James Mye, a poor Indian boy, was apprenticed to a Nantucket couple whose children treated him like a slave.
The commonwealth never passed a law making slavery illegal until it ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Slavery instead was slowly abolished by the courts, starting with the 1781 court case that freed Elizabeth Freeman from bondage.
Since the Pequot War, people in Massachusetts sent captured Indians to the West Indies in exchange for African slaves. Some people simply treated Indian children as slaves, believing they could buy and sell their labor.
Before English settlers arrived, the Mashpee Indians numbered in the thousands and lived throughout southern New England and eastern Long Island. They were a branch of the Wampanoag Indian people, converted to Christianity by the Puritans. Disease wiped out all but about 60 families in Barnstable Country on Cape Cod. They survived largely through intermarriage with free or escaped Africans.
They made their living selling wild fruit, clams and brooms, but many fell into debt bondage. Their creditors pushed them further into debt by plying them with liquor.
In 1789, Massachusetts passed a law giving a board of overseers control of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians.
Guardians, who reported to the board of overseers, could bind out poor Mashpee minors as apprentices.
James Mye was born in 1783 to an African-American father named Newport or Levi Mye. His mother was Sarah Soncansin, a Wampanoag.
On June 21, 1793, the guardians of the Mashpee Indians in Barnstable County bound the 10-year-old boy as an apprentice to Joshua Hall for 10 years until his 21st birthday. Hall died, leaving Mye to his two sons, Stephen and Joshua.
In 1801, Stephen and Joshua agreed to send James Mye as a cabin boy on a sealing voyage aboard the Trial for 1/100th of the ship’s profits. The ship captain was Thomas Coffin, father of abolitionist Lucretia Mott. Coffin and his partners told the Hall brothers they would kill seals in the Pacific Ocean, sell their skins in Canton, then return to Nantucket.
The ship set sail in April 1801 and sold sealskins in the China trade as planned. But instead of returning to Nantucket, the Trial sailed to South America with goods banned by the Spanish king. The ship landed in Valparaiso on July 1802 and was seized by the Spanish. Eventually the crew returned to the United States, but without any bounty from the voyage.
Stephen and Joshua Hall sued Coffin and his partners for $200 for taking James Mye under false pretenses. They won their case in Common Pleas court. They said they were deprived of the profit from 1/100th part of the skins and lost ‘time, labor and service’ of James Mye.
The Court Case
The court of Common Pleas ruled against the ship’s partners, who appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The three-man Supreme Judicial Court ruled in October 1804 the Halls couldn’t inherit an indenture as if it were personal property.
Justice Simeon Strong wrote that even if Mye were the Halls’ apprentice, they had no ‘right to send him to the south-pole, to the end of the globe, in their service.’ The judges said the guardians might have had the right to send him on the voyage if navigation instruction was part of the agreement.
The case was important because the judges objected to the idea that a person’s labor could be owned by another. It was an early precedent in court rulings that moved the United States away from apprenticeships and indentures.
James Mye’s children worked as mariners and carpenters on Cape Cod and bought property. By 1844, Mye’s son James could show his prosperity by buying a daguerrotype of himself wearing a top hat, frock coat and tie.
This story last updated in 2022.