In February of 1778, a young black slave named Cambridge Little began to feel the fire of revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the colonies. The 29-year-old got his surname from his master, Josiah Little, a wealthy Massachusetts merchant and future heir to a controlling interest in the Pejepscot Patent — a vast tract of land encompassing both sides of the Androscoggin River in Maine.
At the time, only the wealthiest New Englanders kept slaves, usually as a kind of status symbol, and from his home in Newburyport, Cambridge knew that New Englanders wouldn’t be able to justify the immoral institution much longer. On Feb. 6, the Franco-American alliance was formalized and soon France began sending troops to fight alongside the colonists against the British. Cambridge decided that if the white colonists were going to have their freedom, so should the slaves. He informed Little that he was no longer his property.
“Cambridge Refuses to be Governed by me and would not do as he was bid,” Josiah complained to his father, Moses, in a letter dated Feb. 28, 1778. “I threatened to Lick him and then he Dared Me to Strick him which I Did and no sooner than I struck he Come at Me and hove me Down but Did [not] hurt me and now is Run away and carried [off] all his close. Where he is I know not but hope to find him. … Send word what is Best to do about the Black whelp.”
Josiah would not be able to claim legal rights to Cambridge much longer. Slaveholders had little political power in New England and the abolitionist movement had grown substantially by the late 1700s. The American Revolution created a massive wave of anti-slavery sentiment in the northern states, as ideas about liberty and equality entered the public discourse. As 19th century lawyer and historian Joseph Williamson wrote, on the eve of the Revolution in 1773, a number of blacks in Massachusetts, “emboldened by the glimmerings of independence,” petitioned the General Court for their freedom. In 1766, Benjamin Kent, a Massachusetts lawyer, won the first trial to free a slave in the United States.
Then, in 1781, a Massachusetts slave named Mum Betts, who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, successfully sued in court for her freedom, arguing that slavery was not consistent with the state constitution’s guarantee that “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.” Shortly thereafter, a black slave named Quock Walker sued for and won his freedom in a case citing the Massachusetts Constitution. On July 8, 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Court effectively abolished slavery in the Bay State when it ruled on the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison. As a result of that decision, Cambridge Little was finally set free. Shortly after, he got married and moved to Dracut, only to have his house demolished by a racist mob in 1807.
The piecemeal approach by which laws were changed, and the ambiguous status of slaves in many situations, makes it impossible to establish a clear date to mark the end of the institution in this region. Many northern slaves had already earned their freedom, through a variety of ways, before the 1780s. But slaves in other parts of Massachusetts and New England would not necessarily have heard the news of slavery’s end, or that news may have been concealed from them. Some ostensibly freed slaves may have been pressed back into the service of their former masters through legal loopholes or other forms of coercion, such that their living and working conditions were essentially unchanged.
Several slaves residing in what would later become Maine, who were able to win their freedom before or after the 1783 court decision, went on to settle communities. London Atus was the founder of a bi-racial settlement in Machias, now referred to as Atusville, that existed from the late 18th century to the mid-20th. He was brought here by his owner, James Lyon, the first minister in Machias, and gained distinction through his heroic service in the American Revolution. Atus served in an artillery company and was posted at a fort in Machiasport. He also served for three months on the sloop Winthrop. During the war, Atus was often tasked with assignments such as carrying messages between Machias and the Provincial Congress at Cambridge. According to one account, quoted by Marcus LiBrizzi, author of the book Lost Atusville:
“London was a true patriot. After the battles of ’75 and ’77 … he procured a small vessel, took in some boards at Machias, and sailed for Boston. It was a time when starvation threatened the settlers at Machias. London had good luck. He run [sic] by the British blockading vessels along shore [and] reached Boston, exchanged his lumber for provisions and made his way safely back to Machias. Probably no vessel ever entered Machias [R]iver giving so much joy to the people as did the little craft laden with provisions[.] London Atus, Captain!”
Following the Revolution, Atus acquired his freedom — perhaps by purchasing it with money he earned during the war as a privateer — and married a white woman named Eunice Foss, the daughter of one of Machias’ founders. He lived the rest of his life in the town.
The free black colony of Peterborough, in Warren, was founded by two former slaves from Massachusetts. The original matriarch of this village was a woman named Sarah Peters, who had been kidnapped from her home in Guinea and sold by a Damariscotta captain to Captain James McIntyre, of Warren, around 1782. But it wasn’t long before she heard about the Mum Betts and Quock Walker cases.
