History Bytes: Quaker Records of Manumission

July 1, 2021

Alexander Bice, MA graduate, Northeastern University, is one of the 2021 Buchanan Burnham Fellows working on capturing data from the NHS archives on Black and Indigenous people of color in colonial Newport, Rhode Island. The following post relates to the manumission of enslaved individuals by members of the Society of Friends. 

As a Buchanan Burnham Fellow with the Newport Historical Society, I am working to learn more about the history of Rhode Island’s 18th century enslaved, indentured, and manumitted populations. One of the first sources that I looked at during the start of my research was the manumission records of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Digging beneath the sometimes-formulaic language of these records reveals the complicated history of slavery in Rhode Island and how enslaved people obtained their freedom.

Manumission or emancipation, the act of freeing an enslaved person from enslavement, is an often-discussed aspect of slavery in North America. We often think of manumission as the immediate freedom of an enslaved person, either because they purchased their own freedom or because their enslaver came to feel that slavery was morally abhorrent. In Rhode Island and other colonies in North America however, the reality could be much more complicated.

The emancipation or manumission of enslaved people occurred for a variety of reasons, and the documentation that is left to us today is more often a snapshot than a complete narrative. Quaker enslavers in New England felt social pressure to manumit enslaved people or be expelled from their congregation. In 1773, the New England Yearly Meeting declared in the Book of Discipline that all enslaved people held by Quakers were to be set free1. Many might have wanted to follow the principles of their religious community, but were more interested in their own spiritual salvation than the life of the person they were meant to free. Still others were unwilling to immediately emancipate children, and so kept them enslaved until their eighteenth or twenty-first birthday. In some cases, the manumitters clearly emphasized how the children would be educated to the level of an apprentice (at least in the case of boys), but this raises questions about the parents of the children and their rights.

The story of Cato Rivera and his mother Phillis Rivera, contained within the manumission records at the Newport Historical Society, highlight the complicated realities of manumission and the struggles of people of color that continued even after they themselves were free. The story of Cato and Phillis begins with Cato’s own manumission by his enslaver Abraham Rivera.

Emancipation record of Cato Rivera. NHS Vol.821, page 28.

In the record, Rivera states that he will seek to manumit Cato in two years on January 1, 1797 for services rendered. No reason is given for the delayed timeline in the document. However, for reasons unknown, this January deadline came and went. Cato was only manumitted on October 2, 1797 after Samuel Rodman of Massachusetts paid Abraham Rivera one hundred and twenty dollars in lieu of the two years of service. Both the original document in the NHS archives and the testimony transcribed in the Quaker records point to this date, but neither offer an explanation as to why Cato had remained enslaved.

Additional receipt in Cato’s manumission record, NHS Vol.821, page 29.

Several years later Cato appears again in the Quaker manumission records when he purchases the freedom of his mother, Phillis, from Hannah Rivera. It is not known what trade Cato entered after he achieved his freedom, but he was clearly able to make the significant financial undertaking of purchasing Phillis’ freedom from Hannah Rivera for one hundred dollars. While the record makes no exact mention of Phillis’ emancipation, given the familial relationship between the two it was the most likely outcome.

Emancipation record of Phillis Rivera. NHS Vol.821, page 25.

This is a rather unique entry in the manumission records, in part because the source material privileges stories of white enslavers making the choice to manumit enslaved people. The story of Cato and Phillis illustrates how these acts of manumission were deeply fraught and not always accomplished through the pure intentions of the manumitter. In the case of both Cato and Phillis, money paid to their enslaver was central to securing their emancipation. It also serves as a reminder that Black people were actors in their freedom and the freedom of their loved ones rather than just recipients of that freedom.


1Interim Faith and Practice (Worcester, MA: New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, 2015) 91.

Banner: Emancipation record of Phillis Rivera. NHS Vol.821, page 25.