Captain Paul Cuffe

Portrait of a Remarkable Life

By Abbey Schultz

Paul Cuffe

Portrait of Paul Cuffe

NEHGS is home to many portraits and historical artwork, but one portrait in the Treat Rotunda stands out. It was purchased in 2012 in honor of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., after he suggested to our CEO and President, Brenton Simons, that we would benefit from a broader representation of America’s diversity on our walls. This particular portrait highlights not only our country’s diversity, but a crucial and oftentimes forgotten figure from the early history of Massachusetts: Captain Paul Cuffe.

Very few people today have heard of Cuffe, who was born in 1759 and died in 1817. During his lifetime, he was arguably one of the most influential African Americans in the world. Those who remember him today may know him as an important figure in the Quaker communities of the South Shore. Others may remember him as an early champion of civil rights and an example of African American success despite the still present menace of slavery. Still others may remember him as a sea captain who ventured to Sierra Leone in support of the first African re-colonization initiative.

At NEHGS, we know that remembering the stories of those who came before us is perhaps the most important goal of genealogy. In honor of African American History Month and in recognition of the fascinating stories waiting to be uncovered in our collections, we present the life of Captain Paul Cuffe: how he was shaped by his circumstances and how he went on to help shape our world today.

Horseneck Beach in Westport, MA.

Horseneck Beach in Westport, MA.

A Confluence of Cultures

In 1759, on the island of Cuttyhunk off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, the boy who would become Paul Cuffe was born to Kofi and Ruth Moses Slocum. Kofi, a freed slave, and Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag woman, raised all nine of their children in the Quaker tradition, despite not being recognized as official members of the faith.1

Cuffe was raised at a unique confluence of cultures—the growing African diaspora, the surviving members of the native Wampanoag people, and the religious influence of English colonists. To understand how these influences came together to shape Cuffe’s life, we need to understand something about the Quakers.

1888 illustration of American Quaker religious practice

1888 illustration of American Quaker religious practice

The Quakers of the South Shore were something of a unique phenomenon. Most of the English colonists who held power in Boston and the surrounding areas were Puritans, a Christian sect that has become synonymous today with oppressive social mores and the restriction of personal freedoms. The Quakers, in contrast, believed in an unstructured church without leaders standing between the people and God, and were perhaps the group most likely to be open to social change.2 Quakers were among the first colonists to speak openly against slavery, providing a likely reason why Kofi was granted freedom by his Quaker owner, John Slocum, in the mid-1740s.3

Accounts of Kofi’s freedom differ. We know that he was born in West Africa and sold at a young age to the Slocums of Newport, Rhode Island. We also know that he was eventually sold to a Slocum relative, John Slocum of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1742—and that sometime in the few years that followed, he was granted his freedom. Cuffe biographer Lamont Thomas described the liberation as a spontaneous and unexpected decision spurred by Slocum’s moral objections to slavery.5 According to a pamphlet written in 1913 by a great-grandson of Paul Cuffe, however, Kofi worked to buy his freedom from Slocum, having been permitted to do odd jobs for pay for other white families in Dartmouth when his duties for Slocum were completed.6 Whatever the case, we do know that Kofi was literate and received some education while enslaved.7 We also know that he carried on both the Slocum family name and their religious beliefs when he married Ruth Moses and started his own family in 1746.

1873 illustration of Wampanoag woman

1873 illustration of Wampanoag woman

Very little is known about Ruth Moses herself, but some details about can be inferred from her position as a woman of native descent in her place and time. By the mid-1700s, most of the land once belonging to the Wampanoag people had been purchased or taken by English colonists, including the town of Dartmouth. The numbers of surviving Wampanoag people were significantly depleted due to the diseases carried by the colonists, as well as the devastation of King Philip’s War.8 Because the Wampanoag people are a matrilineal society, and spiritual guidance more often fell to the women than the men, Christian missionaries in the area were most likely to target women as possible points of conversion—leading to the only name we know Ruth Moses by today.9

Kofi was stolen away from his homeland, and Ruth Moses had her homeland stolen away; both were converts to a culture that demanded their acquiescence, but was reluctant to include them as equals. Paul, who later took the surname Cuffe as a variant of his father’s name Kofi, represented the first generation of a wholly American family, and he would spend the rest of his life working to prove that he deserved a place in his newly united nation.

Meeting House in Westport, Massachusetts.

