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Slaves at the William Pitt Tavern


The Stavers Family and Slavery (consinued)

Pitt Tavern engracing, Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com

Fortune Runs Away 

On May 11, 1764 the New Hampshire Gazette advertised:

Ran-away -- Negro Boy named Fortune,
Age 16, wearing a Red Jacket and
Canvas Trowsers....

We will never know what incident triggered Fortune's departure: perhaps an argument, a scolding, or a blow like that delivered a dozen years earlier to the ship captain's slave. But the underlying cause was the condition and nature of enslavement. The tasks at the tavern may seem routinely domestic, but slavery was never benign. While white youths were formulating visions of their future, Fortune had few choices in life and little hope of improved status.

Fortune could be freed from enslavement only at the whim of his owner. An owner might grant freedom as a reward for decades of fidelity and good conduct. An owner might give a slave permission to work for pay on the side and buy his own freedom. But without an owner's permission there was no hope that talent, intelligence, or hard work could change a slave's status. Enslavement must have been intolerable to the adolescent Fortune. Other enslaved people found this to be true too; early Portsmouth papers frequently advertised run-away slaves. The number would increase in the 1770s.

Running away in 1764 was problematic; there was no place to go. The thirteen colonies combined had only a few thousand free blacks, with no community large enough for a run-away to disappear in the crowd. A hundred years later on the eve of the Civil War the situation would be quite different . No more is heard of Fortune after his disappearance was advertised.

James Defends the Tavern 

On Wednesday January 29 1777 in the midst of the Revolution a mob assembled in front of Stavers' tavern. They were patriots who believed that John Stavers was a Royalist. One of them began chopping down Stavers' tavern sign. Stavers sent his slave James out to drive them away. James struck the axe-man -- Mark Noble -- on the head with the axe, rendering him unconscious. Stavers was arrested immediately and subsequently taken before the Committee of Safety in Exeter for a gang trial of fifteen suspected royalists. A few, including Stavers, were released for lack of evidence; most were imprisoned.

In considering this event, historians usually focus on the meaning of Stavers' arrest for his suspected political beliefs. But what about James?

He was not arrested, nor charged with assault. Apparently James was terrified of legal or social retribution; oral tradition reported that James was found several days later hiding in the cellar, up to his chin in a barrel of water . A few days later, on February 3, Mark Noble wrote to the NH Committee of Safety saying he understood no harm was meant by the "bad blow" he received, and that he hoped Stavers would be released.

The entire incident -- whether in the NH Committee of Safety records on in later reminiscence -- was defined in terms of its free white participannts. It appears that two mechanisms were at work. The first was public preoccupation with the Revolutionary War. When releasing John Stavers, the Committee of Safety summed up the mood of the era when they advised him to be careful "in these times of Jealousy & danger." James' actions were (correctly) interpreted as representing his master not himself. This in turn illustrates the second mechanism: lack of status of slaves. Their identities were often simply absorbed into their masters'. They had a non-existent voice in the revolutionary political debate.

 CONTINUE to read about  thievery and the albuno slave

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