The Lincoln County News started a discourse with the Damariscotta Historical Society story about old houses in my hometown. One, long ago torn down for a new highway, belonged to the Alexander Yates family: merchants, shippers and one missionary. Reportedly, they exported rum to western Africa “in exchange for profitable and valuable cargo.” That set off a dialogue promising further investigation of the question: “Was the ‘profitable and valuable cargo’ slaves?”

This view of Main Street in Damariscotta is from a circa 1907 postcard published by the Hugh C. Leighton Co. of Portland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As a descendant of the builder of the largest sailing vessel on the river, Col. Cyrus Cotter (as well as of lighthouse keepers, fishermen, sea captains and a fishmonger), I took a keen interest in this historical question. Specifically: “Did my ancestors build those big homes overlooking the river on the backs of slaves?”

There are three old homes and one business in town once owned by my Cotter family. One is on the National Historic Register, although it’s no longer owned by any relatives. Those large homes had to have been built by successful businessmen.

Damariscotta men and boys crewed the vessels on lengthy voyages. But the question “Did these ships carry slaves from Africa?” is difficult to answer; this repulsive activity was illegal after 1807 and made an act of piracy in 1820, when Maine became a state. A few chose to take the risk, because  demand for cheap labor to harvest Southern cotton made it profitable.

It is not likely recorded anywhere, but ship logs, bills of lading, manifests, shipping news, diaries and letters home might  provide clues. Yet, even after centuries have passed, are families willing to share this? Historical societies, libraries and museums may be a source if a diligent amateur history buff makes the effort. The question for descendants of those shipbuilders and owners is: “If proven true, would you want to disclose this abhorrent, illegal profiteering by your ancestors?”

Reflecting on what may or may not have occurred here two centuries ago doesn’t mean “put on the spot” descendants of shipbuilders Cotter, Yates, Nathaniel Bryant, D.W. Chapman, William Glidden, Benjamin Day Metcalf, Abner Stetson and others. However, it can help us understand current events, since slavery still exists for many in the USA.

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