Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Samson Adams Papers, 1767-1794

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, 1995

Summary Information
Title: Samson Adams papers
Creator: Adams, Samson, d.1792
Inclusive dates: 1767-1794
Extent: 108 items
The Samson Adams papers are the estate and business documents of Adams, a free African American living and working in New Jersey in the late 18th century.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1980. M-1898.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown


The Samson Adams papers were originally contained within the Maskell Ewing Family papers. They have been catalogued separately because of their historical importance and completeness.

Preferred Citation:

Samson Adams Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan

Biographical/Historical Note

Samson Adams, an African-American resident of New Jersey, died in early August, 1792, leaving a legacy of hard labor and good works. His birthplace and parents are unknown, but the possibility that he had formerly been enslaved is suggested by the fact that his sister, Violet Adams, was enslaved as late as 1767, and by the presence of an invoice issued in 1775, in which he is referred to as "Mr. Hooper's Sampson" [sic]. By 1780, however, he was a free man, gainfully employed, having learned the trade of soap making, and by 1782, he had arranged to receive some schooling in the evenings.

An intelligent and resourceful man, Adams made a minor financial success out of himself through his "industry and attention to business," and through his flexibility in finding ways to make a living. Adams' economic pursuits were extremely varied, and included hiring out as a carpenter and laborer, and producing and trading in a variety of items, including soap, milk, corn, and construction materials. Through these activities, he was able to maintain financial and, to some degree, personal ties with some prominent members of the local white community, including the attorneys George Ely and Maskell Ewing. By 1788, Adams had purchased a plot of land in Trenton, where he kept some milch cows and hogs, and had even retained a housekeeper. In that year, Ely and Lamborn Cadwallader sponsored a subscription list to help finance the construction of a house for Adams, and they received contributions of money or labor from a number of the city's residents, all apparently favorably impressed with Adams' good standing in the community. Among other evidence of his character, Ely noted that Adams was a dutiful son, having for some time "maintained an aged and infirm mother" at considerable effort and expense.

Four years after Ely's subscription was taken, Adams suffered a lingering death from an unknown illness, and in his final days was bedridden and attended by a physician. He was survived by Violet, and a brother, Cato, who was married and the father of two children. In addition, three other Adamses received bequests in his will, Sarah, possibly Cato's wife, Adam, and Hester. Adams selected Ewing and Ely to act as executors, leaving an estate valued at over £84, the bulk of which went to Violet. In keeping with the resourcefulness and political tact he demonstrated during life, he bequeathed equal sums to the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Trenton, as well as a small sum for the poor of the city. He was buried in the Black's Burying Ground in Trenton.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Samson Adams Papers is comprised of over one hundred items that offer a rare glimpse into the economic and personal life of a free African-American resident of the mid-Atlantic states during the last quarter of the 18th century. The collection is divided into two series, the first consisting mainly of materials dating between 1780 and 1792, with a few earlier items, and the second containing all materials specifically related to the settlement of Adams' estate. The first series is arranged chronologically, but the second is arranged with the intention of representing the progression of the estate settlement, in an attempt to reconstitute the order placed on the materials by the executors.

The first series of Adams' papers (folders 1-11) contains bills and receipts issued by and to Adams for items ranging from milk and soap to building materials. Also included in this series are a work pass for his sister, Violet, and two important and highly unusual subscription letters seeking assistance for Adams in completing the building of his house. The second series (folders 12-30) includes Adams' will, an inventory and a complete breakdown of the distribution of his estate, bills submitted to the estate with numbered receipts showing their payment, and numerous other estate-related items. This series appears to contain nearly complete documentation of the progress of the estate, and the inventories, evaluations, and itemized list of the distribution of the estate offer an extremely detailed portrait of Adams' financial holdings and personal and business relationships

Subject Terms

    • Auctions.
    • Domestic animals.
    • Estates (Law)
    • Food--Costs.
    • Freedmen.
    • Land titles.
    • Law.
    • Medicine.
    • New Jersey.
    • Soap--Costs.
    • Taxation.
    • Wills.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Samson Adams Papers,  1767 June 23-1794 May 31 [series]
    Folders   1-11  
    Bills and Receipts,  1767-1792
    Folders   12-30  
    Materials relating to Adam's Estate,  1792-1794
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    The Samson Adams papers were originally contained within the Ewing Family Papers.

    Partial Subject Index
    African Americans--New Jersey
    • Folder 16: undated
    • Folder 13: 13 August 1792; Folder 14: undated, 1 April 1793
    Bills and receipts
    • passim
    • Folder 4: 15 July 1786; Folder 5: 1 May 1788
    • Folder 16: undated; Folder 23: 15 September 1792
    Clothing and dress
    • Folder 1: 13 July 1774; Folder 20: 6 August 1792
    • Folder 2: 19 November 1782
    Domestic animals
    • Folder 2: 22 July 1780; Folder 4: 10 October 1786; Folder 7: 7 November 1789
    • Folder 2: 28 March 1782
    Estates (Law)--New Jersey
    • passim
    Farm produce
    • Folder 3: 1 November 1785
    • Folder 8: 1790; Folder 10: undated; Folder 11: undated, undated
    Freedmen--New Jersey
    • passim
    House construction
    • Folder 8: 7 July 1791; Folder 24: 16 February 1793
    Land titles
    • Folder 9: 3 April 1793; Folder 24: 15 April 1793; Folder 30: 3 April 1788, 15 August 1792, 29 May 1794
    • Folder 6: 26 January 1789; [after 26 January 1789]; Folder 18: 8 June 1794
    • Folder 26: 9 November 1793
    • Folder 20: 6 August 1792; Folder 29: 31 May 1794 (3 documents)
    Real Estate--Sales
    • Folder 14: undated, 1 April 1793
    • Folder 1: 23 June 1767
    • Folder 10: undated, undated, undated; Folder 11: undated, undated; Folder 24: 16 February 1793
    Taxation--New Jersey
    • Folder 3: 27 January 1785; Folder 5: 16 October 1788; Folder 7: 19 August 1789; Folder 8: 21 November 1791; Folder 24: 10 November 1792, 14 December 1792
    Wills--New Jersey
    • Folder 12: 1 August 1792; Folder 22: 15 August 1792; Folder 30: 3 April 1788, 15 August 1792, 29 May 1794