Slavery in the Souhegan Valley?

If you want to talk about slavery in the Souhegan Valley you have to go far back in history, back to the times of King Phillips War with the Indians. And if you search through the musty New Hampshire town histories for the towns of Merrimack, Hollis, Amherst, Milford, Mont Vernon, Lyndeborough, Wilton, Mason, Temple and New Ipswich you will find many occurrences of the word “slave.” Experts on town lore may say that the histories give little or no indication that black people once lived here, but they did.

If you were to search for the word “slave” you will get volumes about anti-slavery and abolitionists and anti-slave rallies.

Most of our town fathers were big thinkers and were known abolitionists. On the first of January in 1808 the importation of slaves was abolished by the “general government.” There was a feeling of relief throughout the states that did not rely on the trade for labor. The term “slave” broadly had the meaning of those that were paying off debts by providing services. We would call many of these “slaves” had their own homes and were often poor white folks or serving time for a crime. There were far more white “slaves” than African American slaves as poverty knows no color.

In the town of Amherst, Stepleton Jonas was whipped and sold off to slavery to pay back 10 times what he had stolen. The Wilton common had a big oak that people were chained to and whipped prior to being sold to slavery. These were white men.

The real discrimination of this area was toward Native Americans, as many feared them from generations of battles and midnight town burnings that spread terror long after the King Phillips War. Like today, the power of terrorism surpasses the power of reason. The poor were sold for their “maintenance” at auction to the lowest bidder. The insane were regarded with superstitious awe and often locked away for safety. Even orphans and the “friendless” received little mercy from the community.

To search the histories for African Americans in the Souhegan Valley you would look for words such as “African” or “negro” or best, look for the term “colored.”

Doing this I found many names and stories of African Americans. It might not be well known, but Milford seems to have the richest photo collection in all of the towns mentioned. Milford alone has in some estimates 50,000 images of the area in the collection of the Milford Historical Society, the Carey House Museum. I have personally passed my eyes over thousands of these images, and since I own the Harriet Wilson house, known to have been the home of the first African American woman to publish a novel in the United States, I look for pictures of mulattos and African Americans with great interest.

The names on the school rosters are largely the same names in the town histories, families tend to stay in the area. However, when you look at the historical class pictures you will often see one or two African American children which seemed to be more common, the older the picture. Since prior to the Revolution, Milford has been educating “colored” kids in the public schools. I recently published a photo on our Facebook page of a class with an African American teacher.

The histories tell pages of biographies of the town fathers but if you know where to look there are also stories of the African American residents as well. One of Milford’s early setters was the Captain Josiah Crosby. His son William, was known as the “father of Milford” since he gave the town its Oval. When Josiah came to the area in 1753 he brought with him two children, “one white and the other colored.” The girl dies young but the “colored” boy, Jeffrey, was obtained in Boston when the young Josiah was on a shopping trip in the city. The shop owner was complaining that her help was not available because she was at home tending to a number of infants that had been orphaned when their parents were sold into slavery. The two children were simply given away as if they were excess from a litter of kittens.

The town of Wilton has a remarkably similar story. Oliver Whiting and his family ran a well-known dairy that fed this area and shipped product as far as Boston. The history describes him as taking over the homestead of his father, a leading man and rich for his time.

Oliver and wife, Fannie Stiles, had many an opportunity to travel to the city for business and it must have been one of these trips that they witnessed a slave auction about 1806. At this time, the couple had a son, also Oliver, who had recently died at four years old. No doubt in mourning, they brought a black boy home and named him Charles Fosby. He lived with three generations of the Whiting family in Wilton till his death of natural causes more than 150 years ago.

George Blanchard, “a colored man,” served in the Revolutionary War under Capt. Benjamin Tayler at Winter Hill. He was originally “warned out of town” by the town of Wilton as many were if they looked to be a burden on the town for care. George settled in the no-mans-land in a strip of land a mile wide belonging to the county between Milford and Wilton. There in the “mile-slip” he and his second wife, Elizabeth raised 11 children, many educated in the public schools of Milford. George and later his son, Timothy, were veterinary surgeons and are thought to have used natural cures learned from the Indians and from his military training.

The raising of a meeting house in Wilton was a celebrated event in 1773, easily drawing over 100 people to help build, serve and celebrate. It was the building of the first meeting house in Wilton that brought the Colonel and his driver, an African American man, Caesar.

Young Caesar is said to have been a native of Boston, brought to New Ipswich as a “slave” by the Col. Reuben Kidder. The account from Charles Clark’s book on the Meetinghouse Tragedy describes a “colored” man named Boston at the event, telling Bible stories to children and a mulatto man entertaining the crowd with magic tricks and a stunt of dancing on the edge of a bowl.

The fun ended when a beam cracked and men falling to the ground where they were impaled by wood and sharp tools,

Caesar was said to have been traumatized by the event and told the story until his death at close to 100 years old.

Caesar was later known by the kids in Milford as the good-natured “Old Caesar.” He eventually earned his freedom and settled on the Mont Vernon town line where he married a woman named Phyllis. No training, muster, cattle show or Fourth of July celebration would not be complete without the antics of Old Caesar.

Space here will not allow me to tell all of what I found in the old town histories but the books are online and don’t forget the local libraries and Historical Societies if you want to feel the pages and look into the eyes of the town fathers. I will be hanging out in the local coffee houses and will write more about Caesar, Bodee, Charles Fosby, Boston and George Blanchard in articles on Facebook and the Milford Historical Society newsletter. I have to tell you that we are not your grandma’s Historical Society unless she was a real cool lady.

David Palance is president of the Milford Historical Society.