Primus Fowle Ran First NH Press
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Primus_Fowle and the NH Gazette


A few years ago an online auction bidder paid $504.00 for a single, tattered copy of the New Hampshire Gazette. Dated February 10, 1775, the paper was certainly printed by an enslaved African called Primus, or Prime – a man who never tasted freedom. (Continued below)



Primus was owned by Daniel Fowle, publisher of the first newspaper in colonial New Hampshire. Each week, as the American Revolution against British tyranny played out in the pages of the Gazette, this enslaved man ran the printing press.  

The little we know about Primus comes from accounts written by white males. The Annals of Portsmouth (1825), the town's first history, was written by Nathaniel Adams. Born in 1756, the year the New Hampshire Gazette first appeared, Adams would certainly have met Primus, and may have been among the boys who taunted the elderly slave as he walked through the city. Adams refers to Primus as “a negro servant,” and says he was “brought from Africa.” He states categorically that he was “very illiterate” bur a “good pressman,” and that he was “upwards of ninety years old” at his death.  

Our best portrait of Primus comes from Portsmouth Journal editor Charles Brewster. His short essay on local slaves, republished in Rambles about Portsmouth (1859), reminds readers that Portsmouth was home to almost 200 enslaved Africans just before the Revolution. Brewster was a sincere, if not always accurate reporter who relied heavily on oral histories of his all-white elders. He wrote about a few “Negroes of distinction” and says “there was nearly as much ebony as topaz gloss on the face of society.”  

Primus stands up  

It is from Brewster that we learn that Primus was bent permanently forward at the waist, to an angle of 45 degrees. Historians then and now have suggested that this was due to the repetitive motion of pulling on the handle of Daniel Fowle's printing press, but we have no evidence that the presswork caused his disability and no evidence of similarly deformed press operators from that era.  

And it is to Brewster that we owe the story of a public skirmish between Primus and Daniel during the funeral of Daniel's wife Lydia in 1761. Tradition held that members of the funeral party walked in a strict hierarchy, with the closest relation first. Whites stood to the right, slaves and servants to the left. Primus, the legend says, had other ideas, and stood on the right. According to Brewster:  

His master whispered, “Go the other side.” Prime did not move. His master touched him and whispered again, “Go the other side.” This was too much. The old peppery Negro sputtered out, as loud as he could, “Go tudder side ye sef, ye mean jade.”  

This lone anecdote seems to have earned Primus his reputation among whites for irascibility. In contrast, Nathaniel Adams described publisher Daniel Fowle as “pacific” and “agreeable.”  History suggest otherwise.  

This funeral story was retold and exaggerated at a newspaperman's convention, and then published around 1870 by Tobias Ham Miller. Miller, a partner of Brewster, said he had heard the tale from an actual witness to the event, but that seems unlikely since Lydia Fowle's funeral occurred more than a century earlier. Brewster, Miller's likely source, was born in 1802, more than a decade after the death of Primus. 

Nineteenth century historians were amused by tales of “uppity” slaves, like Portsmouth's Prince Whipple, who reportedly bargained for his freedom in exchange for his service in the Revolutionary War. Daniel Fowle's apparent compliance at his wife's funeral was seen as further evidence that enslaved African Americans in the North were generally better treated than those in the South, a balm for New England sensibilities, but it was slavery all the same.  

Writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who fully accepted the concept of American slavery, mentioned Primus, “a full-blooded African”, in his own Portsmouth history An Old Town by the Sea (1895). Aldrich, who largely paraphrased Brewster's ramble on Portsmouth slaves, sums up the white 19th century viewpoint. “Their bondage,” he writes, “happily, was nearly always of a light sort, if any bondage can be light.” Brewster and Aldrich and others most admired blacks who emulated whites and abandoned their African traditions.   


Primus loyalty to Lydia  

Steven Fowle, editor of the revived New Hampshire Gazette and a “collateral descendent” of Daniel Fowle, offers a 21st century interpretation of the funeral scene. He suggests that Primus may simply have been overcome with grief due to his attachment to Lydia Fowle, who died so young. (She was just 36, while Primus may have been in his early 60s at her death.) He further speculates that Primus may have been a part of Lydia's dowry. There is no indication that Daniel Fowle owned any slaves before he married Lydia in 1751. Lydia's father, Hugh Hall, was a man of property, and had been a trader in the West Indies, a key market for African slaves. If Primus had been owned by Hugh Hall, he might have known Lydia from her birth.  

