African servants were scattered throughout the households of Portsmouth. Only the most wealthy had more than one or two slaves, and very few residents owned more than four. Slaves were assigned a first name by the person who bought them and used the family’s last name to identify their owner.
The largest known shipment of African slaves to Portsmouth occurred in 1755 when the Exeter, owned by John Moffatt, arrived at the docks with sixty-one slaves: twenty men, fifteen women, seventeen boys, and nine girls.
Many of the prominent people mentioned in my Walk Portsmouth blog who lived before the 1800s owned slaves, including the following:
- Daniel Fowle (Fowle's Printing Office)
- Langdon family (Rockingham House)
- Archibald Macpheadris and Jonathan Warner (Warner House)
- John Moffatt and William Whipple (Moffatt-Ladd House)
- John Sherburne (Judge Sherburne House)
- Wentworth family (Wentworth-Gardner House and Governor John Wentworth Mansion
Census records show the rise and fall of slavery in Portsmouth. There were 52 slaves in 1727, 187 in 1767, 140 in 1775, and 26 in 1790. The last enslaved person to be included in a New Hampshire census was in 1840. The state abolished slavery in 1857.
In October 2003, utility crews discovered an African burial ground while excavating Chestnut Street. State archeologists subsequently found the remains of thirteen people of African descent beneath the road and believe there are as many as two hundred more in the area. They were unable to determine whether they died as slaves or free men.
Maps as early as 1705 refer to the area west of Chestnut Street, between State and Court Streets, as the "Negro Burying Ground". It was originally located on the outskirts of town; however, as Portsmouth grew during the late 1700s and early 1800s, roads and buildings were constructed over the graves, and the burial ground was forgotten.
Portsmouth is currently raising funds for an African Burying Ground Memorial Park, to be constructed on Chestnut Street, that will sanctify the location. The memorial will be called We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten. Below is a photograph of Chestnut Street. The west (left) side of the street is the location of the African Burying Ground and future memorial park.
For more information about slavery in New Hampshire, I recommend the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, an informative self-guided walking tour with twenty-seven markers commemorating the history of Blacks in Portsmouth. The Seacoast African American Cultural Center and Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, a book by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, are also invaluable resources.