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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 1


For more than a century Africans and black Americans were openly bought and sold throughout the colony along with other imported items. Surviving documentation shows that slave merchandising in Portsmouth was conducted according to common business practices of the day.

Samuel Moore, a ship owner and captain whose enterprises involved trips to the slave coast of Guinea, sold two male slaves to Archibald McPhaedres in 1726. The accounts of Hugh Hall show him importing slaves from Barbados aboard his ship the Katherine in 1729 and 1730. The New Hampshire Gazette advertised slave sales from ships trading between Africa, the West Indies and America, as in this example:
To be sold ...a few Negroes, lately imported in the snow Gen. Townshend . . . from the West Indies . . . at Stavers Tavern.

Some slave sales occurred at public meeting places. One advertisement announced that a slave could be purchased "opposite the north door of the State House." There were also private sales:
To be sold by Mrs. Dorcas Bradford, a likely Negro woman about thirty years of age, suitable for any business.

Although the importation of slaves to Portsmouth was not a major business, it occurred frequently enough to be an unremarkable event. Departing ships carried purchase orders from wealthy area residents, perhaps specifying a preference for "Guinea" slaves direct from Africa or "seasoned" slaves, those already trained in Western ways and with particular skills learned in the American south or Caribbean Islands. Two slaves from Barbados, a man and woman, were ordered and delivered to Jeremiah Wheelwright in 1752 but when the pair arrived in poor health and unable to perform productive work, Wheelwright sued the shipmaster, Archibald Smith of Somersworth, for damages.

John Moffatt's ship, the Exeter, returned from Africa in 1756 with 61 slaves: 20 men, 15 women, 7 "man boys," 2 "women girls," 10 boys and 7 girls. The ship's carpenter, John Winkley, had contracted with Moffatt to receive in exchange for his labor on the trip free passage and his choice of "a prime slave" at the price paid "on the coast of Guinea." John Moffatt acquired one slave by stealing him from his Massachusetts owner and taking him on a voyage to Portugal; Moffatt was convicted in 1725 for the kidnapping. 36 Slaves also were available from brokers at major American auction centers from Boston to New Orleans.

Slaves were owned by well-known and affluent Portsmouth families who benefited from a thriving economy -- an economy that ironically was partially based on the international slave trade. The 1727 "Inventory of the Polls and Estates of Portsmouth," show two or more slaves living in the households of Capt. Walker, William Vaughn, Col. Walden, Richard Wibird, R. Waterhouse and George Jeffries; at least thirty-five additional slaves lived "singularly" in other households. This pattern continued until the revolutionary period when one-third, (or a total of at least eighty-one) of the Portsmouth families represented by names on the Association Test list of 1776 (signers being males over 21 years old, "lunatics, idiots, and Negroes excepted") were then or previously had been slave owners. The families of three out of four of those men refusing to associate themselves with the Declaration of Independence were similarly connected to slavery.

The generic label of "slaves" found in census reports without designations of sex and age do not account for the diversity of relationships which existed in that group. Clearly many adults who considered themselves married had to live separated from spouses and from their children if most slaves lived "singularly." Owners had the ultimate authority in the lives of slaves, including the right to separate and sell them without regard to familial relationships. Because children became increasingly in convenient for masters to maintain as they matured, a slave child would be sold if he or she were not needed by the master, generally when the child was no longer dependent on the mother, yet still young enough to be trained to suit a new owner. Servants could use secondhand clothing, but the household would have to provide each with additional food, medical care and, perhaps most challenging for Portsmouth slave owners, lodging in the house. With a limited amount of work available to employ slave labor in Portsmouth, those whose maintenance became un profitable had to leave, as the following advertisement makes clear: To be sold very cheap for cash, for want of employ. A likely healthy Negro girl of about 15 years of age, understands all kinds of housework, will suit town or country.

Other slaves were sold because of their uncooperative or rebellious behavior. Repeat offenders, including captured runaways, faced the possibility of being sold to the dreaded West Indies where owners of sugar plantations were notoriously barbaric in their treatment of slaves. The selling of slaves could explain the disappearances of some of those slave children and adults whose names do not appear again in Portsmouth records after baptism.

The most accessible and consistent records about black individuals and families in Portsmouth during the 18th century are the notes left by ministers who performed baptisms, marriages and funerals. They identify children and parents, in addition to the white family with whom the person was associated. The names of one or both parents might appear when they and their children were baptized on the same occasion, or they might remain nameless with, in any case, a specific reference to the master. When Caesar and Zenas Walker were baptized by the Rev. Shurtleff each was identified simply as a "negro child born in [the] house of Capt. George [Walker]." Between 1724 and 1737 these and nine other slave children and adults were baptized from the Walker household with slight indication of their relationships to one another. Many other baptized slaves cannot be linked to their black families because the records lack adequate information.


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Wednesday, February 21, 2018 
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