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Did NH Governor John Langdon Own Slaves?


Slave-owning roots

I’ve taken the battered biography of John Langdon out of the library a few times, but I never actually read it. I took it out again this week. I had to check my facts. That’s because I got in trouble recently for calling John Langdon “another one of our white, slave-owning, founding fathers.”

“Correction,” said Peter Michaud, an historian and former site manager of the LangdonHouseMuseum operated by Historic New England. “There’s no evidence that Langdon actually owned slaves.”

“Then why is there a Langdon Slave Burying Ground?” I asked. It’s behind the church on Lafayette Road (across from McDonald’s) alongside the UrbanForestryCenter. It’s listed as #27 on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. White members of the Langdon family were buried elsewhere.

That was John Langdon Sr., the father, I was told, an early local farmer. His family emigrated to the New Hampshire colony before 1660. The father ran what can only be called a northern “plantation” with enslaved African workers. Mayo’s biography and other patriotic accounts barely mention the topic of slavery and refer to Langdon’s father simply as a “respected” and “successful” farmer. In their book Black Portsmouth, historians Valerie Cunnigham and Mark Sammons document many members of the Langdon family buying and selling enslaved men, women, and children right up until the American Revolution.

John Jr., the son, was born into that slave system in 1741. Educated sporadically in Portsmouth schools, John spent at least a decade as a sea captain before settling into the mercantile trade as a successful businessman. I just assumed that Langdon kept enslaved Africans in his mansion, like so many other rich and famous Portsmouth families, including Declaration-signer William Whipple. Historians should not assume, but then what about Siras Bruce?

About Siras Bruce

Siras Bruce (Langdon spelled his name “Cyrus de Bruce”) was likely enslaved at some point. At least one historian claims he was sold out of New Jersey to John Langdon. No documents show that Siras Bruce was enslaved or freed here in New Hampshire. What we have instead are contracts, beginning in 1783, stating that he was a paid domestic servant of the Langdon family. Bruce was a handsome black man clearly of African origin, but not enslaved.

“There could scarcely be found in Portsmouth, not excepting the Governor himself,” historian Charles Brewster wrote of Siras, “one who dressed more elegantly or exhibited a more gentlemanly appearance.”
According to oral tradition passed on by Brewster, Siras wore gold chains and seals. He wore a broadcloth coat, “carefully plaited linen” clothes, ruffled shirts, silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes. Siras received a salary, goods, and room and board in the Langdon mansion, built in 1784. Dressing Siras Bruce fashionably “in livery” certainly was a status symbol for Langdon, who seems to have preferred black domestic workers.

Displaying his economic and social status was important to Langdon and his wife Elizabeth Sherburne, who was 20 years younger than her husband. They married in 1777 when Langdon was 37. Having driven John Wentworth, the state’s last royal governor, out of the country two years earlier, Langdon was the political heir apparent of New Hampshire and he made no secret of his wealth and status. At his death in 1819, Langdon bequeathed a lump of cash to each of his household servants. He also paid for each servant to have a newly made black mourning outfit so they could bury him in style.

Langdon’s treatment of Silas Bruce as an employee rather than property, according to Black Portsmouth, is an indication that he disapproved of slavery, despite his family upbringing. I did not know that.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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