We at the American Independence Museum, located in Exeter, New Hampshire, are entering a new chapter in our own history as we begin to create a more inclusive experience for our guests. As a museum that focuses on the American Revolution, our institution has a long tradition of telling the history of America’s fight for independence from a military history lens. The problematic aspect of utilizing that approach is that America’s military history, for the most part, has been told for generations from a white male perspective. America’s Founding Fathers are frequently the subject of revolutionary history and center on the heroic actions taken in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to break the chains of British tyranny and form a nation based on freedom, equality, democracy, and independence. This is the version of American history that most are familiar with and many patriotic Americans take great pride in their forefathers’ heroic victory over tyranny. But this is only part of the story.
At the end of the American Revolution, 700,000 Black men, women, and children remained enslaved. The Revolution did not result in freedom for those Americans. Equality has yet to be achieved. Most of the Founding Fathers held enslaved persons. The Constitution protected slavery. The American economy was built on slave labor. It is a widely held belief that slavery was a southern problem and that we in the northern states did not contribute to the tragedy. We did. Exeter, New Hampshire was once a thriving seaport. Across the street from the American Independence Museum is an area that once saw wharves booming with international trade. Timber and salted cod were shipped from these wharves to the Caribbean to support the system of slavery and brought wealth to locals that permitted the consumption of luxury goods. These luxuries, such as rum, molasses, and indigo were brought to Exeter’s wharves on ships from the Caribbean and the southern states and were produced with slave labor. Northern families earned and spent their money in an economy bolstered by slavery.
New Englanders contributed to and benefitted from slavery. Their businesses were supported by it: their customers were slave traders, and the trade in their goods ensured the continued enslavement of countless people. Northern families also enslaved people. The Gilman family who once lived in the house that is now the American Independence Museum is believed to have held an enslaved man named Bob. Efforts to uncover details about Bob’s history have resulted in little information. From probate inventories and census records we know that Bob existed and that he was enslaved, but little else. The lack of documentation on Bob’s life tells a story in itself, but we continue to search for more. We also continue to look for more information on local Black Revolutionary War veterans. We have a list of local soldiers who participated in the war and research continues to uncover more of their stories. We are also looking at the free Black population in Exeter. Following the Revolution, Exeter had the largest free Black population in New Hampshire. There was also a Black enclave near our museum and research has uncovered some interesting facts about those who lived there. We are searching for more information to determine how we can use our platform to tell their stories.
Our goal at the American Independence Museum is to ensure that every guest who tours our facilities sees their own histories represented. Military history represents only a fraction of the history of the Revolution and a fraction of the people who fought for independence, a fight that did not end with the war. Much research is needed to uncover the stories that have yet to be told and that process has been slow. During the pandemic, historical societies and archives have been closed to researchers, leaving us with only what information is available online, and many of the necessary documents have yet to be digitized. The pandemic has also created new challenges to the ways that we operate, necessitating a shift in focus that has delayed research further.
Exeter, New Hampshire has a rich revolutionary history. That history is often heroic and frequently complicated. The prominent men who led New Hampshire’s fight for independence through political and military means have traditionally garnered the most attention. These men contributed to the slave trade, directly or indirectly. Some enslaved men fought alongside their masters in battle, earning the freedom that did not need to be earned by their fellow white soldiers. It is time to not only recognize their contributions, but also to acknowledge the frailties of our Founders who contributed, in one way or another, to the tragedy of the slave trade.