There was a time in Colonial New England when the scalp of a Native American man was worth 400 British pounds.

It’s a hard fact that has forced the First Parish Church in Portland to wrestle with its history once again and decide what to do about two memorial plaques that recognize a founding pastor who owned slaves and made money from the sale of Indian scalps.

The Rev. Thomas Smith wrote about the scalp bounty scheme, sponsored by the colonial Province of Massachusetts Bay, in a journal of his experience as the first ordained minister of an armed coastal outpost then called Falmouth Neck.

The journal is a benign tally of daily occurrences – births, deaths and sermons delivered – as well as a shocking record of the sustained bloody turmoil between English settlers forging a new colony and native people fighting to keep their homeland.

“People seem wonderfully spirited to go out after the Indians,” Smith wrote on Sept. 19, 1745. “Four companies in this town and many more in other towns are fitting for it. The government offer(s) four hundred pounds for the scalp of a man to those who go out at their own expense, and three hundred and ten pounds to those who have provision from the Province.”

Rev. Thomas Smith, founding pastor of the First Church in Portland, from the preface to the 1849 edition of his journals. (He lived from 1702- 1795.)

More than a decade later, Indian scalps still drew premium rewards. On June 18, 1757, Smith noted that he received 198 pounds as “my part of scalp money.” It was a hefty sum, considering his annual pastor’s salary was 800 pounds.

“As best we can tell, he didn’t go out and scalp people himself,” said Angus Ferguson, a member of the church’s Rally4Justice committee. “He likely hired former soldiers to do it. And this was not something that just happened once. It was done many times.”

First Parish Church in Portland has memorial plaques recognizing a founding pastor who served as a community leader and helped establish the city, but who also sold Indian scalps and owned slaves. That history has church members thinking about whether to do anything with the memorials.

Now, members of the Unitarian Universalist congregation at 425 Congress St. are weighing Smith’s deplorable acts – including his ownership of slaves named Romeo and Jack – against his overall role as a community leader who helped to establish Maine’s largest city nearly 300 years ago.

To inform their deliberations, they’ve invited Lisa Brooks, an expert on English colonization and Wabanaki persistence in the Casco Bay region from 1675 to 1757, to speak at the church Friday evening. The talk by Brooks, a professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, is free and open to the public.

The congregation finds itself in familiar territory and among communities across the United States that are reevaluating monuments to historical figures with tainted resumes.

Last year, church members decided to remove a small brass plaque on a pew that commemorated a visit by Jefferson Davis, who was president of the confederacy during the Civil War.

Davis vacationed in Maine for two summers, in 1857 and 1858, about the time he was U.S. secretary of war. The plaque, presented to the church in 1952 by the Nashville chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was sent to a Unitarian Universalist archive, Ferguson said.

The church has two memorials that recognize Smith, a Boston native and Harvard College graduate who was pastor from 1727, when he was 25, until he died in 1795. He is the first of three pastors listed on a large brass-and-wood plaque at the front of the main meeting hall, and he is included in a parish history carved in marble in the church entryway.

Altering the church significantly would pose a challenge because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, Ferguson said. So, while some members might want to remove any mention of Smith, that could prove impossible. And there are some members who would just as soon let the controversy lie where it is, on plaques that few people actually read.

Ferguson and others are leaning toward putting up a smaller plaque, near the other plaques, that would explain how Smith’s actions run counter to the liberal values and beliefs of the modern Unitarian Universalist church. It would help correct a largely white male history taught to American schoolchildren for decades and promote healing for everyone involved.

“I want this church to be a welcoming place,” said Marcy Makinen, a member of the church’s Racial Justice Team. “As a person of mixed heritage, I don’t need any reminders of where we’ve been in the past. But the plaque we add could be an affirmation of our position today on the choices he made back then.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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