Meeting House in Westport, MA today

Early Activism

When Cuffe was barely twenty-one years old, he began to make his mark on the developing country. In 1780, both local and state legislation levied heavy taxes against land owned by African Americans, including Cuffe's family farm on Cuttyhunk.10 In response, Cuffe, his brothers, and several other neighbors wrote a petition against these taxes:

We apprehend ourselves to be aggrieved in that while we are not allowed the Privileges of freemen of the State, having No vote or Influence in the Election with those that tax us, [the state has acted] … against a familiar Exception of Power … too well known to need a Recital at this place.11

Essentially, they threw the rallying cry of the recent revolution back at its victors: if England had no right to tax the colonies without representation, what right did America have to tax citizens who were not allowed to vote? The matter was a point of heated debate; if lawmakers accepted the truth of the petition, then they would either need to allow non-white citizens to vote or never collect the money owed. Cuffe and his brothers even spent a short time in jail for tax evasion. Eventually, though, unwillingness to admit to the hypocrisy won out, and the matter was quietly dropped before ever coming to a vote. A very small amount was accepted in place of the Cuffes' years of owed taxes. While this was a disappointing end to a conflict that could have had a dramatic effect on the legal status of African Americans, it was still an important and courageous first step.

After his youthful experiences in civil disobedience, Cuffe changed tactics, focusing on the importance of education and working from within the system. Later in life, after he married Alice Pequit and settled in Westport, Massachusetts, he established a small school for fifteen children in his extended family, as well as any neighboring children who wished to join, regardless of their race.13 In a community where education was mostly considered a religious matter, this was a rare and important exposure to formal academic education that the non-white children in the area would not have had otherwise. Cuffe's most important contribution to African American advancement, however, came in the form of his mercantile business.

1920 illustration of the Dangers of Whale Fishery

1920 illustration of the Dangers of Whale Fishery

A Global Success

During Cuffe’s childhood, his family maintained a small farm and traded their goods with the Afro-Indian community, sailing back and forth from the mainland to nearby islands in boats they built themselves.14 As a young man, however, Cuffe had bigger ambitions. By 1773, when he was only 14, Cuffe was already joining up with the crews of whaling merchants.15 Whaling was a lucrative but dangerous business and merchants would hire any willing crew member, regardless of race. For Cuffe, whaling represented his first venture beyond the place where he was born, and provided a stepping-stone into the world of international maritime trade.

In addition, Cuffe’s relationship with the Quaker community would prove essential to his success as a businessman. The Revolutionary War did not prevent Quaker families in the new United States from cultivating strong relationships with Friends back in England, and the Massachusetts Quakers also benefited from their relationship with the larger community in Philadelphia.16 In the period of economic growth following the war, Cuffe amassed a fortune by making business partners of these families, and by 1795 he and his brother-in-law owned three vessels of their own.17

Photo at Captain Paul Cuffe Park—former site of Cuffe & Howards’ store

Photo at Captain Paul Cuffe Park—former site of Cuffe & Howards’ store

From then on, Captain Cuffe’s success became something of a legend. He sailed with an all-black crew, visiting ports up and down the East Coast, during a time when it was still legal in some states for a free African American citizen to be kidnapped into slavery. During an early voyage in 1796, Cuffe chanced sailing into Vienna, Maryland, to purchase a large quantity of Indian corn.18 He knew that a confrontation was possible and instructed his crew to “practice exemplary conduct, avoid intemperate behavior, [and] abuse no man.”19 It was this measured, confident attitude that secured his success, even as a crowd of concerned citizens gathered to see whether these free African Americans might incite rebellion among the local slaves. Cuffe presented his credentials, dealt calmly with the attention of the onlookers, and in the end was invited to dine with a local white family before sailing off with his goods. This incident would come to define his commercial success, from his co-owned store Cuffe & Howards in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to ports across the Atlantic Ocean.

Cuffe’s ability to deftly integrate himself into the world of the white ruling class, as well as his commitment to hard work and tenacious ambition, made him an unprecedented example of African American success. Rather than rising alone in a white society, he used his success to bolster the successes of his community, partnering and working with other African Americans from a position of leadership. It was near the end of his life, however, that his ideals for this community resurfaced in the form of a unique new idea.

1812 portrait of Paul Cuffe in tropical location, possibly Sierra Leone

1812 portrait of Paul Cuffe in tropical location, possibly Sierra Leone

Return to Africa

In 1809, members of the Quaker community began discussing the possibility of African re-colonization, and Cuffe’s name was brought up.21 At this point, he was an independent and successful businessman who had travelled the world, and made a name for himself far beyond what society expected of him—but the country he lived in did not accept African Americans as citizens deserving of equal rights.

At the time, it seemed that African Americans would never feel fully comfortable living in a country where they had once been enslaved. The idea was to found a colony of African Americans in Africa, a place where skin color wouldn’t matter and forgotten lineages could be restored. Paul Cuffe, an African American man with ships at his disposal and a desire to further his community's interests, seemed like the perfect man to lead this movement.

