American Ancestors New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845 N.E. Historic Genealogical Society Seal View Your Shopping Cart Join NEHGS
  • African American Family History Resources at NEHGS

    Beth Anne Bower

    The manuscript collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society feature a number of African American family history records for New England and beyond. This month’s column highlights three examples: the Capt. George W. Lane scrapbooks, the genealogical notes of William G. Spear, and plantation records from South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi.

    The Lane Scrapbooks

    African American resources are often found within larger collections of New England family papers. Two extraordinary scrapbooks found in the NEHGS manuscript collections document the missionary work that Capt. George W. Lane (d. 1912) and his family provided to the people of Malaga Island, Maine. One scrapbook is a meticulously constructed and labeled account entitled “A History of parts of Capt. And Mrs. Lane’s and their daughter’s work among a neglected people of Malaga Island – Maine – and reference to other localities where the new Motor-Boat will make it easier for them to carry messages of love and happiness” (edited, compiled, and illustrated by Fred. H.C. Woolley, Sept. 1906 – Aug/Sept. 1907).

    The history of the African American settlement at Malaga Island, Maine, is a tale of a struggling but viable community treated dishonorably by government and commercial interests.1 Malaga Island is located near the mouth of the New Meadows River, close to Phippsburg, Maine. Although some sources suggest that Malaga was first settled in approximately 1720 by Will Black, an African frontiersman, it is certain that adjacent Horse Island was bought by former slave Benjamin Darling in 1794, who subsequently settled with others of African descent on Malaga Island. The African American community on Malaga was poor, as were many who depended on coastal Maine’s waters for subsistence in the nineteenth century. Although isolated, its residents participated in larger national events. William Johnson, who married Darling’s great-granddaughter, served in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the Civil War.

    At the turn of the century, as Maine’s coast was developing into a vacation and tourist destination, mainlanders and government officials became concerned about “their ragtag island neighbors – some white, some black, many of mixed blood – living in make-do dwellings.”2 While Capt. Lane and his family worked to bring a school and religious instruction to this small community, the counties and state launched a campaign to remove and institutionalize the island residents. Ironically, the charitable attention the Malagites received may have indirectly led to the forcible removal of 45 people from Malaga Island from 1911-1912. Most of the houses were razed. Many of the residents were put in a mental institution (although not mentally ill) and the island graveyard was dug up and moved to the same institution. Since that time no one has lived on the island.

    The scrapbook of Capt. Lane’s work contains very rare and now poignant photographs of the Malagites only a few years before their removal. Carefully labeled pictures of the home of Mr. McKinney, the school room in his house, and the students may help African American family history researchers trace these lost Malagite families. Shown below are a selection of pages from the Lane Scrapbooks.

    Six of the Scholars
    "Six of the Scholars"

    Capt. Lane
    Capt. Lane

    The Handwriting of the Malaga Children
    The Handwriting of the Malaga Children


    Route of Capt. Lane's Motorboat
    Route of Capt. Lane's Motorboat

    The Malaga Schoolhouse and its Students
    The Malaga Schoolhouse and its Students


    The Spear Manuscripts

    Also in the NEHGS manuscript collections is family research compiled by William G. Spear, which contains “Notes concerning Blacks with the Name Spear, 1798-1815" (MSS 246). Mr. Spear transcribed documents related to Ceasar (also Cesar, Caesar, and Cezar) (d. 1806) and Chloe (also Cloe) (d. 1815) Spear who lived in Boston, Massachusetts. Among his transcriptions are their probate records and notes concerning their purchase of land and half a house on White Bread Alley. Ceasar Spear left his estate to his wife Chloe. She in turn left her property and a monetary bequest to her grandson, and other cash bequests to seven people and her church. Her estate was worth in excess of $1500.

    How can we learn more about Ceasar and Chloe Spear? A search on the Internet reveals that Chloe Spear was memorialized 17 years after her death in Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, a Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815… Aged 65 Years, by A Lady of Boston [Rebecca Warren Brown?] (Boston: published by James Loring, 1832). The full text of the memoir is available online from the “North American Slave Narratives” page on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website. This slave narrative is part biography and part religious tract. It tells how Chloe Spear was captured in Africa and sold to “Mr. B.,” with whom she lived as a slave in his household in Boston. She met and married Ceasar Spear around the time of the Revolution. The narrative goes on to say that Chloe Spear was eventually freed by “Mr. B.” and worked to save money to buy a house in the North End, but the memoir lacks specifics. Who was “Mr. B.”? When did she and Ceasar marry? Who are the friends mentioned in her will?

