Notable Black Nantucketers

Four Generations of the Boston Family

Boston and Maria (no last names) were an African couple held in slavery in the 1700s on Nantucket by William Swain. Birthdates for both are unknown. Maria gave birth to nine children, greatly increasing the Swain family’s ownership of enslaved Africans. Other African women on Nantucket also gave birth to children born into slavery, but in terms of numbers, William Swain’s family was unique.

The birthdates of nine of their children are recorded in a 1760 deed of manumission (legal act freeing an enslaved person):

Tobias (b.1739), Essex (b.1741), Seneca (b.1744), Patience (b.1747), Prince (b.1750), Silas (b.1752), George (b.1755), Boston Jr. (before 1760, birthdate unrecorded), Peter (birthdate unrecorded)

Portrait of Captain Absalom F. Boston, grandson of Boston and Maria Boston, by unknown Prior-Hamblin School artist, ca. 1835. 1906.56.1

Seneca Boston (1744–1809)

Boston and Maria—3rd Son and Child

Seneca married Thankful Micah on January 4, 1770. A Nantucket Wampanoag family used Micah as a surname, but there is no clear genealogy for Thankful.

They had six children:
Freeborn (b.1770), Reuben (b.1771), Thomas (b.1775), Hannah (b.1778), Absalom F. (b.1785), Joseph (b.1789)

Seneca was a weaver by trade and realtor. He purchased land at 27 York Street and built his home which he later sold to his son in 1802. As a rather elderly man may have gone on a two-year voyage on the whaleship Alligator in 1804-06.

Unfortunately when he died, his wife Thankful was judged “insane” and his designated heir, Freeborn, had predeceased him. The executors of Seneca Boston’s estate contracted with Freeborn Boston’s widow Mary to live in the house at 27 York Street and care for Thankful.

Absalom F. Boston (1785–1855)

Seneca and Thankful Boston—4th Son and 5th Child

Absalom F. Boston was a towering figure. Captain Boston, son of former slave Seneca Boston and Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag woman, was a third-generation Nantucketer and a leader in the island’s African American community. He was a founding member of the African Meeting House as well as a prominent landowner and successful businessman, operating a store and boarding house in New Guinea. Boston was also an ardent abolitionist and one of the first Nantucketers to subscribe to the The Liberator.

Boston commanded the island’s first all-black whaling crew when he took the Industry out to the Cape Verde Islands in 1822. This voyage, although not a financial success, built on his experience on many previous whaling voyages, including those of the Lydia (1808–09), Thomas (1809–11), and Independence (1817–19). He found greater success on land, where he engaged in real estate and innkeeping. Boston was married three times and had eight children who survived infancy. His first two wives, Mary and Phebe, predeceased him. After his death, his third wife, Hannah Cook (1796–1857), worked as a stewardess aboard the steamer Island Home after his death, until her own death in 1857.

Captain Absalom F. Boston and his family figured in a number of important milestones of local racial equality. When his daughter Phebe Ann was denied admission to Nantucket High School, Boston began litigation that spurred the desegregation of local schools in 1846.

Absalom and Hannah Boston’s children were:
Phebe Ann (b.1828), Absalom Jr.(b.1832), Oliver (b. 1836), Thomas (b. 1837)

Phebe Ann Boston (1828–1849)

Absalom and Hannah—1st Daughter

In 1845, in the midst of the Nantucket school integration struggle, Absalom Boston petitioned for his daughter Phebe Ann Boston to be granted admission, and a special Town Meeting was called to take up the matter. Although the town meeting ended inconclusively, the struggle resolved in favor of integration the following year, and Phebe Ann was admitted. She died of died of dysentery four years later on August 23, 1849. She is buried with Polly, Phebe, and Absalom Jr. in the Historic Coloured Cemetery.

Oliver Boston (1836–1872)

Absalom and Hannah—2nd Son and 3rd Child

Oliver Boston moved to New Bedford. There he married Sarah Seals on October 30, 1862. He enlisted in the Union Navy as steward for one year on July 14, 1863, and was discharged on August 8,­ 1864. Because he did not enlist from Nantucket, he is not listed as one of the black Nantucketers who served in the Civil War.

Prince Boston (1750–?)

Boston and Maria—4th Son and 5th Child

By the conditions of William Swain’s 1760 deed of manumission, Prince was scheduled to be freed when he attained the age of 28 in 1778.

