Entrance to the Peterborough Cemetery in Warren. (Photo by Andy O’Brien) Click on the dots below for more photos.
Entrance to the Peterborough Cemetery in Warren. (Photo by Andy O’Brien) Click on the dots below for more photos.
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About a mile off Route 1, on the other side of the train tracks and down a little path through the woods in Warren, lies a memorial to Peterborough, a long lost settlement that was once a thriving community in the 19th century. While several houses have since been built along the road, all that’s left of Peterborough are a few cellar holes buried in the woods. Some of the names — Peters, Carters, and Minks — remain on the grave markers, while others are simple headstones marking the spots where the early settlers were laid to rest. Among the tombstones lie flags honoring veterans who served in every major war from the American Revolution and the Civil War to the Korean Conflict.

It’s difficult to piece together what life was like for this community, as there are no known written accounts by the residents themselves. Old photos depict a people not much different than any other Maine family struggling to make a living from the land and the sea. Like other local settlements, Peterborough was founded by people from Massachusetts seeking land in the great wilderness of the District of Maine. Peterborough was also very much rooted in the “Spirit of ’76” and the revolutionary principles of equal opportunity and freedom. But unlike other pioneers, Amos Peters didn’t just fight against the Crown for national independence, he fought to gain his freedom from slavery. And in the 1780s, he and his wife Sarah would go on to found one of the largest free black communities in Maine.

Maine’s Slave Trade and the Founding of Peterborough

Living in the whitest state in the country, it’s easy to forget Maine’s complicated relationship to Africa, but blacks have been coming to Maine since the Europeans, if not earlier, according to Southern Maine Community College Professor Neill DePaoli.

“Some may have literally set foot on the ‘maine’ first — to haul ashore the boat holding the Portuguese fisherman, French explorer, or English settler,” wrote DePaoli in the book Maine’s Visible Black History. “The first blacks in Maine did not come in large numbers on slave ships that unloaded their human cargo for auction and plantation labor, although there is evidence of slave traders and auctioning in Maine and there were African slaves.”

One of the first documented African-American Mainers was a woman named Susannah, who was bought by Alexander Woodrup of Pemaquid in 1686, althought they were both driven off by Indians three years later, according to the Maine Historical Society. The region would continue to have a very small black community into the 19th century. White Mainers were also active in the slave trade, whether it was by building slave ships or sailing to Africa to pick up slaves to trade for sugar in the West Indies and then selling it to the rum distilleries in New England. Slaves were also purchased off the boat in York and Wells from ships traveling from slave markets in Boston and Portsmouth, according to Bowdoin Professor of History and Africana Studies Randolph Stakeman’s study “Slavery in Colonial Maine.” Still, Stakeman estimates that there were probably never more than 500 or 600 slaves in Maine at one time.

Perhaps the most well known colonial-era slave owner was the merchant William Pepperell of Kittery, who imported slaves to Maine from the West Indies. According to his biographer Usher Parsons, Pepperell was once scheduled to receive “five negroes, and one hogshead of rum” from Antigua in 1719. However, a message sent from the Pepperell firm to the slave dealer in June of that year stated that “one negro woman, marked Y. on the left breast, died about three weeks after her arrival in spite of medical aid which I procured. All the rest died at sea.”

While some Mainers certainly got rich off the slave trade, New England didn’t have large plantations that were heavily reliant on slave labor and only the wealthiest households kept slaves, usually as a kind of status symbol. But just like in the South, a slave was a slave. As the 19th-century Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons said (according to historian Joseph Williams), “The slave was the absolute property of his master, subject to his orders and to reasonable corrections for misbehavior, was transferable like a chattel by gift or sale, and was assets in the hands of his executor or administrator. If the master was guilty of a cruel or unreasonable castigation of his slave, he was liable to be punished for the breach of the peace, and the slave was allowed sureties of the peace against a violent and barbarous master, which generally caused a sale to another master. And the children of the female slave, according to the maxim of the civil law, were the property of the master.”

And there was often little recourse if slaves were abused by their white masters. In one instance, Stakeman found that a Kittery man named Nathaniel Keen beat his slave Rachael to death in 1695, but was only charged with cruelty, not murder, and was fined “five pounds for the offense plus five pounds and ten shillings for court costs.”

Breaking the Chains

When Sarah Peters was kidnapped from her home in Guinea and sold by a Damariscotta captain to Captain James McIntyre of Warren around 1782, she may have thought she’d never escape bondage. But soon she would gain her freedom, due to the persistence of other slaves to the south.

With slave holders possessing minimal political power in New England, the abolitionist movement began to grow by the late 1700s. As Joseph Williams writes, on the eve of the Revolution in 1773, a number of blacks in Massachusetts “emboldened by the glimmerings of independence,” petitioned the General Court for their freedom. Then in 1781, a Massachusetts slave named Mum Betts, who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, successfully sued in court for her freedom, arguing that slavery was not consistent with the state constitution’s guarantee that “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.” Shortly after, Massachusetts, which Maine was a part of at the time, became the first state in the country to abolish slavery.

