The Question of Slavery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 15, 2013.

Yes, there were slaves who lived in Exeter, New Hampshire. Contrary to what many of us learned in school, the New England states weren’t all abolitionist strongholds. There may not have been large plantations with hundreds of enslaved people, but there were slaves here nonetheless.

There were many levels of servitude in the colonial era. Apprentices and indentured servants served time without pay – but these arrangements had an endpoint and did not extend to one’s offspring. Slavery kept a person in bondage for life with little or no chance of escaping the system.

New England’s enslaved people lived under different conditions from those held in the Southern states. Long winters in the north meant that there were months out of each year that could be very unproductive agriculturally. Instead, slaves in the North performed other types of labor. Tasks such as chopping firewood, hauling water, laundry, fishing, loading and unloading ships as well as assisting an artisan master were performed by enslaved people. Boring, repetitive work – working the machinery, pulling the printing press, hand weaving, cleaning, sweeping, gardening and even some farming – these were done by people considered less-valuable to society.

There was also an element of social status in having an enslaved person working in your home. Why hire a housekeeper or cook when you can raise your social standing by being able to afford someone you actually own?

To those who were enslaved, of course, the system was horrid. Slaves had no rights. They had no right to themselves, they were not allowed to marry without consent, their children were owned by someone else at birth, they had no personal property and they could be bought or sold at will. It didn’t matter that they were living in New England, slavery was slavery it wasn’t ‘better’ just because it was in a northern colony.

In 1767, Exeter had 50 slaves living in town spread among a number of owners. By the time of the Revolution, the census takers changed the category from ‘slaves’ to ‘Negros slaves for life’ leaving it an open question whether all people of color were enslaved or not. At that time, there were 38 people listed in that group. By 1790, there were only two people listed as ‘slaves’ in town. Did the Revolution eliminate slavery in New Hampshire? Here the question becomes a bit muddy.

The short answer is that New Hampshire forgot to outlaw slavery. Legally, that is. The Revolution ruined slavery in the state, but never fully removed the system. Our state constitution, approved in 1783, states that ‘all men are born equal and independent’ but it is mute on the legality of slavery and the question was never challenged in court. A previous attempt, in 1779, by the Black community of Portsmouth to petition for freedom was tabled in the legislature indefinitely. A later act, passed in 1857, specified “no person, because of decent, should be disqualified from becoming a citizen of the state,” also didn’t specify that slavery was illegal. By that time, however, there were no slaves listed in the U.S. Census for New Hampshire. Most people assumed the practice was gone. Slavery was officially outlawed in New Hampshire with the passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.

Another question that frequently arises in relation to slavery in Exeter is whether the Underground Railroad operated in town. Although there are some local legends, there doesn’t appear to be any actual evidence leading us to believe that fugitive slaves were hidden in town. There are a few houses that have hidden rooms in the layout, although these may simply be tricks of architecture used to conceal built-in bookshelves or utility access. The people who lived in the houses in the early part of the nineteenth century were not known to be abolitionists or Quakers. Of course, the Underground Railroad was a secret organization so it is always difficult to find evidence of its existence. There are no accounts of fugitive slaves in Exeter and, as far as we can tell, no stories from successful runaways that mention Exeter as having been part of the trip.

There is an old story about tunnels that lead from Cass Street to the river – purported to be part of the Underground Railroad. No tunnels have ever been found, and as a resident of Cass Street, I can assure readers that the ground beneath our houses is sand. We run sump pumps year-round thanks to a series of underground streams that run right through our basements. Digging and maintaining a tunnel would have been a very difficult and expensive undertaking, not to mention hard to conceal during construction. It also would have been wildly impractical since the river is less than one-eighth of a mile away. It would be far simpler to just wait until it was dark and run for it.

Exeter after the Revolution attracted a number of former slaves and at one time the free Black community was 4% of the town’s population (2010 census data indicates a 0.6% African American population in Exeter). Considered trustworthy, although a lower social class, African Americans in Exeter found it difficult to compete in the economic market once white immigrants began arriving from Canada, Poland, Germany and Ireland. Mill owners refused to hire the descendants of former slaves and the population gradually diminished over time.


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