54th Mass Infantry Regiment Ceremony Sept. 22nd

REHOBOTH HISTORY MYSTERY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALEXANDER WILLIAMS

While doing research on Rehoboth’s Historic Burial Grounds, I came across a curious note in George Henry Tilton’s Book, A History of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. 

    Mr. Tilton describes the Hix Cemetery on Brook Street and mentions that two Civil War veterans are buried there, “Charles Miller and Alexander Williams (colored).”  Tilton used the racial designation of the time period. 

    I quickly turned to the chapter in Tilton’s book that lists Rehoboth Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War. There he repeats the record from the Commonwealth -- “Williams, Alexander. Seaman (colored). Died at Rehoboth almshouse. Buried in Hix cemetery, Oak Swamp.”  It didn’t mention anything else about his service.

     I don’t know what piqued by curiosity, but I needed to find out more about Alexander Williams.

    Our Rehoboth Veterans Services Officer does not have Alexander Williams on his lists of veterans flag placements, not in Hix Burial Ground or anywhere else in Rehoboth.  To me, this means that no one has ever applied for a grave marker from the federal government.  It appears Williams had few resources as he lived and died at the Alms House, yet he was a veteran.   

      I made a trip to the historical research center at the Carpenter Museum.  They had Tilton’s notes on his book and more information which yielded more clues.

      Tilton’s notes mention that Mr. Williams had lived with family in New Bedford and that he had a wife. Tilton also states Mr. Williams died at the alms house in Rehoboth and is buried at the Hix cemetery.  The author looked for a marker and found none listed, and thus concludes there probably isn’t one – yet.

     Historical records show the marriage in Middleborough, Massachusetts of Alexander Williams to Katie Mack. He is age 68, she is only 41. He is black, she is white. In this record, Alexander is a laborer.  The record shows he was born in Baltimore, Maryland and his parents are Alexander and Sophie Williams. Katie was born in New Hampshire.

     An 1880 Census of New Bedford shows Alexander and Catherine living at 5 Elm Street, close to the waterfront. He is a laborer, age 58, Catherine is 33. I believe this couple is the same one that married, legally, 8 years later.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished anti-miscegenation in 1843.            

     If Alexander was indeed from Baltimore, Maryland as stated in his marriage record in 1888, this marriage would still have been illegal there.  Maryland was the first state to ban inter-racial marriages in 1664. The ban was not overturned there until 1967, over three hundred years later.  Massachusetts, however was a much more progressive state, and is even today.

     I began to search for records, going further back.  An 1865 Census of New Bedford show a Williams family. John A. Williams, age 58, married, born in “An unknown Southern State”, occupation “seaman”.  An 1860 Census of New Bedford shows a Williams family, the oldest male being John A. Williams, born in state “unknown”, married and age 40. Occupation “laborer”.  This family could be the one I was looking for. John A. could be Alexander, or maybe just a relative. The records were enlightening either way.

     Perhaps it was best for a black man not to say what state you were from in the 1860’s.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided slave owners more leverage in recapturing their “property” and imposed a harsh penalty for anyone caught harboring slaves.  

     Though the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a Personal Liberties Law to try and protect runaway slaves, such laws were superseded by the federal law and would not win in court.  Eventually, but not until 1864, the Fugitive Slave Acts were repealed by Congress. Slavery had been banned in Massachusetts since 1783. 

     Could Alexander and his family have been fugitives? Even if they were innocent free people of color, up until 1864 bounty hunters from the South, with contrived affidavits, could arrest and return them as captured slaves.

     Massachusetts military records show Alexander Williams enlisted in the Navy at Plymouth, MA in 1864. The record shows his place of residence as Rehoboth, born in Baltimore, Maryland. There are notes about his height; 5 feet, 6 and 1/3 inches tall, black with black curly hair.  Age is said to be 34, though 44 is likely more accurate. His occupation is listed as a cook. There are notes about the scars he has on his body, one on each thigh, some on each arm and one above his left eyebrow. 

     In his life after the war, he and his wife found their way to Middleborough where they were married on August 18, 1888.  One month earlier that year, the town of Middleborough charged the town of Rehoboth for the couple’s care at the Alms House in Middleborough. It seems at some point, they were moved to the Alms House in Rehoboth (aka Rehoboth Asylum) where Alexander died.

     Historical vital records from Ancestry.com show the beautiful handwriting of the Rehoboth Town Clerk in 1888.  Williams, Alexander (Male, Af) died of dropsy on October 14, 1888, age 69.  His occupation is listed as sailor. His wife Catherine died in Lakeville, Massachusetts on December 1, 1894, widow, age 47. Her occupation at the time was housekeeper. 

     I wonder if Alexander even knew when he was born. Was his antebellum life in Massachusetts fraught with fear of being returned to the South? Was Baltimore just something to tell the census takers and records keepers? How did he come to live in Rehoboth, MA?  Where did all those scars come from? I guess we will never really know.

     The Rehoboth Cemetery Commission along with the Veterans Services Agent will discuss applying to National Cemetery Administration for a gravestone to be placed in Hix Cemetery for this man who lived and was buried in Rehoboth so many years ago. 

     Alexander Williams -  a black man from a Southern state, possible runaway slave, husband, laborer, sailor, cook, and Civil War veteran.  Rest in peace.

 

Image above: 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, litograph by Kurz and Allison, 1890. The 54th Regiment was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War.