Castine, Maine is a small coastal town in Hancock County, Maine. Long used seasonally for fishing and trade by Native Americans, the area was first occupied by whites beginning in 1629. Over the course of 200 years, French, English, Dutch and Americans fought over this highly prized and strategically placed deep water port. Permanent settlement by the English began in the 1760s and by the mid-19th century Castine was one of the wealthiest ports per-capita in New England.
In the 2010 census, Castiners self-identified as 96.6% white. Other races included .39% African American, along with smaller percentages of Native American, Asian, and other races. Was Castine always so white? The answer, which surprises those living in town today, is no. Throughout the 19th century there was a sizable African American community living in Castine.
The Castine Historical Society has recently started documenting the history of Castine’s African American citizens. The lack of documentation makes conducting research difficult, but by carefully looking at primary records, we are uncovering hidden stories of survival and resilience.
Our research began by using Castine’s census records, which document who lived in Castine decade by decade from 1790 to the last published census in 1940. While census records can be goldmines of information, they are still problematic. Census takers were known to discount people of color, especially if they lived in outlying districts. Census takers also misheard names or spelled them incorrectly. But despite these problems, census records were a good starting point for the research.
From the records, we learned that Castine had a small African American population that reached its peak during the 1830-1850 census period. 1840 represented the year with the highest number of African Americans or “mulattos” (the term used in early censuses to denote mixed-race individuals) in Castine, where there were three families consisting of a total of eleven individuals. While the number seems small, statistically it represents .92% of Castine’s 1,188 residents. In 1840, there were 1,355 black or mulatto residents in Maine, which shows that .27% of Mainers were African Americans. This means that Castine’s African American population was higher per capita than was Maine’s.
The census numbers raised important questions. Who were these individuals? What drew them to Castine? And why did they leave? The census shows a steady decline in African Americans living in Castine during the period from 1860-1910. In fact, only one African American, Mary Jackson, was recorded as living in Castine from 1880 up until her death in 1917. The 1920-1940 census period lists no African Americans as permanent residents on the Castine census although we know African American servants and hotel employees lived and worked in town during the summers.
The dearth of information about these families and individuals complicates the research. The census, depending on the questions it asked in a given year, tells us names, ages, birthplaces, relationships, whether individuals could read or write, if they owned property, and their occupations. But these are just bare facts. To delve further we used a variety of town records, including tax records, school records, poll tax records, and birth and death records. George A. Wheeler’s A History of Castine, 1875 was also consulted. However, the book mentions only one African American and short notations on residence dates of a few African American individuals.
What brought African Americans to Castine and when did they first arrive? The earliest records from the late 18th century imply they were individuals brought by their enslavers when they moved from Massachusetts and towns in southern Maine.
Slavery was legal in Massachusetts, of which Maine was a part, up until 1783. Despite the 1783 law abolishing slavery, not every enslaved person received his or her freedom. Manumission was a slow and gradual process that is difficult to document. It would not have been unusual for the six African Americans listed in Castine’s 1790 census, just seven years after the Massachusetts law was passed, to still be enslaved.
Colonel Gabriel Johonnot’s account book from 1785-90 notes people from the area with whom he did business that included Richard Hunnewell and “negro man Emmanuel,” Mattias Rich and “girl Esther,” and Joseph Perkins and “his negro girl.” It seems likely that Emmanuel, Esther, and the unnamed girl were enslaved people since they were mentioned only by first name, or not named at all, always in association with a white man, and always in a possessive form.
The 1790 census of Penobscot, as Castine was called at the time, lists no ages or sex, but confirms that Hunnewell and Perkins still had African Americans living in their families’ homes – three in Richard Hunnwell’s and one in Joseph Perkins’s. Added to the list were one African American in Thomas Lee’s home and one in Jeremiah Wardwell’s.
All these head of household men were part of Castine’s wealthy mercantile demographic, which was a group who commonly owned enslaved people in New England. In the case of Jeremiah Wardwell, reminiscences of his grandson in 1890 confirm that Wardwell owned a slave in the 1790 census. But unless more documentation comes to light, we may never know if the others listed on the 1790 census were enslaved or free in that year.
This is the first of several articles the Castine Historical Society will write for The Atlantic Black Box Project as we continue to uncover the forgotten stories of Castine’s African American citizens.