A distant cousin of mine, Conrad Hall, recently published a book about the descendants of our fifth-great-grandparents, A Select History of Mathews County, Virginia: 17th, 18th & 19th Centuries and The Family of Robert and Ann Hall. It’s a very well-compiled and well-written historical documentation, full of evidence surrounding the origin, environment, and events of their lives. I can hardly read a paragraph without adding a fact or two about one of our common ancestors from Mathews County, Virginia, to my Ancestry database.

Detail of the Mobjack Bay and Mathews from Fry, J., Jefferson, P. & Jefferys, T. (1755) A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. [London, Thos. Jefferys] Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/74693166/.

While reading my cousin’s book, I have discovered another slaver to confess: my fourth great uncle Spencer Hall (1760-1793). His sister, Ann or “Nanny” (1756-1820), and her husband, Peter Foster (1757-1819), are my fourth great grandparents. Peter, Spencer, and another Hall brother, Robert, all of Mathews, served together on the Henry during the Revolutionary War in defense of the Mobjack and Chesapeake Bay coasts of Mathews, where British ships were frighteningly visible to area residents. Shallow-draft galleys like the Henry were a force developed to defend the homeland from British sailors who might come ashore to forage for food and supplies. Peter was on board as a ship carpenter, but the Hall boys were seamen who would eventually be transferred to a larger Virginia Navy ship, the Tartar.

In his book, Cousin Conrad posits that after the American Revolution, Spencer may have signed on with a merchant vessel or privateer with a home port of Salem or Beverly, Massachusetts, since he married Mary Ober in 1781, the daughter of a Salem, Massachusetts, mariner. The extended Ober family was prominent in Massachusetts-based maritime pursuits and Conrad mentions seven Obers who held important crew positions on ships between 1777 and 1781.

Soon after they were married, Spencer and Mary Hall had two children, although both died young. Later they had three more sons, Spencer, Jr. (1787), Israel (1790), and James Levette (1793). Spencer was often at sea, enjoying good commercial success in his ventures. By 1786, he was partial owner of the schooner Polly, but in December of that year it was badly damaged when driven onto a Barnstable, Massachusetts, beach by an Atlantic gale. The vessel and cargo were put up at auction, as advertised in the Essex Register on March 26, 1787. In 1790, he and a partner registered the Mary Ann. Likewise, it was lost with its cargo, this time in the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. On August 30, 1790, the Essex Register shipping news lists him as captain of the Mary, returning from Spain.

Later that year he bought the 82-ton schooner, Union. “The record is silent on the Unon’s activities in the first two years of his ownership, but in 1792 Spencer became involved in the slave trade,” states Conrad Hall. “Perhaps he succumbed to it out of desperation. He did have significant debts . . . and a successful voyage involving the slave trade was typically highly profitable. It would have been an option since his home port, Salem, was deeply involved in the slave trade, as were other New England ports.”

“To be sold on board the ship Bance-Island . . . a choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy Negroes.”Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed September 7, 2020, http://slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/191

Spencer Hall may have been involved at first in the South Carolina aspect of the trade, where slaves from the Rice Coast of Africa were preferred for their particular agricultural experience, since he wrote his will in Charleston in September 1792. Before embarking on his first African voyage, he may have realized the risk of the slave trade over his previous maritime ventures. By November, he left the West Coast of Africa with 94 enslaved people and arrived back with a cargo of 77. He quickly headed back to Africa on the Union, but died sometime before the ship arrived. Hall quotes the Governor of Sierra Leone, as taken from Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America:

“The schooner Union of Salem in New England. When she arrived on the Coast she was commanded by one Hall who dying at Bance [Bunce] Island, was succeeded in the Command by his Mate. She took on board a Cargo of Slaves from Rio Nunez [in Guinea] with which she left the Coast bound to the West Indies, or Surinam [on the northeast coast of South America] about the latter end of October last . . .”

Among the risks he had faced on an African voyage were the deadly diseases yellow fever, malaria, and small pox. He, like many others, probably succumbed to one of these. There are supposed to be large numbers of slavers’ graves on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, where trading ships stopped, due to the depth of the channel, and took on their cargo of humans, as had been the case from the 17th century.

Unitarian minister and pastor of the East Church in Salem, William Bentley, noted in his diary that “Capt. Spence Hall died in the Guinea Trade,” as the slave trade was known. “He has left a wife and six children, belonging to the English church in this town. He has been an unfortunate man, & thus sought ‘base means for his redress.'” Bentley’s comments suggest he had to take on the high-risk venture to meet his family obligations and “unfortunate” financial situation. Although he lost his life, Spencer must have benefited from the profits of his slave trading ventures, for his wife and children appear to have lived comfortably thereafter.

Back in Mathews, little is known about his brother, Robert Hall. He may have continued in a maritime career and died by 1847. His bounty land, awarded for service in the Revolutionary War, was claimed for the benefit of the family by brother Thomas Hall.

Thomas married his neighbor, Mary Gayle, and lived a long life as a shipbuilder on the Mobjack Bay’s East River. Mary’s brother, Mathias Gayle, was also a noteworthy Mathews shipbuilder. The 1820 US Census reveals that Thomas and Mary Hall counted 19 enslaved people as part of their household.

Spencer’s shipmate and my fourth great grandfather, Peter Foster, lived on Mathews’ North River, west of the Halls. He also lived a long life and died in 1819. According to the 1810 US Census, he also counted 19 enslaved people in his and Nanny’s household.

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