscellaneous files at Providence City Hall.[41] Probably the sea of Clark & Nightingale debt that John Innes Clark and his attorney were still trying to sort out made a probate inventory premature and even suspect.

In October of 1801, the auction of the life estate of one Samuel W. Greene, for his creditors, included “the right of the said Samuel W. Greene to the mansion house, lots and improvements, where the late Col. Nightingale dwelt, subject, however, to the life estate of Mrs. Nightingale therein.”[42] This suggests that Elizabeth was still living in the Benefit Street mansion at that time; if so, there were two free people of color living there as well at the Second Federal Census in 1800, and four in 1810, but no slaves.[43]

It was only after John Innes Clark’s death in 1808, presumably rendering any lingering debt obligations of Clark & Nightingale moot, that a final probate inventory was accepted by the Providence Town Council; at that point, only the apparently unoccupied house on Benefit Street and some of its piled-up furnishings remained.[44]  Where Elizabeth Nightingale was living at that time is unknown. She died “insolvent” in 1837.[45]

There is one grim postscript to the complex and ever-evolving role of Joseph Nightingale’s family in the lives of African-descended people. In the wake of Joseph’s death, the dissolution of Clark & Nightingale, and the protracted struggle to sort out Joseph’s financial affairs, Joseph’s oldest son, John Clark Nightingale, undertook to replenish the family coffers with a highly speculative investment: he financed a slaving voyage. Perhaps he remembered the relative success of the two voyages his father and John Innes Clark had bankrolled in 1784 and 1789—he had been in his teens at the time. In any case, on January1st, 1800, the brig Ida nosed out of Providence harbor bound for Africa and there brought 162 captives on board. The plan was to bring them back to the Florida coast and sell them there.  What ensued is one of the most disastrous voyages in the history of Rhode Island slaving. In the course of the Ida’s trip across the Atlantic to Florida, 112 of the captives—69%—died, a higher death rate even than the 64% incurred on the infamous voyage of the Sally, a brig outfitted by the Browns of Providence in 1764-65.[46]

John Clark Nightingale undertook no more slaving voyages. However, he moved to Mulberry Creek in Camden County, Georgia, where he sold merchandise to slave holders until his sudden death in September of 1806.[47]

The African American Nightingales

What happened to the enslaved and formerly enslaved people of color who had been identified and identified themselves with the surname “Nightingale”?  Several of them appear in censuses, legal documents, and a few other sources, but the record is sparse and raises as many questions as it answers.

By 1790, Bristol Nightingale had become emancipated in some way and appeared in the First Federal Census with a household of seven, which had shrunk to three by 1800 and two by 1810; yet his two marriages, one to Martha Monday in 1808 and one to Martha Carter in 1810, occurred after the radical reduction in his household size. We can speculate that he may have been running a rooming house as a single man.  Quam Nightingale appeared as an independent householder in the 1790 census as well, with a household of two; since he had purchased his own freedom in July of the same year (a month after the Providence census was supposed to have been completed), he may have been living independently (with a wife?) before becoming legally emancipated.[48] Polly Nightingale, one of the three females who had been treated in the Smallpox Hospital in 1776, married Samuel Greene in 1793 but otherwise disappears from the record, as do most of the black Nightingales treated at that time.[49]

The records of the Providence Justice Court provide an interesting window into the work performed by some of the newly freed Nightingales, and the choices they made in equipping themselves with necessities and sometimes small luxuries in the course of making new lives as independent householders. Cudge Nightingale, who had once clerked in the Clark & Nightingale shop, turned up in Justice Court as a free man by 1803, identified as a “labourer” living in Scituate, Massachusetts (but still purchasing household supplies of sugar, coffee, tea, and liquor in Providence). A judgment against him awarded a delinquent payment of $3.07 to be made by Cudge for these items to one Moses Adams, a Mariner, plus court costs of $2.07. Joshua Nightingale, a “Mariner alias Labour[er],” appeared twice in Justice Court, once in 1806 owing a cabinet maker $3.00 for a tea table and once in 1808 owing Joseph Lee $6.50 for goods or a loan.[50]

Randall Nightingale makes his first appearance in the Justice Court records in January of 1811, identified as a mariner who owed Samuel Dobbin $10.00 either to pay a loan or for unspecified goods; in June of 1814, just two months before his marriage to Joan Fales, he was again charged in Justice Court with failing to pay $6.50, owed to Samuel Hopkins, again for reasons unspecified.[51]

