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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 1


New Hampshire has an African heritage that datees back almost to the arrival of Europeans. Much of that history, begun in 1645, centers on the state's only port at Portsmouth. As many as 700 blacks were here by the Revolution, many caught up in an active Northern slave market, others part of a a little-known free society. Trace the history in this groundbreaking study.



READ: First Blacks, Part 2

The first known black person in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, came from the west coast of Africa in 1645. He was captured one Sunday when slave merchants attacked his village in Guinea, killing about a hundred persons and wounding others. Upon arrival in Boston, the slave was bought by a Mr. Williams "of Piscataqua." When the General Court of the colony learned of the raid and kidnapping, it ordered the merchants to return the African to his home. Slavery was not the issue of concern, for human bondage was legal in the region. The court was "indignant" that raiders had violated the Sabbath and that they had committed "ye haynos and crying sin of man stealing."

The size of the black population in 17th century New Hampshire was small and, therefore, easily overlooked. However, surveys of wills and inventories show that slaves were included in the estates of several prominent early Portsmouth families. For instance, eight slaves who worked in Richard Cutts' Kittery shipyard at midcentury were among the earliest blacks in the region; five of the eight were eventually willed to Widow Cutts in 1675.

Additional evidence that "mulattoes, Negroes and slaves" were present can be found in laws which were adopted around the turn of the century. They were similar to the restrictive laws enacted in other colonies which controlled activities of both servants and masters. A number of laws prohibited servants from roaming through town without their master's permission, being "abroad in the night time after nine o'clock," from drinking in public taverns and the like.


- Determining Black Population
- Portsmouth's Slave Market
- Slave Names & Families

Copyright (c) Valerie Cunningham. All rights reserved. This essay appears exclusively on First posted 1997.


ValValerie Cunningham has been researching, writing and teaching about local black history for 30 years. Her avocation has made her one of the region's experts and she is consultant to the Black History section of This article, complete with detailed footnotes, first appeared in Historical New Hampshire (Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 1989) published by the NH Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. Valerie's work has inspired the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and her work is now recognized around the nation. Her new book, Black Portsmouth, is available from University Press of New England.

African American Resource Center
PO Box 5094
Portsmouth, NH 03801-5094

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