In 1775, colonial authorities in New Hampshire made a census of its inhabitants and reported the total number of people then in Dover at 1,666. There were 410 men under the age of 16, 786 women, 342 men between the ages of 16 and 50 who were were not in the army and 74 men over 50, a decidedly young population. In addition, there were 342 men “gone into the army”, a decidedly large percentage of the whole. There was a final category: 26 “negroes and slaves for life”.
There may not have been any organized slave trade in New Hampshire at this time, but there was considerable trade between the sea coast and various Caribbean islands, being the source of much of the slave population in the southern colonies. But there were individuals who would be brought to Portsmouth and bought by some of the wealthiest families in the area, even more so than at Dover.
There are a number of records in the records of the First Parish Church which refer to people in slavery: Peter, a “servant of Thomas Hanson”, joined the church in 1769 and it appears that Peter’s son, another Peter, was baptized by Jeremy Belknap in 1772, with “Venus, servant of Nathaniel Cooper”. In June 1774 there is the baptism of Lydia, daughter of Stephan Evans and Phillis, daughter of Peter Hanson – “Negro”.
Also in 1774 there was a marriage: “Richard, negro servant of Mark Hunking, Esq. De Barrington, and Julia, Negro servant of Stephan Evans of Dover, by consent of their respective masters. Another of Peter’s sons, listed as “Cato”, may have been baptized in 1776, with the mention that he belonged to an Otis Baker, purchased from Henry Ward. (A later file concerning Thomas Hanson’s estate refers to a black woman called Venus, “a poor man belonging to Dover.”) That same year there was a second marriage: “George, black servant of Benjamin Evans, and Phillis, black servant of Solomon. ” Emerson, Esq.
It is very clear that the first parish was open and welcoming to the minority population of the community, regardless of their legal status. Jeremy Belknap, who was a minister during those years, made it clear where he stood, saying in 1774 “Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear that a people who strive so hard for freedom are unwilling to leave freedom to others? ” A man well ahead of his time, for even though the New Hampshire State Constitution, passed in 1783, declared that “all men are born equal and independent,” slaves were still considered taxable property until in 1789, and not even this “emancipation” as evidenced by the first national census in 1790, listing 158 “slaves” still among the population of the state.
But it is interesting to note that there were attempts to challenge the system many years ago in the courts. In 1720, Benedictus and Leah Torr owned a black slave named Samson, but they had agreed in writing that he was to be released after their death. This did not happen, however, because at the event Samson was “claimed” by a certain Nathaniel Randall. When Samson fled he was arrested and despite written evidence that he should be free, the court ruled against him.
The Torrs also owned Nancy and Phoebe, mother and daughter. Again, a deal was made to release them after a number of years, but Benedictus broke his promise and sold Phoebe to a nephew, Vincent Torr. After a few years, Phoebe succeeded in enlisting the help of a local lawyer, William Parker, and in 1751 she was declared free.
As noted, 1790 was the first official federal census. Figures for Strafford County show a population in Dover of 1,996, a number only slightly higher than that of 1775, as the men no longer “went to the army.” The numbers here were: free white males, 16 and over, 547; free white men under 16, 418; free white females, 1,005; all other free persons, 18; slaves, 8. Much like today, the census had to be extended, so it actually covers the period August 1790 to March 1792. (At that time Strafford County included towns that are now part of of Carroll or Belknap Counties There were 21 “slaves” listed for the entire area, but for some reason there were 22 “all other free people” registered for the town of Gilmanton, more than a third of the entire category.
This census identified the people who were the last local slave owners: Joseph Evans, William Moulton, Charles Waldron, Daniel Smith, and John Gage. Among these, Waldron was the son of Thomas Westbrook Waldron, who had been the owner of Plato, the sacristan of First Parish, and of Phoebe. Charles’s sister, Elizabeth, was married to the Evans family, former owners of Julia and George. John Gage, who is listed as the owner of three, was a prominent military figure during the American Revolution, and his residence was 30 Silver St., one of the oldest houses still standing in Dover.
The census also listed the names associated with the 18 “all other free persons”, presumably former “slaves” who were granted their freedom between the count of 1775 and 1790, now presumably in the position of “servants” of several of the same families. Notably, Nathaniel Cooper, the former owner of Venus, is marked with two individuals, as is Thomas Hanson, the former owner of Peter. Other important names in Dover, linked to single individuals are Wentworth, Ham, three Varneys, Nute, Twombly and Roberts.
As we are well aware, slavery continued unabated in many other parts of the country, and in 1835 a formal anti-slavery society was formed in Dover, with David Root, then pastor of the first parish, as president, and part of his sermon at the time is: “Let no one assume that only the South is to blame. We are guilty. By our own indifference, our connivance and our face, we have tolerated slavery.” Another man ahead of his time whose words still resonate today.
Tony McManus is from Dover. He is a former administrator of the Woodman Institute and an amateur student of Dover’s past. He can be reached at [email protected]