The Thomas Family: A 19th Century Multiracial Family of Middleborough and Carver, Mass.

On a cold December day in 1854, Baptist minister Josephus W. Horton performed the wedding of 19 year old Mary E. M. Pierce and 38 year old widow John Atwood Thomas. The couple’s nineteen-year age difference was not unusual for the era. What was unusual was the legality of their marriage itself. Only a decade previously, their marriage would have been illegal in Massachusetts. But in 1843, the state repealed a law from 1705 which banned interracial marriage. John A. Thomas was white. Mary E. M. Pierce was multiracial: black, white, and Native American. After a century of Massachusetts’ anti-miscegenation law, John and Mary Thomas became the first interracial couple to be married in Middleborough (although there had been numerous Wampanoag-African American marriages in town during the 18th-19th centuries).

Mary Elizabeth Macy Pierce was born in Swansea, Bristol County, Massachusetts, 28 March 1835, the daughter of Angier Pierce, a white man, and Susan Boston, whose mother Diadema Simons was Wampanoag and whose father Cato Boston was a former slave. Cato Boston and Diadema Simons lived in Dighton, Massachusetts when they published marriage intentions on 27 April 1804. The widowed Diadema (Simons) Boston was a head of household in the 1830 Census in Swansea, Bristol, Massachusetts. Mary E. M. Pierce was probably born in her grandmother Diadema’s house.

At the time of their relationship, marriage between Angier Pierce and Susan Boston was illegal. Still, the couple had two illegitimate children together. Mary E. M. Pierce was the oldest, born in 1835. Their youngest child John Angier Pierce was born in 1841. Both Mary and John had the distinction of receiving their father’s surname “Pierce” rather than their mother’s surname “Boston”, which was likely an intentional choice made by Susan Boston to grant her children legitimacy in name, if not in legality. Despite the fact that two years following John A. Pierce’s birth, the Massachusetts court allowed interracial marriage, Angier Pierce and Susan Boston never married. In 1850, Susan Boston married Wampanoag Indian Frank Francis, and Mary E. M. Pierce moved into her step-father’s home in Rochester, Massachusetts with her mother at that time.

1850MaryPierce

1850 Census. Rochester, Mass. Frank Francis, Susan Boston, and Mary E. Pierce.

Shortly thereafter the Francis family rented a house on Miller St. in Middleborough, where Frank Francis died in 1852, and Susan (Boston) (Pierce) Francis died in 1862.

1855SusanBoston.jpg

1855 Middleborough Census. Widowed Susan Boston and her son John Pierce.

19 year old Mary E. M. Pierce met the widowed John Atwood Thomas when he was working as a laborer in Middleborough. John Atwood Thomas was born in Carver, 8 May 1816, the son of Eli Thomas and Lydia Shaw. He was a descendant of Great Migration immigrant William Shurtleff, who was infamously killed by lightning in Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. John A. Thomas first married Mary Ann Tracy in 1849. Together they had two children:

  1. Eli John Thomas (1850-1932).
  2. James Willard Thomas (1852-1926).

Mary Ann (Tracy) Thomas died at the age of 23 in Middleborough on 26 September 1852, shortly after giving birth to James. When Mary E. M. Pierce married John A. Thomas two years later, she became step-mother to four-year old Eli and two year old James.

1855MaryThomas1

1855MaryThomas2

1855 Census. Middleborough, Mass. John and Mary E. (Pierce) Thomas, Eli J. and James W. Thomas.

Soon after their marriage, Mary (Pierce) Thomas became pregnant with their first child, George Washington Smith Thomas, who was born on 6 December 1855 – exactly one year after their wedding.

For 23 years, between 1855 and 1878, John and Mary (Pierce) Thomas had ten children together:

