Would you be surprised to learn your New England ancestor owned slaves? In Maine we tend to associate slave owning with large Southern plantations that relied on slave labor to survive economically. These slaves often replaced white indentured servants who couldn’t manage the backbreaking labor required of plantation farming or cope with the climate.
African slaves were the answer and often they arrived in what is now the United States on New England vessels which carried enslaved Africans to markets in the south and in the Caribbean. This trade in humans was profitable for all concerned and built fortunes in the north.
Slavery was legal in all the Northern colonies into the 19th century and was never officially abolished in New Jersey until the end of the Civil War. While Southern slaves were usually exploited for planting and harvesting cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice, here in New England slaves were often trained as artisans and worked alongside their owners or on farms or in houses. Some worked in mines. Slaves in New England often fought in the Revolutionary War on our side. In the South, many fought for the British, hoping to earn their freedom.
It is not farfetched that you may encounter a slave owner in your genealogical research. My own slave-owning ancestor was Benjamin Porter Sr. of Boxford, Massachusetts, my sixth great-grandfather. He is said to have owned more slaves than anyone else in the town. The history of Boxford even names several of Porter’s slaves who were baptized in the local church, showing that he made some effort to convert them to Christianity.
Benjamin was a carpenter and farmer, so his slaves did field work, carpentry, or household chores. The fact that he owned a great deal of land and slaves meant that Benjamin Porter was a prominent man in the community. Benjamin was not alone. Merchants, officials and ministers often owned slaves. Remember that the Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem, enabler of the witch hunt, owned Caribbean slaves.
If you do uncover a slave owner or a slave trader in your tree, don’t be shocked. Slavery existed for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all owned slaves. The Vikings seized captives from the Celts and the Slavs, which is where the word “slave” originated, and sold them in Near Eastern slave markets. Arab traders purchased Africans captured and sold by other Africans. The Bible is rife with tales of slavery. There are no clean hands where slavery is concerned.
If you find a slaveowner or dealer in your family, make a note of it. Remember, genealogists deal in facts. I was surprised to learn about Benjamin Porter Sr.’s ownership of slaves. It doesn’t make it morally right, but it happened. All of us and our ancestors have clay feet. Nobody’s ancestors were perfect though some may pretend they were.
In my next column I’ll discuss something else you may discover in researching: apprenticeships and indentured servitude, which in some cases mimicked slavery.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at email@example.com.