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  • Writer's pictureChristian Di Spigna

Warren & Slavery

In June 1770, a few months following the Boston Massacre, Dr. Joseph Warren came to an agreement with Joshua Green when he “purchas’d a Negro Boy” from him for “two Notes…one for 17.L & the other for 13.L”. The sale stipulated that Warren could return the boy to Green within three months if he deemed him not worth the money. If after three months Warren decided to keep the slave, he agreed to give Joshua Green an additional “Ten pounds Lawfull Money to be paid in Potter’s Ware” (on top of the thirty pounds in notes he initially paid) within three years—one of many oddities involving this “transaction.” The last stipulation deemed that if Warren died within that time, the slave boy would be given back to Joshua Green who would then return Warren’s money—therefore the slave would not be inherited by Warren’s family.


The specific terms do appear unique in that most slave sale transactions that we have come across do not include a “probationary” period with an offer to retrieve their money if “dissatisfied” with the enslaved individual.[1] To date, this is the only known document regarding Warren’s purchase of an enslaved individual.


This would not be the last interaction that Warren had with the Green family. Several months after reaching the agreement with Joshua, he struck a separate deal with George Green to rent a home on Hanover Street in Boston. According to a December 5, 1770, letter written by George Green to Joshua Green outlining part of the rental terms it reads, “My mother has let out the house to one Dr. Warren and boards with him as she did not choose to move out of a place she has been long used to. She reserves to herself the two front chambers and keeps her maid and negro man.” Warren moved into the Green property with his wife and young children and as the letter indicates, the Green family matriarch—who was elderly and infirm—insisted on staying in the house.[2] Although we are unable to determine with certainty if these two transactions with the Green family were connected in any way, they both had stipulations attached.



No other reference has been found to determine what happened to the enslaved boy that Warren purchased from Joshua Green. The original slave sale document was later in the possession of S.A. Green, a descendant of Joshua Green. Had Warren decided to keep the boy, it would be a fair assumption to conclude that the document would have been voided or returned to Warren.[3] So can we assume that Warren decided to keep the boy? While that is the likely scenario, the answer is complex. The slave boy is not mentioned in Warren’s probate will, nor does he appear in any of the subsequent Warren family records—the trail goes cold.


However, there was a reference to Warren having a servant that appeared in Rivington’s New York Gazette, which stated that a “servant” followed Warren with a “bundle” that contained the Ciceronian toga that he would wear during his 1775 Boston Massacre Oration.[4] We do not know with certainty if the “servant” mentioned in the paper was a slave, nor is the age of the “servant” revealed. To further complicate matters, this newspaper article has been refuted in recent years with one historian, Eric Hinderaker, claiming that if it were true, then the story would have appeared in Boston’s local newspapers, not just the New York paper. Unless another document is uncovered regarding this transaction, we may never be able to determine what exactly happened in the end. By early January 1772, Warren had moved his family and medical practice out of the Green home and into the Chardon house, which was a larger property with a higher rent.


None of Warren’s letters or personal papers discuss the issue of slavery. We know that Warren treated both free and enslaved African Americans in his medical practice and that he died on the battlefield fighting alongside them. Many of his descendants would later become staunch abolitionists. However, there is no refuting that in 1770, Warren did purchase an enslaved boy and kept him for an unspecified period.


[1] While we have conducted extensive research on Warren, we are not experts on the purchase and selling of African American slaves in revolutionary New England. For additional information, one book to use as a possible reference is Lorenzo J. Green’s, The Negro in Colonial New England 1620- 1776.

[2] The Green matriarch did not live to see the new year.

[3] It is possible that the original sale document was not kept within the Green family and that S.A. Green acquired it from another source.

[4] Rivington’s New York Gazette, March 16,1775. To add to the mystery, one historian has dismissed this newspaper reference claiming that if it were true, it would have also appeared in Boston’s newspapers, which it did not.

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Warren's World

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