The Root Doctress

Susanna Toney was born around 1789 in Barre, MA to Abraham Toney and his wife Mary Harry. She was commonly known as Susan. Barre was and is a small rural farming community just northwest of Worcester. Her mother, Mary Harry, was part of the Narragansett tribe and her father, Abraham, was a Black man born free in Upton, MA to free parents. Upton was another rural farming town to the southeast of Worcester and originally part of several other towns including Sutton, MA. Abraham’s father, Caesar Toney, purchased his farm in Upton in 1754 from John Hazelton, one of Upton’s founders.

Abraham and Mary were married in Upton, MA on 12 October 1787. The couple had one known child, Susanna J. Toney. Mary died before 1791 when Abraham married Hannah Chase. Abraham and Hannah had one known child – Samariton who was born about 1793 and died in Barre at age 19 in 1812.

After the death of Abraham’s father Caesar Toney, Susan and her family left Barre headed for Royalston. Abraham had inherited 1/3 ownership of his father’s Upton farm which he, his mother Peggy, and his brother Caesar Jr. sold in pieces between 1794 and 1799. The Toney brothers purchased together around 100 acres of land in Royalston in 1795 and the two families began their journey to their new home.

Census records show that the Toneys lived briefly in Petersham, MA in 1800. Susan’s uncle, Caesar, had children born in Boylston in 1799 and Athol in 1802 before arriving in Royalston. There are scant records in Royalston concerning the two families although Toney Road still exists in what is now South Royalston. One record of interest is the marriage intention filed by Samuel Proper and Sukey Rose alias Toney on 22 August 1809. The marriage itself is recorded in Rutland, MA on 7 November 1809 between Susan Toney and Samuel Proper. Sukey is a common nickname for Susan. No other record was found in Royalston linking Sukey Rose and Susan Toney or anyone with the surname Rose.

Susan and Samuel settled in Rutland on land that they owned. Samuel and Susan were enumerated on the 1810 federal census in Rutland, MA. They had at least 3 children, Hannah Jane (born 9 January 1811), James (born 18 September 1815), and Lucy Susanna who was most likely born between 1813 and 1815. There is also the possibility of a 4th child, Sophronia, born in 1813. After Samuel died in Rutland on 19 November 1819, 1/3 of his estate including the land was dowered to Susan. The rest was disposed of by the executor and courts to pay outstanding debts owed by Samuel. The family remained in Rutland as Susan was included on the 1820 federal census as head of household with her three children.

Nearly three years later, Susan married Joseph T. Van Ransellaer of New York in Rutland on 24 October 1823. The couple had at least one son, Joseph George Van Ransellaer who was born in 1829. Deed records show that in 1825, the husband Joseph purchased land in Rutland from the estate of the man who was the executor for Samuel Proper’s estate in 1820. Whether it is the same land once owned by Susan and her children is unknown at this time. I was unable to locate the Ransellaers on the 1830 federal census in Rutland, Barre, or Worcester but they do show up on the 1840 census living in Worcester, MA.

Susan worked as a Root Doctress while living in Worcester. She maintained a listing in the yearly Worcester City directory. In 1844, she also purchased land on Summer St Court, near Bridge St. for $400 and kept the land in a trust under her own name. Her daughter Lucy Schuyler’s family owned the land adjacent to Susan’s. Susan died from pneumonia on 28 May 1847. Her son Joseph died from the same disease a year later in 1848 and husband, Joseph, died at the age of 95 in 1857.

It seems that none of Susan’s children or grandchildren lived beyond 1881 when daughter Lucy died. For this reason, Susan was once unknown to our family living today. She was a mother, grandmother, herbalist, landowner and business owner, and did all of this as a Black Indigenous woman in the early part of the 19th century. Thank you Susan for your amazing story and legacy.

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