The African-American and Native American community in Jamestown burgeoned during slavery, but it declined precipitously after the Revolution. Nine tenths left in only 50 years.
The turbulence of war, the slow demise of slavery and the exclusion from economic opportunity pushed many away from Jamestown. But where did they move to, and what lives did they choose?
Particularly for men, there was a common answer: the sea. Released from bondage, with no land, there often were few alternatives.
Two dozen black and Native American men from Jamestown have sailed more than 50 voyages on whaling ships in the South Pacific, packet ships to Cuba and Hispaniola for sugar, and, occasionally, slave ships to West Africa.
Seaman James Humphrey Weeden, of mixed African and Indian ancestry, was born in Jamestown in 1771, likely enslaved. Attaining freedom in Jamestown without property often meant being “bound out” into indentured servitude. Weeden instead moved to Newport where he joined the African Union Society, the nation’s first black benevolent society. It offered mutual aid, support for the poor, self-improvement, and help for those seeking to return to Africa.
Seeking employment, the 33-year-old Weeden boarded the 72- foot brig Rowena in 1804, owned by Newport merchant Christopher Champlin. He served as a cook, sailing from Newport to Havana, Cuba. Again in 1812, he cooked for a crew of eight, three of them people of color, aboard the German Peggy. Seafaring had long provided some semblance of racial equality onboard, but once in Cuba, the men would have witnessed the barbarity of Cuba’s black slave-based sugar economy. Two months later, after the ship returned to Newport, merchant Henry Bull on Sherburne’s Wharf sold “two hundred boxes Havanna Brown, and thirty boxes white sugars, just imported in the Brig German Peggy.”
James Humphrey Weeden and his wife, Ann, eventually purchased a house on Greene Street in Newport, which was no small achievement for a black family. Their son, Christopher, became active in Boston, opposing slavery and school segregation, frequently appearing in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. The couple’s gravestones may be seen in the Newport Common Burial Ground.
The Howland farm was likely the birthplace of Robert and Israel Howland, both black sailors bound for Cuban sugar and molasses in the early 1800s. Down the road, Jacob Hull was born enslaved on the farm of Edward Hull in 1775, ironically the year Americans fought for their freedom from British rule. He, though, was never freed by his master. Making it to Providence, the 6-foot-1 sailor boarded the brigantine Susannah, owned by the merchant Allen brothers. It sailed to West Africa, purchasing 112 captives, selling them in the Americas.
Participation in the slave trade was not uncommon among Jamestown men whether black, like Jacob Hull, Robin Carr and Robert Howland, or white, like seaman Peter Austin, Capt. Slocum Fowler, and many others.
Seamanship, though, was not always voluntary. In 1795, a reward was offered for the arrest of Caesar Weeden, “a black, a native of Jamestown,” for deserting a ship bound for Europe.
Finally, Jamestown black and Native American men were whalers, likely producing some of the whale oil that lit Beavertail Lighthouse for a century. John Remington manned two four-year voyages in 1834 and 1840, to the Pacific and Indian oceans, bringing home 3,700 barrels of oil. Charles Weeden in 1820 rounded Cape Horn to the Pacific aboard the Courier, owned by Jamestowner Audley Clarke, accumulating 1,900 barrels of sperm oil. Jamestown farmworker Moses Babcock boarded the 104-foot ship John Coggeshall, also owned by Audley Clark, to the South Pacific in 1843. His four-year voyage traversed Chile, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Japan and New Zealand, his reward being 1/150th of the profits. While he later sadly drowned off Jamestown, the historic journey was memorialized by a stunning work of scrimshaw engraved by his crewmate.
Whale tooth carvings of the ship John Coggeshall. Moses Babcock, a Jamestown farmhand, made a voyage aboard the boat in the South Pacific during the 1840s.
Photos courtesy of MYSTIC SEAPORT MUSEUM, 1981.40.
JHS would like to thank Peter Fay for this article. Retired from Brown University, he has spent 20+ years studying Black and Native American slavery and the interactions between the European and non-European people in New England. He is a longtime member of the Jamestown Historical Society.