African American Context
Posted on June 28, 2014 by Jenny ONeill
African-American residents of Westport played a vital role in the history of the town. The keeping of slaves and indentured servants may have been practiced in the early town, though in general the Society of Friends did not support the slave trade. The prominence of Quaker leaders in Old Dartmouth led to a 1716 debate at the Apponagansett Meeting over the issue of slavery. While some members held slaves, they also encouraged African-American individuals to worship as Quakers and purported a belief in equality for all peoples. In 1772, members of the meeting were sent out to slave-holding Quakers in the area to encourage them to free their servants (Glennon 2001:269).
Westport’s African-American heritage is highlighted by the activities of Paul Cuffe, one of the town’s most prominent residents. Born in 1759, reportedly on Cuttyhunk Island, Cuffe was one of ten children of a freed slave and his Native American wife. After the death of his father, sixteen-year old Paul went to work as a seaman on local cargo and fishing boats.
During the Revolutionary War, Cuffe and his brother began a boat-building and trading company that grew steadily over the years into a successful shipyard. In 1797 Cuffe purchased a farm in Westport for $3,500 and settled there with his Native American wife Anna or Alice Piquet. Accounts of Cuffe’s business indicate that he made his fortune in whaling and trade, and that at one point in his life he was considered one of the richest men in America.
Cuffe was closely associated with the Westport Society of Friends, where he was an active member and generous philanthropist. He is reported to have financed a new school in Westport and contributed to the construction of a new meetinghouse in Central Village. His strong religious beliefs and connection to the Society made him a strong anti-slavery activist in the days before the abolition movement was pervasive. Paul Cuffe is also well known for his financial backing and influential support of the “Back to Africa” movement in the early nineteenth century. In 1815, Cuffe sailed to Sierra Leone with 38 black settlers in an effort to expand the free black colony there. Cuffe died in Westport two years later.
The exact location of Paul Cuffe’s homestead is a matter of some debate among town historians, although it is known to have been in the area of Drift Road. The property may have passed through Cuffe’s heirs for some period after his death, although the chain-of-ownership was not determined as part of the current project. One component of the complex may include an extant wharf, and several buildings may be present on the property (Macomber 2003; Norma Judson, personal communication 2003). Despite the uncertainty of the exact location, in 1974 the property located at 1504 Drift Road was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Paul Cuffe Homestead (Greenlee 1973). This property is also listed as a National Historic Landmark. To date, no documented archaeological investigations have occurred within the NR property, and its research potential is considered to be extremely high. Archaeological deposits located on the grounds of the homestead may provide information that could identify the history of the farm and help to connect it to either Paul Cuffe or another individual. Other African-American residents were engaged in professional occupations, and a review of business directories and other town records would likely help identify these individuals. For example, one African-American man was engaged in his own cabinet-making business at the Head in the nineteenth century (WHC 1987:32).
Census data provides an indication of Westport’s African-American population during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. None of the available census data record any slaves within Westport from 1790 through the mid-nineteenth century. In 1820, 47 individuals are listed as “free colored persons” in Westport while 182 individuals are recorded as “free colored persons” in neighboring Dartmouth (Jackson and Teeples 1976). By 1850, the number of African-American residents had actually decreased by two in Westport, and only 42 individuals were listed in Dartmouth (DeBow 1852). In 1920, only 13 of Westport’s 3,115 residents are listed as African-Americans. Despite relatively low numbers, it is clear that African-American residents like Paul Cuffe were active members of the Westport community. It is also likely that African-Americans who may have been employed in Caucasian households are underrepresented in the census data. Examples of such individuals include Tom Awful, a man employed by Southard and Dunham of Westport Point, who later became known as John Stevens (N. Judson, personal communication 2003).
African-Americans, along with Native Americans, were actively sought as sailors on the many whaling and commercial vessels that left the Westport, Dartmouth, and New Bedford area. A review of additional data would undoubtedly document African-Americans in agricultural, commercial, and industrial occupations.
The examples above indicate the importance of African-Americans in the historic development of Westport and suggest connections with various other research contexts including religious activities, Native Americans, and maritime activities.
From the Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey Town of Westport