By Andy O’Brien

For nearly as long as Europeans have been in Maine, Africans have also lived here. However, until very recently, many Maine historians have generally ignored the history of African American people in the Pine Tree State, and have downplayed Maine’s role in the slave trade.

“No word haunts the subject of slavery in New England more, even to the present day, than the word ‘denial,’” wrote historian Patricia Q. Wall in Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine.

 “Thanks to a number of nineteenth century white and biased historians, a myth was created that slavery was only a Southern occurrence,”

Patricia Q. Wall

Andy O’Brien is a writer, labor activist, and lifelong Mainer. He lives in Rockland.

 “Thanks to a number of nineteenth century white and biased historians, a myth was created that slavery was only a Southern occurrence,” she wrote. “Their revised histories, many of them New England town or regional ones, either omitted slavery’s existence or treated it as merely incidental, as if the presence of an enslaved Black [person] here or there was more a source of belittling stories to amuse readers than of any real significance to community life and history.”

Earliest Africans in Maine

Most early African Americans in Maine originally came from West Africa and were brought here through trade routes from the West Indies and Cape Verde. Some also migrated to Maine after securing their freedom by fighting the British in the American Revolution. Others came from bordering states or Canada in the 19th century.

As historians Harriet H. Price and Gerald Talbot wrote in Maine’s Visible Black History, the first Africans came here in the 1500s as sailors from Cape Verde on Portuguese fishing boats. In fact, they suggest it’s quite possible that Africans were the first non-Indigenous people to literally set foot on the “maine,” to haul ashore the fishing vessels. Some Black Mainers living today are likely descended from Cape Verdean sailors. As Price and Talbot noted, the common surname “Carter” derives from the Portuguese “de Carter.” Black Carters have lived up and down the Maine coast from Warren to Portland since the 1700s.

The vast majority of people of African descent in colonial Maine likely ended up here as a result of the slave trade, which existed in Maine from the mid 1600s until the 1780s. Most often, these enslaved people were brought from the West Indies because New England enslavers preferred people who they said had first been “seasoned” by bondage in the Caribbean, and were believed therefore to be easier to control than people who were brought directly from Africa. Unlike the Indigenous people enslaved by white people in New England, Africans had no place where they could seek refuge by fleeing back to their tribes.

Historians have had to reconstruct the history of the first Africans in Maine using fragments of archived material like tax records, court records, church documents, and advertisements because few enslaved people were allowed to read or write. African people were listed In the wills of enslavers along with livestock and other possessions. They were bought and sold at auction in Wells and Kittery. Families were often separated and sold off to other white households. Even free Black people in colonial Maine had limited rights, were prohibited from marrying Europeans, and were forced to sit in segregated church pews.

Still, African Americans in Maine fought for their freedom. They served as soldiers in the American Revolution and the Civil War. They were abolitionists and activists who pushed for justice. 

Watch for next month’s second installment in a series exploring the history of Black Mainers, their struggles for liberation, and their many contributions to our shared history.