By Chynna Trott, Curatorial Assistant

Research | November 3, 2023

Reading time: 10 minutes

Since I’ve started working at the National Museum of Bermuda (NMB), I’ve learned more about Public History and museums, and I’ve come to understand the power that objects hold as vessels for family histories and the role those histories can play in telling stories of our wider connections to the Atlantic world. At NMB, we are tasked with caring for and preserving over 80,000 objects. Many of these objects spark curiosity and inspire further research, which leads to a deeper understanding of the past. What some may not know is that these objects can also have an impact on the researcher.  

A pair of binoculars sit in front of me on a gleaming white table in the Museum’s Processing Room. They show the tell-tale signs of use and time but are still in very good condition for their age—almost 150 years old. They have been passed down through the generations and meticulously preserved by descendants of Stephen Benjamin and Violet Richardson who, in 2013, donated them to the Museum. 

Next to the binoculars is a small, yellowed paper filled with elegant handwriting covering four pages. There are small tears on the edges and creases where it’s been folded and unfolded repeatedly but the words and the ink are still easy to read. Several lines stand out: “I do hereby acknowledge, have bargained, sold, released, granted and confirmed, and by these present do bargain, sell, release, grant and confirm unto the said Stephen Benjamin Richardson a certain coloured or mulato woman…”  


This is a bill of sale, the date legible on the document, October 15th, 1831 identifies it as almost 200 years old. It’s in very good condition and like the binoculars next to it, has been treated with the utmost care and safeguarded by the generations of Richardsons who became its stewards until donating it to the Museum in 2006. 

The two objects hold the Richardson’s family history and tell very different stories. Interestingly, they were donated to the Museum by separate family branches, who were completely unaware of each other’s donation. Through this blog, I’ll attempt to take you on the rollercoaster of a journey I went on researching these stories and the Richardson family. A journey that included painful tragedies, frustration at a lack of documentation, and a greater understanding of my own personal biases.  

My research began with the binoculars. They were manufactured by American silversmith, jeweller, watchmaker, and maker of nautical instruments, William Senter, who operated in Portland Maine, in the mid to late 1800s. They belonged to and were used by Bermudian pilot, Stephen Benjamin Richardson.  

Richardson was born into enslavement between 1800 and 1801 and upon his death was described as “the oldest and one of the most skillful Branch Pilots of these Islands”. His love for the sea drove him to a maritime career, which started in his teenage years as a shipwright before advancing to a pilot’s apprenticeship. He was intelligent and ambitious, which helped to accelerate his advancement as a pilot. In the 1820s, with money saved from his work, Richardson manumitted himself from slavery. At some point during this time, he also began a relationship with an enslaved woman named Violet Paynter, a woman he would later marry on Christmas day in 1832. 

Violet Richardson, neé Paynter, was born between 1803 and 1804. Historical documents have helped us identify some specifics and a timeline of her life. The bill of sale, I mentioned earlier, is for Violet, transferring ownership from shipwright William Hugh Peniston to Stephen Benjamin Richardson. We know from the 1821 Slave Registers that Violet was enslaved by Christiana Paynter, William Hugh Peniston’s mother-in-law. Also in the 1821 register is Violet’s mother, Mary Paynter aged 41 and a 21-year-old carpenter, “Benjamin”, it is unclear whether this is Stephen Benjamin or someone else. 

1821 Slave Register with Violet, Mary, and Benjamin listed. Bermuda Archives

By 1827, Violet, Mary and “Benj.” are listed as enslaved by William Peniston, alongside John (aged 55), Israel (aged 3 ½), Joseph (aged 3 ½), and Susanna (aged 22). Violet and Mary are found three years later in the 1830 register, but so are a few more including “Alphonso”. Research into the Richardson family tree has confirmed that Alphonso is Violet and Stephen’s eldest son, Alphonso Augustus, who was born into enslavement in 1828. Through research we have been able to identify eleven children of Violet and Stephen: six sons and five daughters; Alphonso, Samuel, Israel, Lettitia Anna, Louisa Hannah, Lettriana, William Benjamin, James Butterfield, George Robinson, Mary Jane, and Christiana Elizabeth. 

Their three youngest sons—William Benjamin, James Butterfield, and George Robinson Richardson—pursued maritime careers like their father, and the binoculars were passed down to George.  

Piloting was not easy work and an incident involving all three brothers was recorded in the Royal Gazette on the week of February 29th, 1876 illustrating the dangers pilots faced. The crew of the gig Early Riser included the three Richardson brothers as well as brothers Thomas and Samuel Smith and Samuel Tucker. They were tasked with taking Captain Adair to the brigantine G.A. Coonan because the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The vessel had dragged from Murray’s Anchorage to the Naval Tanks near the entrance to what is now known as Tobacco Bay.  

Tobacco Bay, Bermuda: ships in the bay, and a source of fresh water for them on land. Aquatint by J. Wells after Porgay, 1803. Wellcome Collection. Source: Wellcome Collection.

After successfully transporting Captain Adair from shore to his vessel, the crew waited for a break in the weather before making their way back. Midway into their journey, the boat hit a wave and capsized. Thomas Smith disappeared beneath the waves and drowned. The others managed to get on top of the capsized boat before being thrown into the water again. George Robinson Richardson also disappeared beneath the surface and unfortunately drowned while his brother William was thrown onto the rocks. William sustained severe injuries but recovered after a few weeks. James Butterfield Richardson was able to grab onto a pole until help arrived and pulled him to shore. The other two crew members were spared serious injuries and were washed into Tank Bay where they were able to get to shore.  

James Butterfield Richardson. The binoculars passed to James after George’s tragic death.