“Hearing a rumor of this, [Sarah Peters] paid the representative, P. Pebbles, one dollar to ascertain this truth, and claimed her freedom,” wrote 19th-century historian Cyrus Eaton in his book Annals of Warren. “This woman is believed to have sustained good character, and was early and long a member of the Baptist church.”

Meanwhile, Amos Peters would also make his way up to Warren, but why he came to Maine is still shrouded in mystery. In her research of the Peterborough settlement, Howard University adjunct lecturer Dr. Kate McMahon learned that Amos Peters was born of African and Wampanoag Indian ancestry in 1737 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was owned by a man named John Peters, but won his freedom by enlisting in the Continental Army. After serving three months, Peters left the service, but reenlisted in 1776 and is said to have had his ear shot off in battle. And at some point, he met General Henry Knox, but how they met is also a mystery. One theory is that Knox owned Peters as a slave and another is that Knox hired Peters to work at his Montpelior estate in Thomaston. But McMahon believes that Peters met Knox while on a secret mission to Newport, Rhode Island, during the war. And then, for some unknown reason, between 1781 and 1782, Knox gave Peters 150 acres of land near South Pond in Warren.

“This is high-quality farmland with access to fresh water,” McMahon told an audience at Watts Hall in Thomaston on August 17. “I don’t think Henry Knox would have given the land to Amos Peters unless there was a really good reason to.”

Shortly after, Peters met Sarah, who already had a child by a white German-American man from Waldoboro named Paul Mink. By the 1790 census, Amos and Sarah were living on the homestead at South Pond with a number of children.

“I think what was most interesting about their relationship is that they fostered the sentiment of freedom, of this love of liberty, of this notion of pursuing justice for themselves and for their families and this community,” said McMahon.

At the time, there were about 96,540 residents in Maine, 538 of whom were non-white “free persons,” according to the Maine Historical Society. Within 80 years, Peterborough would grow rapidly from 2 to 83 residents.

Getting By on the Maine Frontier

“One of the things that most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of African Americans who were employed in the 18th and 19th centuries in Northern New England were engaged in seafaring in some way,” McMahon said. “They were either shipbuilders or they were sailors. And most of these people who were associated with the Peterborough community were directly employed in these trades or were indirectly supporting these industries as coopers, rope makers, farmers or fishermen — all of these activities that supported the maritime industries of the midcoast region.”

By the 1820s, she says people began to come from away to marry the children of Amos and Sarah. For instance, Rebecca Griffin of Brunswick, whose brother went on to found the mixed-race community on Malaga Island, married Jacob Peters, a seafarer whose life was cut short after drowning in Boston Harbor in 1840. Although Maine had passed an anti-miscegenation law in 1821, McMahon has found at least one instance in the Census of a mixed-race man from Warren marrying a white woman from Waldoboro and having several “mulatto” children.

 


“There were probably many more instances, particularly early in the settlement’s history; these relationships have been clouded by years of intolerance of interracial relationships and post-bellum anxieties,” she wrote in her 2013 master’s thesis. McMahon also speculates that Peterborough may have been a safe haven for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad up to Canada, particularly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced free states to help slave holders capture their “property.”

By 1823, there were enough children in the community for Peterborough to form its own school district, which held one of the first free black schools in the country, says McMahon. In Maine’s Visible Black History, Warren resident Marion Barrett Smith recalled that the schoolhouse, which was built in 1845, was also often used for church services and social events.

“On a Saturday night, with someone on fiddle and often another playing mouth organ, many of the old dances such as ‘Ocean Wave,’ ‘Tucker,’ ‘Boston Fancy,’ and ‘Lady of the Lake,’ were enjoyed,” she wrote.

The Civil War

After the Civil War broke out, Peterborough sent seven of its sons to fight for the Union in colored regiments. Four did not come back.

“For men, they were finally able to enlist in the United States Army in 1862,” noted McMahon. “They had never been allowed to enlist before and they were suddenly given a gun and they were told to go shoot the slave holder. That’s a transformative experience psychologically for them. For the fact that so many Peters men decided to enlist tells me something about their legacy that they inherited from Amos and Sarah Peters. That they really believed in liberty and this idea that everyone should be free and they were willing to sacrifice their lives.”

In the revised Annals of Warren, Eaton’s daughter Emily noted that among the 72 men who were drafted into the service in 1863, it was only Peterborough resident Francis Olney of “District No. 16” who served “well.” Six others were able to pay other men to serve as substitutes to fight in the war.

