In the fall of 1818, a Dutch family completed the long journey to what is today northeastern Ohio. The Howks had left behind western Massachusetts—and before that, Kinderhook, New York—to start over in what they considered an uninhabited wilderness. The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) described their moment of arrival:
One morning the tinkle of a strange cowbell was heard from the direction of the center. Curious to see from what it proceeded, the sound was followed, and an emigrant’s team was found grazing, and the first shanty erected was found occupied, not by strangers, but by friends from their old Massachusetts home, Josiah Bradley and wife, John and Alanson Howk, and their mother, Miss Electa Howk, and [sic] a sister and ‘Dean,’ a female servant, a relic of Massachusetts slavery, who had continued to live with her old mistress after the adoption of the constitution of 1780, and had followed her into the wilderness (pgs. 348-349).
Nearly twenty years after The History of Lorain County was issued, a committee of local women formed to record the life stories of the “founding mothers” of Wellington, for inclusion in a multi-volume regional publication called Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve (1896). They conducted an early sort of oral history project, and solicited contributions both through the newspaper and via correspondence with those no longer living in the village. They, too, described the first settlers of the Howk family, and concluded a passage on one of the Howk daughters by noting, “With her mother came Granny Dean, a colored servant, who after the liberation of the slaves in Massachusetts chose to stay with the family of her old master” (pg. 312).
Who was Dean, this “female servant,” this “relic” of slavery? Her life story—like the stories of so many women, especially women of color—is difficult to trace in the written records of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But we can attempt to conjure an image of what her world was like by looking at the individuals and places she knew: the Howk family, farmers of Berkshire County, products of the Dutch culture on both sides of the New York and Massachusetts border; the black communities struggling in bondage and freedom across that same divide; the backbreaking work of carving a homestead from a forest in what we now call Wellington, Ohio. By studying each of these elements in more detail, we can perhaps hope to form a slightly clearer picture of the enigmatic Dean.
Life in Lee
Isaac Howk was a man of some standing in his eighteenth-century community. His father, Rykert Van Huyck (Anglicized as Richard Howk) had relocated his large family from Kinderhook, New York, thirty miles east over the border to Lee, Massachusetts around 1773, when son Isaac when a teenager. Kinderhook and Lee were each rural towns with Dutch inhabitants, situated on a river that served as a highway for both transportation and commercial exchange.
Richard Howk’s initial land purchase in Lee was some 170 acres in the area called “the Glass works Grant.” His overall holdings eventually grew to more than 1,000 acres, which were later divided amongst his five sons. The road along which Isaac and his brothers built their own homes over time is referred to as “Howk’s Hill” to this day. Period records and multiple later histories of the town make reference to a “large Dutch barn [which] from its conspicuous position on the top of the hill, came to be known far and wide as ‘Howk’s Barracks’” (History of Berkshire County, pgs. 127-128).
Isaac Howk’s maternal grandfather, Isaac Van Deusen—“Rich” Isaac, as he was characterized in a family history—had also emigrated from Kinderhook and become scion of one of the largest landowning families in western Massachusetts (History and Genealogy of the Van Deusens…, pg. 8). Perhaps as a means of keeping assets within the family unit, the Dutch community did not look far afield for marriage partners. In 1785, Isaac Howk married his first cousin, Fiche Van Deusen, of the Dutch community in nearby Great Barrington. Two of Isaac’s sisters also married two of Fiche’s brothers.
Most families of the Hudson River Valley, including the Huycks/Howks, were multilingual. “Dutch was the language spoken at home, even though English was the language of government and commerce.” The famous former-slave-turned-abolitionist Sojourner Truth was born into a Dutch household in Ulster County, New York, in 1797 and reportedly spoke English with a Dutch accent for her entire life (One Minute a Free Woman, pg. 37). It is likely that all of Isaac and Fiche Howk’s seven children grew up in Lee speaking both Dutch and English. It is equally likely that Dean was multilingual, but more on that below.
When Isaac Howk died in 1805, at just forty-eight years old, the inventory taken of his possessions gives us some clues as to his family’s financial and social status. There were linen and flannel sheets, pillowcases, coverlets and quilts to warm the six family beds on frigid Berkshire winter nights. A sugar box and three sugar bowls would have been replenished from the twenty-three pounds of sugar the family had on hand. Sugar would have been useful for sweetening tea, which the Howks prepared with two teapots and a set of silver teaspoons. Two looking glasses adorned the walls and at least one candle stand offered light in the evenings. A good deal of food and drink was laid by, including four barrels of meat, six gallons of molasses, two barrels of cider and a keg of methaglin, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water and spices. The inventory even notes the hive of bees that produced the honey. In short, the family lived quite comfortably. This hillside farm, comprised of two barns, a cow house, a wood house, three outhouses and a “dwelling house” set on about one-hundred-and-twenty-five acres of land, encompassed the primary world that Dean inhabited in Lee (Berkshire County Probate Records, Vol. 12, Reel #6, pgs. 387-388).
How did Dean come to be a part of the Howk household? It is difficult to say. Both the Howks of Kinderhook and the Van Deusens of Kinderhook, and later Great Barrington, were slaveholders. Local lore holds that all the family slaves were buried just outside the fence encircling the Van Deusen burial ground in the latter town. Remember that Isaac Howk and his wife, Fiche Van Deusen Howk, shared the same grandfather. “Rich” Isaac Van Deusen had six people of color living in his household in the first federal census taken in 1790. In fact, of the forty-six black inhabitants of Great Barrington in that year, twenty-one were living in independent households, and more than one-third of the rest were living in Van Deusen households. These people were likely emancipated slaves still residing in the homes of their former masters after Massachusetts quietly phased out slavery. (There is some speculation amongst historians as to whether blacks were still being held as slaves in isolated cases, but were recorded in the 1790 census as being free regardless.)
It is possible that Isaac Van Deusen “gave” Dean to his grandson Isaac Howk, or to his granddaughter, Fiche Van Deusen Howk. Note that the two Ohio histories with which I opened this piece tell different stories; one says that Dean “continued to live with her old mistress,” while the other claims that Dean “chose to stay with the family of her old master.” In the absence of a will or other legal document explicitly transferring ownership, we can only speculate. There is another more remote, but nonetheless intriguing, possibility with which I will begin Part Two.