Stories of Banjo Billy and Jinny

Of all the people enslaved in Mamaroneck, we know the most about “Banjo” Billy and Jinny, who feature in stories published by members of the Mott family. You can read the unabridged stories by following the links below: 

Describes the early lives of Billy and Jinny and portrays them as hard-working, honest, loyal and devoted to each other.

Most of the anecdotes come from the “Second-Hand Reminiscences of his Mother’s Home, During the Revolutionary War by Richard Mott of Toledo.” In his 80s, Richard Mott recalls sitting on “Uncle Billy’s” lab in the kitchen, listening to Billy’s tales from the war times, with Jinny breaking in with corrections and additions that gave greater credit to Billy than he would give himself. The stories highlight Billy’s staunch support for the Continentals and his participation in various adventures to thwart the British. His sons, particularly Jesse, make appearances as the Mott’s and their retainers fight off  looters ostensibly aligned with one or the other sides.

The stories, coming from various sources, often contradict each other and often reflect the pieties and values of the white people who enslaved, emancipated, employed and, ultimately, portrayed Billy and Jinny so they could be remembered by future generations. The following introduction summarizes the descriptions and helps place them in historical context.

WHO WERE BILLY AND JINNY? THE BASIC STORY, MOSTLY AS TOLD BY ABIGAIL MOTT:

Jinny (or Jenny, certainly not the name she was given at birth) arrived in New York from a slave ship from Africa in 1744 and was enslaved by Samuel Underhill, who brought her home to Oyster Bay on Long Island to “wait on his wife and their children.” Billy was born around 1738 to Tom and Caty, who were enslaved by Thomas Bowne, also of Long Island. At one point, Billy was acquired by a neighbor of the Underhills. He and Jinny married, when Jinny was around 20.

When the Underhills moved from Long Island to Mamaroneck in 1769, one of their other enslaved women went to the neighbors, and Billy came with them, so the couple and their children could remain together. In 1776, they went to live at the “Premium Mill Property” with the James Mott family, to help care for the four young children whose mother had just died.

The couple was freed at some point but remained working for successive generations at Premium Mill into old age (at least until 1812, when Adam and Anne Mott moved away following a failure of their mill business).  Billy continued working as a day-laborer, and Jinny “went out to washing and house-cleaning.” When they became old and infirm, they moved in with a son in Scarsdale. (This may have been Jesse Underhill who appears in the U.S. Census for Mamaroneck of 1810 as the head of household, living with 4 non-white people. Underhills with first names Hannah, Daniel, Jesse and James are also listed in the 1810 Census for New Castle as heads of households. The male names are the same as Billy and Jinny’s children included in the will of Samuel Underhill.) Jinny died in 1815, aged 78; Billy died in 1826, aged 86.

WHAT ABOUT JINNY’S CHILDHOOD? According to Richard Mott, whose second-hand recollections appear in the Adam and Anne Mott book, Jinny had been “Stolen when a child, but old enough to remember much of her young life. She liked to have us understand that her father was a king, or a chief, or somebody of consequence, and that her young African life was free and happy – no frost, no ice, no snow there, but summer all the time – without care and without clothes. Of the latter she had no experience till she was offered for sale in New York. (p.26)

In the home of Samuel Underhill, young Jinny learned to care for the house and the children.

WHAT ABOUT BILLY’S CHILDHOOD?

Like many children born to enslaved parents, Billy was sold when he was old enough to work.

According to Abigail Mott, “About the year 1738, a man and his wife, named Tom and Caty, who were in bondage to Thomas Bowne, on Long Island, had a little son whom they called Billy. This little boy, when old enough to work, was sold to a farmer in the neighborhood, who, according to the custom of those days, went with his servants into the field, and allotted to each one his portion of labor. By this means, Billy became acquainted with the different branches of husbandry, and was inured to industry.”

WHY “BANJO” BILLY?

