The Social Construction of Race in Early Massachusetts History
In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie examines the story of Beulah Speene, a mixed-race woman who was married at Old North Church in 1767. Curiously, Beulah’s birth record suggests that she was white, yet Old North’s marriage records indicate that she was a person of color.
How does a person, over the course of twenty-four years, change from seemingly being a white person to becoming a free mixed-race person? Beulah’s appearances in the archival record offer a fascinating case study about the social construction of race in the colonial period.
See below for the video, primary sources, episode transcript, and a resource list!
Beulah Speene and Saul Rogers Marriage Record
Beulah Rogers and Nicodemus Giger Marriage Record
Daniel Speen Giger Birth Record
1790 United States Census – “Gigga” Family
Beulah Gigger and Nicodemus Gigger Death Record
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. Today, we continue our series about Indigenous and Black people’s histories at the Old North Church in the British Colonial Era. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated.
Today, we will think together about how race was socially constructed in colonial Massachusetts. If you are familiar with how sociologists theorize about race, you might know that in their 1986 book called Racial Formation in the United States, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant pushed against the dominant belief, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, that race was biological. Instead, Omi and Winant argued that humans socially constructed the idea of race.
In response to Omi and Winant’s findings, historians have demonstrated that race is both socially and historically constructed. In other words, historians who study race argue that over the past several hundred years, people have consistently redefined what it meant to be “white” or a “person of color” in different ways. The purpose of creating race is to empower some people while disempowering others.
Through our primary sources today, we will engage with the story of Beulah Speene. Beulah Speene was a mixed-race woman who was married by Old North’s assistant rector, Rev. James Greaton, in 1767.1 Speene emerged in archival records for the first time when she was born on May 12, 1743, in Natick, Massachusetts. Natick is a town twenty-five miles southwest of Boston. Beulah’s mother is listed as a woman named Lydia, her father’s name is unknown, and her race is not listed on her birth record. As you can see, this document requires the race of non-white people to be noted. Therefore, if this was the only document we had about Beulah Speene, we might conclude that she was not a person of color.
It is curious that Speene’s birth record failed to note her race because the Old North Church marriage records overtly stated that she was not a white person. As I look at these two records, I wonder, “How does a person, over the course of twenty-four years, gravitate from seemingly being a white person to becoming a free mixed-race person?”
Beulah Speene’s appearances in the archival record offer us a fascinating case study about the social construction of race in the colonial period. Her 1767 marriage at Old North Church to Saul Rogers, an enslaved Black man, allows us to consider how sexuality and gender also played into the social construction of race in colonial Massachusetts. Furthermore, her moves from Natick to Boston and back to Natick allow us to see how her desire for a sense of community and her religious beliefs factored into how the people who knew her thought about her race.
Before we continue, let’s contend with this odd term that appears in the Old North Church’s marriage records that is used to describe mixed-race people. Beulah Speene married Saul Rogers on March 13, 1767. He was a Black enslaved man, and she is listed as a “free mulatto.” The word mulatto originated in the late-sixteenth century. In Spanish it literally translates to young mule. The term likely refers to the hybrid origins of mules. The connotation of this word is that mixed-race people were close enough to Europeans, but somehow also derivative of Europeans. Its use intended to discourage sexual intimacy between people who were perceived as belonging to different racial groups. At this point in Boston’s history, the only way that Saul, a Black man, would have been allowed to marry Beulah is if they were both non-white people.
Although the sentiment this word evokes is one that I hope we push against today, I want us to consider that maybe this word allows us to think broadly about what Beulah Speene’s racial identity might have been. Our first clue into her race is her birthplace, Natick, Massachusetts. In 1651, Natick was settled by an English missionary named Rev. John Eliot as a Praying Town. As a minister in a praying town, Eliot worked with Indigenous ministers such as Waban, who was Massachusett, and John Speen, who was Nipmuc, to encourage Indigenous peoples in the region to conform to Puritan beliefs and behaviors.2
Eliot oversaw the translation of the English Bible into the Algonquian language. This 1663 translation of the Bible was the first translation of the Bible that was printed in North America. Before he died in 1690, he ordained Daniel Takawambpait, an Algonquian man, to lead the church. After Takawambpait’s 1716 death, John Neesnumin and Thomas Waban Jr. led the church.3 Afterwards, the New England company sent English ministers Rev. Oliver Peabody and later Rev. Stephen Badger to serve as ministers in Natick.
