Among the Deborah Barker letters to Christian Barnes in our archives (see post of October 28) is a well-worn manuscript dated May 13, 1787. It is signed “Daphney,” and was originally indexed as authored by “Daphne Barker.” Indeed, Deborah Barker’s frequent references to Daphne in her own letters call up the image of an elderly aunt who visits her Hingham relations from time to time.
But there is no Daphne in the Barker family tree. We started looking at the Barnes family and, before long, realized that Daphne was the Barnes’ former slave, left behind when Loyalists Henry and Christian Barnes fled to England in 1775.
The letter is in Deborah Barker’s handwriting, but the voice is unmistakably Daphne’s. She updates her former mistress on local news and describes a general economic malaise: “Everybody is very poor. The streets are full of beggars and the people steal so that the jails are full.” She fills Mrs. Barnes in on her Boston friends—and she is not afraid to dish the dirt. “Mrs. Howe,” she writes, “was at Boston this winter. She came in a shay. She is grown as big as a great ox.” When she saw Mrs. Howe, Daphne writes, she “enquired after Dolly Gate and Mrs. How told she had gone up to near Rutland and had another child by a married man.” “John Parker’s sister Polly,” she reports, “went up to see him and came home with a child but no husband.”
Daphne is vocal in her complaints about the support she is receiving from the General Court, which became responsible for her after it confiscated the Barnes’ Marlborough estate. Simon Stow, a Marlborough lawyer, “has the care of your estate in Marlbro’ and he never came to town till March and I believe I should have froze if Mr. Parker and Mr. Green had not sent me some wood. Mr. Stow came to town in March & gave me a little fag of wood that he gave four shillings for and he has not been in town since.”
When Daphne wrote this letter, she was living on Rowe’s Lane in Boston (near today’s Bedford Street), renting from a black woman named Venus, according to legislative records at the Massachusetts Archives. Deborah Barker did not approve: she wrote that the money the General Court set aside for Daphne “would be a very comfortable support . . . could she be prevailed upon to live anywhere but in a negro house . . . .”
Daphne appears to have come to Hingham in the summer, as reflected in repeated references in Deborah Barkers’ letters: “[Daphne] continues her annual visits to Hingham and we are fond of seeing her” (Aug. 5, 1783); “I expect [Daphne] every day as I promised to write for her as soon as I returned from my journey” (June 1788); “she spent a month with us the summer past but grew impatient to go home” (Nov. 12, 1790). The letter in our archives was undoubtedly written on one of Daphne’s visits to Hingham.
Further research is needed to discover what Daphne’s ties were to Hingham. Was she related to one of the Barkers’ slaves? Was she raised on the South Shore? Even without full context, her letter allows us to hear the voice of an individual which might otherwise have been lost and to ponder relationships we have trouble understanding.