Old York Historical Society offers walking tour Slavery in York County
YORK, Maine – Jacob Perkins of Wells appeared in court in January 1731 for striking a man enslaved to him, Tom, on the head with an ax as Tom was going about his work in the commons one afternoon.
An Old York Historical Society researcher who oversees court records doesn’t know what became of Tom or whether he survived Perkins’ attack. Researchers often hit a wall when digging for more information about enslaved people in New England, a population that has largely been excluded from history books or minimized as an insignificant footnote, said Historical Society Perkins Fellow Erin Tewksbury.
As a reader, you’re left wanting more details, Tewksbury continued, which is what inspired her to create the first in-depth collection of York County’s court records into an online database with every person cited from 1648 throughout the colonial era.
Official documents of New England slaves are hard to come by, Tewksbury said, which is why a collection of all the names that passed through the Old York Gaol, a former colonial prison, may provide a narrow window into the reality of slavery in the early days of the Massachusetts Province of Maine.
Perkins was ultimately fined three shillings for the ax-wielding crime against his slave and was later fined five shillings at the same court for swearing, according to documents obtained by Tewksbury. This is just one of many instances Tewksbury found underscoring how enslaved people in New England were treated with contempt.
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The launch of three new walking tours began July 8 with “Slavery in York County,” which relies heavily on Tewksbury’s database project and was written in collaboration with researcher Daniel Bottino and Old York Historical Society visitor services coordinator Ken McAuliffe. Other new tours include “Loyalists in York: On the Road to Revolution” and “Women of York: The Dignity of Silent Anonymity.”
Each tour is $ 10 for an adult, $ 5 for a child and free for historical society members, according to the event description.
Tewksbury, a York native who earned a history undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Maine, said her teachers growing up instilled a passion for learning history, but they couldn’t teach what they didn’t know. With this research that she began collecting in 2019, Tewksbury hopes this tour will show people what she had not been explicitly taught while growing up in York – that slaves, as well as indentured servants, were integral to life in York County in the colonial era .
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020, the historical society began to consider more broadly what stories they were telling and what they didn’t know, said Janice Plourde, programs and hospitality coordinator. To reckon with the present, people must be shown a fuller, more accurate picture of York and the people who helped to build it, she said.
Tour dives into lesser-known people and their stories
Court records from this era often provide only a nugget of information about an enslaved person, Tewksbury said. Accompanied by a description of the alleged crime and subsequent punishment, slaves were often named as the owner’s property. If their name was noted, it was usually just a first name.
â€œThat just really shows the lack of value placed on the lives of these people,â€ Tewksbury said.
By 1810, New England had about 10% of all slaves in the United States, and although hundreds of enslaved people lived in the province of Maine and were forced to work for the white families, there is a lack of historical awareness surrounding this issue, Tewksbury said.
Joanne Pope Melish’s “Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860,” explores how, given that slavery existed in New England for 150 years and constituted a considerable aspect of its economy, the role of slaveholding came to be virtually eradicated from New England’s history. In “Erasing Slavery: Memory, History, and Race in New England,” writer Margaret MR Kellow analyzes Melish’s work.
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“White New Englanders perfected a raft of subtle and not so subtle ways of subordinating African Americans, ways scarcely less racist or less determined than those perpetrated by their southern counterparts,” Kellow writes. “Many white antebellum New Englanders indulged in a fantasy that they could make slavery and its troublesome legacy disappear.”
Tewksbury said it is her “personal conviction” to make the names uncovered through court documents into an accessible database for all. One of the goals is to fill in gaps that occur in Black Americans’ genealogy because of the erasure slavery caused, Tewksbury added.
The database and this tour will continue to challenge the way York and the rest of New England are thought of, Tewksbury said. Along with the Perkins story are dozens of others unearthed by Tewksbury, said coordinator McAuliffe.
Tewksbury has been accepted into a master’s program at the Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, to study classics, which she has chosen to defer enrollment one more year due to the pandemic, she said. In addition to publishing a database of the court records in the future, Tewksbury will work to publish academic articles related to how we can understand and interpret these findings.
How Mainers became slaveholders
Tewksbury’s work comes at a time when other researchers are unraveling the lesser-known history of Maine, a state better known as the home of abolitionists than enslavers.
Part of the reason slavery evolved differently in New England was the culture of indentured servitude, according to McAuliffe. Indentured servants were the original standard for forced labor in New England and were often white Europeans voluntarily working off debts.
More than half of the original population of the North American colonies was brought over as indentured servants, McAuliffe added. Additionally, the enslaving and shipping of local Native Americans to the West Indies was an undeniable part of early New England life.
Another historian and writer from Kittery, Patricia Wall, spent five years combing through court and church records, wills, letters and estate inventories to uncover evidence of hundreds of slaves in Kittery from its settlement through the American Revolution. Her book, â€œLives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine,â€ was released in 2017 and delves into the history of slavery in Maine.
Wall writes that over the 160 years before Maine became a state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise, there were at least 21 enslaved people recorded in Portland, close to 500 in the Kittery area and an unknown number in other communities. That was because Maine was adopted as a province of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1677, which legalized slavery in 1641. This meant that Maine would have to give up its preference for indentured servitude and shift a culture that found slavery morally objectionable.
When Maine officially sought to form a state in 1819, southern legislators and senators had declared that Maine would not gain statehood if federal restrictions were placed on Missouri, a territory also petitioning to join the Union. Ultimately, the entrance of Maine as a free state was agreed to in exchange for the entrance of Missouri as a slave state.
Five of the seven US representatives from the District of Maine voted against Maine’s statehood because it meant the creation of a new slave state, Missouri, according to the Maine State Museum. Despite this and becoming a free state, dozens of Maine ships continued to engage illegally in the slave trade after an 1820 federal act was passed that made participation in the slave trade an act of piracy, the museum states.
â€œThey forgave themselves of that and began to look at it as a business,â€ McAuliffe said as he led the walking tour.
Although its original colonial tour is still its most popular offering, the Old York Historical Society aims to expand walking tours as the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic and new variants of the virus threaten our return to normalcy. The hope is to keep the public engaged with the society while also introducing visitors to new concepts, ones that particularly align with the town’s effort for more racial equity as stated in the Proclamation Against Racism, Discrimination and Bigotry.
â€œThose moral lessons are learned as we go forward, we hope with your generation and every generation that follows,â€ McAuliffe said.
The walking tour
McAuliffe, a former high school American history teacher, said the point is to make people question their history, know their history and reflect on their history during the one-hour tour. He started the tour at the Old Parish Cemetery across the street from the museum.
“The enslaved and the indentured are not honored at the cemetery, despite their documented existence in York County,” McAuliffe begins.
One takeaway from the tour is just how different, yet strikingly similar, enslavement in New England was compared to the South. Though slavery in this North had never risen to the level of southern states, it was still prominent and cruel, McAuliffe said.
â€œIt isn’t so much about who had slaves in York, It’s really the bigger topic that these issues were boiling here, just like they were everywhere,â€ McAuliffe said. “You can’t replay history, you can only learn from history.”
For more information on the tour visit: Old York Historical Society