Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A 1779 Slave Petition finally passes in the New Hampshire Legislature, 233 years late

Prince Whipple, an enslaved officer in the Continental Army, and 19 other enslaved men from New Hampshire drew up a petition in 1779.  They wanted to be emancipated.  The New Hampshire legislature tabled the petition, saying that it wasn't a good time to vote (it was the middle of the Revolutionary War).  They effectively ignored the black men’s document.   Five of the men and Prince Whipple were eventually freed, and the other 14 died as slaves.

Thirty years ago historian Valerie Cunningham found the petition on the front page of the New Hampshire Gazette and wrote about it in her book Black Portsmouth.   To raise awareness for the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the fundraising effort to erect a memorial on the site of the African Burying Ground, the committee asked Senator Martha Fuller Clark to revive the petition.  She introduced it to the Senate in January 2013. 

Now 233 years later, New Hampshire is changing history.  In March 2013 the New Hampshire Senate unanimously passed the bill.  Today, on 24 April 2013 the New Hampshire House voted on the bill to free the 14 slaves.  The vote passed (344 yeas and 2 nays, then after a revote it was unanimous).

Although only about 1% of New Hampshire’s population is of African American descent, this action rights a wrong that has been long overdue.  The small number of blacks in New Hampshire makes them less likely to be heard in political matters.  This vote freed those 14 enslaved men posthumously. Their fate had languished in limbo for 233 years.

To go along with the celebration, just yesterday, the National Endowment for the Arts gave a $20,000 grant to the African Burying Ground Memorial Park.  This brings the total raised to $720,000.  The African Burying Ground Committee is looking to raise $1.2 million.  This recognition from the NEA helps to bring the project into the national spotlight.

Judy G. Russell, the “Legal Genealogist” asked me to photograph this petition at the New Hampshire State Archives, for one of her lectures at the National Genealogy Society conference.  If you are attending the conference in Las Vegas, Nevada 8 – 11 May 2013, you can hear all the details from Judy, an expert lawyer and genealogist (a terrific combination).  My photographs were donated to the State Archives, and are on file at the State Archives office for anyone who would like to see a copy of the petition.  Here is page one above.

These are the names of the enslaved men who signed the petition. Do you recognize any of these surnames from your New Hampshire family tree?

Nero Brewster
Will Clarkson
Garrett Colton
Peter Frost
Zebulon Gardner
Cesar Gerrish
Seneca Hall
Cipio Hubbard
Winsor Moffat
Cato Newmarch
Jack Odiorne
Romeo Rindge
Pharaoh Rogers
Quam Sherburne
Pharaoh Shores
Kittindge Tuckerman
Cato Warner
Peter Warner
Samuel Wentworth
Prince Whipple (owned by William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence)

For the truly curious:

Click this link to see the 1779 Freedom Petition as published in the New Hampshire Gazette, 15 July 1780:

Black Portsmouth by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, University of New Hampshire Prss, Published by University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH, 2004

Seacoastonline announces the vote today at this link:

The Portsmouth African Burying Ground

The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail

The New Hampshire State Archives

A lesson plan from the New Hampshire Historical Society about the 1779 Slave Petition:

The NGS 2013 Family History Conference


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "A 1779 Slave Petition finally passes in the New Hampshire Legislature, 233 years late", Nutfield Genealogy, posted April 24, 2013, ( accessed [access date]). 


  1. I saw this last night on the news. I thought I would post about it. I shared your well written post instead.

    1. I was prepared for this. Judy Russell, "The Legal Genealogist" had seen me comment about this on Facebook in March. She wanted a photo or scan of the document from the State Archives. I went up to get it for her, and donated my images to the Archivist so he wouldn't have to keep pulling this fragile, historic document out of storage for everyone. I knew that after this last vote, it would be in the news again. Judy is going to lecture about legislative petitions at the NGS Conference in Las Vegas in a few weeks. Everyone wins in this case, the Archives, Judy, me, and my readers!

  2. Good for New Hampshire! I think the American Revolution is a good time to ask to be free. Unfortunately, most Southern planters didn't see it that way. They found all sorts of reasons not to free their slaves. Very good story you're telling here.

  3. Great stuff, Heather! Thank-you!

  4. What interesting history! Thank you for bringing it to my attention and for the photograph of the petition.