The “Mulatto” Joseph Nightingale who had been manumitted by the Providence Town Council in 1798 at John Innes Clark’s request after Joseph Nightingale’s death apparently married a woman named Sarah sometime afterward, but the marriage did not go well; a year later, he published a notice in the United States Chronicle disclaiming financial responsibility for her: “Whereas my Wife Sarah and myself cannot happily live together as Man and Wife ought to do – we have mutually agreed to part from each other. I therefore forbid all Persons trusting her on my Account as I shall not pay any Debts of her contracting from the Date hereof.” Joseph was not literate—the notice was signed “Joseph Nightingale” with an X identifying “his Mark” and the phrase “a black man” in parentheses. He tried marriage again six years later, marrying Olive Mancy in October of 1805, and then vanishes from the written record. However, the woman still calling herself “Sarah Nightingale,” identified as a “Single Woman of Colour” in an 1818 Justice Court record, may have been Joseph’s first wife, now apparently earning her living by boarding and caring for ailing women; she had sued Solomon Cote of North Providence in 1818 for failing to pay the $12.00 he owed her for boarding and nursing his wife, Lydia, and won a judgment against him.[52]

“Black” Nimble, who had been emancipated with Joseph, appears in several sources. Nimble seems to have been a religious man and one who was unusually respected in the wider community. His marriage to Candice Greene had occurred in 1793, five years before he had been emancipated, but it had been recorded by the First Congregational Society, of which he was a member.[53]  Apparently he was a reliable worker; Samuel Nightingale, Jr. hired him to unload goods from various ships in 1807, 1808, and 1809, even though he must have been nearly fifty years old, having been “about forty” when he was emancipated ten years earlier.[54] He is listed in the 1810 Federal Census with a household of three, possibly including a child who would have been under twenty from his marriage to Candice; by 1820, his household had shrunk to two, probably because the child, now an adult, had left home.[55] In 1826, his death was reported in both the Rhode-Island American and Providence Gazette and in The Providence Patriot & Columbian Phenix: “On Sunday last, at an advanced age, Nimble Nightingale. Nimble was for nearly half a century a professor of the Christian Religion, and during that long period, evinced a faith in its premises, and a conformity to its precepts, worthy in many respects, the imitation of more enlightened Christians.”[56]


When Nicholas Brown, Jr. purchased the Nightingale mansion on Benefit Street in 1814, he, too, brought with him a family history steeped in the business of slavery. Most of the commercial interests that had made the Browns the most powerful merchant family in Providence—shipping, distilling, banking, iron production, and transporting captive Africans to the Americas—had been connected in one way or another with the slave trade.[57] But by 1814 the slave trade had become illegal, and slavery itself was quickly disappearing, its end preordained by a gradual emancipation law that made every child born to an enslaved woman free in a maximum of twenty-one years.[58] There were only about 100 enslaved people in all of Rhode Island in 1810, and only 48 in 1820; there would be no enslaved people living in Nicholas Brown’s new home on Benefit Street. But four years before he moved into the Nightingale house, there were three free people of color living in his household, and six years after there were four. Quite possibly they had once been enslaved by one or another of the Brown brothers, but we do not know.




[1] For information on the enslavement of indigenous people in RI and New England, see Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[2] The best book on Rhode Island’s role in the American Slave Trade is still Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade 1700 – 1807 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981).

[3] For an overview of enslavement in colonial New England, see Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016); Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), especially Chapters 2 and 7; Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

[4] For comparative populations in Rhode Island to 1790, see Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932): 61-70.

[5] For information on post nati emancipation in Rhode Island and other information on steps toward the abolition of slavery there and in New England, see Melish, Disowning Slavery, Chapters 2 and 3; and Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in The North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

[6] Greene and Harrington, American Population, 70; Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity:A History of African American Slaves (Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), “Table I. Slave Population of the American Colonies and the United States, 1680 – 1860,” p 272.

[7] William Waterman’s Chapin, “Genealogy of the Nightingale Family” (Typescript), Providence: 1912. Nightingale Family Papers, Mss 588, sg 6, Rhode Island Historical Society.

[8] Chapin’s 1912 typescript genealogy of the Nightingales says that Samuel Nightingale’s house was on the south side of Weybosset Street, abutting Still House Lane, but this is incorrect; Broad Street becomes Weybosset Street considerably northeast of Samuel Nightingale’s house, which did indeed sit on the corner of what was then Distill House (or Still House) Lane, now roughly Page Street.  See the first map in the Appendix, adapted from Henry R. Chace, Owners and Occupants of the Lots, Houses and Shops in the Town of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1798…Also Owners or Occupants of Houses in the Compact Part of Providence in 1759…[with another set of maps showing “Owners of Houses in the Compact Part of Providence in 1770,” not included in the title of the published book], Salem, Mass: Higginson, 1914 (Reprint 1998).

[9] Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: 81.

[10] Chapin, “Genealogy of the Nightingale Family.”

[11] Richard M. Bayles, History of Windham County, Connecticut. With Illustrations. (New York: W.W. Preston & ): Co., 1889): 531; Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1966): 60.

