Our African Heritage
Portsmouth, New Hampshire has been home to Africans and African-Americans for more than 350 years. Upon examination of their stories, we find that against the odds of early enslavement and subsequent marginalization, Africans and their descendants built communities and families, founded institutions, and served their town, state and nation in many capacities.
New Hampshire has an African heritage that dates back almost to the arrival of Europeans. Much of that history, begun in 1645, centers on the state’s only port at Portsmouth. As many as 700 blacks were here by the Revolution, many were caught up in an active Northern slave market while others were part of a little-known free society.
The first known black person in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, came from the west coast of Africa in 1645. He was captured one Sunday when slave merchants attacked his village in Guinea, killing about a hundred persons and wounding others. Upon arrival in Boston, the slave was bought by a Mr. Williams “of Piscataqua.” When the General Court of the colony learned of the raid and kidnapping, the court ordered the merchants to return the African to his home. Slavery was not the issue of concern, for human bondage was legal in the region. The court was “indignant” that raiders had violated the Sabbath and that they had committed “ye haynos and crying sin of man stealing.”
The size of the black population in 17th century New Hampshire was small and, therefore, easily overlooked. However, surveys of wills and inventories show that slaves were included in the estates of several prominent early Portsmouth families. Additional evidence that “mulattoes, Negroes and slaves” were present can be found in laws which were adopted around the turn of the century. They were similar to the restrictive laws enacted in other colonies which controlled activities of both servants and masters. A number of laws prohibited servants from roaming through town without their master’s permission, being “abroad in the night time after nine o’clock,” from drinking in public taverns and the like.
Did You Know…?
Ona Marie Judge, the slave of Martha Washington who escaped to Portsmouth by ship in 1796, made her home in Greenland? After evading several attempts by George Washington to return her to slavery in Virginia, Judge married and raised a family in a home on what is now Dearborn Road.
Her story is told in a bestselling book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. In it we hear of an enslaved woman’s yearning for a life she saw others lead and the measures she would go to ensure she’d remain free. Ona’s story compels us to explore what slavery meant to our founding fathers and its role in our nation’s beginnings, when all men were declared to be “created equal.”