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Primus Fowle Ran First NH Press

 

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 Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online. 

 

 

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