A review of a new book about the economics of racial discrimination mentioned Elleanor Eldridge, a “free woman of color” who was born in Warwick in 1784, became a successful businesswoman, a property owner in Providence and the subject of a best-selling book and doing all of that “by the sweat of her brow,” according to one of her sponsors.
As a member of the Warwick community of 20 years standing, I was surprised that I never heard of her, but I was astonished that no one else in Warwick had heard of her as well. I went to the Warwick Public Library and borrowed their one copy of the “Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge,” published in 1842. Warwick’s copy is a 1969 photographic reprint of the book.
The “Memoirs” were a primary source for the “Dreadful Deceit” chapter on Eldridge but, thankfully, only one of many documents she consulted before writing the book. If she had relied solely on the “Memoirs,” the story would have been largely fictional. It is one of the earliest “as told to” autobiographies published in America and the book’s real author is Frances H. Green (born Whipple, in Smithfield) a Rhode Island author of huge pretensions whose turgid, overwrought prose is possibly the main reason many have never heard of Elleanor Eldridge.
“The ties then, which unite families among the virtuous poor, are wrought from the deepest and strongest, and holiest principles of our nature. They have toiled, and struggled, and suffered together; until bond strengthens bond and heart is knit with heart, by the strongest and most endearing ties. The world beyond and above, may persecute, oppress, and wrong them; yet out of these very circumstances springs a sympathy stronger than the great and the fashionable ever know…”
There are pages and pages of such prose and it’s not long before the reader is tempted to skip over much of what appears to be calculated to demonstrate the wide-ranging vocabulary of Frances Green than illustrate the facts of Elleanor Eldridge’s life.
Nevertheless, patience yields the facts that Elleanor was the daughter of Robin Eldridge and Hannah Prophet. Robin was the son of a slave who was a veteran of the famous Black Regiment of the Rhode Island Army in the Revolutionary War.
After he returned to Warwick, he and his wife settled in Apponaug, where, Whipple wrote, “by his honesty, industry, and general good character, he was always held in esteem.” Hannah was the daughter of Mary Fuller, a Narragansett Indian, and of Thomas Prophet, a former slave man whose freedom she bought. Jones gives well-researched reasons why it might have been possible for a Narragansett Indian, which was to sell a piece of whatever property she had left.
“By the mid-eighteenth century the Narragansett were impoverished, overwhelmed by debts incurred while indulging in English goods and vices such as alcohol. In 1780 less than six hundred Indians were just barely managing to survive on reservation lands, and others were leading a peripatetic existence, searching for jobs throughout New England-the men as farm tenants, servants, sailors, and day laborers; the women as traders of cranberries and cheese and hawkers of brooms and baskets. In Narragansett country a radically unbalanced sex ratio in favor of women (2:1) made Indian-black unions predictable, if not strictly necessary.
“In the eyes of whites, patterns of intermarriage and forcible displacement had effaced the Narragansett’s historic identity, transforming them into “people of color” virtually indistinguishable from blacks in terms of the stigmas attached to them-as unsettled, slothful, and depraved.”
Unfortunately, even Jones’ most diligent research of surviving documents failed to clear up much of the mystery that surrounds Eldridge’s background remains a mystery because much of what Green wrote about her is not supported by records.
Inconsistency and hard-to-believe anecdotes roam around the book. For instance, why does no record exist of Elleanor’s purported beau, a sailor identified only as “Christopher G_____” by Green, who is notable for sending a letter to his supposed illiterate sweetheart that is quoted by Green. A subsequent letter explains his long absence with a series of incredulous adventures, including being pressed into the British Navy and eventually being lost at sea. Jones did establish that Elleanor existed through census data that dates from 1790.
“When the US Census was taken for the first time in 1790, ‘Robin Eldrich,’ a free man of color, was heading a six-person household in Warwick, a household at least partially supported by his wife, Hannah, a laundress. The couple had nine children; Elleanor, the youngest, was one of five who survived. That year Warwick had a population of 2,493 persons, including 35 slaves and 224 free persons of color.”
Her mother died in 1790 and Eldridge, like many other black children of the time, was put to work, prompting Green, who by now, you might have guessed, was the real author of the “Memoirs,” to write:
“He sprung to his sister’s [half-sister, actually] arms, and clinging around her neck, cried ‘Don’t go, Nelly! I play alone. I be tired. I cry!’…pausing a moment before her father, she turned from the door, wiped the tears away with the corner of her short-gown, and ran along the road, quite fast, to escape the earnest cries of her weeping brother.”
That was quite a scene, considering that Nelly was moving from Apponaug to another part of Warwick, a journey of several miles, at least. Subsequently, Elleanor went to live and work with the family of Captain Benjamin Greene on Warwick Neck from 1803 to 1811.
