Citizens of Bath celebrated July 4, 1850, with fireworks and a recitation of the Declaration of Independence. Toasts were raised to the surviving veterans of the American Revolution, to the Constitution and to George Washington.

It’s possible that an enslaved woman was within earshot of the festivities. Her name was Clara Battease, and she had her own independence in mind.

We know she was in Bath that summer because she shared her story with the Lewiston Journal in 1912, when she was 91 years old and known as Mrs. Mary Heuston.

How Clara Battease became Mary Heuston is an independence story. Her interview provides a unique record of the efforts African Americans in Maine made to secure safety and self-determination in a slaveholding republic.

It may not seem traditional to commemorate the Fourth of July by highlighting the life of an enslaved woman in the mid-19th century. Yet as we mark Independence Day during this bicentennial of Maine’s statehood – a year that has already witnessed historic mobilization for African American freedom – we can recognize the theme of independence in Maine history in its many forms.

Before she freed herself, Clara Battease belonged to David Turner of Beaufort, South Carolina. During the summer of 1850, the Turners brought Clara to Maine for a family wedding. While the Turners socialized, she would mind their children.

Although slavery had long been abolished in Maine, the status of slaves transported to free states was intensely contested. While serving as president when the national capital was in Philadelphia, George Washington periodically rotated his slaves to and from Virginia to avoid the Pennsylvania residency law that would have liberated them. By the 1840s several Northern states declared slaves free the moment they arrived on their soil. Maine was not among them.

The Turners calculated that it was safe to bring Clara along during their visit to Maine. But they underestimated a different threat: Clara intended to escape, and free black Mainers were willing to help.

Even if she was unaware of the state’s statutes, Clara knew Maine was not South Carolina. Despite prohibitions against the education of the enslaved, her grandmother had surreptitiously taught her to read. She understood, as she later recalled, the advantage of being in “the North Land.”

Once in Bath, Clara became acquainted with free African Americans living along Merrymeeting Bay. Though a tiny minority, they had resources – knowledge of the area, community network and property – that would be vital for her to successfully escape and evade recapture.

The night before the Turners were to return to South Carolina, Clara slipped unnoticed out of the household and into a waiting carriage, which took her into seclusion. She may have sheltered on Francis Heuston’s property. Born into slavery in the 1760s and reputed to possess a “very proper pride of race,” Heuston had owned farmland in Brunswick for decades.

Wherever she hid, though, Clara was not free. She was a fugitive.

The Turners endeavored to reclaim her. That September Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This federal intervention on behalf of slaveholders ordered free states to aid in the recapture of escaped slaves. Recalcitrant citizens were subject to punishment. Those accused of being fugitives were not allowed a legal defense. Still, their agent’s search for Clara proved fruitless.

Soon, she was no longer Clara Battease but Mrs. Mary Heuston. Marrying and choosing a new name, Mary Heuston bore four children with Francis Heuston before he died in 1858. Because the status of the enslaved followed the mother, however, the Turners remained legally entitled to her children – regardless of their paternity and birth in a free state – until slavery was abolished in 1865.

After abolition Mary Heuston lived in freedom with one of those children, a daughter, for many years on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. It was there that she shared her remarkable story.

She was born Feb. 22, 1821, she told the interviewer. That is remarkable, too. The enslaved were typically kept unaware of the day of their birth. Was claiming the same birthdate as George Washington another gesture of freedom?

Washington may have been the father of the nation, but Mary Heuston was the mother of her and her children’s independence.

We would do well to honor her fight for freedom on this Independence Day.


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