One still occasionally hears the mistaken refrain that no black people lived in colonial Maine, and even if a few enslaved Africans were here in the 17th century, such individuals were more likely servants, treated decently, a passing phase in local history.

I’d have thought that “Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People” (2006), that majestic overview volume by Harriet B. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, would have unclogged the downspouts of history. Now, if Patricia Q. Wall’s carefully researched, well-argued new history, “Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine,” fails to put an end to this absurd invention, then minds are not open to fact.

“Lives of Consequence” is published and printed by a triad of leading Piscataqua historical groups. Furthermore, Wall, an exacting researcher and former executive director of the Darien Historical Society in Connecticut, writes on a personal and town level using original documents and vital records, and not only listing Americans of African origin (some enslaved, others free) but creating biographies of as many people as possible.

As the ancient Egyptians put it: “Say their names and they live again.”

Remarkably, Wall has documented 443 persons of color in just two small Maine towns before 1790. She has uncovered references to “all my Negroes” or “any four of my Negroes” that could take the population even higher.

No researcher before Wall has compiled anywhere near the amount and detail of statistical information on the civil, home, religious and military lives of black people in Maine in such a microcosm. If anyone doubts the “Lives of Consequence” assertion that many blacks lived in Maine, let the service record stand: more than 40 black men under arms, from the Kittery Militia in 1713, to the Louisbourg Expedition during the French and Indian War in 1757, to death at Valley Forge in 1776.


Others served on the Continental ships Raleigh and Ranger, as well as as privateers. The appendices, for the historic record, also list slave owners, some of whom let their slaves buy freedom to fight in the Rebel ranks.

Often, we are given a name of a person attached to little more. Consider these two: George & Scipio (Pepperrell), Dec. 27, 1742, listed under Baptism. This is typical.

On occasion, the man or woman emerges almost in full form. Anyone who has read about the area and era is bound to have come across William Black (aka Black Will), who flourished between 1683 and 1727. He bought his way out of bondage, owned land and convinced an owner to set another slave free. In Colin Woodard’s recent review of South Berwick’s lively Counting House Museum exhibition, “Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories of the Piscataqua” (Maine Sunday Telegram, July 30, 2017), mention is made of this remarkable man: “Will Black – whose descendants helped settle Orr’s and Bailey Islands here in Maine.”

Most historians have referenced Black and his family but sometimes using secondary sources. Wall untangles all the complex information and gives the best word portrait so far.

If the reader wants poignant action, consider the “warning out” laws. Town officials were scrupulous about poor laws, which stated that the town was responsible for taking care of any dependent person born in that community without a supporting family.

In 1771, Bet Harris (alias Black Bet), a homeless and pregnant Indian, sought shelter in Berwick.


She was taken in by a kind family, but some eight months later the selectmen “warned” her out of town, taking the expectant mother 25 miles by foot to Arundel (the town of her origin). The town fathers there escorted her back to Berwick, and so it went five times.

Finally, Tristram Warren, the good Samaritan who took her in, paid expenses but sued the town through the county.

These were not happy times, as is made clear by the gathering, unfolding and careful reading of the scattered but preserved manuscripts.

Wall has sorted out a small world of information and made a distant culture more distinct.

Historians and general readers will salute her efforts.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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