The three eldest—Alphonso Augustus, Samuel Paynter, and Israel Thomas—pursued other careers in carpentry and education. Samuel Paynter’s son, Arthur St. George, followed his uncle Israel Thomas to New Brunswick, Canada where he was a teacher at the same school in Saint John for over 30 years. Arthur attended high school in Saint John and later the University of New Brunswick (UNB), where he was the first black student to attend in 1883. Three years later he became the first black person to graduate UNB with Honours in Classics. He was the recipient of numerous scholarships, and even spoke Greek. Eventually he emigrated to the US where he served as the President of Morris Brown College in Atlanta for 10 years as well as President of Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida for 5 years. Arthur was also a published author and wrote on race and racism and the importance of education.

Arthur St. George Richardson photographed in 1886. Image from University of New Brunswick Libraries.

Objects can provide more information, giving us an insight into personal histories and Violet’s bill of sale is a great example of that. The bill of sale offers us a different entry point into the Richardson’s family history. It also brought up complex feelings for me as a black woman. The bill of sale represents so many complex concepts that I didn’t realise influenced me until I began researching Violet.  

The bill represents ownership, or more specifically, the changing of ownership and it left me with questions I didn’t have answers for. Questions like, is it better to be owned by your husband? I have no way of knowing what Violet thought of this, or if she even thought of this. My 21st century ideals and thinking prevent me from accurately placing myself in her shoes. She has three children with Stephen Benjamin when the bill of sale was created and for all intents and purposes, they’re considered man and wife. And it’s so easy to look at the bill of sale with rose-colored glasses and see it as a loving husband purchasing his wife’s freedom from enslavement. At the time of writing I have not been able to find a record confirming her manumission from slavery though I admit that I did interpret it as that in the beginning until I really thought about it. When you strip back the layers to the core of it, it’s a legal document establishing the changing of ownership of an enslaved black woman who might not have had a say in it at all. But that’s my own biases and maybe I prefer the rose-colored glasses perspective instead.  

As a young professional just starting my career in heritage and culture, I have learned that most archives and historical documents are gendered. I was able to find so much about the men of the Richardson family with minimal effort. Even small details about their character and who they were as people was relatively easy to access if you know where to look. When I began to research the Richardson women, it took most of the genealogical research skills I had learned, and I used most if not all the resources I had available to me. Even with all of this I was only able to find out small details about the women and I found myself speculating to try to fill in the gaps.  

The eldest Richardson daughter and fourth child of the family is Letitia or Lititia Anna who was born in 1836. I was able to find out that she married Nathaniel Gardiner in 1866 and she was a member of the Ladies of St. Georges Beneficial Society. I couldn’t find any record that she had any children or when she died. I know she was alive as of 1895 when her husband died because she was named as the beneficiary of her husband’s possessions in his will.  

The second eldest was Littria or Lettriana Louisa. She married David Peter Drew in 1862 and had nine children. One of her children died in infancy while another died during the yellow fever epidemic in 1864. I couldn’t find a registry for her birth or death and the only reason I know she even exists is because she’s mentioned in her father Stephen Benjamin’s will of 1850.  

Mary Jane, born in 1846, married Edward Gardiner in 1873. Edward is interestingly, the twin brother of Letitia Anna’s husband Nathaniel. The notice of her death appears in the Royal Gazette in 1876, which also reveals that she had an infant son. After a quick search of the 19th century church registry, I was able to find her son Edward who died at just 7 weeks on January 19, 1877. From all the information I was able to collect surrounding her death I believe she died due to complications from childbirth. Sadly, it is a loss that Violet and Stephen would have been all too familiar with themselves having lost their daughters Louisa Hannah and Christiana Elizabeth in infancy. 

Market Square, St. George’s, circa 1834, by Dr. Johnson Savage

In this captivating painting by Johnson Savage, depicting Market Square, St. George’s, circa 1834, a remarkable scene unfolds as a group of women navigate a dinghy, expertly loaded with a bounty of produce. At the helm, one woman commands the oars, while another skillfully guides the vessel with the tiller. It is an image that speaks volumes, for it stands as a rare testament to the historic role of Bermudian women, who were renowned for their unmatched boating expertise.  

Though there is no historical documentation to suggest that any of the Richardson women took part in maritime activities in the same way as their male counterparts, given the role of boats in the family and wider Bermudian everyday society it is not a wild speculation to believe they would have certainly been familiar with boat handling. This painting, a rare depiction of women at the helm and oars, becomes a poignant reminder of the necessity to uncover and cherish the stories of women, even when the search is plagued with obstacles and compounded by frustration at the gaps in our historical records. 

The Richardson family was the product of numerous sacrifices and proof of a life well lived after overcoming enslavement and numerous tragedies. Violet and Stephen Benjamin’s children and grandchildren were community leaders, educators, and prosperous members of our community. 

Stephen and Violet died within a year of each other with Stephen passing in February of 1879 at almost 79 years old and Violet dying the following year in August. Both lived long hard lives marked with tragedy and pain but also full of familial love and prosperity. 

The objects that outlived Violet and Stephen Richardson continue to hold all these stories and many more I’m sure the next researcher will find. It’s always a guessing game of what and how much you may find when doing genealogical research, especially genealogical research of black Bermudians. There are numerous walls and dead ends that are impossible to overcome with what we have available to use for research now. But that’s what makes it more rewarding when you uncover stories that allow us to get just a glimpse of the past and the people who lived it. 


If you are researching your family history and want tips and strategies to help on your journey of discovery, check out our award-winning Tracing Our Roots/Routes free toolkits and webinars. 

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