Topsfield Stories

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African Princess in Topsfield

Sara Colcher photo
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Buried in the family lot of Albert Austin Conant, in Pine Grove Cemetery, lies the body of an African princess. It was a strange mis-adventure that brought this girl from far away Africa to Topsfield, where she lived for a number of years in the home of Major Nathaniel Conant at the corner of Main and Haverhill streets. It happened that Mrs. Conant’s brother, Captain Austin Dodge, of Beverly was owner of the barque Magdala, and made voyages to Africa. In 1844, while on one of these voyages, he was traveling inland near Sierra Leone, and came across a tribal war being fought there. In order to escape its cruelties many of the women and children were fleeing toward the coast, when some, from fatigue, dropped behind and became separated from the others.

A slave dealer, Don de Mer, just then came driving his slaves under the lash and, with a short raw hide whip, forced some of these stragglers to come along with his slaves. He was a passenger on board Captain Dodge’s return trip and brought on board with him three of the last acquired captives. The sailors made clothes for them, as they were naked, but one of these, a child about eight years of age, had a string of beads around her waist which was thought to mark her as an African princess.

Don de Mer died on the passage and the girl, who gave her name as Sarah Baro Colcher, was given to Captain Dodge, who brought her home to his sister, Mrs. Elisabeth Dodge Conant, in Topsfield, who brought her up and gave her an excellent education. She proved trustworthy and grateful and developed into a fine woman. When she became of age she went into domestic service and was for many years cook in the home of Mrs. Gordon Dexter of Boston and Beverly Farms. While she was living there she was taken ill and Mrs. Kilham of Beverly, the niece of Captain Kilham, had her brought to her home and cared for until she recovered. It was for a time the care of Miss Henrietta Kilham, then a child, to read aloud to her every afternoon, and she remembers being told that in spite of all the intervening years she (Sarah) was never able to forget the lash.

The Society is fortunate to have in its collection a small mahogany box that once belonged to Sarah.

 

 

Dr. Justin Allen’s 1902 letter to be read in 100 years.

 

It was December 14, 1894, when the Topsfield Historical Society held its first meeting, by invitation from George Francis Dow;  Dr. Justin Allen was elected President.   So who was this man Justin Allen?  Why was he elected President over 15 other prominent members of the community? 

 

Allen was born in Hamilton in 1826, attended schools in Massachusetts and then Dartmouth College, eventually received a BA degree from Brown University in 1852.  He studied for a couple of years under his brother’s medical practice, and ended up graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1855.  Moving to Topsfield in June of 1857, he started a medical practice here and served the community almost exclusively for 30 years.

 

But his work as a physician was not his only ‘occupation’.  Dr. Allen served on the School Committee, even as superintendent for a year.  He was also devoted to the Library, which he helped to establish in 1874, and served on the Board, continually selecting volumes for the collection.  The Library was not physically built until 1935, after his death, but Allen’s efforts and donations made it possible.  He also served on Medical boards, such as the  Mass Medical Society, traveling into Boston for meetings and seminars.  He attended reunions for Brown and Harvard, and actively participated in conventions.  Dr. Allen was very civic-minded in our community and also in the national and international political realms.  He frequently attended sessions of the Massachusetts congress in Boston at the state house and at Fanueil Hall.  He was constantly reading – subjects of history, literature, exploration, and biographies.  He was particularly troubled by the “barbarous  treatment of Napoleon Bonaparte” in the hands of the British, which was “not characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon… towards a fallen enemy.”  The subject of ethics and standards of humanity was of great interest and concern to Dr. Allen.

In 1902, Justin Allen wrote a letter as President of the Topsfield Historical Society to the future President, 100 years later.  I came across this letter recently(a few years late) and found it to be more of a prophecy than a time capsule.  He addresses the issues, which clearly troubled him – the death penalty, Temperance, and international diplomacy – and wished the Society fortune in dealing with these issues as well as pursuing the goal of preserving Topsfield’s history.

Dr. Allen lived in the house at the corner of Grove Street and South Main, which is today divided into separate units.  He is thought to be the owner who divided the house, probably so he could rent the apartments, since he never married so did not need space for a family.  At the end of his life he was cared for by Mrs. Abigail Welch, to whom he left his house, ‘for her continued kindly attendance’ during his illness.  During the last few years of his life, Dr. Allen was being treated for glycosuria (possibly diabetes?)  His treatment included diet of meat and egg whites.  Sounds like Dr. Allen was ahead of the curve with the low-carb diet!  Unfortunately he passed away in November of 1908, age 81.  In his will he gave $8000 to erect the Civil War Monument in Topsfield.   This was completed in 1914.

Dr. Justin Allen was truly a dedicated man – dedicated to his patients, his community, humanity, and education – in every aspect he was both an active leader and a humble member at the same time.  His impact on Topsfield is all around us, in the monument, the Library, and of course, the Historical Society.   We are grateful for gentlemen like him who left his legacy throughout our town, and as the Topsfield Historical Society’s first president, certainly gave our Society a solid foundation and set standards for its longevity!

 

Sources:

Dr. Allen’s personal journals

Historical Collections Vols. 14 & 25

Written by Amy Coffin