[12] Chapin, “Genealogy of the Nightingale Family.”

[13] Samuel reported no slaves in the earliest complete RI census, taken in 1774, but is listed as having four in the 1782 census. John R. Bartlett, Census of the State of Rhode Island 1774. (Providence: Knowles, Anthony and Co., State Printers, 1858): 47; Rhode Island Census of 1782, manuscript copy, n.p., Rhode Island Historical Society.

[14] 1778 Tax List for Providence, Theodore Foster Papers, Mss 424 Series I Vol. 16.

[15] Samuel Nightingale to Joseph or possibly Samuel, Jr., April 21, 1777. Nightingale-Jenckes Papers, Reel 13, Frame 134, Rhode Island Historical Society.

[16] John Hutchins Cady, “The Development of the Neck: A Chronicle of the East Side of Providence,” Rhode Island History Vol. 3, No. 4 (October 1944):119. See the second map in the Appendix, adapted from Henry R. Chace, Owners and Occupants, for the locations of the two brothers’ houses in 1770. Bartlett, Census of the State of Rhode Island 1774: 47; RI Census of 1782, Theodore Foster Papers, Mss 424, Rhode Island Historical Society;

[17] The Providence Gazette; and Country Journal, May 10, 1777: 4.

[18] RI Census of 1782. Theodore Foster Papers, Mss 424, Rhode Island Historical Society; First Federal Census, Series M 637 Roll 10; RIHS Mss 214, sg 6, Vol. 1, Providence Census Collection:1791 Census, Rhode Island Historical Society.

[19] First Federal Census, Series M 637 Roll 10: 186; RIHS Mss 214, sg 6, Vol. 1, Providence Census Collection:1791 Census.

[20] Providence Gazette and Country Journal, May 29, 1790. It is unclear whether Job Waterman was or was not one of the four “free other” persons listed in the two censuses.The First Census Act, signed into law by President George Washington on March 1st, 1790, required that the census be completed in nine months—i.e., by December 31, 1790—but we do not know exactly when the census taker would have arrived at Joseph Nightingale’s home. If Job Waterman came into the Nightingale household after the census was taken, then he was a fifth “free other person” who had not returned by the time the 1791 Providence census was taken; if he was one of the four “free other persons” listed in the 1790 census, then he probably had returned to Joseph’s household by the time the 1791 census taker found four “free other persons” in the household.

[21] First Federal Census, Series M 637 Roll 10: 186; RI Census of 1782. Theodore Foster Papers, Mss 424, Rhode Island Historical Society

[22] Actions concerning African American members of the Charitable Baptist Society, compiled by J. Stanley Lemons, n.p. Nancy Nightingale had joined the Society on August 3, 1775, and departed (presumably for a Boston church) on November 20, 1785. See Minutes: June 29, 1775 and August 3, 1775. Lemons notes that in the 1803 list of members she is noted as “dead.” The author is grateful for being given this compilation by Stan Lemons. 

[23] List of Providence residents treated in the smallpox hospital, Nimbel in the “Third Class” and the other five in the “Second Class.” John Andrews Papers, Mss 261, Folder 2.

[24] See the third map in the Appendix, adapted from Henry R. Chace, Owners and Occupants. For discussion of the architectural provenance of the house, see the Historic American Buildings Survey # RI – 164, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 

[25] United States Treasury Department, Distillery Excise Tax Records, 1791 – 1802, Mss 232, sg3, Rhode Island Historical Society, summarized in RIHS historical headnote for the Clark & Nightingale manuscript collection.

[26] See the third and fourth maps in the Appendix, adapted from Henry R. Chace, Owners and Occupants, for both the.

[27] Nightingale-Jenckes Papers Mss 588, sg. 1, Microfilm Reel 13, Frames 470 and 570.

[28] Providence Town Papers Mss 214, sg 1, Vol. 34, Item 14488. Rhode Island Historical Society.

[29] Providence City Hall Archives, Record of Deeds, Vol. 22:290

[30] Providence City Hall Archives, Providence Town Council Book No. 7, 1794-1800, January 1, 1798: 213.

[31] Clark & Nightingale Papers, Mss 354, folder 2: Agents’ accounts for the Ship Blaze Castle. Rhode island Historical Society.

[32] Benjamin Bourne Papers, Mss 11, Box 2, Folder 12. Rhode Island Historical Society.

[33] Providence Town Council Records, Book No. 7: 1794 – 1800—April 3, 1797: 140.

[34] Rhode Island Historical Society, Clark & Nightingale Papers, Mss 354, Folder 1: New Fountain ExpensesL 15 October – 13 November, 1788. N.p.