After the presumed death of Christopher G_____ at sea, Elleanor becomes a businesswoman. Through thrift and the judicious use of what little money she inherited and earned at what seems to have been a form of domestic contracting, Elleanor builds up capital and begins to speculate, in a relatively modest way, in Providence real estate.
She also cultivated connections with the families she worked for and when she got in trouble with the law, those connections kept her from going to jail. Jones wrote:
“Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1820, Elleanor had a most unpleasant encounter with the law that revealed her enduring reliance on the white men who were her employer-patrons. On July 26 the Providence Patriot ran a ‘public notice’ stating that a person recently convicted of petty theft in Cranston had described his accomplice, and as a result “Eleanor Eldridge, a woman of colour, was arrested.”
She was interviewed and released, reports Jones, but the incident prompted her to accumulate a résumé of references from the families she had worked for.
“Without the testimonials of these men, Eldridge might have been sent to the city workhouse or endured a public whipping in the State House yard. For obvious reasons, the ‘Memoirs’ made no mention of Eldridge’s humiliating arrest and interrogation.”
Jones was impressed, as anyone would be, by Eldridge’s burgeoning wealth.
“For a humble laboring woman, she was remarkable for hoarding cash and securing loans, from $200 to $1,500 at a time, from private creditors, probably her male employers or the husbands of her female employers. She apparently eschewed the siren call of consumer goods; if she needed to impress someone-a judge, for example-she borrowed a fancy horse and carriage from an employer. Perhaps the fact that her father was a homeowner convinced her of the lasting value of real estate: her holdings would not only put a roof over her head, but also pay her a regular dividend, and their value would appreciate as the demand for housing grew apace.”
But then there was a setback to the Eldridge family fortunes in April of 1832. Elleanor found herself back in court, this time as an advocate for her half brother, possibly the one who clung to her neck as she tearfully moved across town.
“In Whipple’s words, George Eldridge had been accused of ‘having horsewhipped, and of otherwise barbarously treating a man upon the highway,’ one Samuel Gorton, a member of a prominent white Warwick family. The actual indictment read that on April 4, 1832, ‘with force of arms’ George Eldridge committed an assault on Gorton that ‘did bruise and wound’ him
with ‘malice aforethought to kill and murder.’”
Jones again quoted Green’s book about the incident, “Was there any thing in the abstract possession of money, houses, or lands, that could, for one moment, be weighed against it? She thought not.”
‘Heart set upon the perishable things of earth’
What makes Jones’ version of the Elleanor Eldridge story is that, rather than being the passive victim of a grave injustice, Eldridge was fiercely determined to get back the land and money she lost in a land deal gone bad and enlisted Green and other women of Providence to raise the money and level of indignation to succeed.
So, why hasn’t the formidable Elleanor Eldridge become an icon of civil rights and the women’s movement? Jones’ book shed some light on that as well:
“Yet Eldridge never conformed to northern whites’ views of the suffering slave, and even some dedicated abolitionists found fault with the book itself and with her insistent prodding for money. In New Bedford, after hearing her [Eldridge herself] speak, one audience member opined that the book might have been more effective ‘had it been written in the plain common sense style in which the subject of it narrates it.’”
Jones also gives us a glimpse at Eldridge’s “people skills.” The story of how Eldridge was maneuvered out of a piece of property in Providence was not confined to Rhode Island. William Lloyd Garrison had ambivalent feelings about Eldridge and Green.
“In late 1838 Garrison confided in a letter to one of his friends in Providence that he found Eldridge’s appeals grating. She was, he felt, ‘in affluent circumstances.’ And he found ‘her heart set upon the perishable things of earth,’ rather than devoted to more principled matters.”
Unlike the bruised slave, she was not an obvious or appropriate object of charity. Furthermore, she had an outsized sense of her own self-importance, according to Garrison, owing to “bad advisers [presumably Whipple], who have led her to think that her case is one of national importance, and that abolitionists universally would bestir themselves mightily on her behalf!”
Moreover, he worried that even his hallowed name couldn’t induce people to buy “The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge.” “Meanwhile, even his public endorsement had failed to move more than forty copies of the two hundred books he had in his office. Her promise ‘to return shortly, and bring another
trunk full with her’ filled him with dread.”
The central thesis of Jones’ book is that racism in America was more the product of economic circumstances and competition for scarce jobs among the laboring classes; a condition that capitalists did little to discourage.
Whether you accept her thesis or not, you will be enthralled with the historic characters she enlists to make her point. She proves that race is no way a measure of the intelligence of men but she also shows us what we lost when we embraced the idea of racial differences among human beings. For better or worse, Elleanor Eldridge could have been the Donald Trump of her time.