Slavery in Southern Maine
To grow a strong economy, Maine settlers needed labor.
In 1650, England’s Oliver Cromwell won a battle aimed at unifying Scotland with the crown. As a result, some of the captured Scottish soldiers were involuntarily shipped to the American colonies and enslaved. Twenty-five of these enslaved were sent to Quamphegan and indentured—they could earn back their freedom through labor.
The name Berwick originates with the Scottish indentured. Eventually assimilated as free citizens, they began using Scottish names for area places. They called the area “Barwicke,” which became Berwick.
At the same time, a series of worsening conflicts threatened the stability of settlements. From 1675-1783, a series of deadly conflicts waged between the Indigenous allied with the French, and the British.
Misunderstanding Wabanaki cultural diplomacy, the settlers exploited them as a source of labor. If tribes refused to comply, they faced eradication. As the situation became dire, the Wabanaki fought to defend their land and rights. During these conflicts, sometimes intentionally provoked for labor potential, settlers captured and enslaved hostile groups.
By the second decade of the eighteenth century, the Wabanaki were all but eliminated from the region.
Enslavement of the indigenous paved the way for the importation of enslaved of Africans to Maine.
According to Patricia Q. Wall in her work, Lives of Consequence (Portsmouth Historical Society, 2017), by 1781, there were between fifty and one hundred enslaved African people living in the area surrounding Berwick. In 1783, Massachusetts effectively abolished slavery through a court ruling, however, the practice of enslavement continued in many places for years following the ruling.
Thus, much of Southern Maine’s foundations of prosperity were built on the backs of people in bondage.
Many enslaved people actively engaged in resistance, through escape, the most common, work stoppage, and even sabotage. Many found ways to obtain manumission by purchasing their freedom through earning income or, in the case of Prince of York, Maine, by joining the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.
Enterprising William Black, or Black Will, saved enough money while enslaved to purchase a tract of land in nearby Eliot, Maine, establishing a farmstead there upon gaining manumission.
Free blacks settling in Maine during this time worked in any number of occupations, most coming to the area in the maritime trade—sailing, fishing, and working on ships.