Bob Greene teaches the Black history of Maine at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In July of 1750, a short notice appeared in a Boston newspaper calling for help finding an enslaved man who had run away from Ichabod Goodwin of Berwick in the province of Maine.

Pompey was described as a short man of about 40 who spoke good English, wore a homespun jacket and checked shirt and had a cut ear. Fitted around his neck was an iron slave collar, a brutal device used by enslavers to identify and discipline the people they claimed as property. Goodwin, a blacksmith who offered a reward for Pompey’s return, likely made the collar himself.

Notices like these of runaway slaves are among the few written documents that describe the reality and brutality of slavery in the early days of the Massachusetts Province of Maine. Largely left out of history books or minimized as an insignificant footnote, slavery remains a nearly hidden aspect of the history of Maine, a state better known as the home of abolitionists than enslavers or profiteers. However, reminders of Maine’s slavery connections linger in the coves, streets and other landmarks named for slaveholders who have been remembered instead for their contributions to shipbuilding, trade and establishing coastal towns.

Maine’s history of slavery and connections to the slave trade are of special interest during Black History Month. But they also are likely to become part of a statewide discussion this year as the Legislature takes up bills sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, that will address the legacy of those who benefited from the slave trade. The text of those bills is not yet available and Talbot Ross said details about the proposals will be coming soon

For generations, Mainers have held onto the myth that slavery was exclusive to the South and that New Englanders were the abolitionists who helped with the Underground Railroad and supported emancipation. But there were, in fact, hundreds of enslaved people in the province of Maine, brought to rugged coastal settlements aboard ships and forced to work for the white families who lived in the area. Better known, but still seldom discussed, are Maine’s connections to the slave trade through the shipping industry.

Over the 160 years before Maine became a state in 1820, there were at least 21 enslaved people recorded in Portland, close to 500 in the Kittery area and an unknown number in other communities.

“Our biggest problem with our view of slavery is that when we hear the word, we think ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Slavery was much more than groups of people picking cotton or tobacco,” said Bob Greene, a historian who teaches the Black history of Maine at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine. “We know that there were slaves here. Exactly what they did and how they did it, we don’t know. It’s difficult to talk about slavery here because we don’t know a lot.”

Slavery in New England looked much different than those large Southern plantations. In New England, enslaved men, women and children were owned by prominent and wealthy merchants, but also by families of less prominence who used slaves to do the manual labor they had once done themselves. Northern slaveowners were more likely to own one or two slaves than hundreds.

“The enslaved people become the foundation that moves those early household economies to a market economy because of the labor that the slaveowner previously was responsible for. Once he has the enslaved person, it frees him up to begin to build his own economic base,” said author Patricia Wall, who researches and writes about slavery in Maine. “While there weren’t hundreds and thousands the way there were in the South, you can see the enslaved people were at the base of the economy in these small communities in Maine and throughout New England.”

Patricia Wall published a book in 2017 that identified slave owners and slaves who lived in the Kittery/Berwick area during the Colonial period. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It is unlikely that the true extent of slavery in Maine will ever be known. Enslaved people in the Massachusetts Province of Maine are barely a footnote in historical records, listed as possessions alongside animals, often without a name or any details about who they were. They were recorded in the first Census in 1790 without identifying information.

In Colonial-era Kittery, an-18-mile wide seacoast parish that includes what is now Eliot, Berwick and South Berwick, as many as 500 enslaved people were brought to the area by 186 white enslavers from families named Pepperrell, Chadbourne, Whipple, Cutts, Gerrish, Frost and Sparhawk. The enslaved people were stripped of their identities and referenced by a single name or just as a “negro man” or “mulatto woman” in public records and private correspondence.

Wall, a former Kittery Point resident, was inspired to document the lives of enslaved people while sitting in the First Congregational Church in Kittery Point in 2009. As she looked around the church, she wondered about the lives of the Black people who once would have been segregated to the side galleries.

Wall spent five years combing through court and church records, wills, letters and estate inventories to uncover evidence of hundreds of slaves in Kittery from its settlement through the American Revolution. Her book, “Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine,” is believed to be the only book published about slavery in Maine.

“I am amazed at what was hidden and still hides in many communities in Maine and New England,” Wall said. “Enslaved people were much more common than we realized.”

A plaque dedicated to Col. William Pepperrell and his son Sir William Pepperrell stands at the Pepperrell Tomb and Cemetery along Route 103 in Kittery Point. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Through her research, Wall was able to piece together some information about the enslaved people brought to what is now southern York County. There was Mollie Miles, who was enslaved by the Kittery family of Sir William Pepperrell and lived to 108. She was interviewed at age 107 by a reporter who was writing about the Pepperrell family. And William Black, often listed as “Black Will,” was able to obtain his freedom, earn income, buy property, raise a family and live as a farmer among his predominantly white neighbors.

