At the South Portland Historical Society, we have a seasonal rhythm that suits us. In the winter, it’s a perfect time for some research and fundraising; each spring, we mount a new exhibit and open our museum; summer and fall are always busy with our museum open every day; and as the holidays approach in November and December, we gear back our hours and finally close the museum for the season at the end of December. When the pandemic hit this past March, it became clear, very quickly, that life as we knew it would be changing in 2020.
With our museum closed and what looked to be plenty of available time, it was the perfect opportunity to embark on a significant research project. I had always wanted to research the history of all of South Portland’s 19th century shipyards, but had never been able to find the time. I enlisted the help of my friend and genealogist, Jackie Dunham. We systematically researched the coastline, using deed research on the land, genealogy research on the people, and we sought out news articles on the yards and the vessels that were built. I developed a spreadsheet where we could document every piece of information related to any vessel ever built here.
We set out looking to prove, and add to, the information in William Hutchinson Rowe’s book, Shipbuilding Days in Casco Bay, 1727-1890. We also had William Jordan, Jr.’s book, A History of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, that contained a list of vessels built in Cape Elizabeth [South Portland was known by the name of Cape Elizabeth in the 19th century], so that list needed to be proved, as well.
In both Rowe’s and Jordan’s books, there was just one mention of a yard called the Turner and Foster shipyard. All that Rowe had to say about it was this: “There was a small yard in the sixties between Dyer’s and Bradford’s wharves in which Turner and Foster built. The record of these and many others like them like the grave of the unknown soldier in the Arlington Cemetery should be honored for they did their bit even if we do not know what or when.”
Because our research covered all of South Portland’s shipyards, deed research of our coastline eventually turned up the location of this shipyard, and a wonderful discovery of two Black men who played a part in American history.
These two Black sea captains, Joseph P. Taylor and Elbridge P. Talbot, showed up first in our research on this shipyard belonging to Eben Turner. Turner was a shipbuilder, first in partnership with Stephen Harris. Turner and Harris bought the waterfront land here in Cape Elizabeth in 1850. We found several vessels built by Turner and Harris in the early 1850s, but the most interesting, by far, was a 240-ton clipper schooner launched in 1853.
This clipper schooner appears to be an important piece of American history – it was built by Turner and Harris for Joseph Taylor and Elbridge Talbot. In a newspaper report, the clipper schooner was launched in April, 1853, named the Jeanette (for Taylor’s wife), and would be commanded by Captain Taylor with Elbridge Talbot serving as first officer, and with a crew made up of Black sailors.
This is a significant event in history when one considers that this was before the Civil War. Indeed, the newspaper Massachusetts Spy included an editorial comment about the danger faced if the ship were to encounter bad weather or any other issue that would cause it to need to land in a port in a southern state, where it would be possible that Taylor, Talbot and the rest of the crew could be arrested and thrown in prison.
We have been surprised so far to find that very little exists to document any voyages. Normally, vessels coming into and leaving a port are listed in the newspaper under vessel clearances, easily obtained by newspaper reporters through the Customs Office. We know where and when the Jeanette was launched, and in Captain Taylor’s obituary, variations of which were published in Portland, Boston, and New York newspapers, they provide information that seems to confirm the voyages of the Jeanette. All of these newspapers published a statement saying that Joseph Taylor was the first Black man in America to both build and captain his own ship. They further stated that his ship made “a number of successful voyages to the West Indies” before being wrecked and declared a total loss. Unfortunately, Taylor and Talbot had no insurance on the vessel. This does seem to confirm that the Jeanette sailed and headed down to the West Indies. We have found just one article referring to the Jeanette, with Captain Taylor in command, down in the Gulf looking for guano (aka fertilizer, which was a common cargo on ships such as this).
Captain Elbridge Talbot spent the early decades of his working years in the maritime trades. He commanded at least one vessel prior to the construction of the Jeanette. In Talbot’s obituary, the claim was made that he was the first Black man to command a vessel out of Portland, Maine. While we are still working to confirm this, we believe it could have been the 240-ton bark Odd Fellow, built in 1844 by Robert and Thomas Knight in their yard on York Street in Portland. In vessel clearance reports in 1846 and 1847, the Odd Fellow was under the command of “Captain Talbot” and this was while Talbot was living in Portland and reportedly a sea captain. Talbot also purchased an ownership interest in the schooner Sarah in 1853 and served as its captain, and in 1854 he is shown as a part owner and captain of the schooner Bowditch. During the Civil War, there is evidence that Talbot worked on two steamboats, the Nellie Baker and the Daniel Webster.
Through local news articles in the 1860s and 1870s, we learn that Talbot was a well-respected citizen of Portland, who didn’t shy away from politics, and that he was at times called upon for public speaking. At a meeting at Portland City Hall in 1870 to celebrate the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Elbridge Talbot was one of five people to give a speech. On January 1, 1872, on the ninth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a meeting with Elbridge Talbot presiding was held at the Newbury Street Church. In September of 1875, there was a large gathering of Black citizens in Portland; they met to discuss politics and the upcoming election. While a committee was formed at the meeting to draft resolutions, Elbridge Talbot was called upon to address the gathering.
By the time Elbridge Talbot reached about 50 years old, he seemed to have left the maritime trades. He served as a porter for the Portland Post Office after the Civil War. In 1870, he was listed as a janitor at the Portland Post Office. Talbot died in 1880 at the age of 59. He had a son, Elbridge Jr., who was a noted painter/artist in Portland, and his daughter Maria was a talented opera singer, as well.
Much less is reported about Joseph Taylor in newspaper reports; however, we’ve been able to piece together aspects of his life that show Taylor to have been a creative thinker, a leader, and very entrepreneurial in spirit. He was born in Virginia, and had previously been living in Charleston, SC, when he came to Portland and married Jeanette (or Janette) C. Small in July of 1840. He served for a number of years as a steward on the Portland Steam Packet line. In 1853, after having the Jeanette built, he purchased from the Willards a majority interest in the 110-ton schooner Jerome and captained her, as well (the Jerome was built in Portsmouth in 1843 and was formerly owned by Captain Benjamin Willard and his brother, Captain Enoch Willard – of the Willard family for whom Willard Beach is named). Taylor reportedly played a leading role in the Underground Railroad, helping people escape slavery and make their way up to Canada. In 1862, it appears that he obtained a retail liquor license and opened the “Burnside Eating Saloon” on Fore Street in Portland. He experienced a lot of loss in his lifetime – in addition to losing his ship in a wreck, he also lost real estate and property in Portland in the Great Fire of 1866. In his later years, he worked as a barber in Portland. He died in 1891 at the age of 85.
Our research on Taylor and Talbot continues. Although Joseph Taylor had reportedly been a leader in the Underground Railroad, my theory is that Elbridge Talbot would certainly have had the means and opportunity to have been part of the Underground Railroad, as well. Owning and commanding a sailing vessel would be an ideal way to transport those escaping slavery to either Portland or some other northern port.
If you have any information to share that might be of help in our research, please reach out to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (207) 767-7299.