Revealing Hidden Stories

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 Heuston gravestone blogMahitable 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.

Francis Heuston restored stone blogYou 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.

Sources:

  • 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
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About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
This entry was posted in Brunswick History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Revealing Hidden Stories

  1. Jude Maloney says:

    Barbara, This is an excellent story and uncovers a reality in Brunswick that few of us are educated about. Thank you for your research and for sharing it. Very interesting. I hope that someday you put these blogs into a book.

    • Barbara D says:

      Thank you, Judy. I am writing a book — a history of Brunswick — with these stories, but in a much expanded form. Those who came before us have much to teach us!

  2. Harriet Price says:

    Barbara, you do such a good job telling these true stories. Thank you for your continued research, getting the history out there, and achieving the National Park Service Network to Freedom status for Brunswick and Bath’s part in the Underground Railroad. You built on Dr. Randolph Stakeman’s shoulders and have preserved your area’s black history. H.H. Price

    • Barbara D says:

      Thank you, H.H. I’m also building on YOUR work researching and writing about Maine’s Underground Railroad and, of course, your book Maine’s Visible Black History. You led the way and I thank you for that. Barb

  3. Dale Swain says:

    When I happened upon your story of Francis and Mahitable it was like I had struck gold! I was born in Bath but my family moved to Buffalo, NY 50+ years ago. I have been tracing my roots in Maine since about 1994 but research has been difficult because of the distance. Mahitable and her husband William Swain were my 3rd great grandparents. Everything I have found referencing them indicated that one or both were African American but I never really thought I had enough proof to confirm that. Your wonderful story has done that for me and so much more. I knew that Mahitable had married Francis after Williams’ death but their involvement in the Underground Railroad was a fascinating surprise! Keep up the great work you are doing. – Dale Swain

    • Barbara D says:

      Dale, Thank you for your wonderful comment. YOU are the reason I write this blog. I want people to know the amazing people in my community who have made us who we are. You made my day! — Barb Desmarais

  4. Pingback: You’ve Got Questions; We’ve Got Answers | Cemeteries of Brunswick, Maine

  5. Randy Stakeman says:

    Great job publicizing this history that more people should know about.

    • Barbara D says:

      Thank you, Dr. Stakeman. Your own work “A Black Census of Maine 1800-1019” laid the foundation upon which the rest of us build.

      • Randy Stakeman says:

        Please call me Randy. My work was only the beginning. I hoped that others would take it further and they have. I have started a similar project here in Albuquerque. It’s amazing how far the tools have come.

      • Barbara D says:

        Oh, my goodness, I know what you mean about the tools. As I recall, your original data was printed on a dot matrix printer, wasn’t it? So glad you’re doing a similar project in Albuquerque, Randy. I went to UNM in Albuquerque for 2 semesters and loved the area – especially Santa Fe where I had friends. Best of luck on your project. ~ Barb

      • Randy Stakeman says:

        Those dot matrix printouts are still in Bowdoin special collections if you ever need them.

      • Barbara D says:

        Excellent. Thank you.

        Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2014 18:21:58 +0000 To: desmarais55@hotmail.com

  6. jasoncoombs91 says:

    Great work! Please email at your earliest convenience as I have a old newspaper that can offer some great insight. It’s a 1908 Print with a story about my great, uncle Charles America Coombs. Born in Brunswick, grew up in Bath. Member of UGR in Kansas at time John Brown was active, civil war veteran etc. This may offer some interesting information but if nothing else a fun read.

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