By Andy O’Brien
In 1690, a scandal broke in the small coastal village of Kittery. A young, unmarried, white woman named Alice Hanscom had become pregnant. At the time, Maine was governed by Massachusetts and its conservative, Puritan Christian laws that strictly prohibited sex outside of marriage, blasphemy, drunkenness, smoking, and breaking the Sabbath. Becoming pregnant out of wedlock was not only considered a grave sin, but was also against the law.
As historian Patricia Q. Wall recounted in Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine, Hanscom was accused of “fornication and bastardy” and was brought before Kittery magistrate Francis Hooke. When asked who the father was, Hanscom identified a white man named John Metherill, who agreed under legal pressure to marry her. But then she gave birth to a brown-skinned baby boy.
“Another inquiry was held and once again magistrate Hooke asked Alice to name the father of the child,” wrote Wall. “When Alice said ‘William,’ Hook asked ‘Which William?’ Before Alice could reply, however, John Shapleigh said, ‘It is our Black Will she means.’ ”
William Black, or “Black Will” as he was known, was one of roughly 500 or 600 enslaved Africans who lived in southern Maine; Shapleigh was his “owner.” The court ordered Black to be brought shirtless to the town whipping post a few days later, where he was whipped repeatedly for the sin of fornication. Wall did not recount what happened to Hanscom.
As Bowdoin College Professor Randolph Stakeman wrote in his article “Slavery in Colonial Maine,” in response to complaints that “several negroes had lain with white women,” Massachusetts passed a 1705 law, “An Act for the better preventing of a spurious and mixt issue,” which outlawed interracial marriage and sexual relations between races. Maine passed a similar law after it became a state in 1820; Maine and Massachusetts were the only New England states to pass such laws. Stakeman speculated that the lack of Black women in the colony may have led to an increase in sexual relations between Black men and white women, causing racial anxiety among white men. Between 1708 and 1721, he noted that five women in the colony were convicted of bearing children by Black men.
The 1705 anti-miscegenation law was part of a series of Massachusetts “slave codes,” passed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A 1670 law designated the children of enslaved people to be slaves for life. Fears of slave insurrections influenced Massachusetts to prohibit Black people from bearing firearms or serving in local militias, but it was repealed in 1693 in an effort to strengthen colonial defenses against attacks from Indigenous groups.
Massachusetts also passed laws to prohibit enslaved people from running away, boarding ships in some ports, breaking the 9 p.m. curfew, striking or defaming a white person, and parading in the streets in groups, according to Stakeman. And breaking slave codes carried stiff penalites. Enslaved people had the legal right to testify and seek redress in the courts, but obtaining justice was usually difficult for Black Mainers. In one instance in 1695, a Kittery man named Nathaniel Keen beat his slave Rachael to death, but was only charged with cruelty, not murder, and fined “five pounds for the offense plus five pounds and ten shillings for court costs,” Stakeman wrote.
Anti-miscegenation laws, segregation in schools and church pews, and other “black codes” lasted long after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, which included Maine at the time, in 1783. One 1703 law prohibited owners from freeing their enslaved workers without posting a cash bond, and signing a pledge obligated them to provide for the formerly enslaved workers in the event that they became infirm or impoverished. The impetus was to prevent towns from having to shoulder the cost of general assistance for formerly enslaved people. Nearly 40 years after slavery was abolished in Maine, a Black woman named Harriett Stockbridge from Pittston was found ineligible for relief from the town because her enslaved grandfather had not been officially freed, and his master hadn’t posted bond for him.
Despite all odds, some Black Mainers were able to escape the bonds of slavery and prosper during the colonial period. In 1696, William Black saved enough money to purchase 100 acres of land in Kittery, and then gained his freedom in 1703. He was even able to buy the freedom of an enslaved man named Tony, and assumed permanent financial responsibility for Tony in the event that he became unable to work.
In 1715, after the enactment of the 1705 law that outlawed interracial sexual relations, 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. Nonetheless, Will Junior was able to purchase property, and eventually settled on Bailey’s Island. Later, after he was evicted by the owner, he moved to Orr’s Island, where he was joined by other free Black settlers, and formed the second oldest Black community in Maine. The strait between Bailey’s and Orr’s Islands is still known as “Will’s Gut” after William Black, Jr.