  1. George Washington Smith Thomas, b. Middleborough 6 Dec. 1855, d. Carver 20 May 1901, m. (1) 1877 Louisa Jane Cornell (d. 1887), m. (2) 1899 Abbie Shaw Cole (d. 1950).
  2. Sarah Jennett Thomas, b. Middleborough 3 March 1858, d. Carver 2 July 1884, m. 1879 Lyman F. Dean (1852-1942).
  3. Diadema Patience Thomas, b. Middleborough 3 Sept. 1860, d. Carver 22 Nov. 1875.
  4. Darius Gardner Thomas, b. Middleborough 29 Jan. 1863, d. 7 August 1929, m. Emeline Beatrice Haven (1869-1950).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Thomas, b. Middleborough 27 March 1865, d. Middleborough 22 June 1949, m. 1 January 1891 Joanna Barry.
  6. Frank Thomas, b. Middleborough 26 Sept. 1867, d. Middleborough 20 August 1960, m. 1884 Mildred Myrtella Appling (1865-1905).
  7. Mary Elizabeth Thomas, b. Middleborough 10 Dec. 1869, d. 31 January 1953, m.  4 November 1899 Edward Warren Lowe (1866-1900).
  8. Susan “Susie” Frances Thomas, b. Carver 7 April 1872, d. 1941.
  9. Silas Thomas, b. Carver 8 April 1875, d. Middleborough 8 April 1936, m. 1911 Emma Carroll Smith (1866-1940).
  10. Amy Thomas, b. Carver 27 March 1878, d. 13 February 1965, m. 1889 James Joseph Vigers (1873-1958).

In the 1860 Census, there were 835 households in Middleborough, the majority of whom were white. There were only three multiracial families in town – the household of John and Mary Thomas, the household of Mary’s mother Susan Boston, and the household of William and Kate Ives. William Ives, a black man from Connecticut, and his wife Kate Mahoney from Ireland, had married in 1857. Additionally there were seven white Middleborough households who had black domestic servants living in their homes.

1860MaryThomas.jpg

1860 Census, Middleborough, Mass. John A. and Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas, and children Eli J., James W., George W.S., and Jane S. Thomas.

1865MaryThomas.jpg

1865 Census, Middleborough, Mass. John A. and Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas and children Eli J., James W., George W., Sarah J., Diadema P., Darius G., and Abraham L. Thomas.

1870MaryThomas.jpg

1870 Census, Middleborough, Mass. John A. and Mary E. (Pierce) Thomas and children Eli J., James, George W. S., Sarah J., Diadema P., Darius G., Abraham L., Frank S., Mary E. Thomas.

John and Mary Thomas resided in Middleborough until 1871, when the family moved to Carver, Massachusetts. Carver was a much smaller town than Middleborough. When the Thomas family moved to Carver in 1871, there were 238 households, only one whom was a family of color: 71 year old widow Hannah (Hector) Casey, who headed a household with several of her adult children and several former Southern slaves who had recently made their way North after the Civil War. Hannah Hector was the daughter of Lurana Sepit, a Wampanoag Indian, and Thomas Hector, a former slave from Bristol County, Massachusetts. In 1823, Hannah Hector married Augustus Michael Casey, a fugitive slave from the South, and they raised nine children in Carver on the ancestral Sepit homestead known as the “Indian Land” on the south shore of Sampson’s Pond. During the 1870s, the Casey family dispersed to nearby towns, leaving the Thomas children as the only children of color in the town of Carver. By the 1880 Census, the Thomas family was the only non-white family living in Carver. All of the Thomas children went on to marry white spouses.

In the 1879 map of Carver, the family of “J.Thomas” resided on the corner of Beaver Dam St., West St., and Holmes St.

1879 Carver John Thomas

1879 Map of Carver, Massachusetts. John Atwood Thomas household marked as “J. Thomas” at the intersection of Beaver Dam St., Holmes St., and West St., just south of Beaver Dam Brook.

In 1880 Census, their newlywed son George W. S. Thomas took possession of the house on the corner of Beaver Dam St., West St., and Holmes St., and John Atwood Thomas was enumerated there. Separately, Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas was enumerated as the head of household in a home near Wenham Pond with their five youngest children, and married daughter Sarah. It is unclear if John A. and Mary Thomas had separated after the 1878 birth of their youngest child, or if John A. Thomas was simply spending time in his son’s house. John A. Thomas was listed as “married” when he died in 1895.

1880JohnThomas.jpg

1880 Census, Carver, Mass. John A. Thomas living with son George W. Thomas, daughter-in-law Louisa J. Thomas, and grandchildren Abby E. and Luther E. Thomas.

1880MaryThomas

1880 Census, Carver, Mass. Mary E. (Pierce) Thomas and children Frank, Mary E., Susan F., Silas, and Amy Thomas, son-in-law Lyman F. Dean and daughter Sarah J. Dean.

Additionally, Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas and her children were listed as paupers who were supported by the Carver Almshouse in the 1880 Census. John A. Thomas was absent from this list. Perhaps this was because he was separated from Mary, and therefore refused to be financially responsible for his family. Or perhaps it was racially motivated, and the Carver overseers of the poor thought that John A. Thomas, as a white man, was  less of a possible financial burden than his wife and children.

