The document outlining the sale of a slave to Truman Wheeler.
The document outlining the sale of a slave to Truman Wheeler. (Derek Gentile / Berkshire Eagle Staff/ photos.berkshireeagle.com)

GREAT BARRINGTON -- It is rare that a bill of sale vaults into the pantheon of one of the more important documents in the history of a town.

But this was no ordinary bill of sale -- for many reasons.

The 1765 bill transfers ownership of a young male slave, Pompi, about 8 years old, to the ownership of Truman Wheeler, one of the most prominent landowners in Great Barrington in the 18th century.

According to the document, Wheeler needed some help around the farm. So Pompi was purchased from a neighbor.

In and of itself, this isn't a major revelation. This was pre-Revolutionary New England. Landowners of the era owned slaves.

But, according to local historian Gary Leveille, what makes this document so electrifying was that actual documentation of these transactions almost never surfaces.

"It's the first legal document of the sale of a slave I've ever seen," said Leveille. "Those things tend to be very rare."

The Great Barrington Historical Society is presently trying to raise money to buy the document from a local antique dealer.

The added impetus to buying the bill of sale document is that the Great Barrington Historical Society presently has it's headquarters on the Truman Wheeler farm, where, it can be speculated, Pompi may well have made his home.

"It's incredibly exciting to see something like this," said Deborah U. Opperman, executive director of the Great Barrington Historical Society. "To see an actual link to slavery here is incredible."

The society has raised about $900 to date, and needs another $500, said Leveille. Supporters will find donation information at the end of the story.

Leveille was first notified of the bill of sale by Egremont antiques dealer Eliot Snyder, who had acquired it from another dealer.

"Eliot knew immediately what he had; he's a big historian, too, over in Egremont," said Leveille.

Leveille and a friend hastened over to Snyder's antique store for a look.

When he got there, Leveille admitted that he was pretty blown away.

"It was in incredible condition," he said. "You could read it pretty easily, even after 250 years."

Leveille is presently researching town documents to see if he can find further references to Pompi.

"Unfortunately, Pompi was a common name slaveowners gave to their slaves, so I'm not sure how much is actually out there," he said. "But this bill of sale alone is a fantastic find."

To learn more about the Great Barrington Historical Society, including how to donate, go to www.gbhistory.org. To contact the Society directly, call 413-591-8702.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile