Onesimus (Bostonian)

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Known forIntroducing the practice of inoculation to colonial Boston
TitleEnslaved African

Onesimus (late 1600s–1700s[1]) was an African-born man who helped mitigate the impact of a smallpox outbreak in Boston. Enslaved and given to Puritan minister Cotton Mather beginning in 1706, he introduced Mather to the principle and procedure of inoculation. After a smallpox outbreak began in Boston in 1721, Mather used this knowledge to advocate for inoculation in the population, a practice which eventually spread to other colonies. In a 2016 Boston Magazine survey, Onesimus was declared one of the "Best Bostonians of All Time".[1]

Early life and enslavement[edit]

Onesimus's name at birth and place of birth are not known with certainty.[2] Onesimus was first documented as living in the colonies in 1706, brought to North America as a slave.[3] In December of that year, Onesimus was gifted to Cotton Mather—a Puritan minister of North Church,[4] as well as a prominent figure in the Salem Witch Trials[5]—by his congregation. Mather named him after a first-century AD slave mentioned in the Bible.[2][6] The name, "Onesimus" means "useful, helpful, or profitable." [7] Mather referred to his ethnicity as "Guaramantee", which may refer to the Coromantee Akan of Ghana.[8] Mather saw Onesimus as an exception among his peers and therefore educated him in reading and writing with the Mather family (for context, according to biographer Kathryn Koo, at that time literacy was primarily associated with religious instruction, and writing as means of note-taking and business).[9]

Inoculation advocacy and controversy[edit]

Enquiring of my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow, Whether he ever had the Small-Pox; he answered, both, Yes, and No; and then told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of the Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding that it was often used among the Guramantese, & whoever had the Courage to use it, was forever free from the Fear of the Contagion. He described the Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm the Scar.[10][11]

Mather, in a 1716 letter to the Royal Society of London, on his introduction to inoculation from Onesimus

When Boston experienced a smallpox outbreak in 1721, Mather promoted inoculation as protection against it, citing Onesimus and African folk medicine as the source of the procedure.[5] In 1716 or shortly before,[12] Onesimus had described to Mather the process of inoculation that had been performed on him and others in his society in Africa (as Mather reported in a letter): "People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cut the Skin, and put in a drop."[6][7] In the book African Medical Knowledge, the Plain Style, and Satire in the 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, Kelly Wisecup wrote that Onesimus is believed to have been inoculated at some point before being sold into slavery or during the slave trade, as he most likely traveled from the West Indies to Boston.[3] The variolation method of inoculation was long practiced in Africa among sub-Saharan people. The practice was widespread among enslaved Colonial people from many regions of Africa and, throughout the slave trade in the Americas, slave communities continued the practice of inoculation despite regional origin.[3] Mather followed Onesimus's medicinal advice because, as he wrote, "inferiority had not yet been indelibly written onto the bodies of Africans."[13] Additionally, Onesimus and Mather believed that disease, specifically smallpox, was a spiritual and physical punishment, so Mather saw a cure as God's "providential gift", as well as a means of receiving recognition from New England society and reestablishing the influence of religious figures in politics.[3]

Mather's advocacy met resistance from those suspicious of African medicine.[6] Doctors, ministers, laymen, and Boston city officials argued that the practice of inoculating healthy individuals would spread the disease and that it was immoral to interfere with the working of divine providence. Mather was also publicly ridiculed for relying on the testimony of a slave.[7] It was commonly anticipated that enslaved Africans would attempt an overthrow of white society; therefore Onesimus’ medicinal wisdom was met with severe mistrust and assumed to be a ploy to poison white citizens.[14] The Acts and Resolves passed in Boston,[11] which included race-based punishments and codes to prevent slave or servant uprisings (because Bostonians feared conspiracy and conflict), showed a society skeptical of African medicine.[15] Nonetheless, a physician, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, carried out the method Onesimus had described, which involved sticking a needle into a pustule from an infected person's body and scraping the infected needle across a healthy person's skin.[16] Dr. Boylston first inoculated his 6-year-old son and two of his slaves. A total of 280 individuals were inoculated during the 1721-22 Boston smallpox epidemic.[7] The population of 280 inoculated patients experienced only 6 deaths (approx. 2.2 percent), compared to 844 deaths among the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients (approx. 14.3 percent).[6][7]

Personal life[edit]

Onesimus earned independent wages and afforded a household for himself and a wife he took while serving the Mather family. It is unclear if his wife lived with him in the Mather household and whether she was a free woman.[contradictory] They had two children together, both of whom died before they were 10 years old.[citation needed] His son, Onesimulus, died in 1714.[11] Katy, his second child, died due to consumption. Culturally, Puritans believed that children belonged to God, and parents were admonished to be prepared for the loss of a child.[17] This belief was likely connected to the fact that, between 1640 and 1759, one in four children died before the age of 10.[17] After their deaths, Mather attempted to convert Onesimus to Christianity.[citation needed] Onesimus, having not been raised in that culture, nor being a converted Puritan, rejected Mather's consolations.[14] Mather saw his inability to convert his slave as his failure as a Puritan evangelist and head of his household, as Onesimus’ refusal was supposed to bring God's displeasure on the Mather family. Onesimus was catechized in his free time as Mather attempted to convert him to the Christian faith.[18] Onesimus’ refusal to convert, and newfound stubbornness, led to Mather's unhappiness with his presence in the household.[14] Additionally, Mather's diary reports stubborn behavior from Onesimus following his children's deaths.[14] In 1716, Onesimus attempted to buy his freedom from Mather, raising funds to "purchase" another enslaved man named Obadiah to take his place,[11][14] however Mather placed conditions on his release,[14] requiring that he be available to perform work in the Mather household at their command and return five pounds that Mather claimed that Onesiums had stolen from him.[14] The proximate cause of Onesimus’ release is unknown; some assert that it was the alleged theft, but Mather's diaries better support Mather's inability to convert Onesimus as the primary cause.[citation needed]


Boston and London in 1726 and 1722, respectively, performed trials on citizens and, on average, decreased the mortality rate from 17% to 2% of the infected population.[16]

The inoculation methodology Onesimus introduced was replaced by Edward Jenner's development of vaccination for smallpox and cowpox in 1796. Variolation became banned for its side effects, and vaccination became compulsory in Wales and England.[16] In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been completely eradicated due to global immunization efforts, making the disease the first and only infectious disease have been entirely wiped out.[5]

In a 2016 Boston Magazine survey, Onesimus was declared number 52 on a list of the "Best Bostonians of All Time".[1]



  1. ^ a b c "The 100 Best Bostonians of All Time". Boston. January 5, 2016. Retrieved October 24, 2019.
  2. ^ a b Yancey & Stafford 2011, verse Philemon 1.16.
  3. ^ a b c d Wisecup, Kelly (2011). "African Medical Knowledge, the Plain Style, and Satire in the 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy". Early American Literature. 46 (1): 25–50. doi:10.1353/eal.2011.0004. PMID 21688446.
  4. ^ Koo 2007, p. 148.
  5. ^ a b c Blakemore, Erin (February 1, 2019). "How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox". HISTORY. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Widmer (October 17, 2014). "How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox". Boston Globe. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e Brown, Thomas H. (1988-10-21). "The African Connection: Cotton Mather and the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721-1722". JAMA. 260 (15): 2247. doi:10.1001/jama.1988.03410150095037. ISSN 0098-7484.
  8. ^ Hayden 2008, p. 229.
  9. ^ Koo 2007, pp. 160-162.
  10. ^ Boylston, Arthur (2012). "The origins of inoculation". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 105 (7): 309–313. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2012.12k044. ISSN 0141-0768. PMC 3407399. PMID 22843649.
  11. ^ a b c d Gates, Henry Louis Jr.; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (2004). African American Lives. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199882861. Retrieved October 24, 2019.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  12. ^ "Onesimus (?-?)". Science Museum. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  13. ^ Minardi, Margot (2004). "The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722: And Incident in the History of Race". The William and Mary Quarterly. 61 (1): 47–76. doi:10.2307/3491675. JSTOR 3491675.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Koo 2007, pp. 143–175.
  15. ^ Madison Bigelow, Melville; Cheney Goodell, Abner; Massachusetts (1869). The Acts And Resolves, Public And Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay: to Which Are Prefixed the Charters of the Province: With Historical And Explanatory Notes, And an Appendix. Laws, etc. Boston: Wright & Potter. pp. 535–536. Retrieved October 25, 2019.
  16. ^ a b c Stewart and Delvin (2006). "The History of the Smallpox Vaccine". Journal of Infection. 52 (5): 329–34. doi:10.1016/j.jinf.2005.07.021. PMID 16176833.
  17. ^ a b Koo 2007, p. 164.
  18. ^ Koo 2007, p. 159-160.

Works cited[edit]