Friday, April 14, 2023

A matter of the historical record: The enslavers and the enslaved of 18th century Windham

By Walter Lunt

They were called “servants.” Most did not have a surname. Tax records referred to them as “servants for life” (to distinguish them from indentured servants). They were African Americans and in 18th century Maine (a district of Massachusetts) their numbers were estimated to be about 4,000, including about 20 in Windham, according to one scholarly estimate. And to be clear, they were slaves.

A bill of sale sent by Thomas Chute to Moses
Pearson of Standish. Chute was Windham's
founding settler and a tailor. Chute lists 
clothing he made for Pearson's slave.
“There is a misconception that we (Northern slavers) were good to our slaves,” says history researcher Vana Carmona, who has been researching named slaves of Cumberland County for over nine years, “This is something we try to tell ourselves to make us feel better about what (the enslavers) were doing. It’s a lie!”

Carmona’s analysis is echoed by Maine historian Charles P.M. Outwin. Writing for the Maine Historical Society’s publication Maine History, Outwin states, “Although some slaves in New England may have developed a close relationship with their masters, no slave was pampered. All were one way or another exploited in the northern colonies, as they were in the southern colonies.”

Writing in the current issue of Maine History (Winter, 2023), author Gayle Kinney-Cornelius writes, “Although there is much that will never be known, current historic discoveries…prove that New England’s reputation as a bastion of slave well-being and universal freedom is inaccurate. Research historians have dug deeply into archives and uncovered a more balanced understanding of slavery in New England.”

Horrific, even grisly, events induced by northern enslavers do survive history’s whitewashed stories. A Maine minister sent his young slave girl out in the snow to retrieve cows. Unable to find them and too afraid to return without them, the girl remained outside into the night and was found froze to death the next day. In a coastal town, a fisherman sliced off a section of his dead slave’s buttocks to use for fish bait. According to author Kinney-Cornelius, “…efforts to (uncover the dark secrets of colonial slavery) have been hindered by both the dearth of and the erasure of essential historic documentation…when memories of an event causes shame or embarrassment.”

The work of male slaves in the District of Maine and in other New England states consisted of farming, lumbering, fishing, and manufacturing. Enslaved women worked in the home as cooks, laundresses, maids and nurses. Some were trained in spinning, knitting, and weaving.

Documentation from primary and secondary source materials reveal three individuals of African descent enslaved in Windham in the 18th century. They were Phyllis, Chloe and Lonnon. Phyllis was the domestic “servant” of another Maine minister, Parson Peter Thatcher Smith and his wife Elizabeth Hunt Wendell (who built Windham’s well-known Parson Smith House in 1762). Phyllis was in very real terms the “wedding present” of Elizabeth’s mother, Madam Wendell of Boston.

Phyllis has the distinction of being the only slave in Cumberland County to be memorialized in a life-sized portrait. The oil painting on wood, or dummy board, shows a short, slender woman with brown curly hair, brown eyes and a small mouth turned slightly upward in a barely-there smile. She carries a tray of steaming cups of chocolate. Unfortunately, the portrait no longer resides with the historic house. It is unlikely that Phyllis was ever freed, and it is believed she is buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby Smith-Anderson Cemetery.

Two other early Windham slaves were boarded in the same neighborhood on River Road. They were Lonnon and Chloe, owned by the family of Windham’s second settler, William Mayberry. They were married by Parson Smith in 1763, but when Mayberry died soon after, Lonnon and Chloe were bestowed separately to his two sons. Lonnon enlisted in the Continental Army in the War for Independence for which he was paid 20 pounds, which he turned over to the Mayberry’s for his freedom. He would die, probably from misery and exposure under Gen. Washington at Valley Forge, and is buried at Whitemarsh Encampment, New Jersey. Chloe and a daughter, Lucy, remained in Windham for six years, after which, according to historian Outwin, she married Prince, the former slave of William McLellan of Gorham. Prince had gained his freedom following service in the Revolutionary War.

Another likely slave in Windham is identified as Romeo Smith. Little is known about Romeo except that he was born a slave and resided in Windham some time before 1775. With the promise of freedom, he opted for military service in the Revolution. Outwin reports that Romeo “served as drummer for Captain Skillings’ company in the Continental Army.” Following the war, under threat of being reclaimed as a slave, he sought help from General Henry Knox who wrote a proclamation substantiating Romeo’s three years of military service and that “Romeo Smith is a free man…”

One great irony, as noted by historian Kinney-Cornelius, “Black people could not vote, nor could they serve on juries, but they were required to pay taxes. This is…an example of taxation without representation, one of the very conditions that had angered white colonists and led to the American Revolution.”

Carmona, the researcher, writes, “There was nothing “ambiguous” about an unfree servant who is not referred to as a slave. Everything was always at the convenience of the enslavers…the Mayberry’s wanted money from Lonnon when he went to war…the enslavers wanted compensation. But the formerly enslaved got nothing.”

Outwin concludes his commentary this way, “With the slaves of Cumberland County, named and anonymous, they are part of a melancholy company of shadows forever haunting the twilight margins of Maine’s colonial history. <

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