We do not have records that tell us what happened to Beulah Speene between the time she was born in Natick in 1743 and her marriage to Saul Rogers, an enslaved Black man, in Boston in 1767. Unfortunately, her name only emerges in the archival record through records of her birth, marriages, and later her death. However, we can speculate about some of the intervening details of her life. Based on her surname, she might have been a descendent of John Speen, who was an early minister among the Praying Indians. As we can see from her birth record, she was one of a few Speen children born in early-eighteenth-century Natick. We can speculate that someone might have disapproved of the relationship her parents shared because she is the only child for whom two birth parents do not appear on this page.
Perhaps she left Natick in her teens or early twenties. Maybe she found more stable employment in Boston. Perhaps she was eager to join colonial Boston’s Black community. Maybe the efforts that Boston’s Church of England community made to share their faith with Black and Indigenous peoples reached her. As a mixed-race woman, the people who encountered her certainly knew she was not white, but they also likely treated her with greater respect than they might have treated other free Black women who were new arrivals in Boston.
We also cannot know what factors led her to choose Saul Rogers as her spouse. We can only hope they were bound by bonds of deep love. Perhaps, like other people of African descent in the colonial period, they thought their marriage could change his social standing. We cannot know the motivations for their union because we do not have any writing from them about their relationship.
We also cannot know when or why Beulah decided to return to Natick. We know that she returned with her new surname “Rogers,” but likely without Saul. In Natick, she was married again by Rev. Stephen Badger. This time, she married a free man named Nicodemus Giger. Through her marriage to Nicodemus Giger, she returned to the community of Black, Massachusett, Algonquin, and Nipmuc people she left behind more than a decade earlier. This community likely included people who identified as Christians, people who practiced traditional Indigenous religions, people who found syncretism between multiple religions, and people who eschewed religion altogether.
In Natick, Beulah made a new life for herself as Giger’s spouse. They named their first child, who was born on August 22, 1777, Daniel Speen Giger. Daniel’s name preserved her maiden name, a name that was so important to Natick’s history. They had at least one other child before the 1790 United States census was taken. On the census, we find a head of household named “Nicodemus Gigga.” We know that no members of the household racially identified as white because the census taker indicated that no white people lived in the home. However, all four “Gigga” family members are listed as “free.”
These records about Beulah Speen allow us to see a few things. First, they allow us to see that free people of color traveled regularly in colonial Massachusetts. By so doing, they forged new social connections. Second, the records allow us to see how scraps of archival evidence can help us piece together a story of race and faith for women in colonial Massachusetts. Finally, the records allow us to see that in the colonial era, ideas about race were not stagnant. All we can ultimately know about Beulah’s race is that people of the time did not think she was white. Perhaps her lineage was mixed Black and Indigenous. Perhaps she was Indigenous and European. Perhaps she was Black and European. Perhaps she was some combination of all these identities. Such was the nature of life for people who lived between empires.
Thank you for watching this video. Please check our website for some resources to learn more about the idea of race as a social construct, and don’t forget to go to the Natick Historical Society’s website if you want to learn more about Natick’s history. How does Beulah Speen’s life help you to think differently about the social construction of race in colonial Massachusetts? As always, please share your thoughts in a comment below this video or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Jaimie’s use of the term mixed-race aligns with modern conventions for describing people with a mixed ethnic background. This is not the term that was used to describe multi-racial people in the colonial period.
2. On page 202 of Jean O’Brien’s 1997 book Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790, she identified Beulah Speene as the daughter of Lydia Speene, and the granddaughter of Natick proprietor Josiah (or John) Speene. With this knowledge, we can safely assume that Beulah belonged to the Nipmuc people.
3. Learn more about Natick’s seventeenth and eighteenth-century history by visiting the Natick Historical Society’s website. The NHS website also offers a list of books and articles to read if you want to learn more about seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century Natick.
Resource List — Social Construction of Race
Below are some resources to use to learn more about the social construction of race in the United States. In short, to call race a social construct means that it is something that humans have made meaning of together. The way people have thought about race has changed over time. If you have trouble accessing any of the articles, please email Jaimie at email@example.com for a PDF. For help accessing books, please contact your local librarian. If you seek additional resources, Jaimie is happy to make recommendations!
“Race in Keywords for American Cultural Studies” by Roderick A. Ferguson
“African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
“The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” by George Lipsitz
“Age, Race, Sex, and Class” by Audre Lorde
Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant
Whiteness of A Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson
The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger
Impossible Subjects by Mae Ngai
Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison
The Myth of Race, Debunked in 3 Minutes