Richard Mott, explained the nickname: “Uncle Billy was a famous banjo player. Not on the fanciful instrument of today, handled by cork-blacked counterfeits, but the genuine banjo of the negro. Not only played, but he made banjos, having a large dried gourd for the sounding-board. Hence his soubriquet of Billy Banjo.” (p. 26)

WHAT DID BILLY AND JINNY LOOK LIKE?

The watercolor reproduced below from the Cornell book was painted by Robert F. Mott in 1814, when Billy and Jinny were both elderly but still living. So, it might have represented their actual appearances, rather than symbolic portraits based on anecdotes or fuzzy recollections. If so, they are the only portraits of enslaved people from Mamaroneck in the historical record of this period.

The painting conforms to other descriptions. Richard Mott describes Jinny as “black as anthracite.” Billy, in his memory, “puffed at a stubby old pipe which he claimed was better than a longer one, for keeping his nose warm. He was short and strongly framed, broad shouldered, bowed by age. These shoulders had borne the burden of many an honest day’s labor, head bald and shiny, circled by a narrow rim of wooley white hair from ear to ear below his hat.” (p. 26)

BILLY AND JINNY From a watercolor by Robert F. Mott, about 1814.

WHEN WERE BILLY, JINNY AND THEIR CHILDREN FREED?

In Richard Mott’s telling, Billy and Jinny were freed around 1770, when the Quaker Yearly Meetings [for Oyster Bay] decreed that all slaves “should be forthwith set free” and “the old couple were thus set free. They, however did not set free their former owners but held the same attached relation that had previously existed.”

This conflicts with Abigail Mott’s narrative which has Billy, Jinny and their children being liberated by their enslaver (Samuel Underhill) at some point in Mamaroneck. The older children were “placed where they might be brought up to habits of industry … but Billy and Jenny (sic) remained” until Samuel Underhill’s death. “Having a house provided for them,” the couple “remained under the care of their former master’s descendants.”

The “placing” of the children might have referred to apprenticeships, typical of this era, which bound a young person for years of work under a skilled tradesman in return for room, board and training. This would not be a term of enslavement. 

This depiction, however, conflicts with much stronger evidence from the 1776 will of Samuel Underhill. Here Underhill directs his executors to free Billy, Jinny, and all their living and future children – but only upon his death, which occurred in 1780.  Unlike manumissions under New York’s gradual emancipation laws, nothing in the will obligated the family to serve periods of indenture before earning their freedom.

Following their manumission – in 1780 – the couple did remain working at Premium Mill for Underhill’s son-in-law, James Mott, and successive generations of Motts. Some of the children may have worked there too, and they appear in several anecdotes from the Cornell volume.

SO, WAS JAMES MOTT AN ENSLAVER?

According to Thomas Cornell, James Mott was a strict abolitionist who “freely used his pen, his means and his influence in the advancement of education and religion, and in the suppression of slavery, intemperance and war.” He “was so against slavery he would use nothing produced by slave labor, either in food or in dress. For this reason he limited his family to maple sugar, and unless they could get coffee free from the taint of slavery they made it from peas, and he always wore linen in the place of cotton.” (p. 22)

However, this conflicts with the evidence from the will of Samuel Underhill, which strongly suggests that there were enslaved people living and working for James Mott from 1776 to 1780: i.e., the enslaved family of Billy, Jinny and their children.

Furthermore, the 1810 census has James Mott holding three slaves, at this point definitely not Billy, Jinny or any of their children. 

A later record is more consistent with the picture of an abolitionist. In 1811, James Mott reported to Mamaroneck Township, “I having purchased of Joshua Purdy a negro man named Andrew who is about 26 years of age, he has the promise of the person I bought him of that he should be free at 28 years of age, and as one object I had in view in the purchase was to secure his freedom, I do hereby declare the said Andrew to be a free man from the date hereof Mamaroneck 15th of May 1811.”

Clearly, James Mott supported and advocated for abolition, however, he did not seem categorically opposed to employing enslaved labor.