In the meantime, Swain sent Prince out as a crewmember of the whaleship Friendship, owned in part by William Rotch and Zaccheus Macy. The master was Capt. Elisha Folger. This was a short voyage to the West Indies, departing and returning in the year 1770. During its time at sea, 82-year­old William Swain died. Upon return, Elisha Folger paid Prince Boston his lay for the voyage. John Swain, son and heir of the late William Swain, sued Elisha Folger for recovery of what had been paid to Prince Boston on the grounds that it belonged to him as part of his late father’s estate. The court ruled against John Swain. Swain appealed but then dropped the suit and died shortly thereafter.

The story that Prince Boston was immediately freed and then went on to free his brother Silas and that William Rotch threatened to bring in John Adams in support of Prince derives from a newspaper sto­ry printed in the Nantucket Inquirer on February 14, 1822, and does not appear to be supported by any court documentation. Nonetheless, this story has frequently been repeated in print and is now taken for fact.

Peter Boston (?–1837)

Boston and Maria—7th Son and 9th Child

In 1778, Peter Boston is recorded as serving as a seaman on a three-month voyage of the Oliver Cromwell, a privateer out of New London. In tandem with the Continental Navy’s warship Defense, they took prizes and returned to Charleston, South Carolina. In 1780 Peter had also served on the privateer Confederacy under Capt. Seth Harding. In 1795, Peter Boston married Mashpee Wampanoag Rhoda Jolly.

They had four children:
Benajah (b.1799), Priscilla (b.1802), Mahala (b. 1803), Mary Ann (b.1808)

In 1822 Peter Boston, along with Essex Boston and Jeffrey Summons, signed the statement about the continuation of Nantucket Indian heritage among the families of New Guinea.

In 1825 Peter Boston was identified as a Trustee of the African School, where his widowed daughter Priscilla “Silly” Boston Thompson is likely the teacher identified as “Mrs. Sally Thompson.”

A student at the African School was a man using the name Thomas Pierce, who represented himself as the son of an African ruler who had been sent to Massachusetts for education and ended up indentured to Peter Boston, for whom he had made two whaling voyages, one to the West Indies, and the other to the Pacific. Ironically, this was an African-born man indentured to an African Nantucketer and sent whaling for the benefit of his master not unlike Prince and Silas Boston had been in the 1770s.

Benajah Boston (1799–1854)

Peter and Rhoda—1st Son

Benajah Jr. first went to sea as a teenager in 1852 on the whaleship Japan mastered by Capt. Charles Grant out of New Bedford. As a veteran seaman, he enlisted in the Union Navy in 1863 and served in the Civil War. He was discharged from the Navy on July 31, 1865. Since he did not enlist from Nantucket, he is not included in the list of black Nantucketers who served in the Civil War. He gave an interview in a 1916 issue of the Inquirer and Mirror when claimed to be a ”full-blooded Indian.” His mother, Rhoda Jolly, was a Mashpee Wampanoag, but unlike Absalom Boston’s sons by Hannah Cooke Boston of Dartmouth, Benajah is not listed in the Earle Report.

The opening stanza of a poem by Benajah Jr. is included in the interview.

I have bowed to the tyrant skippers sway
And felt the sting of his hate
While bleeding from wounds on the deck I lay

Knocked down by a bucko mate.
And I felt the foot of the cowardly knave
As he kicked me when I fell,
For I was only an ocean slave
On a deep water floating hell.

Black Sailors on Nantucket Whaleships

Crew list for the ship, Barclay, 1832. NHA purchase, made possible with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Anathan. RL2020.23

Black men, both freemen and the formerly enslaved, often made up between 25% and 40% of Nantucket whaling crews. While these men earned nearly the same as their white shipmates, they were customarily excluded from specialized roles higher than cook and steward. Notable exceptions include Captain Absalom Boston who led an all-black crew on a whaling voyage in the ship Industry in 1822; Peter Green, who commanded the John Adams in 1823 after a whale killed the ship’s captain and first mate; and the all-black crew of the Loper in 1829–30.

Peter Green

Peter Green was one of the few Black men known to have served as an officer on a Nantucket whaleship. A veteran of other whaling voyages, he joined the 1821–23 cruise of the ship John Adams as second mate. Eight months into the voyage, Captain George Bunker died of tuberculosis. First Mate Seth G. Myrick assumed command and Peter Green became first mate. In April 1823, Myrick and his boat crew were pulled out of sight by a whale and disappeared. Three days’ searching by the John Adams and the ship Florida, in company, did not find them, and they were assumed dragged under by the whale. Green took command and brought the ship home.

The Voyage of the Loper

Captain Obed Starbuck, a white man, and his all-black crew in the Nantucket whaleship Loper harvested an incredible 2,280 barrels of sperm oil in just 14 months in 1829–30. Upon the ship’s return to the island, Captain Absalom Boston and Samuel Harris, leaders in the island’s Black seafaring community, hosted the crew to a celebratory parade and dinner, paid for by the Loper’s owners. The after-dinner toasts included “Black skin—the best skin a whaleman can see” and “People of Colour—May the enemy of our celebration and of African freedom have eternal itch and no benefit of scratch so long as he live.”

Captain Edward C. Pompey

In 1810, as a child, Edward Pompey (ca. 1799–1848) was living in the home of Jonathan Macy and Rose Pinkham Macy and their eight children, probably as a live-in servant. Around 1830, like many others in New Guinea, Edward began to buy, sell, and consolidate land, buying from white land owners and selling to Black purchasers. That same year he became subscription agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator.

In a letter from Garrison to Pompey (August 11, 1832):

” … Every colored man ought to own a copy, as the book contains the sentiments of his brethren in all parts of the country on the subject of colonization, and fully exposes the wickedness of the American Colonization Society …. [future visit to Nantucket] when I shall be able to tell you, face to face, how much I appreciate your efforts to promote circu­lation of the Liberator, and also to thank my colored brethren for their patronage.”

In 1836-37 he was master of the whaling brig Rising States out of New Bedford, with an entirely Black crew on a short Atlantic voyage. The Rising States went out again in 1837 under William Cuffe, master, and was condemned in Cape Verde that year. In order to be named a master of a vessel, Pompey must have had considerable previous maritime experience, though his name does not appear on crew lists.

The Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society was formed in the 1830s. As a leading figure on Nantucket, Edward C. Pompey was named an officer, serving alongside Nathaniel and Eliza Starbuck Barney, Oliver Gardner, and Oliver’s daughter Anna Gardner.

In 1845, when Eunice Ross had been barred from admittance to Nantucket High School on the grounds of color, Pompey drafted a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts seeking legal relief from school segregation. It was presented to the New Guinea community in the African Meeting House. Over a hundred New Guinea residents joined Pompey in signing the petition. Twenty-five white citizens of Nantucket wrote and sent a petition in support of the Pompey one, and Eunice Ross wrote and signed her own eloquent petition. The three petitions were sent to Boston, leading to the passage of House Bill 1845, which put teeth into an existing law mandating free public education to all children in Massachusetts.

Three years later Edward Pompey died of tuberculosis. He was unmarried. He was interred in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery, and his headstone reads Captain Edward C. Pompey.

Black Nantucketers Enlist in the Union Army and Navy

Photo taken in 1909 in front of the entrance to the Thomas Gardner Post 207 Grand Army of the Republic headquarters. Members include Sampson Pompey (front row, 2nd from right) and Hiram Reed (middle row, 2nd from right). P1574

The American Civil War was the first in which the Nantucket community willingly participated and the island sent three hundred thirty-nine men, fifty-six over the town’s quota. Previously, Quaker pacifism had kept Nantucketers out of combat. Twenty or so African Americans and other men of color identified Nantucket as their hometown. Most served in the Union Navy, but three joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.

In October 1891, veterans Sampson Pompey, George Michael, and Hiram Reed were elected charter members of the Nantucket Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Pompey, Michael, Reed, and their fellow veteran Joseph Simons are buried in the Historic Coloured Cemetery with their graves marked with U.S. Government markers. To this day, each grave is decorated with an American flag on Memorial Day.

Hiram W. Reed (1830–1911) spent the early part of his life enslaved in Missouri. In 1860, he was hired out to work on a Mississippi River steamboat. When this boat was subsequently seized by the Union army, Hiram and his fellow enslaved crewmates were issued deeds of manumission that freed them. Following a friend to Nantucket, he enlisted in Company I, Massachusetts 5th Cavalry Regiment, in March 1864, serving until mustered out on October 31, 1865 at Clarksville, Texas. Returning to the island, he married Isabella Draper soon after the war and remained on the island the rest of his life. He worked as a teamster and was active in the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization.

Benajah Boston Jr., cousin of Nantucket’s black whaling captain Absalom Boston, served in the Union Navy and received a pension. After the war he stayed away from Nantucket until 1916, when he came home long enough to give an account of his eventful life to the Inquirer and Mirror. He died in Rock Island, Illinois, leaving on Nantucket no marker or inscription commemorating his service in the war.

The wife of Oliver Boston, son of Absalom Boston, was a New Bedford woman, and after Oliver’s discharge from the Union Navy, they lived in New Bedford and Boston before he died at the age of 36, leaving no children.

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