When they tallied up wages for the building of Fort George, the Pejepscot Proprietors didn’t name three of the workers, though they did so for most of the tradesmen who constructed the fort and the ship captains who carried in the supplies, workers, and soldiers. The Proprietors, members of the wealthy merchant and governing class of the English colonies, didn’t name Benjamin Haley’s “man,” John Watts’ “boy,” and Hunniwell’s “negro” because the three occupied the very lowest positions in early 18th century New England society and, though their labor was integral to the success of the Fort George project, the Proprietors accorded them the same status as the horses and team of oxen.
The Proprietors were members of the wealthy merchant class who governed the English colonies, and therefore signed their names to incorporation documents, deeds, legislative records, and wills. The tradesmen’s status was a step down, but they certainly were named on deeds, marriage, and court records as they strove to rise into the upper echelon. Even the three men on the bottom rung of the social ladder may have been named elsewhere on documents of apprenticeship, indenture, wills, or bills of sale.
For instance, the unnamed “man” associated with Saco carpenter Benjamin Haley may have been his apprentice. Years before Haley had apprenticed under his own uncle and now it seems he was passing on that skill to his own “man.”
In the days before vocational and industrial schools existed, young men contracted themselves to skilled elder to learn their trade. The apprentice was sworn to obey his master, and the master was obligated to shelter, feed, and clothe his student. Usually the apprentice lived in the master’s own home. At the conclusion of perhaps three to six years of on-the-job training, the apprentice would have gained a valuable trade he could ply on his own, as well as a standing in the community over and above that of a common laborer.
If Haley’s “man” learned well from the master house-wright, he would have no end of work in the newly resettled Saco or Pejepscot areas. It wouldn’t be long before he could afford the extra mouth to feed and go on to sign papers to train an apprentice of his own.
The “boy cooking the Pott” to feed the hungry soldiers and tradesmen building the fort may have been an indentured servant of one of the Pejepscot Proprietor John Watts, Esq.
Like apprenticeship, indentured servitude was a legal agreement between servant and master, but a more restrictive and uncertain one. These servants were often from poor families or were orphaned, living hand to mouth. They contracted to serve their master from four to seven years, at the end of which they would receive freedom papers, and, if they were really fortunate, money and land. Sadly, many of these young men and women were mistreated physically and emotionally. Though masters could be legally charged for mistreating their servants, they rarely were. The relationship was skewed to the master’s benefit. They could renew and change contracts annually, as well as extend then for even minor infractions. A master could sell his servant without consent and could also prevent the servant from marrying. Punishment for running away or for indentured women impregnated by their masters included years of additional servitude. Rather than face greatly extended indenture, some servants chose suicide.
One hopes John Watts’ “boy” was among the 60% of indentured servants who successfully earned freedom papers in their own names.
The carpenter’s “Man” and Watts’ “boy,” though legally bound to masters, at least had some hope of becoming free men and then living on their own, marrying, and being recognized as valuable members of their communities. This was not the case for mason Hunniwell’s “Negro.” The mason was probably Ambrose Hunniwell, who lived near Small Point (now Phippsburg). While employed by the family of Capt. Jonathan Belcher, a future governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Hunniwell may have attained some wealth and status of his own. Either he or his employer had the wherewithal to own a slave in the person of the nameless “Negro” listed in the fort accounts.
Lest we assume this unnamed person was a free black man, we must consider that before the Revolutionary War, even in Massachusetts, the terms “Negro” and “servant” were usually synonymous with “slave.” British colonials viewed any non-Christian “servants” they imported into the colonies as slaves. In 1705, Virginia was the first to pass a law stating that ‘All Negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves…shall be held to be real estate.’
In 1739, Pejepscot Proprietor Thomas Hutchinson bequeathed his coach and horses to his wife, as well as his “servant man,” the slave named Peter, proving that, just like horses, slaves were property. Their masters and mistresses were free to treat them in any way they chose. Unlike an apprentice or an indentured servant, a slave had very little hope of earning freedom.
If Hunniwell’s “Negro” was ever named in a document, it was as an item in a bill of sale or a will.
The Pejepscot Proprietors’ report makes it clear that the town soon to become Brunswick was built by a cross-section of male British colonial society, including named men of wealth and status or critical trade skills, as well as an unnamed apprentice, indentured servant, and slave.
Soon they would be joined by a new wave of immigrants from Ireland: the men, women, and children known as the Ulster Scots.
The locals would not be far behind.
Next Blog: Beyond the Grave: The more they come, the worse it is.
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- Compiled by Shannon, Timothy J. Conditions of Indentured Servants. Exploring the Atlantic World, 1450 – 1850. edu. http://public.gettysburg.edu/~tshannon/hist106web/site18/Conditions%20of%20Indentured%20Servants2.htm. Accessed Oct. 27, 2016.
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- Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Probate Records, 1636-1899, Vol 32-34. Image of Thomas Hutchinson’s will, 1739. Probate Court (Suffolk County), Suffolk, Massachusetts. Ancestry.com. Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991 [database online],. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Accessed Oct. 27, 2016.
- Wheeler, George Augustus Wheeler, MD. And Henry Warren Wheeler. History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine.Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, Boston, Mass., 1878. Images of Pejepscot Proprietors’ cost of Fort George. http://community.curtislibrary.com/CML/wheeler/index.html. Accessed July 30, 2016.
© Barbara A. Desmarais 2016