When you hear about the history of enslaved Africans in the United States, you likely think about the lives of slaves on plantations in the American south. However, did you know that a slave-owning estate existed right outside of Boston, Massachusetts? The Isaac Royall House is the only historic home in the northern United States with surviving separate slave quarters. While slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1781, it was uncommon for a family to own more than one or two slaves. So how did the Royall family come to have 27 enslaved people on their estate in rural Medford? In 1736, after the possibility emerged of a slave revolt in Antigua, Isaac Royall, Sr., who was a sugar cane plantation owner there, moved his family and 27 enslaved Africans to a 636-acre estate and home that he purchased in Medford, which was then known as West Cambridge. Upon his death in 1739, his son, Isaac Royal, Jr., inherited the Royall House and estate. To show off the family’s fortune, he proceeded to double the size of the house, create the two beautiful facades that you see today, and remodel the interior to turn the former farmhouse into an opulent Georgian mansion. Throughout the tour of the Royall House, I was amazed by the incredible wooden paneling and intricately carved, decorated archways, which are considered the best surviving examples from the period. The historian in me was impressed that historic inventories of the home have been used to lavishly furnish the mansion with period appropriate antiques and artifacts so that visitors can see each room as it would have actually appeared during the time period.
As part of his continued renovations of the Royall House, in around 1760, Isaac Royall, Jr., also expanded the “out kitchen”, or summer kitchen, building to create the two-floored slave quarters that remain today. Having 27 enslaved Africans made the Royalls the largest slave-owning family in Massachusetts. Unlike the plantations of the antebellum south, the estate was not a cash crop farm. Instead, Isaac Royall, Jr., continued to grow the family’s wealth through the slave trade, the operation of his sugar cane plantation in Antigua, and the ownership and leasing of property throughout Massachusetts. In fact, the town of Royalston, Massachusetts, is named after him since he founded it by a land grant in 1765.
On the over 600-acre Royall House and Estate, the enslaved people performed various duties including farming (to produce food for the family and workers only), cooking, cleaning, and serving in the household. Not all of the slaves would have resided in the building referred to as the slave quarters; many would have lived and slept wherever they worked, such as in the kitchen, in the barns, or in work rooms in the main house. Possessing so many slaves, allowed the Royalls to have a sumptuous lifestyle, but their luck changed with the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War.
The Royall Family were Loyalists, meaning that their loyalties lay with Britain, not with the American patriots who desired independence. As a result, several days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord (that began the American Revolution), the Royall Family fled their Medford home to Boston. Since Boston and the surrounding area was a hotbed of patriot activity and anti-British sentiment, Royalists were harassed and attacked; so many feared for their lives. So, like many other Royalists, the Royall family boarded a ship bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they knew they would be safe, since Canada was part of the British Empire. The Royalls never returned to their Medford estate, and for a while, the Royall House lay abandoned. Little is known about the fate of the enslaved people. Likely, they would have remained on the estate, as any traveling Africans would have raised suspicions among the local community.
During the early months of the American Revolutionary War, officers of the Continental Army used the the Royall House as a type of headquarters, and General George Washington supposedly interrogated several British soldiers in the master bedroom, known as the Marble Chamber. After the war, Washington’s secretary lived in the mansion, and, later, it became a boarding house. The estate was eventually returned to the heirs of the Royall family who sold it in 1806. A significant portion of the profit was donated to Harvard University to fund the creation of Harvard Law School. In fact, the seal of Harvard Law School bears three shafts of wheat that were copied from from the Royall Family Crest in order to commemorate their endowment of the school. However, in 2015, protests from Harvard students and members of the local community erupted over the use of a slave-owning family’s crest on the school’s seal. The university formed a committee to evaluate the issue, and Harvard Law School decided to retire the use of the shield.
After its sale to a series of other families, the former Royall House continued to be occupied until 1861, when the last owner died without an heir, causing the property to gradually fall into disrepair. However, in 1908, the Daughters of the American Revolution raised the necessary funds to renovate the home and open it as a museum. Later, in 1962, the Royal House Association formed and began operating the museum, offering public tours, events, and educational programs for school children.
The Royall House is such a unique historic home, and I thoroughly enjoyed my tour. Learning about the history of the home was absolutely fascinating and seeing the original lavish interiors, which have been carefully curated with sumptuous period furnishings, was a feast for the eyes. I highly encourage you and your family to visit the Royall House and Slave Quarters to learn about the rich history of the family who lived on the estate and about the little-known lives of enslaved Africans in the northern part of the United States.