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by Valerie Cunningham

clip art The first known black person in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, came from the west coast of Africa in 1645. He was captured one Sunday when slave merchants attacked his village in Guinea, killing about a hundred persons and wounding others. Upon arrival in Boston, the slave was bought by a Mr. Williams "of Piscataqua." When the General Court of the colony learned of the raid and kidnapping, it ordered the merchants to return the African to his home. Slavery was not the issue of concern, for human bondage was legal in the region. The court was "indignant" that raiders had violated the Sabbath and that they had committed "ye haynos and crying sin of man stealing."

The size of the black population in 17th century New Hampshire was small and, therefore, easily overlooked. However, surveys of wills and inventories show that slaves were included in the estates of several prominent early Portsmouth families. For instance, eight slaves who worked in Richard Cutts' Kittery shipyard at midcentury were among the earliest blacks in the region; five of the eight were eventually willed to Widow Cutts in 1675.

Additional evidence that "mulattoes, Negroes and slaves" were present can be found in laws which were adopted around the turn of the century. They were similar to the restrictive laws enacted in other colonies which controlled activities of both servants and masters. A number of laws prohibited servants from roaming through town without their master's permission, being "abroad in the night time after nine o'clock," from drinking in public taverns and the like.

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Determining Black Population

Published census figures for slaves and free blacks during the colonial period are known to be inaccurate and inconsistent. For instance free blacks sometimes were counted with slaves or not counted at all, and at other times they were included with whites. The number of black people reported in provincial New Hampshire was only:

  • 70 in 1707
  • 150 in 1715
  • 656 in 1775.

Most slaves and free blacks were located in and around Portsmouth. The town's slave population grew from a reported 52 in 1727 to about 4% of the total population in 1767 when 187 slaves were reported; at the time of the first federal census in 1790 only 36 slaves were counted. During this century the "mulatto" population had grown and, just as there was confusion about where to place free blacks, the census takers would have been uncertain about how to classify those who appeared white. More important is the fact that these blacks, free and slave, were struggling to survive in a changing but constantly hostile environment. Much of the reality of their lives is revealed in the discovery of their family formations and the community they made within the larger society of Portsmouth.

Personal papers and business records of many Portsmouth white slave holding families contain little, if any, information about the lives of their black servants. Nevertheless, it is possible to obtain glimpses of the master-slave relationship in some sources. For instance, a work contract between free black Cyrus Bruce and prominant merchant John Langdon does not describe Cyrus as a citizen nor does it indicate that Cyrus was married to Flora Stoodley. Cyrus contracted to work "in any sort of business" for monthly wages which would be paid half in cash and half in "goods the said Langdon may have at the general cash price."

While this is a valuable example of a post-slavery agreement between servant and master, questions remain concerning the lives of at least three generations of slaves who lived and died at the Langdon farm without such employment options. A newspaper account is suggestive:

RUNAWAY NEGRO. . .named Caesar, about 32 years of age, about five feet high; a thick set fellow; speaks good English [implying that he was not born in America] . Wore a grey homespun coat, old grey breeches & grey reward...commit him to any gaol [jail]. Samuel Langdon.

The will of merchant Daniel Rindge provided a thoughtful arrangement for the support of a former slave: As it is my intention that my former servant Romeo Freeman shall not want [for] a comfortable living I hereby encumber my whole estate with such a sum in addition to what he the said Romeo may be able to earn by his labor as will in the opinion of my executor be sufficient for that purpose.

In 1799, the executor's accounts recorded disbursements to Romeo for cash, clothes, shoes for himself and his wife, firewood, hogs, corn and finally, in 1819, expenses for his "last sickness and death." It would be comforting to believe that Romeo's lot was a typical example of the compassion Portsmouth masters held for their former slaves; yet, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. Indeed, few freed blacks received compensation for their time in bondage and few were freed upon the death of a master.

In 1691, Joanna Severett's will stated that after her death her "Negro woman" was to serve her sister "twenty years and then be free" while she gave her "two servant boys" to her brother John without conditional freedom. The will of Jacob Treadwell, tanner, specified in 1770 that his servant Caesar was to serve his wife during her lifetime, then he could be free "if he chooses it if not I give him to my son Nathanial as he has been used to his business." Treadwell's wife died first and his revised will granted freedom to Caesar "after my decease."

Most slaves were passed along through the family when a master died, as shown in the 1760 will of Nathanial Sargent, a physician, who gave Scipio to two unmarried daughters for five years then to his grandson Edward Sargent. In 1765 Richard Wibird gave his wife Elizabeth "all my Negroes, Portsmouth [the name of a male slave] who was hers before, Phillis, Sylvia and Venus." The 1768 will of Jeremiah Wheelwright, a cooper, gave Nero and Jane to Dr. Hall Jackson "in trust, and to the sole use, and for the benefit of" his daughter, Mary Cram.

Newspaper advertisements are especially interesting for the physical descriptions of runaway slaves, their skin coloring, body size and markings, temperament, and clothing. The following typically displays no sentimentality for a personal loss; it merely requests assistance in retrieving valuable property:

STOP THE RUNAWAY...from his Master William Cotton of Portsmouth, tanner, a Negro man about 5 feet 10 inches high, about 25 years of age, a stout spry fellow, upon the yellow order, a stripe upon his cheeks, left hand little finger broke off; two stripes from his navel round to his navel, had on a yellow colored pea jacket,.... Whoever will take up said Negro and convey him to his Master shall have forty five pounds reward and necessary charges paid by me.

