Brunswick’s African American History
This week I’m answering two questions I’m asked whenever I share Brunswick’s 18th and 19th century African American history.
How did African Americans get to Brunswick?
The first African Americans who arrived in Brunswick in the 1700s were slaves, usually of ministers, merchants, and military officers. For instance, Capt. Benjamin Larrabee, commander of Fort George, held a slave named Pompey who served in the local militia in Brunswick and received the same wages as the other soldiers.
After the Revolutionary War, slavery was deemed illegal in Massachusetts and Maine. Entire families of “servants for life” came to Maine. These included the Lydia Freeman family who would settle in Bowdoin and Brunswick. Lydia’s son, John, and Leah Griffen, both of Brunswick, registered their marriage intentions March 24, 1781.
In the First Census of the United States, taken in 1790, Brunswick counted 1357 free whites and 38 “other free persons.” The “other” category would have included both Native Americans and African Americans.
Fully one quarter of early 19th century mariners were African American. Some of these sailors settled in Brunswick after arriving in the port city of Bath or nearby Wiscasset. Such was the case of Francis Heuston, who continued to work aboard coasting ships while also becoming a successful farmer in East Brunswick.
Many Maine families in the shipping industry had both business and familial connections with plantation owners in the south, which brings us to another way African Americans found their way to Brunswick – escaping enslavement. In 1850, Heuston and his wife Mahitable were instrumental in one such escape, harboring Clara Battease who fled her southern owners
So where are these African Americans now?
The 19th century African American population of Brunswick peaked around 1850, at about 50 out of a total population of 4977. Some families moved to other states where jobs were more plentiful, particularly after the Civil War, but others remained. Lydia Freeman’s descendants live in Brunswick today, the 10th generation to do so.
The African roots of some of Brunswick’s residents have faded from view. Though both Massachusetts and Maine had various laws prohibiting the marriage of blacks and whites, the marriages occurred regularly. Intermarriage is evident for one local African American family whose race was recorded as black in the earliest census in which they appeared, then evolved to mulatto, and finally to white.
To learn more about Maine’s rich African American history from colonial days to the present, read Maine’s Invisible Black History.
Next blog in two weeks: Who Were Hartwell-Little?
- For more about Capt. Benjamin Larrabee see Between a Rock and a Hard Place
- For more about Francis and Mahitable Heuston, and Clara Battease see Revealing Hidden Stories
- Vital Records of Brunswick, Maine 1740-1860 and The Forsaith Book. Compiled by Joseph Crook Anderson II, CG, FASG. Picton Press, Rockport, Maine, 2004
- 1790 Alphabetical Census for Brunswick. Transcribed by Judy Husman, Curtis Memorial Library
- Maine Memory Network: Peopling Maine
- Town of Brunswick 1724-1910. CD, Picton Press, Rockland, ME, 2005
- Maine’s Visible Black History. Price, H. H., and Gerald E. Talbot, Gardiner: Tilbury House, 2006
- History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine. Wheeler, George Augustus Wheeler, MD. And Henry Warren Wheeler, Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, Boston, Mass., 1878