Nathaniel Adams notes that Daniel and Lydia arrived in Portsmouth in 1756 with one male and two female slaves. Lydia, we know from Daniel Fowle's writing, was not in the best of health. The trip north, and separation from her friends and family, may have been difficult for Lydia, and for Primus, and might help explain his unbowed attitude toward his master, when Lydia died just five years later.  

The move north was prompted by an incident Daniel found rather traumatic. In October of 1754 he was taken from his dinner table in Boston, interrogated by members of the Massachusetts legislature, and put into prison, “on mere suspicion” of publishing a scathingly satirical pamphlet entitled “The Monster of Monsters.”  

Daniel spent five days in jail, and might have stayed longer, but the authorities were having second thoughts and Lydia was deathly ill. Daniel later published a spirited pamphlet about the incident, entitled A Total Eclipse of Liberty.  

“Primus appears for the first time that we know of in A Total Eclipse,” Steve Fowle says today. “Daniel tells the legislators that his brother Zechariah printed The Monster of Monsters, not him,” Steve Fowle says. “But he admits that he loaned Zechariah his 'negro.'”  

Daniel Fowle died childless in 1787, leaving his entire estate to his former apprentice and adopted son John Melcher. A detailed list of Fowle's estate survives. It includes several trunks of old newspapers, “the wearing apparel of the deceased (much worn),” and “a basket with a Christening blanket & sundry matters in the womens way,” but no mention of Primus. Melcher was “encumbered” with the care of the elderly Primus. He thus became the caretaker of a slave who may have helped him learn the printing trade.  

NH's first printing press 1756

CONTINUE Primus Fowle first NH printer


Lost but not forgotten  

Primus, though robbed of his birthplace, his culture, his freedom and his name, seems to have become a minor celebrity on Portsmouth’s Paved Street (now Market Strett) in his elder years. Tobias Ham Miller describes him “sitting on the door-steps” as boys “[offered] him a copper to stand up straight, and he would always make the trial, with many grimaces, but of course he could not succeed.” 

No record of Primus' birth or enslavement has yet been found, but his death is especially well documented. An obituary appeared in the May 19th, 1791 issue of the New Hampshire Gazette. It reads: In this town, Primus, a Negro, late the property of Daniel Fowle, Esquire, deceased - his funeral will be tomorrow at six o'clock, P.M. from the dwelling house of the printer hereof, where his acquaintances may attend and pay the funeral obsequies. Such recognition for an 18th century African American was rare, if not unique.

An extraordinary twenty-line poem printed a week after his death serves as Primus' epitaph. It demonstrates, as closely as the times allowed, the respect of a white community for a distinctive and skilled man of a different race. The tone is warm, yet patronizing, and tinged with just a hint of guilt. It mentions the jibes of the local youth and alludes to Prime’s affection for liquor.  

Daniel Fowle's original print shop just off Pleasant Street is gone. The site is now part of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, and a prominent brass plaque recognizes the enslaved man who printed New Hampshire's first newspaper, week after week, year after year.  

The graves of Daniel, Lydia and Primus Fowle are unknown. Blacks were reportedly laid to rest in the town's Negro Burying Ground during the 18th century. Historians believe that the cemetery was closed between 1790 and 1800, to make way for the growing city's streets. Its exact location was lost, until workers rebuilding a sewer main discovered a coffin beneath Chestnut Street and Court Street in October 2003, exactly where publisher Charles Brewser had predicted.   

Before the digging was halted, archaeologists located a dozen more graves and DNA evidence proved they were of African origin. An unknown number of burials – perhaps 200 or more -- still lie just below the city streets. Fundraising is now underway to create a memorial at the Portsmouth African Burying Ground. Whether Primus Fowle, the man who printed New Hampshire’s first newspaper, lies among them we will likely never know.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online.