Christine Jackson, a descendant of Bristol Underwood at farmhouse stone wall in Jamestown. (Photo by Peter Fay)
Christine Jackson reached down to touch the stone wall bordering the farm on East Shore Road where her third great-grandfather worked in the 18th century.
“I just can’t believe this,” she said. “I feel like I want to cry.”
Jackson, of Providence, aided by the Jamestown Historical Society, encountered the birth site of her ancestor, Bristol Underwood, for the first time. He grew crops and tended livestock on the 18th-century, 110-acre farm that sloped from North Road down to the eastern shore. But her joyful discovery was bittersweet. This also is where her ancestor and his family were enslaved by their owners, the Benjamin Underwood family.
18th-century Underwood farmhouse and stone wall. (Jamestown Historical Society, P1972-039)
Bristol was born in 1773 to his parents, John and Clarissa. Newspapers described him as “a colored man of Herculean frame.” Contemporaries identified him alternatingly as Black, Negro or mulatto, but his daughter, Adelia Underwood Davis, attested that Bristol’s mother was Narragansett and both parents had the last name “Carr.”
It is unremarkable that Bristol had parents of a different surname. Humans were sold and inherited, sometimes changing owners and last names during the course of a lifetime. The owner of the Underwood farm married Rebecca Carr, daughter of Nicholas Carr, who was a central figure in the Quaker community and donated the land for the Conanicut Friends meetinghouse.
Rebecca (Carr) Underwood’s inheritance netted the Underwoods “household goods, furniture and three Negroes: Violet, Quam, and Morea,” in 1760. Thirteen years later, Bristol was born from the Narragansett-Carr lineage but was owned by the Underwoods.
Bristol’s owner, Benjamin Underwood, was paradoxically from a Quaker family and leader of the rebel forces in Jamestown opposing the British during the War of Independence. He was the warden, captain of the militia, recruiting officer, deputy to the General Assembly and chief justice in the Court of Common Pleas.
As town clerk, he safeguarded Jamestown town records in North Kingstown during the war. On his vast farm, he had six slaves before the Revolution, including Christine Jackson’s ancestors.
With the war came political and economic upheaval. Underwood complained the British “laid waste and destroyed” his farm. After the British left, the economy worsened, and he took out loans he could not repay.
This precipitated his humiliating descent into four years of debtors’ prison after the war.
He then blamed his creditor, who was also a Superior Court judge, for putting him in jail, calling him a “Miserable impertinent Rascally Ignorant Mule headed puppy.” Perhaps to pay debts, one of his slaves was sold while Benjamin fought what patriots called “enslavement by the British.”
Near the war’s end in 1782, the Underwoods still listed six Blacks on their farm, likely all enslaved. By 1783, Underwood was in prison and all the slaves were gone. On the farm, his father wrote he had “110 acres, a large house tore well to pieces, no other buildings, half my orchard cut down, 14 head cattle, 2 horses, and 6 hogs.”
Many historians noted Underwood’s leading role in the revolution. Yet these histories made no mention of the creators of his wealth, except in one footnote: “he owned six slaves.”
Bristol disappeared from the census after 1782 but then surfaced in Providence in 1797, likely a free man, where he married Mary “Polly” Wamsley, a Narragansett woman, at the First Baptist Church.
The next year, Bristol submitted a seaman’s protection certificate at the Port of Providence, anticipating a sailing venture. Many freed male slaves in Rhode Island went to sea, one of the few occupations available to them.
It is unknown which ship he boarded, but on the date he registered, ships were leaving for Southern ports to trade local goods for Southern slave cotton or Havana molasses, also produced by slave labor. The Rhode Island schooner Betsey, destined for Africa, also departed, soon to return to Cuba with 51 slaves.
Ardelia Underwood Davis, 1817-1906, 2nd great-grandmother of Christine Jackson. (Courtesy of Christine Jackson)
In 1810, Bristol and Polly were listed as “free persons” in Rehoboth, Mass. There, she gave birth to their only daughter, Ardelia, in 1819. Bristol later remarried twice but had no further children.
He lived and worked around Kent’s Mills, one of the earliest cotton mills, at Ten Mile River, which divides Pawtucket from Seekonk. In 1833, he worked as an agent for a wealthy merchant who sold land in the area.
In 1854, at age 81, newspapers announced the “death of an aged colored man” who “retained his Herculean physical powers to a remarkable extent until within two or three years of his death.” The Newport Mercury reported, “We learn that his name was Bristol Underwood, and the slave of Benjamin Underwood, Esquire, late of Jamestown.”
More than a dozen of Underwood’s other slaves are found in the local archives. One notable man was York Underwood, perhaps the brother of Bristol. He moved to Stonington, Conn., for about two decades then became unable to care for himself. Stonington returned him to Jamestown in 1809.
The town council wrote to Benjamin Underwood’s children in New York demanding they, as grandchildren of his former owner, retrieve him. The council said, it “doth appear that he belongs to you, and as this town are determined to disburden itself of all those people who do not belong to the same … take the said negro into your custody. … Otherwise, the town are determined to prosecute you to the utmost rigor of the law.”
The threat failed. The overseer of the poor fed and clothed him for about a year. In 1811, the town paid George Weeden $1 to officiate at York’s funeral, and Cuff Eldred $1 to dig his grave at the cemetery.
Christine Jackson today still longs to find Bristol’s grave, but its location is unknown. His descendants have not forgotten him, nor his journey from slavery in Jamestown to freedom in Pawtucket.
Seven generations of descendants of Bristol formed an extended family network and held a reunion this year at Colt State Park in Bristol to commemorate their family history. Although 250 years have passed, most still live less than an hour’s drive away from his birthplace on East Shore Road.
Family Reunion of Underwood descendants at Colt State Park, Bristol, R.I., 2023. (Photo by Christine Jackson)