NH paper details life of Northern slaves

Slaves in at least one Northern community fared little better than those in the Deep South, according to a New Hampshire newspaper.

The Portsmouth Herald has detailed the findings of a report put together by archaeologists and scientists after a “Negro Burying Ground” was uncovered in the city in 2003.

At that time, a contractor excavating an area for a sewer manhole came across the base of a coffin. Eventually, eight bodies were found, ranging in age from 7 to 40 and all were Africans or of African descent.

“Some showed evidence of the hard work they performed throughout their short lives, some had poor teeth, some had childhood diseases,” according to the publication.

“This and much more was learned painstaking moment by painstaking moment by a group of archaeologists, dendochronologists, forensic anthropologists, historians and biochemists in the wake of the discovery of remains at what was once the city’s ‘Negro Burying Ground.’”

The eight bodies were among an estimated 200 Africans buried in what was then the outskirts of Portsmouth, once New Hampshire’s most populous city, from 1705 to the 1790s.

According to the report, Portsmouth had a much larger black population than did the state of New Hampshire as a whole in the 18th century. In the period between 1767 and 1800, Portsmouth’s black population ranged between 2.1 and 4.1 percent, approximately four times that of the rest of the state.

“At the time, unlike the more rural and agrarian rest of the state, Portsmouth was a well-heeled city. Its wealth ‘derived from the West Indies trade and privateering, and the commercial goods and booty from these ventures came in on ships along the waterfront,’” according to the paper.

In the first half of the 18th century, the report states, “several Portsmouth investors outfitted vessels to Guinea, Virginia and Barbados that carried enslaved Africans along with trade goods.”

While most US history books today overlook the existence of slavery in the North, and to be certain it paled to a large degree when compared with slavery below the Mason-Dixon Line, it existed nonetheless.

For example, African slaves were noted in New Hampshire as early as 1645, according to the New Hampshire Historical Society.

And because New Hampshire was one the few colonies that did not impose a tariff on slaves, the state became a base for slaves to be imported into America then smuggled into other colonies, according to historian Douglas Harper on his Slavery in the North website.

Every census up to the Revolution showed an increase in black population, including slaves, though they remained proportionally fewer than in most other New England colonies.

In addition, major slaving ships were built in Portsmouth and New Hampshire textile factories built profits on cheap, slave-picked cotton, according to Harper.

The number of slaves in the state fell dramatically during and after the Revolutionary War. Between 1773 and 1786, the number of New Hampshire slaves fell from 674 to 46. Many obtained freedom by running away to the British in Boston, others by serving in the Continental Army, according to Harper.

Desperate to fill its regiments, New Hampshire offered bounties to slaveholders who freed black recruits.

The 1800 census listed just eight slaves and by 1840, there was but one, according to the New Hampshire Historical Society.

Abolition is said to have taken place in 1857 with the passage of an act stating that “No person, because of decent, should be disqualified from becoming a citizen of the state,” which is interpreted as prohibiting slavery.

However, it should be noted that the leaders of the state which would later adopt the motto “Live Free Or Die” had little problem overlooking the issue of slavery within its own borders.

The New Hampshire Legislature ignored a petition by Prince Whipple and a small group of other New Hampshire slaves asking for their freedom in 1779 – three years after the Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created equal. The New Hampshire Gazette – ironically said to be a precursor to the Portsmouth Herald – published the petition, but only for its readers’ “amusement,” according to a disclaimer at the top.

In 18th century Portsmouth not all black residents of the city were slaves, but the “vast majority” were enslaved, according to Valerie Cunningham, a Portsmouth historian who wrote the book Black Portsmouth.

When they died, most were almost certainly interred in the city’s Negro Burying Ground – generally the area around Chestnut Street between State and Court streets. The area, the report states, “functioned on the periphery, spatially and culturally marginalized from the wharves and warehouses that represented Portsmouth’s growing wealth.”

Northern slavery, while it rarely involved activities involved associated with Southern slavery such as picking cotton, was hardly an easier.

“In life, they were likely bought young and worked hard,” according to the Herald. “Cunningham said most white people who wanted a slave ‘wanted to get them when they were kids. So, they were working from the time they were 8, 9, 10 years old. If you’re enslaved from the time you’re that age, by the time you’re 30, you’re worn out.’”

The remains of the eight bodies found in 2003 ranged from a nearly complete skeleton to some fragmentary bones and teeth. Still, the amount that could be learned about them was considerable.

Of the eight, four were male, one was female and three were “indeterminate.” Because no buttons were found, archaeologists determined they were likely buried in a shroud, as “clothing was often passed on to living family members rather than taken out of circulation.”

One of the bodies, a young male, show signs of physical stress.

“There is evidence,” the report states, “of repetitive motion at the knee and elbow joints, perhaps the result of forced manual labor in one individual.”

Many had deteriorating teeth, the result of poor nutrition. The bones of several showed evidence of disease or chronic infections.

(Above: Receipt for a “Negro” sold in Portsmouth, NH, in 1797.)

(HT: A Blog About History)

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