Notable People of Wrentham
As part of Wrentham’s 350th anniversary celebration in 2023, the committee planning next year’s events has asked residents to submit memories of significant people in the town’s history. Following is a submission the anniversary committee shared with Local Town Pages.
Cesar Chelor was a slave who earned his freedom in 1753 by way of his talent as a craftsman of wood planes, possibly being the first free black tradesman in the colonies. And he lived in Wrentham!
Cesar Chelor was an African-American woodworker, toolmaker, plane-maker and was enslaved by colonial entrepreneur and the earliest documented American plane maker, Francis Nicholson (1683-1753). Francis Nicholson moved from Rehoboth to Wrentham, Massachusetts in 1728. In colonial times, Wrentham was a small, growing town that was on the main road to Boston. As a result, there were plenty of travelers and plenty of business. It was a good place for an ambitious tradesman. Nicholson was married four times and was a deacon of his church. Among the other businesses he had, Nicholson also owned a mill.
Chelor is thought to have been born in 1720. He was enslaved by Nicholson as early as 1736. In 1741, Chelor was admitted as a member to the Congregational Church in Wrentham Center, when he was supposedly 21. Chelor would become a freeman when Nicholson died in 1753. Along with freedom, Nicholson willed Chelor a workshop, 10 acres of land, tools, and materials to continue on independently:
“As to my Negroman Caesar Chelo[r] considering his faithful service, his tender care, & kind & Christian carriage I do set him free to act for himself in the world & I do will and bequeath unto him his bed and bedding, his shift and clothing, his bench & common bench tools, a set of chisels, one vice, one sithe & tackling & ten acres of land to be set of to him at the end of my woodland…¦& one third part of my timber.”
Chelor is the earliest documented free black tradesman / plane maker in North America. A plane is an indispensable tool for smoothing and shaping wood. Planes are used to “shave” thin, uniform strips from a piece of wood, creating a smooth, level surface by removing “high spots.” Knowing how to plane wood is a vital skill for all woodworkers.
Chelor continued making planes, stamping them with his own name. Today, these rare planes are among the best known and most valuable antique wooden planes on the market. A single plane can be worth thousands of dollars.
Chelor was married to Juda Russell in 1758. In 1784, Chelor died without a will with an estate inventory valued at 88 pounds 2 shillings. The inventory of Chelor’s estate included “armor” and “books,” indicating a relatively high degree of stature in the community. According to some sources, he had nine children, six of whom he buried himself before he died.
The remnants of the Chelor farmstead and shop, which could have been an important archaeological site, are believed to have been obliterated during construction of a large mall in the Wrentham area.
Cesar Chelor’s legacy has survived because of a small group of tool collectors dedicated not only to finding interesting tools but also to researching the men who made them. In addition to recovering extant tools, researchers have gone back to these New England towns and looked up court registries, church lists, cemetery records, and census records in a quest for the worth of men’s estates and their birth and death dates. In the United States, the Early American Industries Association is the source of most research on the history of tools and industrial practice. Much of the information for the Association’s online exhibit comes from consulting members and researching publications of the EAIA. We thank them for the information to create this bio of Cesar Chelor.
Submitted by Paula Sullivan