An ad for the return of Violet, who ran away from Capt. John Donaldson, described her as "about 16 years of age, this country born, has a remarkable nub on one of her ears -- she carried considerable clothing, mostly new and good." Portsmouth Town Records rarely mention individual slaves, but an entry in 1713 states that Joseph Jackson was to be paid for the "service of his Negro at Fort William and Mary.

Of particular interest are the occasions when black people used the town records to establish the fact that they were free. Following the legal precedent set in the colony of Virginia in 1652, laws throughout the colonies provided that the status of children as slave or free would be determined by the status of the mother. Therefore, on June 10, 1760 a free mulatto woman named Leisha Webb had the town clerk record that she and the eight children belonging to her and to her husband "Negro Ceasor, a slave" were free persons. A slave named Violet bought her freedom from Abraham Dearborn on March 25, 1778; she later married Newport, the emancipated slave of Ezra Stiles, and on November 13, 1780 the couple took their freedom papers to the town clerk giving public notice that they and their infant son were free citizens.

Some free blacks bought slaves, not to own them but to free them. For example as late as 1799 a black mariner, Richard Mullenoux, purchased from William Appleton a 19 year-old woman and the couple was married one week later. The public record of one's free status was not just an act of pride; it served as an assurance against the ever-present possibility of a black person being kidnapped and sold as a captured runaway in some distance place.

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Portsmouth's Slave Market

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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Slave Names & Families

The first record of a black family in Portsmouth appears in 1717 when Joseph and Nancy were baptized by the Rev. John Emerson of the South Church, along with their two children, Eleazor and James, all owned by William Cotton. Later that year Rev. Emerson also baptized Tony and his three children, Caesar, James and Sampson, slaves of Col. Hunkings. Although the black population grew over the next forty years with the increased importation of slaves into Portsmouth and baptisms of parents and children continued, no black marriages appear in the church records during the period.

Familiarity with slave naming practices is essential for tracing early black family relationships; yet, this too is a complicated task. Slaves did not have their own surnames and only occasionally was an African's first name retained. The common practice was for the owner to replace an African's name with one thought appropriate for a slave, then the master's family name was added as an informal method of identifying the slave with that owner. If sold, the slave became known by the new master's name. Therefore, without supporting evidence, historians can assume very little about kinship between slaves sharing the same family name. For example, two Sherburne slaves, Caesar and Nancy, are listed separately in the North Church records. They may have been married, siblings, or a parent and child-even cousins. But unless an additional reference establishes their kinship, all that can be said is that they had the same owner. Furthermore the issue is further clouded by the fact that two slaves may be related, yet contain different names because one took the surname of a new master Finally, most emancipated slaves who remained in Portsmouth appear to have retained the surname of the owner who granted freedom, or the one with whom the slave most closely identified. This appearance of passively accepting the white family's surname could be, instead, a deliberate choice of free people to preserve their identity with significant members of their own black family.

Much has been written about the breaking up of American slave families, yet many managed to stay intact. Whites did not recognize non-traditional marriages and, as a result, the union was not recorded. Without documentation of these unions, the total number of Portsmouth black families during the period remains unknown. The records do show, however, that between 1760 and 1810 about one hundred black couples chose to have their marriages performed by a Portsmouth minister, usually of the same church as an owner or former master, and the majority of these families remained in the town for many years after marriage.

African religious beliefs were ridiculed, if not ignored, by European - Americans who proceeded to "facilitate and encourage the conversion of Negroes" to Christianity. It is impossible to know the degree a slave's religious belief actually was changed or to what extent his or her declarations of faith were concessions to expediency. Regardless, Africans were expected to forsake their own understanding of God, the relationships between natural forces, and the life of the spirit for the religion of their oppressors. Civil and social laws were reinforced in Biblical lessons extolling obedience not only to masters but to white people generally. In return for their declarations of faith, slaves received the promise of freedom from "spiritual sinfulness" while spending their earthly days in legal bondage.

In adopting ceremonies of baptism and marriage that were acceptable in white society, some blacks seemed to be challenging whites to recognize the legitimacy of their families, thereby making it possible for blacks to be a part of the larger community . Most black people who continued to live in Portsmouth after emancipation had connections with a local church and ties to the white community. Some degree of emotional bonding would have been inevitable between masters and servants who had lived in the same house, shared the intimacies of family life, performed work together in kitchens and gardens, on the docks and in shops. If one or both partners in a black marriage had grown up in Portsmouth, they were likely to have had relatives and loved ones nearby, some possibly still in bondage, whom they would not want to abandon. Older people would have been reluctant to venture out into an unknown and a very dangerous land.

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About The Author

Editor's Note: Valerie Cunningham has been researching, writing and teaching about local black history for 25 years. Her avocation has made her one of the region's experts and she is consultant to the Black History section of This article, complete with detailed footnotes, first appeared in Historical New Hampshire (Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 1989) published by the NH Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

African American Resource Center
PO Box 5094
Portsmouth, NH 03801-5094

© 1997 Valerie Cunningham.
Electronic publication copyright ©1997-2000

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