Born in 1798 in Princeton, New Jersey, as a slave owned by the family of Robert Stockton, Esq., Betsey Stockton was presented as a gift to the Stockton’s eldest daughter and her husband, the Reverend Ashbel Green (who was later the President of Princeton College (later known as Princeton University.))
Although masters did not typically favor educating their slaves beyond proficient training as domestic nurse, seamstress and cook, Green gave her books and encouraged her to use the family library. She later attended evening classes at Princeton Theological Seminary.
In September 1816, Betsey’s application for admission to the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton was formally approved. Around 1817, Ashbel Green freed her.
Stockton often spoke to Green about her wish to journey abroad, possibly to Africa, on a Christian mission. Green introduced her to Charles S Stewart, a young missionary, newly ordained in 1821, who was about to be sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to Hawaiʻi.
Through a special agreement between Green, the Stewarts and the ABCFM, Stockton joined the mission both as a domestic in the Stewart household and was commissioned by the ABCFM as a missionary.
She became the first single American woman sent overseas as a missionary.
Her contract with the Board and with the Stewarts said that she went “neither as an equal nor as a servant, but as a humble Christian friend” to the Stewarts, and provided that she was not to do more than an equal share of menial duties which might “prevent her being employed as a teacher of a school”.
In November 1822, Stockton, the Stewarts and the other missionaries in the 2nd Company set sail on the ‘Thames’ from New Haven, Connecticut for the Hawaiian Islands.
On April 24, 1823, “we saw and made Owhyhee (Hawaiʻi). At the first sight of the snow-capped mountains, I felt a strange sensation of joy and grief. It soon wore away, and as we sailed slowly past its windward side, we had a full view of all its grandeur.”
“The tops of the mountains are hidden in the clouds, and covered with perpetual snow. We could see with a glass the white banks, which brought the strong wintry blasts of our native country to our minds so forcibly, as almost to make me shiver.” (Betsey Stockton Journal)
Upon her arrival, Stockton became the first known African American woman in Hawaiʻi.
Intelligent, industrious and frugal, she was aptly described as a devoted Christian, not only because of her constant attendance at church and her faith in God, but also because she supported the interests of the church, secured clothes for her students, and helped to heal the sick while continuing her domestic work to help the Stuarts. (Jackson)
“On Saturday, the 10th of May (1823,) we left the ship, and went to the mission enclosure at Honoruru. We had assigned to us a little thatched house in one corner of the yard, consisting of one small room, with a door, and two windows – the door too small to admit a person walking in without stooping, and the windows only large enough for one person to look out at a time.”
“The family all eat at the same table, and the ladies attend to the work by turns. Mrs. Stewart and myself took each of us a day separately.” (Betsey Stockton Journal)
“On the 26th of May (1823) we heard that the barge (Cleopatra’s Barge, or “Haʻaheo o Hawaiʻi,” Pride of Hawaiʻi) was about to sail for Lahaina, with the old queen (Keōpūolani) and princess (Nāhiʻenaʻena;) and that the queen was desirous to have missionaries to accompany her …”
“A meeting was called to consult whether it was expedient to establish a mission at Lahaina. The mission was determined on, and Mr. S. (Stewart) was appointed to go: he chose Mr. R. (Richards) for his companion … On the 28th we embarked on the mighty ocean again, which we had left so lately.” (Betsey Stockton Journal)
Per the requests of the chiefs, the American Protestant missionaries, at that time, were typically teaching their own children and the children of the Hawaiian chiefs.
“Now the chiefs have expressed their determination to have instruction in reading and writing extended to the whole population and have only been waiting for books, and an increase in the number of suitably qualified native teachers, to put the resolution, as far as practical, into effect.”
“A knowledge of this having reached some of the makaainana, or farmers of Lahaina … application was made by them to us for books and slates, and an instructor …”
“… and the first school, consisting of about thirty individuals, ever formed among that class of people, has, within a few days, been established in our enclosure, under the superintendence of B (Betsey Stockton), who is quite familiar with the native tongue.” (Charles Stewart Journal, August 1824)
In 1823, Kalākua Kaheiheimālie (ke Aliʻi Hoapili wahine, wife of Governor Hoapili) offered the American missionaries a tract of land on the slopes surrounding Puʻu Paʻupaʻu for the creation of a school.
Stockton founded a school for makaʻāinana (common people) including the women and children. The school was situated on what is now Lahainaluna School (and some suggest it served as the initial basis for that school.)
Stockton’s school was commended for its teaching proficiency, and later served as a model for the Hilo Boarding School and also for the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a historic Black college in Virginia established after the Civil War (founded by General Samuel C. Armstrong (son of missionary Richard Armstrong, former Pastor at Kawaiahaʻo Church.))
(Kalākaua visited Hampton Normal and Agricultural School – later known as Hampton Institute on one of his trips to the continent.)
Because of the serious illness of Mrs. Harriet Stewart, the Stewarts decided to return to Cooperstown, New York, after two and a half years in Hawaiʻi. Stockton accompanied them; leaving native Hawaiian teachers she had trained to take her place.
Stockton left Hawaiʻi in 1825, returning to the continent where she was assigned to teach Native American children in Canada. Then, Stockton returned to Princeton in 1835, living in a small house on Witherspoon Street, which was primarily an African American neighborhood.
Stockton was instrumental in the founding of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, originally called the First Presbyterian Church of Color of Princeton. She also began teaching African American children in a public school in Princeton in 1837, which she continued to do for several years.
She spent the rest of her life in Princeton working on behalf of its African American and white residents to enrich the lives of the members of the local African American community.
Betsey Stockton began life as a slave, and went on to become a schoolteacher, medical nurse and missionary; she died in her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey in October 1865.
Here is a link to an expanded discussion on Betsey Stockton: