SHE CAME TO the window around 9 a.m., singing in a loud, high-pitched voice. Her words were foreign, but they communicated a sense of sorrow so powerful that John Josselyn was left shaken.
“Going out to her,” Josselyn later recounted in his journal, he was met with “a great deal of respect” from a striking woman with an uncanny ability to bare her soul to a stranger. “[She] would willingly have expressed her grief, in English, had she been able to speak the language,” he wrote, “but I apprehended it by her countenance and deportment she had been a queen in her own country.”
It was 1639 and Josselyn, a British traveler, was a guest at the Noddle’s Island fort of Samuel Maverick, a colonist well known to his contemporaries for having a “large-hearted hospitality.” Today, Noddle Island is part of East Boston, its contours rendered almost invisible when its tidal flats were filled in for the construction of Logan Airport. But on that day nearly 400 years ago, it was the site of an atrocity –– one that was fully exposed to Josselyn when his quiet was disrupted by the woman’s song.
The story was later shared across the nation by renowned historians and journalists alike. The great American abolitionist, suffragist, and journalist William Lloyd Garrison told it in his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, in response to a query about the first introduction of African slaves into Massachusetts. According to his report, which included written excerpts from Josselyn himself, Josselyn was so moved by the encounter that he asked Maverick about the woman.
“Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of negroes,” wrote Josselyn. Maverick told him that the woman repeatedly kicked out a male African slave he had ordered to her quarters to rape her. “This she took in high disdain, beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief.”
Six years prior to the arrival of John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1630, Maverick had settled into what would later become present day Chelsea. It was just a few years after getting a foothold there that Maverick built a substantial fortified home at Noddle’s Island and became the largest landowner in the state after marrying into a wealthy family. Upon the arrival of Winthrop’s fleet of ships, he wielded tremendous influence with the newcomers. For his legacy as one of the nation’s earliest settlers and first European residents of Massachusetts, East Boston’s Maverick Square was named after him.
But Maverick was also a man of other firsts, none of them acts that should be part of the biography of someone for whom a prominent public square in Boston is named.
Maverick is widely considered to be the first known slave owner in Massachusetts, and was also involved in the first slave trade voyage from the American colonies, which sailed out of Massachusetts. The ship Desire left Salem in 1637, carrying Native American captives — children — from the Pequot War to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean after the murder of their parents and destruction of their communities. When the Desire returned in 1638 with the first known Africans brought to the northern English colonies, the woman that Josselyn encountered was aboard.
Maverick, whose namesake is now being positioned by real estate developers as Boston’s next trendy neighborhood, is also well documented as the founder of the first recorded slave breeding program in the New World.
Despite this sordid history and East Boston’s heritage as having long been a destination for immigrants who themselves were the victims of discrimination and oppression, Maverick’s name remains.
Today, East Boston’s population is 58 percent Hispanic, and it has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any Boston neighborhood. Members of our family settled in East Boston when they first arrived in America from Ireland and Italy, in 1844 and 1920, respectively.
Many of East Boston’s immigrants settle around Maverick Square, the oldest commercial center in the neighborhood. New development around the square is changing the landscape and also causing alarm for longtime residents who feel like they are engaged in a battle for Eastie’s soul against impending gentrification.
Perhaps the measure of Eastie’s soul should also be how it confronts the memory of this depraved man and his captives, including the African queen of East Boston.
Today, Maverick’s Noddle’s Island refuge has faded away with the same mutability as Maverick himself demonstrated when he packed his bags for New York City in 1669, leaving Boston for a house on Broadway granted to him as a gift for his allegiance to the British crown. It’s time we send his name packing too.
Maverick literally means “unbranded.” It can also connote the freedom derived from not having a name. But names are important. This fact was celebrated in Nubian Square in December when the city’s Public Improvement Commission approved its name change from Dudley Square. Local community activists had argued that as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Dudley perpetuated slavery.
This would not be the first – or even second – attempt to rename Maverick Square.
In 1908, Mayor George Hibbard vetoed a city council effort to rename part of the square in memory of a popular city councilor, Thomas Doherty. Citing a historical account describing Maverick as a “man of loving and courteous behavior,” Hibbard wrote in his veto message, “Surely he has not been overhonored!”
1923, Mayor James M. Curley vetoed a city council measure to rename the square in honor of Major P.J. Grady, a Bostonian who died in the Spanish-American War. In rejecting the effort, Curley said Maverick’s name is “linked with the vital and splendid days of our history.”
Of course, the days were not at all splendid for the enslaved Africans he owned and traded.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the US and world in response to George Floyd’s brutal murder, America’s cultural symbols are increasingly being called into question. In June of last year, Mayor Marty Walsh announced plans to assess the “historic meaning” of Christopher Columbus in the city’s North End after a Columbus statue was vandalized. Maverick’s fidelity to the American spirit is at least equally as questionable.
Through her mournful song, Maverick’s slave ensured her life would be remembered. Still, we will probably never know her name. The best we can do for her now is to make sure Maverick’s is no longer accorded a place of honor in our civic life.
Annamarie Hoey is a sixth-grade student at the Rindge Avenue Upper School in Cambridge. Matt Hoey, her father, is a lifelong Boston area resident and helped her with research and editing on this essay.