    For answers to some of these questions we can turn to the NEHGS CD-ROM Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, 1630-1822, by Annie Thwing, popularly known as “the Thwing Index” (see the fall 2001 issue of New England Ancestors for a full description). A search on “Cloe” (always remember to enter alternative spellings, especially in the colonial period and for Africans and African Americans!) returns the marriage records of Cloe/Chloe and Cesar/Ceasar:

    “Cesar, Servant to Nathan Spear & Cloe Servant to Capt. Bradford Negroes” married by Rev. Samuel Stillman October 17, 1776.

    From this record we learn that “Mr. B” was Capt. Bradford, and a subsequent search in the Thwing Index reveals that he was most likely Captain John Bradford, a mariner who lived in the North End of Boston from at least 1746 and died in 1784. Ceasar Spear was one of several slaves owned by Nathan Spear, a North End cooper. Ceasar worked as a cooper for Spear and took his last name. By the time Ceasar and Chloe Spear bought their land in the North End in 1798, Nathan Spear and his family had moved to Watertown, Massachusetts.5 The Thwing Index also reveals the indenture on February 3, 1800 of one “Ruth Newall, Negro to Caesar Spear, Negro of Boston, by the Boston Overseers of the Poor, to learn housewifery, reading, writing and ciphering.”This is consistent with the “Memoir” which tells of Chloe learning to read and write.

    When Chloe Spear died in 1815 she left specific bequests to seven people, five of which are African Americans with entries in the Thwing Index. Abel Barbados (c.1751-1871) and his wife Chloe (Holloway) Barbados (c. 1759-1843) resided on Beacon Hill and are found in the Thwing Index and Franklin Dorman’s Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts 1742-1994; Celia (Fletcher) and William Jackson’s marriage record of 1799 is recorded in the town records; and Venus Manning is most probably Venus Sylvester who married Thomas Manning in 1808.7

    The Spear family manuscript collection, the online resources of the North American Slave Narratives site, and the Thwing Index each provide different kinds of information on Ceasar and Chloe Spear for consideration and analysis by the researcher. The Thwing Index enables the family researcher to quickly uncover leads to original sources and to identify potential family, community, and slave owner connections for further research and confirmation.

    Southern Plantations

    Although the subjects of this column are New England resources, many family historians find that tracing their African American ancestors leads them to the southern United States. New England archives contain documents from southern relatives and business ventures. Of particular interest to African American family researchers are manuscripts that reveal the location, birth, sales, and death records of ancestors who were enslaved. The NEHGS manuscript collections hold several examples of plantation records that list the names, vital records, and family relationships of African Americans. One of the most detailed is the “Slave List of Peter A. Wilds (1801-1851) of Wilds Hall, Mechanicsville, South Carolina,” found in the R. W. Coggeshall Papers (MSS 241). This tiny notebook records by name the birth, death, and/or sale dates of approximately 162 Africans and African Americans residing on the Wilds Hall plantation between 1779 and 1864.

    NEHGS also has a copy of the twenty-five page will of John Pray (d.1819) of the city of Savannah and Bryan County, Georgia. His will meticulously divides his estate, and names all of the African American slaves, their family relationships, and to whom they are bequeathed.  The Henry A. Peirce Papers (MSS 20) contain records of the management of Scotland Plantation, Yazoo County, Mississippi in 1866, including labor contracts, manpower records, freedmen documents, and payroll. All of these documents contain significant information for African American family researchers whose family history can be traced into the southern states.

    1.Down East
    7.Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts 1742-1994

    This summary of the history of Malaga Island is taken from an article by William David Barry “The Shameful Story of Malaga Island,”magazine, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, November 1980; and conversations with the author.Barry, p. 55.Thwing Reference Code 34378 and 34379Thwing Reference Code 6780Thwing Reference Code 55966Thwing Reference Code 34378Franklin Dorman,, (Boston, MA: NEHGS, 1998) pp. 2-3. Thwing Reference Codes 4288, 8044, 34753, 34754, 35148, 35419.

New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA

© 2010 - 2014 New England Historic Genealogical Society