From African Royalty to Freed SlaveJan 01, 2023 10:45AM ● By Nancy Ebling Laudermilch
Did the granddaughter of an African head man really live in Wellsboro? Well, yes! An older, dignified lady named Hetty Murray (spelled as Murry in the 1897 edition of History of Tioga County), and her husband, Ebenezer Murray, both former slaves, lived in the early to mid-1800s in a small house on Main Street. The borough had a population of over 500 around that time (that number would exceed 3,000 by the end of the century). Within walking distance were a few hotels and shops—including the Coles House, the United States House, Erastus Fellows’ Fellows House, the Benjamin Van Horn Cabinet Shop, and a wagon shop. The Tioga County Courthouse, a relatively new building in those days, was just down the street.
Hetty Murray was born into slavery in colonial America. Her mother was the daughter of an African head man, thus giving Hetty her link to royalty, from an area of Africa’s west coast on the Gulf of Guinea. The Portuguese mined gold there in the fifteenth century. It was subsequently a British Crown colony known as Gold Coast, and is today the country of Ghana. Hetty’s mother was a young woman captured and brought to America on a slave ship. Her name is not recorded, and we can only imagine the misery of that forced trans-Atlantic journey. But we do know that she gave birth to Hetty around 1773 in the Delaware area, and that Hetty was born into a culture and place during a time when we were not yet defined as a nation. There were, however, rumblings of revolution in the Delaware of Hetty’s childhood, and in the other American colonies.
Hetty would have worked alongside the other slaves learning domestic and agricultural chores. Somewhere in her early years, she met Ebenezer Murray. Ebenezer’s last name at birth was Parker, but he took on the last name of his owner, James Murray. After serving as slaves to the Murray family, Ebenezer and Hetty began the journey that would eventually bring them to Wellsboro. Their services were purchased by William Wells, who was the brother of Mary Wells Morris, wife of Benjamin Wistar Morris, one of the men credited with Wellsboro’s founding. William was a lawyer and a United States senator from Delaware. He paid $500 for five years of the Murray’s service to his family.
During those years, William Wells decided to give up his Senate seat to assist in the development of his investments in the Pine Creek Land Company here in northern Pennsylvania. Around 1800, he moved his family, household, and servants to this area so that he could oversee road construction and the sale of land and lumber. Neither the county of Tioga nor the borough of Wellsboro were established when they moved—there was just vast forest, wildlife, and financial opportunities.
Eventually two cabins were constructed for the Wells family and the servants on a 200-acre parcel in the area we know now as Heise Run. William and his wife brought six black servants/slaves with them. The group included Hetty and Ebenezer Murray, Elias and Maria Spencer, and two single men—Marcus Lovett and a man known only as Sanby. The status of these six as either servants, indentured servants, or slaves was not clearly documented. It may have varied among the group.
Hetty served as a domestic and a nurse for the Wells children, in addition to caring for her own—she and Ebenezer eventually had six children, only one of whom, their daughter, Betty, is recorded to have stayed in the area. It is unknown if the other children survived to adulthood or if they moved away. Ebenezer and the other men labored about four years to clear the land and raise the necessary buildings, but William and his wife ultimately decided this was not the life for them and opted to move back to Delaware. Hetty, Ebenezer, and their children could have moved with them, but William offered to give them the farm, animals, and furnishings. And all of the servants were given their freedom at this time. How did Ebenezer and Hetty decide to stay or go? Perhaps it was the opportunity to own their own property and build a life for themselves that convinced them to remain. This was probably around 1806.
However, neighbors reportedly took advantage of them, so they were eventually forced to sell the farm. Another local settler, John Norris, helped the Murrays to move to a small house in the new town of Wellsboro, probably about 1820. The house was between the intersections of Main Street and King and Norris streets. The Murrays lived well into their eighties and nineties, with care from their daughter, Betty. She had become a well-known caterer in Wellsboro, and catered the weddings of two of Mary Wells’ grandchildren.
Hetty was characterized as a modest woman, and the Murrays were esteemed in the community. They once helped two fugitive slave men to escape to freedom in New York State (that account is also in the 1897 edition of History of Tioga County). The Murrays, known as Aunt Hetty and Uncle Eben, are described as “dignified, courteous and highly respected by all.” Ebenezer likely continued working as a laborer (he was bedridden at the end of his life), and Hetty may have continued doing domestic work. She died July 4, 1868. According to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania: The First Two Hundred Years, 1806-2006, by Scott Gitchell, the bell at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church tolled over ninety times, not to mark the anniversary of the founding of the country, but to announce the death of “Aunt Hetty.” The Murrays are buried in the Wellsboro Cemetery, near other well-known settlers but in a section that is mostly unmarked.
Hetty was denied the life of a “princess” she may have been entitled to in her homeland—that due to American slavery. But she and Ebenezer, and other citizens like them, had their own kind of majesty nevertheless. They were among those who cleared the land, dug the wells, and raised the crops and the children. They helped to build this area, and local history counts their strong character, dignity, resilience, and perseverance among their gifts to the community.