Mum Bett – early civil rights figure

Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, aged 70. Painted by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, aged 23. Watercolor on ivory, painted circa 1812. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

On my Brewster/Betterton family tree, there is a large branch of Dutch and English ancestors who lived in the area of Albany, NY and the Hudson River valley. One such ancestor was Peter (Pieter) Mees Hogeboom. He was a Dutch merchant and landowner who lived during the 18th century in Claverack, Albany County NY, now part of Columbia County NY.

Peter Hogeboom owned slaves, and among them was a young woman known as Mum Bett. When Peter’s daughter Hannah married Massachusetts lawyer John Ashley in 1735, Mum Bett and her sister Lizzy were given to the Ashleys, and moved to Sheffield, Massachusetts. John Ashley was a revolutionary patriot and active participant in the writing of the Sheffield Declaration at his home in 1773. This declaration outlined individual rights that the Massachusetts activists believed they were entitled to, foreshadowing wording in the Declaration of Independence:

“Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.”

While readings of the Declaration of Independence and discussions of the new Massachusetts Constitution and the Bill of Rights continued in the home of John Ashley, Mum Bett was apparently listening carefully. After a violent incident with Hannah Ashley involving a hot fireplace shovel, she hired a local lawyer to sue the Ashleys for her freedom. The basis of her suit was that she was entitled to the equality promised in the revolutionary ideals she had heard about in the Ashley home. She won the suit in 1781 and was awarded her freedom, and her former owner was ordered to pay thirty shillings plus court costs. She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and worked until her death as a paid servant in the home of her lawyer’s family. Interestingly, it is believed that her great grandson was W. E. B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP.



  1. for family tree information going back to 17th century Hudson River Valley area
  2. Website on the story of Elizabeth Freeman
  3. bio of Mum Bett
  4. Massachusetts History Society web story on Mum Bett, part of “Long Road to Justice, The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts” series
  5. Description of the Ashley House on The Trustees of Reservations website




Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *