Just as many rivers comingle to form the Piscataqua, people from throughout the Atlantic world converged here in the seventeenth century. In addition to Native inhabitants and Englishmen, there were sailors from distant ports, including John “the Greek” Amazeen, and Antonio Fortado, from Fayal in the Azores. Scottish prisoners of war, Irish indentured servants, and French-speaking Channel Islanders all made the Piscataqua home.
The most noticeable newcomers were African slaves, imported into the region from the West Indies by wealthy merchants. The Atlantic slave trade brought Africans as cargo to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where New England merchants bought them in exchange for fish and lumber. Although slaves represented less than one percent of the population in northern New England towns before 1700, their work as house servants, as well as sawmill and farm laborers, greatly benefitted their owners and the region’s economy.
Black Will was one of five slaves owned by Nicholas Shapleigh when he died in 1682. As was typical for the time, they were included in the estate inventory right after the livestock. Major Shapleigh’s nephew, John Shapleigh, inherited Will and freed him in 1700.
While still a slave, Will was able to save £25 to buy 100 acres of land in present-day Eliot, where he established a farmstead. In 1708 Shapleigh’s neighbor, Charles Frost, freed his slave Tony in a deal brokered by Black Will, who was known then as William Black. Tony later purchased two acres of land from Will, signing his name as Anthony Freeman.
William Black died in 1727, leaving his widow Sarah and two sons. William Black Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth Turbat (the granddaughter of Patience and Thomas Spencer), were the first settlers of Bailey’s Island, Maine, then known as Will’s Island. Descendants still live in the Casco Bay area.
(From the Old Berwick Historical Society exhibit, 2017-2018, Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories of the Piscataqua by Emerson Baker, Project Scholar, and Nina Maurer, Curator.)