The Penobscot Marine Museum (PMM) in Searsport, Maine holds objects, archives, photographs, and library books related to our mission to preserve, interpret and celebrate the maritime culture of the Penobscot Bay Region and beyond through collections, education and community engagement. A major subject throughout our collection is Maine’s nineteenth century merchant marine: Maine-built coastal schooners and deep-sea square riggers captained and crewed by Mainers, which engaged in domestic and international shipping. The “cargos” of these Maine-built merchant vessels ranged from indentured and enslaved humans to the raw materials harvested by indentured and enslaved humans. We are currently engaged in scouring our collections for primary source documents and objects that are related to the slave trade, slave-grown commodities, and African merchant mariners. We will report our findings in the Atlantic Black Box once a week, along with our research methodology and questions we hope that you, as citizen detectives, can help us answer. Stay tuned as we explore our collection!
The Ginn Letters
Research by Cipperly Good, PMM Curator
As someone who finds that objects and archives bring history alive, I have been searching our collections at the Penobscot Marine Museum for mentions of African-Americans in Maine’s merchant marine. One such mention was of George Washington Ginn shipping “four negros in place” of crew members who had left the ship in Norfolk, Virginia in February of 1852. In the letter to his brother-in-law Albert Harriman, George mentions that John and Jim Pierce had left the ship and returned home to Maine, leaving only himself, the mate, and a cook to complete the voyage. The letter relates that the ship is next going to Washington, DC to pick up machinery for Pensacola, Florida, and from there hopefully a cargo for Cuba.
A subsequent letter written on March 2, 1852 states that the ship made it to Washington, DC, and George needs to go to Baltimore to find a cook, as one could not be found in Washington, DC or Alexandria, Virginia. He states that the crew leaving “has been an advantage to me for I have got a good crew in the place of those that left me at Norfolk.” So it would seem that the African-American merchant mariners were a good fit for the ship and got along better with George than his fellow Mainers. He has found out that John Pierce returned to Maine to join the schooner CAROLINE GRANT of Bucksport. This letter elaborates on the Pensacola cargo: castings for a planing mill. These two letters left me with many questions: who were the men from Prospect, Maine that crewed the ship? Why did they leave the ship? Were the African-American merchant mariners freemen or enslaved? How would they fare going further into the south during the days of slavery?
To answer these questions, I turned to sources in the Museum collection. In Alice Ellis’ History of Prospect, Maine, I found out that George Washington Ginn was descended from the surveyor who taught George Washington the trade, hence Captain Ginn’s name and his excitement at visiting Mount Vernon while in the District of Columbia. His grandfather, Samuel Ginn and great-uncle James built ships at Prospect and Bucksport on the Penobscot River in the early 1800s. His father, also a Samuel, was a sea captain, as well as two of his brothers.
Captain G.W. Ginn (1824-1887) died at sea near Sulawesi Tengah, Indonesia at the age of 64. He made his career sailing all over the world in wooden sailing ships, and was known as a capable master and shrewd businessman despite having little formal education, instead relying on educating himself through reading and study. In 1866, he became an expert in marine economy and won his master’s papers. The next year, he escaped disaster on the OAK RIDGE in a hurricane, when the ship foundered, but an air bubble in the aft cabin tore the cabin loose, with Captain Ginn inside, and rose to the surface. He lived off a sea turtle until a passing Scandinavian ship rescued him. His crew’s desertion was not seemingly from incompetence. In the end, beri-beri killed Ginn and his crew after a long, difficult voyage in the Pacific.
George’s brother Alfred Alonzo became a captain at the age of 23 and sailed in the West Indies and European triangle trade for 30 years. It would appear that both brothers took part in the trade of slave-grown goods from the Southern United States and Caribbean, taking raw sugar, cotton, and tobacco to Europe for manufacturing, and returning to New England with manufactured good, and returning to the south with salted Gulf of Maine fish to feed the slave population. Although not transporting enslaved Africans themselves, the Ginns were profiting off of their labor.
What of the two Maine crewmen who left the ship after arriving in Norfolk? I turned to Ancestry.com for some answers. James H. Pierce (1830-1911) was the son of a Prospect, Maine farmer who in the 1860 census is listed as a sailor. He fought in the Civil War, rising to the rank of first Lieutenant in Company C of the 19th Maine Infantry and was wounded at Wilderness in 1865. He returned to Prospect and was listed as a farmer or carpenter in the censuses thereafter.
John Pierce is harder to track down. A John Pierce was born in Prospect in 1827 to John and Jane Pierce, Jr., the Civil War draft papers list him as “short of wit.” Another John Pierce is listed as a sailor in the 1850 census in nearby Orrington, was living with Samuel and Dorcas Pierce, along with a 20-year-old “mulatto” West Indian sailor named Thomas A. Duper. No other records of Thomas Duper could be found. John, according to the original letter, was returning to Maine to work on the schooner CAROLINE GRANT, built in 1850 by William H. Genn of Bucksport, who was a cousin to George Washington Ginn.
Pensacola, Florida shipped Yellow Pine timber to ports in the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as New York City, according to Occie Clubb’s article “Pensacola in Retrospect: 1870-1890” in the 1959 Florida Historical Quarterly. Sawmills were constructed in the early 1800s to cut pine boards. The first steam saw mill was built in 1841, while earlier mills used running water from rivers and streams to power the engine, steam mills allowed manufacturers to set up shop anywhere. The planing mill turned the rough hewn lumber into finished stock sizes and patterns. The machinery on George W. Ginn’s ship ran the planers. During the Civil War, the retreating Confederates conducted a scorched-earth policy, levelling all the mills and taking out their machinery to prevent capture by the Union forces.
Matthew J. Clavin, in his book Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers, explains that Pensacola’s sandy soil did not lend itself to an agricultural plantation economy. Instead, free and enslaved Africans worked in the seaport as sailors, dockworkers, skilled laborers, artisans, bricklayers, and blacksmiths. Captain Ginn’s African sailors would be able to move in the seaport with some ease, and ship out on another ship north.
Norfolk, Virginia had a free African mariner community. Many escaped slaves took refuge in Norfolk’s free African community and escaped by ship with Northern sea captains. Without knowing their names, the African crew aboard Captain Ginn’s ship could very likely be freedmen.
As citizen detectives, do you have any information about the West Indian sailor Thomas A. Duper who was living in Orrington in 1850 or any of the other people mentioned in the letters? Let us know!
Curator, Penobscot Marine Museum