“Hearing a rumor of this, [Peters] paid the representative, P. Pebbles, one dollar to ascertain this truth, and claimed her freedom,” wrote 19th-century historian Cyrus Eaton in his book, Annals of Warren. “This woman is believed to have sustained good character, and was early and long a member of the Baptist church.”
Meanwhile, a former slave named Amos Peters was making his way up to Warren, but the reason he came to Maine is still shrouded in mystery. In her research of the Peterborough settlement, historian Dr. Kate McMahon learned that Amos Peters was born of African and Wampanoag Indian ancestry in 1737 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was owned by a man named John Peters, but won his freedom by enlisting in the Continental Army.
After serving three months, Peters left the service, but reenlisted in 1776 and is said to have had his ear shot off in battle. At some point, he met General Henry Knox, but how they connected is also a mystery. One theory is that Knox owned Peters as a slave, and another is that Knox hired Peters to work at his Montpelier estate in Thomaston. McMahon believes Peters met Knox while on a secret mission to Newport, Rhode Island, during the war. And then, for some unknown reason, between 1781 and 1782, Knox gave Peters 150 acres of good land near South Pond, in Warren. Shortly after, Amos Peters met Sarah, who already had a child by a white German-American man from Waldoboro named Paul Mink.
By the 1790 census, Amos and Sarah were living on the homestead at South Pond with a number of children. At the time, there were about 96,540 people in Maine, 538 of whom were non-white “free persons,” according to the Maine Historical Society. Within 80 years, Peterborough grew from two to 83 residents. Many would later serve in black regiments during the Civil War.
In the revised Annals of Warren, Eaton’s daughter Emily noted that among the 72 Warren men who were drafted in 1863, only one served with distinction, and several others paid substitutes to fight.
“Difference of opinion now, was something more than former differences in politics,” Emily Eaton wrote. “It meant liberty or slavery, the safety or the destruction of our grand American Union. Government being at last forced to raise men by conscription, it is not surprising that opposition to the enrollment and egging of the Provost Marshall by boys took place in one instance and that considerable excitement arose, here as elsewhere, especially July 23, when the names of the men drafted to fill this town’s quota arrived; and some few of the faint-hearted or disaffected fled to parts unknown. Of the total number drafted, 72, only one Francis Olney, of District No. 16, actually entered the army and did good service; but has since died at home; six furnished substitutes.”
Then came April of 1865 — a month of “great excitement, both joyful and otherwise,” recalled Eaton. On the evening of April 4, “the bells broke cheerily into music” in Warren when news arrived that the war was coming to an end. The next evening, “there was a great firing of cannon and rejoicing at the settlement” of Peterborough “while the ringing of bells in neighboring places was plainly heard.”
In the mid-19th century, runaway slaves from the South also added to Maine’s free black population. In 1898, the Lewiston Saturday Journal profiled Oliver Van Meter, a resident of Deer Isle, whose father, Henry Van Meter, had escaped from a plantation in the South after being given forged documents by a young lawyer he’d saved from drowning. The elder Van Meter then worked for several years as a seaman before marrying the daughter of another fugitive slave and moving with his wife, first to Yarmouth and then to Bangor.
George Washington Kemp ran away from slavery in Virginia and joined the Union Army under General Oliver Otis Howard, of Leeds. Howard persuaded Kemp to return to Maine to work on his homestead. When Kemp wished to return and find his family, Howard went south, spent months locating them, and returned with them to Leeds on Christmas Day of 1865.
One of the most intriguing historical footnotes is the case of Tovookan “Pedro” Parris. Born in eastern Africa around 1833 and abducted when he was about 10, Tovookan was captured at a time when the international slave trade had already been illegal in the United States for decades. Cyrus Libby, the unscrupulous captain of the Porpoise, on which Tovookan was brought to the Americas, was turned in by his own crew upon reaching Rio de Janeiro, and the ship was escorted to Portland.
Tovookan made the acquaintance of U.S. Marshal Virgil D. Parris while being held for several months to testify at Libby’s trial (the captain was eventually acquitted). After the trial, Tovookan lived the rest of his short life with the Parris family on Paris Hill, in Oxford County, until he died of pneumonia in 1860. He’d become a beloved figure in the family and the community, especially to the children. As historian Martha McNamara has noted, the case of Tovookan (nicknamed “Pedro” by the Parris family) is indicative of the ambiguous status many African Americans had in the North at the time. He was not considered a slave in the household, but neither was he truly free.