Brunswick has a baker’s dozen of small family burying grounds or single graves on private property. These hidden burying places represent stories of historical and sociological importance. One such story is that of Francis and Mahitable Heuston.
Francis Heuston (1765-1858) was born on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. As a boy during the Revolutionary War, he served on an armed vessel, and continues as a sailor afterward. He settled in the Bath-Brunswick area around 1800 and worked on vessels sailing supplies up and down the coast.
In 1806 he married native-born Mainer, Mahitable (Griffin) Swain (1781-1851). The young widow brought four children to the marriage. Together they would have another eight. In 1811 Heuston bought 20 acres of farmland in East Brunswick and he sometimes facilitated real estate transactions for his African American neighbors.
What make the Heustons’ story particularly significant are their actions in support of their anti-slavery views. Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, a network of citizens from all walks of life, helped escaped slaves complete their journeys to freedom. Brunswick was an active way station for escaped slaves and two of its most important conductors were Francis and Mahitable Heuston.
Francis Heuston was a member of the Bath Vigilance Committee that aided escaped slave, Paul, sending him by stage to reunite with his wife and children in Canada. More than once Francis and Mahitable used their own home as a way station. Bowdoin College professor William Smyth sent at least one escapee to them and in 1850 they harbored Clara Battease, who escaped a month before her daughter’s birth.
Mahitable died in 1851 at age 70 and was buried on their farm overlooking Merrymeeting Bay. After her death Heuston married former slave Clara, reborn as Mary Scott. Known for his intelligence, strong work ethic, and forthright character, Heuston voted in every election and was a community leader. On a late spring day in 1858, 94-year-old Heuston died planting his crops. He was buried next to Mahitable and their daughter Pamelia.
You might wonder why Francis and Mahitable risked their family’s safety by helping escaped slaves to freedom. Until, that is, you learn that Francis and Mahitable were African Americans. We don’t know if Francis was born into slavery or into Nantucket’s free black community, though his father’s name of Juba hints at slavery. Mahitable, born a free woman in Maine, may have been descended from the slaves that arrived with the earliest colonists when the wealthy, even in Maine, sometimes had black slaves.
Histories of abolition written by white authors often miss an important truth – that the Underground Railroad was operated first and foremost by African Americans, with assistance from sympathetic whites. As laundresses, hack drivers, railway workers, and household servants, African Americans had access to everything an escaped slave would need, including clothing, transportation, and shelter. It is a testament to Francis and Mahitable Heuston’s integrity and intelligence that they were respected by both the black and white communities of Brunswick and remembered long after they died. They will continue to be remembered. In 2013, in recognition of their work, the Heuston Burying Ground became part of the National Parks Service Network to Freedom, one of only two Maine places currently named in the Network’s national database of historically important Underground Railroad sites.
- Vital Records of Brunswick, Maine 1740-1860 and The Forsaith Book. Compiled by Joseph Crook Anderson II, CG, FASG. Picton Press, Rockport, Maine, 2004
- United States Federal Census Records, Brunswick, Cumberland, Maine. Ancestry.com
- Massachusetts Vital Records. Ancestry.com
- Brunswick Telegraph, June 4, 1858; June 11, 1858
- A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin. Calhoun, Charles C, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1993
- Heuston Family Guest Book. copied by Bob Greene, Portland, Maine, 1974
- John Furbish, Facts About Brunswick, Maine. electronic edition, transcribed by Jackie Young, Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine; edited by Paul Dostie, Curtis Memorial Library, http://community.curtislibrary.com/CML/history/furbish/furbish.htm, 1976
- Lewiston Journal Magazine. Aug. 24, 1912, pp1-2
- Boston Vital Records; National Historical Genealogical Society
- National Park Service Network to Freedom. http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm
- Revolutionary War Graves Register. National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, CD, Copyright 1993-2000
- Maine’s Visible Black History. Price, H. H., and Gerald E. Talbot, Gardiner: Tilbury House, 2006