On June 3, 2022, students from the Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School gathered to honor the lives of Cuff, Dinah, and Flora. We invite you to watch the ceremony here.
By Teagan Connellan, Class of 2022, Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School
No birth records. No death records. No marriage records. No working records. Someone who wasn’t even seen as a person. Someone who would be traded or worth a unit of dollars. Someone who was with five different people in his lifetime. Not as family. Not as a friend. Not as an employee. But as property. This is the story of Cuff.
Thomas Ruggles Jr, a pastor of the First Congregational Church in Guilford. He was the first known owner of Cuff, that the sources tell. Thomas Ruggles Jr. had no sons and only one daughter, Sarah Ruggles, who married Joseph Pynchon. In 1760, their first son, Doc. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon was born. When Thomas Ruggles Jr. died in the 1770s, he left Cuff in his will. Along with his other property and “moveables”. This alone is a big problem that demonstrates dehumanization, the process of depriving people of positive human qualities, like freedom, the right to be independent, and even being considered a human. Cuff was put in a will. Just like a family heirloom or money or a house or a piece of property. This is depriving Cuff of independence, and freedom for his life choices, and it is taking away the fact that he is not property, that he is human. For example, as stated in Thomas Ruggles Jr.’s will, “All the Remainder of my moveables (Except my Silver Tankard Silver Teapot Gold Seal Ring Library & wearing apparel Husbandry Tools and Negro Servant Cuff)”. Here, Cuff is listed as a moveable and listed with tools, teapots, and a library. Here, Cuff is not even considered or thought of as a person. He was passed down to his Ruggles Jr.’s heirs, as a gift.
However, not only was Cuff going to be owned by one of Ruggles’ heirs, but the person inheriting Cuff needed to make sure that “he be Comfortably Taken care of & Provided For During Life by my Heir”. This means that whoever owned Cuff needed to care for all of his necessary things to live, like a place to stay, food, water, and clothes. Cuff’s story shows paternalism by being passed down in a will but still being sure that he will be taken care of. Although this can also show dehumanization, it majorly shows paternalism because it states that the person who inherits Cuff needs to take care of him for the rest of his life. This is an example of paternalism because Cuff was never actually given the choice to be taken care of but since he had been enslaved his whole life, others believed that he was not capable of taking care of himself. They expected him to believe that this was for his own good, that they were looking out for him, that he couldn’t survive without them. Maybe he couldn’t, but that was not his fault. He was the victim of being deprived of his freedom. And he didn’t even get the choice to try and survive. This is paternalism.
Later on, in Ruggles Jr.’s will, he explains to whom he would leave the excluded items and Cuff to. He says that “So they go to my Grandson… And as to my Servant Cuff, my will & desire is he be Comfortably Taken care of” this explains how Ruggles Jr. would leave Cuff to his grandson, only when Thomas Ruggles Pynchon became of age, of course. Until he was old enough to inherit things from a will, his parents would get Cuff. This is where the economics of slavery were put into play. Joseph Pynchon, the father of Ruggles Pynchon, was now one of the owners of Cuff and evidently did not need his work that frequently and so was able to “rent him out” to Eli Foote. He happened to be the grandfather of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote a book that informed people about the horrors of slavery, (Article in NCPedia about Eli Foot). Foote used Cuff for multiple labor activities such as maintaining the grass and joining a work team, as shown in the account book of Eli Foote and Pynchon. When Pynchon rented Cuff out to Foote, he made 20 pounds for two years, meaning that he was economically benefiting from the labor of Cuff.
Eventually, Dr. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon turned eighteen years old and inherited Cuff, shown in the census of Guilford in 1790. However, in the Alderbrook Cemetery charts, it shows that Doc Thomas, his wife, Rebecca Pynchon, and Sarah Pynchon all died in the 1790s. As explained before, Ruggles Jr. stated that the heir must make sure that Cuff is to “be Comfortably Taken care of & Provided For During Life by my Heir”, In Sarah Ruggles’ probate records, it shows that she dies while still in debt to Ebenezer Hopson, for the care of Cuff. She knew that she had to take care of the enslaved person because in the will from Thomas Ruggles Junior, it elaborates that Cuff must be taken care of for his entire life. Since Sarah did not want to break his trust, and did not have the strength to take care of Cuff, she had to pay someone else to. Her probate inventory was taken in 1808, over forty years after the original will and testament of Thomas Ruggles Junior. Cuff survived this all. This shows agency and resistance, or enslaved people proving that they were still free people by doing things that they wouldn’t be usually allowed to do. Some slaves did it as marriage, making their own money, or hosting gatherings and elections within the slave population. But Cuff used agency and resistance by outliving all of his original owners. By showing that he could survive longer, even after all he had been through.
In conclusion, Cuff was an enslaved person who spent his whole life as a slave but was able to have examples of all of the elements of slavery in his life. With all of this, he was able to inspire and show others slavery as a whole, along with many other slaves, and this all came together to get slavery abolished. It showed how slavery existed in the North as well as the South. We can all learn a lot from the story of Cuff.