“Difference of opinion now, was something more than former differences in politics. It meant liberty or slavery, the safety or the destruction of our grand American Union,” she wrote. “Government being at last forced to raise men by conscription, it is not surprising that opposition to the enrolment [sic] and egging of the Provost Marshall by boys took place in one instance and that considerable excitement arose, here as elsewhere, especially July 23, when the names of the men drafted to fill this town’s quota arrived; and some few of the faint-hearted or disaffected fled to parts unknown. Of the total number drafted, 72, only one Francis Olney, of District No. 16, actually entered the army and did good service; but has since died at home; six furnished substitutes.…”

McMahon also uncovered an August 18, 1862, article in the Portland Free Press detailing Amos and Sarah’s great grandson Albert Peters’ escape from Belfast jail after serving three years for robbing a store in Rockland. After stealing some clothes, he tried to join the now-famous 20th Maine Regiment in Augusta before the authorities caught up with him. As the article notes, “the boys of the regiment were overjoyed to see the black sheep taken from them.” He later died in Maine State Prison in 1865.

“I think it’s a pretty powerful statement that not only did he want to escape prison, but he thought the best idea was to try to join the army to fight slavery,” said McMahon. “I wondered if he joined the army to escape or if he joined the army to specifically oppose the system of slavery. We’ll never know.”

Then came April, 1865 — a month of “great excitement, both joyful and otherwise,” recalled Eaton. On the evening of April 4, “the bells broke cheerily into music” in Warren when the news arrived that the war was coming to an end. The next evening, “there was a great firing of cannon and rejoicing at the settlement” of Peterborough “while the ringing of bells in neighboring places was plainly heard.” Finally, on the 9th, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House and the war was over.

The Decline of Peterborough

But life didn’t get any easier for the residents of Peterborough after the war. The post-war depression, the collapse of the shad and alewife fisheries and the loss of most of the shipyards in town wreaked havoc on the local economy. Maine as a whole experienced a mass exodus of people seeking their fortunes out West and in other parts of the country. McMahon says that Peterbrough lost 20 percent of its residents between 1860 and 1870. By 1910, there were only 26 African American residents left in Warren and only three or four families in Peterborough. Without enough students, the Peterborough school closed in 1911.

McMahon also traces some of the settlement’s struggles to a spike in racism during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“There was a lot of animosity from white Mainers because of the decline of industry and the fact that the entire county was going through an economic depression,” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, life was difficult for everybody, and a lot of people blamed free people of color, obviously wrong, but these sorts of things happen today.”

She noted that white employers were hesitant to hire black Mainers and law enforcement began targeting Peterborough residents for low-level crimes like loitering and public drunkenness. Facing discrimination when applying for jobs, many members of the Peterborough community began to show up on the town pauper rolls, which led whites to resent having to support them. Similar attitudes were directed at the poor mixed-race community on Malaga Island, which was forcibly evicted by a legislative decree in 1912 based on racist pseudoscientific views that they were “degenerate” and “feeble minded.”

When Warren celebrated its Bicentennial on July 31,1936, there were only a couple of households left in Peterborough, which by then was called “N---ertown” by the locals. An estimated 13,000 people attended the momentous occasion, which included a pageant celebrating the history of the town. When it came to Act Six, titled the “Negro Settlers,” the Peters family likely watched as white people in blackface acted out the founding of their community in a minstrel-type show with Fred Peters dancing to a band called “Old Zip Coon.”

“The vast majority of Warren’s residents were born in Maine or Massachusetts,” wrote McMahon. “The singing of the spiritual, the band “Old Zip Coon,” and the dancing by Fred Peters can be seen as a continuation of the minstrel tradition. For the onlookers, this was an appropriate way to depict African Americans. They were not from the South; they were from Warren, yet still somehow outside.”

Decades later, as the Civil Rights Movement built momentum, Maine finally began making gradual steps toward granting equal rights and protections for African Americans and other minorities. In the 1960s, the Legislature passed legislation banning racial discrimination in housing and in private clubs, which was followed by the creation of the Maine Human Rights Commission in 1971. However, it wasn’t until 1977 that the Legislature finally passed a bill to abolish the n-word from all state maps, as the ugly slur had been commonly used to name roads, streams, islands and other places throughout the state.

During a lengthy debate, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gerald Talbot (D-Portland), an eighth generation Mainer and the state’s first African-American legislator, said, “The reason is that some of the members feel as you do, that some of those names are historic and they don’t want it changed. The name “nigger” is also historic as far as I am concerned. No one in this body was brought up underneath that name and I still carry the scars from that name. I still carry the scars from that name, and my children carry the scars of that name.”

By that time, Peterborough was no more, as the last of the settlement’s residents left it in the 1950s. Although Sidney Peters, the last resident of Peterborough, died in 1991, his daughter, Sydney Peters Robinson of Rockland, was able to attend McMahon’s lecture in Thomaston two weeks ago. But there were few surprises for her, as she said, smiling: “I knew most of that stuff, except for the guy that broke out of jail. I didn’t know that one!”