But far too many enslaved people were noted only by a single name or just by sex and age, stripped entirely of any information about who they were, Wall said.

“In the realm of public history, their true identity, their rightful name connection to their ancestry, was destroyed by the institution of slavery,” Wall wrote in her book. “Today, for untold American families of color, there exists a disheartening genealogical wall blocking the pathway to many of their earliest New England ancestors and also to their African or Native American roots before the era of slavery.”

Much more is known about those who enslaved people as their private property than about the people they held in slavery, although often their connections to slavery are barely a footnote in their biographies.

Sir William Pepperrell, a Kittery merchant who became an acting governor in Massachusetts in 1756, is considered Maine’s most prominent slaveholder. Yet in most historical accounts of Sir Pepperrell’s life, the fact that he owned slaves goes unmentioned.

Pepperrell, who imported rum from a plantation in Antigua, owned around 20 slaves at any one time. His father, William Pepperrell Sr., an English settler who with his son amassed a small fortune by building a fleet of ships, also owned slaves. His mansion, built in 1682, still stands near Pepperrell Cove in Kittery Point.

The Pepperrell House on Route 103, also known as Pepperrell Road, in Kittery Point. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sir Pepperrell, the only American-born English baronet, is intimately tied to the early days of the city of Saco.

In 1716, Pepperrell purchased 5,000 acres and timber rights to an additional 4,500 acres of land on the east side of the Saco River. He later donated four acres of land near the falls for the town to use as a village common, a burying ground and site for a new meetinghouse. When the area split from Biddeford in 1762, the village was named Pepperrellborough in his honor. The name was changed to Saco in 1805.

Pepperrell’s name – spelled slightly differently – is still seen throughout the city on street signs, an apartment complex and at Pepperell Square. In Biddeford, his name is connected to the complex of mill buildings that once housed Pepperell Manufacturing Co., which was named for Sir Pepperrell by founder Samuel Batchelder in 1844.

When Pepperrell died in 1759, his will allowed his wife, Lady Mary Pepperrell, to have “any four of my Negroes.” In her 1779 will, Lady Pepperrell liberated her slaves and left some small amounts of money and livestock. Decades later, Lady Pepperrell’s name would become associated with a line of sheets produced by the Pepperell Manufacturing Co.

Another prominent Kittery resident, Gen. William Whipple, is remembered both as the only native of what is now Maine to sign the Declaration of Independence and as an enslaver. The house in which he grew up still stands on Whipple Road, bearing a plaque noting it as his birthplace. Two historical monuments for Whipple have been installed in Kittery and his portrait hangs in the town hall.

Whipple’s evolving view on slavery and emancipation feature prominently in the story of his life and is not shied away from on a historical marker in Kittery documenting his role in the nation’s birth.

Whipple owned a slave named Prince before the war for independence and later expressed his support for emancipation. He gave Prince the rights of a free man on Feb. 22, 1781, which was Prince’s wedding day, according to Portsmouth town records. Whipple signed Prince’s official papers of manumission, or freedom, in February 1784.

A plaque above a door marks the Pepperrell House in Kittery Point. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Massachusetts, of which Maine was still a part, determined in 1783 that slavery was illegal. In 1820, Maine became a state as part of the Missouri Compromise. The entrance of Maine as a free state was agreed to by Southern senators in exchange for the entrance of Missouri as a slave state.

In 1820, a federal act was passed that made participation in the slave trade an act of piracy. But dozens of Maine ships continued to engage illegally in the slave trade.

The first American ever convicted and hanged for trading people was Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, who was convicted for carrying 897 enslaved people aboard the merchant ship Erie. Half of the enslaved people on the ship were children whose naked bodies crowded the main deck. Gordon was executed in New York City in 1862.

Although the lives of those who claimed people as property are better documented, both Greene and Wall say the contributions that enslaved people made to Maine should not go forgotten, even if their names were lost to history documented by white men who deemed them insignificant.

“They made every contribution you can think of, whether it was building houses or chopping down trees or building the wharfs,” Greene said.

Greene, who grew up in Portland, has extensively researched Maine’s Black history and his own family history. He said he has been surprised by the number of Black people who lived in Maine in the 1800s, after slavery became illegal here but before the Civil War. Some were freed Blacks who came from Southern states, while others may have escaped slavery, he said. In Maine, they worked as farmers, hotel owners, restaurant keepers, doctors and seamen.

Wall said more research in other Maine towns is needed to help people understand the true history of slavery in the region and that “these (enslaved) people’s lives were significant and of importance.”

“It’s a missing piece. It’s like talking about the American Revolution without Gen. George Washington,” she said. “We need all the pieces and parts to get a good picture of American’s historical progress.”

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