By Andy O’Brien
For the roughly 120 years that the institution of slavery existed in Maine, running away and starting new lives was extraordinarily difficult for enslaved Africans. During the colonial period, which lasted from the 1600s to the 1780s, Maine was very sparsely populated and there were few sympathetic white people whom enslaved Africans could trust. There also wasn’t yet an underground railroad – the 19th-century network of anti-slavery activists who helped as many as 100,000 people escape enslavement in the South. Still, some enslaved workers in what would become the state of Maine sought their freedom.
On January 1, 1748, the Boston Post Boy ran an ad offering £4 for the capture of “a Negro man named Pompey,” who had fled his master in Kittery. He was eventually recaptured, but over two years later, on July 19, 1750, a second ad for Pompey’s capture appeared in the paper. This time, the advertisement noted that he was last seen wearing “pot hooks,” a type of iron collar with prongs extending inward that made moving or lying down difficult without the spikes digging into the wearer’s flesh.
Isaac “Hazard” Stockbridge was the legal property of Dr. Silvester Gardiner, but he resorted to sabotage, arson, and even attempted murder to win his freedom. Gardiner was a physician, businessman, and land developer who had founded a colony in 1754 on the Kennebec River where Gardiner, Hallowell, and Pittston are today. Stockbridge, who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold into enslavement, lived with his wife Cooper Loving, a free Black woman, and their family in Massachusetts until Gardiner forced the family to move with him to work on his estates in 1766.
As Gardiner’s grandson Robert Gardiner later recounted, Stockbridge killed one of the doctor’s favorite horses by hanging it, attempted to poison his enslaver’s family, and set fire to their house. His poison plot was only discovered after Stockbridge warned a guest not to drink the coffee one morning. Rather than continue to risk his enslaved worker’s wrath, Gardiner gave him tools and a plot of land to build a farm at a distant spot on the property. One of Stockbridge’s grandsons, Robert Benjamin Lewis, became a well-known inventor and writer who wrote the first history of Africans and Indigenous people from an Afro-Indigenous perspective in 1836.
When the American Revolution started in 1775, some Black New Englanders joined the colonial revolutionaries, while others joined the British with the promise that they would be liberated from slavery if they helped put down the rebellion. But by that time, enslaved people in Massachusetts, which then controlled Maine, had already begun suing for their freedom in the courts. As Bowdoin College historian Randolph Stakeman noted, a small anti-slavery movement had started in Boston as early as 1701. Some white residents argued that slavery was immoral; others opposed it because they didn’t want more people of color imported into the colony.
Enslaved workers became emboldened by the 1776 Declaration of Independence and its radical pronouncement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Some even took direct action. In February 1778, a 29-year old enslaved Black man named Cambridge Little was so taken by the revolutionary fervor in the air that he fought back against his master Josiah Little, a wealthy Massachusetts merchant and future heir to a controlling interest in the Pejepscot Patent – a vast tract of land including the present-day towns of Lewiston, Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell. As Little complained to his father in a letter dated Feb. 28, 1778:
“Cambridge Refuses to be Governed by me and would not do as he was bid. I threatened to Lick him and then he Dared Me to Strick him which I Did and no sooner than I struck he Come at Me and hove me Down but Did [not] hurt me and now is Run away and carried [off] all his close. Where he is I know not but hope to find him. … Send word what is Best to do about the Black whelp.”
In 1781, an enslaved Massachusetts woman named Mum Betts, who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, successfully sued in court for her freedom, arguing that slavery was not consistent with the new state constitution’s guarantee that “All men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” Shortly thereafter in 1783, another enslaved worker named Quock Walker sued for and won his freedom in a case citing the Massachusetts Constitution. Finally, on July 8, 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Court effectively abolished slavery both in Massachusetts and the District of Maine when it ruled on the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison. As a result of that decision, Cambridge Little was set free. He soon married and moved to Dracut, Massachusetts, only to have his house demolished by a racist mob in 1807.
In last month’s column, “The lives of enslaved people in colonial Maine,” I wrote that William Black, also known as “Black Will,” of Kittery was “whipped repeatedly for the sin of fornication” with a white woman named Alice Hanscom. This information came from Mario de Valdes y Cocom on PBS’s “Frontline” website. However, author Patricia Q. Wall, who has extensively researched this case, wrote to Amjambo, “Black Will of Kittery was never ordered beaten because there was no case [regarding] Alice Hanson in 1790. Information on their relationship only came to light in a later case (1795) involving Alice Hanscom and white man Thompson…. Further, there is no clear record that Black Will Sr. was connected to any other woman than his wife, Sara.
I also wrote that Will Junior, the mixed-race son of William Black and Alice Hanscom, was also “found guilty of ‘fornication and bastardy’ after it was discovered that he fathered a child with a white woman named Elizabeth Turbit, with whom he lived. Whether Will Junior was punished is unknown, but Elizabeth Turbit received 20 lashes at the whipping post,” according to Wall.
Wall said it is “not clear Will Sr. or Jr. was wrongly accused in that case.” She further noted that Elizabeth Turbit (the woman Will Jr. later married or lived with) was found guilty of bastardy and given a choice between that and paying a fine. Her choice is unrecorded.”