Cate Taylor Chester. That was her name.
I’ve never met her, and in fact I’d never heard of her before a couple of days ago. Now that I’ve learned of her existence, I’ve been thinking about her often.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent hours on Ancestry’s website building my family tree. It’s a proverbial rabbit hole, those little leaves offering hints about your family and where you came from, and in a way, who you are. Over the past year I’ve visited the site off and on, and I always end up staying up too late into the night as I click on new links.
I’ve seen the paperwork from when my paternal great-grandfather, a candy maker named Luigi, applied for naturalization, renouncing the King of Italy to become a United States citizen roughly 11 years after he immigrated here as a child.
His daughter, my late, beloved Nana, also worked in the candy business, dipping chocolates a la I Love Lucy in the Schrafft’s building in the Charlestown section of Boston. The building and neon Schrafft’s sign are still there, so nearly every time we drive by it on the highway my daughters point it out.
I’ve marveled at the meticulous handwriting on 19th century and early-20th century census forms, the perfect, slanted script a far cry from my own, sloppy after years of scribbling notes while I interviewed others for stories.
Through those forms I’ve been able to affirm that my maternal roots are deeply entrenched in Massachusetts, mostly the north-central part of the state.
More than one of my ancestors were free Black men who volunteered to join the Union army during the Civil War, members of the all-Black Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments.
Those discoveries were wonderful little pieces to a greater puzzle, filling me with pride. These were my people.
When you are a Black American, it’s safe to assume that you are descended from people who were enslaved; in 1865, by the time word of the Emancipation Proclamation made its way to Texas, there were roughly 4 million people who were slaves. I hadn’t found confirmation that was the case for me until my most recent descent into Ancestry’s records.
That’s when I learned about Cate Taylor Chester.
Her story is in a book published in 1891, a historical recounting of the early families in the town of Boxborough, located about 30 miles northwest of Boston. I saw in the book that my fourth great-grandfather, Tower Hazzard Jr., was a descendant of a woman named Cate, who was the “maid-servant of Phineas Taylor.”
And if you scroll a couple of pages up in the book online, there it is:
“Phineas Taylor once kept a negro maid-servant on the Burroughs farm. ... Mr. Taylor obtained the child when a babe, in Boston, making payment therefore with a box of butter. ‘Either the child could not have been worth much, or the box of butter must have been very large, as the best butter was not more than twelve cents a pound in those days,’ remarked a descendant.”
A box of butter. It keeps resonating in my mind. Her life, her human life, was purchased for a box of butter.
To let the writer of this book tell it, Phineas Taylor treated Cate well. He freed her when she turned 30, and when she got married he gave her and her new husband a piece of farmland.
But she was still a slave. She was his property.
When Taylor fell ill with spotted fever, Cate returned to his home to help care for him — and she contracted the disease, too. She died from the illness, leaving seven children, including infant boys, without their mother.
Cate is the first I’ve found, but she may not be the last: Nahum G. Hazard, one of the men who were part of the historic Massachusetts regiments, was the grandson of an enslaved man, according to a news article that recounts — and this is its own story — the time two men kidnapped Nahum and a friend when they were children and brought them to Virginia to try to sell them as slaves.
Assuming you’re descended from slaves is one thing; seeing in black-and-white that you are is a new matter entirely. I keep thinking about Cate and how young she was when she was taken from Boston to a strange farm, what circumstances led to her being sold for relatively little, and what her life with the Taylors was like.
Even if he treated her well and freed her about a decade before Massachusetts outlawed slavery, does that matter? He still regarded her as property. Those of us who own cars take care of them to maximize our return from them.
Perhaps Taylor should have taken his cue from the grounds he lived on. Under the text of the letter in which he spelled out Cate’s freedom is a quote with no real attribution: “Nothing seemed to prosper on that farm until the maid servant was liberated.”
(That person was onto something with their prescient words about liberation and prosperity, which still ring true.)
The activist and educator Brittany Packnett Cunningham said on Juneteenth this year that every Black person you meet is “a miracle,” because our lineages were meant to be destroyed. Cate Taylor Chester lived most of her life as a slave and, eight generations later, I’m here. And that is a miracle indeed.