Who Was Charlotte White?

By Tony Connors, President of the Westport Historical Society

We see her name on the street sign in the center of Westport: Charlotte White Road. She is mentioned in local history books as a healer, a midwife, a poet.  But what do we really know about Charlotte White?

Let’s start with her name. The typical pronunciation of the name Charlotte is “Shar-lot” but there is a local oral tradition that it was pronounced “Sha-lot-ee.” How did Charlotte herself pronounce her name? The first clue was found a few years ago when the late Bill Wyatt, former president of the Historical Society, was researching the 19th-century account books of the Westport physicians Eli and James Handy. Bill found an entry for “Charlotty White,” a phonetic spelling of her name that indicates a three-syllable pronunciation. The second clue can be found in the town records regarding early poor relief in Westport. Several town records from 1812-1813 refer to her as “Cholata” White, which drops the “r” (as most locals from Massachusetts and Rhode Island do) and flattens the final “e” to “ah,” but clearly shows the three-syllable form. Based on this evidence, it is most likely she was called “Sha-lot-ah.”

Charlotte White was born in 1774 or 1775, depending on the source. Her mother, Elizabeth (David) White (1730-1827) was Native American – a Wampanoag, most likely from Martha’s Vineyard. Her father (whose dates are unknown) was a former slave variously referred to as Zip, Sip, Zilpiah, or Zephriah. He apparently belonged at one time to the Lawton family but was later owned by George White, the son of Elizabeth Cadman White and William White, the original owners of the Cadman-White-Handy House on Hixbridge Road. Elizabeth and Zip married in 1765, while he was still a slave (he obtained his freedom on March 25, 1766), and had a house on what is now Charlotte White Road. In addition to Charlotte they had a daughter Jane. It appears that Charlotte did not marry; she is listed in one census as a “colored maiden.”

In the Historical Society collection is one poem by Charlotte White, but her poetry – at least what we know of it – is not very original. For example, the lines:

Charlotte White is my name and New England is my nation.
Westport is my dwelling place and Heaven is my salvation.

are only a variation of a well-known form:

Anytown is my dwelling-place

America is my nation

John Smith is my name

And heaven my expectation

While this may not be particularly good poetry, it does show that Charlotte had some degree of education, and had an interest – and some skill – in language.

Charlotte was connected to Westport’s well-known mariner, philanthropist, and black rights advocate Paul Cuffe (1759-1817). They both had a Wampanoag mother and an African father who had been a slave. Charlotte’s sister Jane married John Cuffe, Paul’s brother. There are also numerous links between Charlotte and the Wainer family, who were in-laws and business partners of Paul Cuffe.

A recently unearthed newspaper article from the 1940s links Charlotte to another noteworthy Westport native, Perry Davis. Davis (1791-1862) had a hard-luck life. He was badly hurt falling off a roof at age 14. The business he had established in Fall River was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1843, and a later explosion left him badly burned. But he eventually achieved great success as the manufacturer of Perry Davis Pain Killer, one of the best selling patent medicines of the 19th century. The success was largely due to his secret formula of vegetable extracts, alcohol, and opium.

In the newspaper article, Elizabeth Manchester of the Manchester Store in Adamsville related a story her father told her of Perry Davis shopping in the store. Charlotte White – “one of the store’s best customers” – concocted a mixture of food coloring, herbs and rum “which she sold to the temperance people of Westport and Adamsville as a medicine.” (A Temperance pledge meant total abstinence from alcohol, but “medicine” was okay.) Charlotte bought the rum at the Adamsville Store. On his rounds selling peppermint and spices around Westport, Perry Davis met Charlotte White and tried her medicinal brew, and according to Mrs. Manchester, this is where he got the idea for his famous pain-killer.

Town financial records indicate that Charlotte White was involved in poor relief before the almshouse was established in 1824. The records reveal that “Cholata White” was paid for keeping Amy Jeffrey in 1812. The following year she received $34.24 for keeping Jeffrey, plus an additional $13.43 “to Cholata White’s account,” presumably for other poor relief. In 1816 Charlotte was reimbursed for keeping Henry Pero, a black child, two weeks and two days old, and also received $2.86 for making clothes for him. (Henry Pero was later cared for by Mary Wainer, Paul Cuffe’s niece.)

In 1818 and 1819, Charlotte took in both Deborah Pero and her young son. In a remarkable entry in the town records for 1818, she was paid for “keeping Nursing and doctoring” Deborah Pero for 14 weeks. The use of the term “doctoring” in the official records gives credence to her reputation as a healer. This isn’t just folklore: Charlotte White took in and treated poor or troubled people, before the almshouse was established, and was reimbursed by the town. At least some of the paupers she cared for were people of color. Unfortunately there is nothing in the records about her role as a midwife.

There is no definitive image of this elusive woman. In the Historical Society collection, there is a photograph of a woman purported to be Charlotte White, driving an oxcart. As much as we would like it to be her, it is unlikely. Charlotte lived into the age of photography, but the telegraph pole in the background of the photo suggests a date beyond her lifetime.

Charlotte died on June 17, 1861, at the age of 87, of “lung fever” (probably pneumonia). She is buried with her parents in a private cemetery behind 165 Charlotte White Road near the site of their former home. Charlotte White is an intriguing character from 19th century Westport, with connections to Native American and African American history, slavery, poor relief, folk medicine, and midwifery.  This is what we know about her – certainly not enough – and I hope we can continue to fill out her life story. If you have any information that adds to or corrects what is presented here, please contact the Westport Historical Society.

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