A story of slavery in the White Mountains


It wasn't always 'Live Free or Die' for everyone



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March 25, 2010
The number of slaves in the South always exceeded those in the North because the South's plantation economy (based on rice, tobaccco, cotton, sugar, etc.) employed a large labor force. But in the North, while slaves were fewer, at one time they were omnipresent; in towns and seaports, farms and mansions. Some came from the Spanish Indies, some were captured Native Americans, but most came from Africa.

A New England visitor in 1687, astonished at the number of blacks he saw, said, "There is not a house in Boston, however small may be its name, that has not one or two," writes David Freeman Hawke in "Everyday Life in Early America."

In New Hampshire and Maine, most slaves were domestic servants or worked alongside their masters in field or shop. By the 1760s, there were 150 slaves in Portsmouth.

That at least some of our forebearers in towns like Conway and Fryeburg kept slaves, we know. But mention of this in local histories is scant, possibly because, after the Civil War, families whose ancestors had owned slaves may not have wished to commemorate that fact.

In his book, "The Hotels of Intervale," Gordon Tasker Heard cites Col. Andrew McMillan of North Conway as owning "20 slaves."

McMillan was a native of Londonderry, Ireland, who came to this area to develop a grant of land received from King George III in return for his services in the French and Indian Wars. Rising quickly to prominence in the town, he was, in Heard's words, "the first of the gentry."

According to Benjamin D. Eastman's book, "North Conway: Its Surroundings, Its Settlement by English People," McMillan made a business of selling land to settlers whom he invited to be his guests at his farm (located approximately opposite to where the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort now stands). In due course, his homestead evolved into a kind of early hotel, and by 1780, he had opened the first "house of public entertainment" in North Conway. He was also, says Ruth B.D. Horne in "Conway Through the Years and Whither," moderator at town meetings, receiver of taxes, a representative to the General Court, and often an agent for the town in important matters.

Even for a man of McMillan's enterprise, however, 20 seems an enormous number of slaves to employ. Heard says that the last of these, in his old age, was still looking after McMillan's sheep about the time Lincoln was killed.

Another slave we know of was a man named Limbo, who by his account, had been kidnapped in Africa on the coast of Guinea one day while out feeding silkworms.

From John Stuart Burrows, author of "Fryeburg, Maine: An Historical Sketch," we learn that Limbo was originally the slave of William McLellan of Gorham, Maine, and used to drive cattle up to the "Pequawket (now Fryeburg) meadows," where he and two white men, Nathan Merrill and John Stevens, spent the winters of 1762 and 1763. Unable to read or write, Limbo apparently had his own method of counting the herd and always knew if any were missing.

According to Burrows, Limbo attended abolitionist meetings in Gorham, where he was persuaded to exchange slavery for freedom, eventually running away to Fryeburg. There, mysteriously, he is next heard of as a slave again, belonging to one Moses Ames.

Seemingly, he was not well treated by Ames and was "compassionately" rescued by Col. Samuel Osgood, who later transferred him to his son, Lt. James Osgood, who in turn transferred him to his son, the publisher James R. Osgood.

Limbo's tombstone can still be seen in the old cemetery behind Fryeburg Historical Society. Its inscription reads: "Limbo, a native of Africa, lies here. He was, while living, an honest man, the noblest work of God. Died November 1829, age 90." While there is no overt recognition on the tombstone of Limbo's having been a slave and no naming family who owned him, one local history reports that James R. Osgood found a bill of sale for Limbo, dated Oct. 4, 1790, among his grandfather's papers after his death.

Nor was Limbo the only slave in town. We know of at least one other; Abel Cary, who (still according to Burrows) came to Fryeburg from Concord with the family of Ezekiel Walker in 1764 or 1765.

Restless and discontented, Cary finally ran away. He spent 14 days wandering around Moat Mountain, subsisting mainly on berries. When he emerged from the forest, he arrived at Col. McMillan's house in North Conway. There, McMillan's daughter offered him a bowl of blueberries and milk to eat. Sick of berries, he flung the bowl from him in a rage. (What happened to him after that, the book does not reveal.)

If towns like Conway and Fryeburg contained slave-owning families at a certain period in their history, both at a later date became places of refuge for escaping slaves on that network of secret routes and hiding places known as the "Underground Railroad."

In both towns there are houses with "hidey-holes" said to have been used to shelter fugitive slaves en route to freedom in Canada.

One such house was what is now the Homestead Restaurant in North Conway, which according to former owner Cindy Briggs, concealed a hiding place within its walls until 20th century renovations altered the arrangement.

The old Joshua Heath house in Center Conway formerly harbored a false wall and a secret passage down to the cellar, where refugee slaves were hidden. All that remains today, we have been told, is the large beam that once supported the partition between the homestead's kitchen and its secret room.

A Fryeburg house no longer extant, the Governor Dana House at 92 Main Street (where the post office now stands), is credited in local histories with having had a hidden room beneath the cellar and a granite-lined underground tunnel connecting it to another dwelling across the street (the former Harrison McNeal residence) — whose household also, apparently, engaged in rescuing fugitive slaves.

The Dana house (where, incidentally, Daniel Webster once studied law) was torn down in 1956 — another link with the days of slavery now vanished forever. Perhaps for the best... And yet, though we may dislike remembering them now, those days were part of history, too. Perhaps we can console ourselves a bit by remembering that so was the Underground Railroad.

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