[35] Rhode Island Historical Society, Moses Brown Papers, Mss 313, Microfilm Reel 4, beginning on Frame 916—letter from Moses Brown to Clark & Nightingale. Microfilm includes Moses Brown’s marked-up draft along with a copy of the final letter.

[36] Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700 - 1807 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981): 261; 264; 274. Also listed in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages.

[37] U.S. Treasury Department, Distillery Excise Tax Records, 1791-1802, Mss 232, sg 3, Rhode Island Historical Society; Clark & Nightingale Papers, Mss354, and John Innes Clark Papers, Mss 349, Rhode Island Historical Society; Anne C. McBride, “‘Consigned to the Account and Risk of John Innes Clark”: Networks, Trade, & a Merchant in Providence, Rhode Island, 1768-1808,” M.A. Thesis, University of Delaware, 2012: 30 – 35 and passim.

[38] John Innes Clark to Lydia Bowen Clark July 22, 1797. John Innes Clark Papers 1783 – 1865,  Mss 349, Box 5: 1796-1799, Rhode Island Historical Society. Clark’s extensive correspondence with Lydia Bowen Clark, his wife, who resided with her family in South Carolina for several years, citing the beneficial effects of the climate on her health, is the source of much information on the activities of Clark & Nightingale before and after Joseph Nightingale’s death. 

[39] Robert Murray to Lydia Bowen Clark, from New York, November 14, 1797, in accordance with Clark’s directions to Murray to send her an extract from Clark’s November 5th letter to Murray. John Innes Clark Papers. Citing a different cause of death in the M.A. thesis cited above, Anne C. McBride states that Nightingale succumbed to yellow fever in the epidemic that was raging in Providence in 1797, drawing upon Joseph K. Ott, “John Innes Clark and His Family: Beautiful People in Providence,” Rhode Island History 32 (November 1973): 126-127; but that is incorrect.

[40] John Innes Clark to Lydia Bowen Clark, November 14, 1797. John Innes Clark Papers.

[41] Providence Town Council Records Book 7, 1794 – 1800, May 7, 1798, p. 250, Providence City Hall Archive; The scrap of “Private Inventory £42 th..0..9 [?]  –  May 7, 1798 [written on the left margin near the top],” Miscellaneous Records, RG 100, Box 1789-1799.

[42] The Providence Gazette, October 24, 1801: 3.

[43] Federal census documents on microfilm: 1800 Second Federal Census Series M32, Roll 45, Page 223; 1810 Third Federal Census, Roll 58, Page 66.

[44] “Schedule of Furniture in and about the House of the Late Joseph Nightingale deceased…, recorded 17th Aug., 1809.” City of Providence Will Book Vol. 10, 1806 – 1811: 469-471.

[45] Providence Journal, February 10, 1837: 3.

[46] Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: 274; also listed in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages.

[47] Chapin, Genealogy of the Nightingale Family

[48] Debra L. Newman, List of Free Black Heads of Families in the First Census of the United States 1790 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1973): 63;

[49] RI Vital Extracts 1636-1899, Vol. 2: Providence County Births, Marriages and Deaths, p. 83.

[50] Providence City Hall Archives, RG 112 Writs & Warrants – 1803 folder, Feb. 28, 1803; RF 112 Writs & Warrants July 1806 folder, July 4, 1806 and November 1808 folder, November 7, 1808.

[51] Providence City Hall Archives, RG 112 Writs & Warrants –1811 folder, January 29, 1811; RG Writs & Warrants – 1814 folder, June 14, 1814; Marriage August 14, 1814, in RI Vital Extracts 1636-1899, Vol. 7: Friends and Ministers: Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, p. 487.

[52] United States Chronicle (Providence, RI), August 29, 1799: 4; Marriage October 23, 1805, in RI Vital Extracts 1636-1899, Vol. 7: Friends and Ministers: Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, p. 497; RG 112 Writs & Warrants – July 1818 folder, July 30, 1818.

[53] Congregational Society - Marriages, in RI Vital Records, 1636-1899, Vol. 10: Town & Church Records:163.

[54] Nightingale-Jenckes Papers, Mss 588, Microfilm Reel 17, Laborers Book 1806 – 1813 n.p.

[55] 1810 Third Federal Census, Providence, RI, West District, n.p.; 1820 Fourth Federal Census, Providence, RI, p. 163.

[56] Rhode-Island American and Providence Gazette, April 4, 1826: 2; Providence Patriot & Columbian Phenix, April 5, 1826:2.

[57] See James B. Hedges, The Browns of Providence Plantations: Colonial Years, and The Browns of Providence Plantations: The Nineteenth Century (Providence: Brown University Press, 1968).

[58] Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 (2 Stat. 426, enacted March 2, 1807); An Act Authorizing the Manumission of Negroes, Mollattoes, & others, and for the gradual Abolition of Slavery," Rhode Island General Assembly, February 1784.