1880MaryThomasAlmshouse.jpg

Following John A. Thomas’ death in 1895, the widowed Mary (Pierce) Thomas purchased a house located on the corner of Purchase St. and Rocky Meadow St. in the Thomastown neighborhood of Middleborough.

1903MaryThomas.jpg

1903 Map of Middleborough, Mass. Purchase St. Households of “Mrs. M[ary] Thomas”, son-in-law “J[ames] J[oseph] Vigers”, and son “A[braham] L[incoln] Thomas” underlined in red. Map courtesy of Historic Map Works.

1900MaryThomas.jpg

1900 Census, Middleborough, Mass. Mary E. (Pierce) Thomas residing on Rocky Meadow St. with son-in-law James J. Vigers, daughter Amy Vigers, and grandson James Vigers.

1910MaryThomas.jpg

1910 Census, Middleborough, Mass. Mary E. (Pierce) Thomas, daughter Susan F. Thomas, daughter Elizabeth Lowe, and grandson Edward W. Lowe.

Mary (Pierce) Thomas was described as a person of color throughout her entire life. She was described as “black” in the 1850, 1855, 1865, 1870, 1900, 1910 Censuses, “Indian” in the 1860 Census, and as “mulatto” in the 1880 Census. But a different pattern of racial-identity emerged in her children. The Thomas children were described as “mulatto” in their youth – the 1865, 1870, and 1880 Censuses. Once they left Mary’s home, married white spouses, and began families of their own in Carver and Middleborough, however, town records more consistently listed the Thomas children as white. Since Mary Pierce’s father Angier Pierce was white, and John Atwood Thomas was white, John and Mary (Pierce) Thomas’ children were three-quarters white, one-eighth Wampanoag, and one-eighth black. By the 20th century, the Thomas children were regularly identified as white. The exception to this rule appeared to be when one or more of the adult Thomas children lived for periods of time in their mother Mary’s household, in which case they were again identified as “black” or “mulatto.”

Mary E. M Pierce’s younger brother, John Angier Pierce, eventually moved to the town of Norwell (then known as South Scituate) and became intimately connected with Norwell’s larger black community.

As a young man, John A. Pierce lived in Middleborough with his widowed mother Susan (Boston) Franks throughout the 1850s and early 1860s.

1860JohnPierce.jpg

1860 Census, Middleborough, Mass. Susan Francis and son John Pierce.

In 1862, John buried his mother Susan next to his step-father Frank Francis in a grave next to the Francis house in Middleborough, in a cemetery now known as the Susan Francis Burial Ground. A week later, he married Sophronia Ann Franks, a black woman whose maternal grandmother’s family had been enslaved by the white Clapp family of Scituate for generations. Together they had two children, born in Middleborough:

  1. Eliza Annie Pierce, b. 22 Oct. 1863, d. Hingham 13 Oct. 1910, m. Norwell 21 May 1896 Henry W. Winslow (1858-1919).
  2. Angie Hattie Susan Pierce, b. 26 April 1865, d. Norwell 11 Aug. 1874.

Sophronia Ann (Franks) Pierce died two weeks after giving birth to daughter Angie, and John Angier Pierce buried her next to his step-father and mother. He then moved to Norwell, where he married Caroline S. Beach in 1867. They had the following children:

  1. William Angier Pierce, b. Norwell, Nov. 1867, d. young.
  2. Martha A. Pierce, b. Hanover, 24 Dec. 1869, d. young.
  3. Caroline “Carrie” Frances Pierce, b. Norwell, 1 June 1873, d. Norwell, 9 June 1874.

1874 was a devastating year for John Angier Pierce. His one year old daughter Carrie died in June of “inflammation of the brain”, his nine year old daughter Angie died in August from an infected abscess, and his 32 year old wife Caroline died of consumption in September. That winter, 33 year old John A. Pierce sought refuge in the home of his sister Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas in Carver, where he unexpectedly died 19 January 1875, for reasons “unknown”. His only surviving child, Eliza Annie Pierce, went to live with extended family in Norwell, where she married Henry W. Winslow, a multiracial man with black, white, and Massachuset Indian heritage. Together Eliza and Henry W. Winslow raised four children in Hingham, Massachusetts, where she died in 1910 of pneumonia at the age of 46.

When Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas died in Middleborough in 1921 at the age of 86, her younger brother John Angier Pierce had been dead for almost half a century. Mary E. M. (Pierce) Thomas was buried beside her husband John Atwood Thomas and her brother John Angier Pierce in a plot in Central Cemetery in Carver.

 

 

 

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