1883 illustration of Sierra Leone

1883 illustration of Sierra Leone

Cuffe believed in this idea and believed that African Americans were meant to return to their homelands—but fleeing oppression wasn’t his only goal.22 He was familiar with Sierra Leone from the whaling voyages of his youth and saw great economic potential in the country’s natural resources. In 1810, Cuffe announced his intentions to establish a colony and eventually relocate there himself, hoping to further his global success from a place where he would not be hindered socially or legally. In 1815, Cuffe took his first voyage to Sierra Leone with a small group of immigrants, and was able to establish the first phase of a colony.23

Cuffe died in 1817, only two years later, so his vision for the Sierra Leone colony was never fully realized. However, Cuffe supposedly gave an address to his fellow colonists which, as quoted by A. Mott, reveals the hope for the future that this venture represented:

Come, my African brethren, let us walk in the light of the Lord … I recommend sobriety and steadfastness; that so professors may be good examples in all things. I recommend that early care be taken to instruct the youth while their minds are tender; that so they may be preserved from the corruptions of the world, from profanity, intemperance, and bad company … I want that we should be faithful in all things, that so we may become a people giving satisfaction to those who have borne the burden and heat of the day, in liberating us from a state of slavery.24

After Cuffe's death, a group of white southerners founded the American Colonization Society, and became the face of the African re-colonization movement.25 This new group, however, did not allow African American membership or input, and their call to remove free African Americans from the country carried a much more malicious intent than Cuffe’s idealistic view of the future.26 We will never know what re-colonization in Sierra Leone may have looked like had Cuffe’s leadership continued.

Monument honoring Paul Cuffe

Monument honoring Paul Cuffe

Reviving a Memory

Captain Paul Cuffe may be seldom discussed, but he is not forgotten. The Paul Cuffee School in Providence, Rhode Island, still bears his name, promotes education in his memory, and even maintains several of his descendants on its board. In 2005, over 40 descendants of Paul and Alice Cuffe gathered at the Westport Friends Meeting House--the same one attended by Cuffe and his family centuries ago--to celebrate his legacy. As the organizer of this event, Joan Cuffee Lewis said, “Those of us who are alive today are a part of history that we so often read about. When you know that your ancestor played a part in all the things that we learn in the book, we can say that we are the book.” The power of family history, especially for African Americans, is that it reminds us that those marginalized by the dominant culture still played a crucial role in our history.

Visiting the Meeting House in Westport is a particularly poignant reminder of Paul Cuffe’s place in history. The unassuming white building still stands on a quiet street not too far from the ocean. In the front is a simple but prominent monument, dedicated in 1913, reading “Capt. Paul Cuffee: Patriot, Navigator, Educator, Philanthropist, Friend. A Noble Character.” A more careful exploration of the property, however, reveals a much smaller testament to his name.

Directly behind the Meeting House is a cluster of about fifty gravestones that honor past members of the Westport Friends. However, Paul Cuffe does not lie here. He and his wife lie yards away, across an expanse of grass, behind the adjacent house. It is a beautiful spot in the shade, but it is distant—separated from the group and just that much harder to locate.

The newer monument proves that Captain Paul Cuffe has found recognition today. But the old gravestone reminds us why that recognition is so important.

Gravesite of Paul and Alice Cuffe

Gravesite of Paul and Alice Cuffe

Paul Cuffe’s gravestone

Paul Cuffe’s gravestone


1 Lamont D. Thomas, Rise To Be a People: A Biography of Paul Cuffe (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 5.

2 “History of the Quakers,” Wikipedia, accessed January 24, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Quakers.

3 Thomas, 4.

4 Thomas, 4.

5 Thomas, 4.

6 Anonymous, A Self-Made Man: Capt. Paul Cuffee, http://wpthistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Self_Made_Man.pdf, 5.

7 Thomas, 5.

8 “Wampanoag people,” Wikipedia, accessed January 24, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag_people.

9“Wampanoag people.”

10 Thomas, 9.

11 Thomas, 9.

12 Thomas, 11.

13 Thomas, 21.

14 Thomas, 5.

15 Thomas, 7.

16 Thomas, 14.

17 Thomas, 15.

18 Thomas, 16.

19 Thomas, 16.

20 Thomas, 17.

21 Thomas, 35.

22 Thomas, 38.

23 “1815–1817 — Maps of Liberia,” Library of Congress, accessed January 24, 2016, http://www.loc.gov/collections/maps-of-liberia-1830-to-1870/articles-and-essays/history-of-liberia/1815-to-1817/.

Paul Cuffe, quoted in A. Mott, Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Colour (Castlegate: W. Alexander & Son, 1826), 36.

25 “1815–1817 — Maps of Liberia.”

26 “1815–1817 — Maps of Liberia.”

27 “Board of Trustees,” Paul Cuffee School, accessed January 24, 2016, http://www.paulcuffee.org/about/cuffee-team/board/.

28 Paul Tamburello, “Cuffee clan gathers to remember a remarkable man,” Westport Shorelines, published August 9, 2005, http://ptatlarge.typepad.com/ptatlarge/2005/08/cuffee_clan_gat.html.