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At Thanksgiving, the search for a black Pilgrim among Plymouth’s settlers

A print of the Pilgrims being met by a Native American. The Mayflower is anchored offshore on the right. (Library of Congress)

Was one of the Plymouth Colony settlers a black man?

The search for a black Pilgrim began decades ago. Then, in 1981, historians announced with great fanfare that they had finally found enough evidence that one early settler was indeed of African descent.

That man was included in a 1643 record listing the names of men able to serve in the Plymouth, Mass., militia. He was identified as “Abraham Pearse, blackamore.”

In those days, a blackamore, a derivative of “black Moor,”  was a term used to describe someone with dark skin. Black Moors had roots in North Africa and often worked as servants or enslaved people in Europe.

Records indicated Abraham Pearse was not enslaved; he voted and owned land, having arrived in Plymouth in 1623 — three years after those aboard the Mayflower survived 65 days at sea, battling “snow & raine,” storms and wind, a broken mast and a “saill” that “fell over board, in a very grown sea,” according to an account of their journey by William Bradford, a founder and governor of Plymouth Colony. They finally landed in “good harbor,” by “Gods mercie,” at what would come to be called Plymouth.

More than three centuries later, there was great excitement surrounding the discovery of a black Pilgrim. A United Press International story ran Aug. 20, 1981, in the New York Times under the headline: “PLYMOUTH HISTORIAN SAYS A BLACK SETTLED AT PILGRIMS’ COLONY.”

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But the excitement didn’t last. A DNA analysis raised doubts about Pearse.

“The genealogical record does not support the assertion that Abraham Pearse was African,” said Richard Pickering, deputy executive director of Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth dedicated to the Pilgrims who landed there in 1620.

Brad Pierce, a radiologist from Little Rock, reviewed DNA test of descendants of Abraham Pearse, according to a 2011 WBUR radio interview.

“We can say with virtual certainty that the father of Abraham and his ancestors on the male Pearse line are not of African descent,” Pierce told WBUR. “The DNA suggests that it has a characteristic that suggests they are of Scandinavian descent.” The tests did not exclude that Pearse’s mother could have been black, but those tests were not done.

Now researchers say there was a mistake made when the list of men capable of bearing arms was printed. “The link is misprinted so that the word, the blackamore, is placed next to Abraham Pearse’s name instead of underneath,” Pickering said.

In 1986, Eugene Aubrey Stratton, a former historian general of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, published “Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691,” in which he concluded that the evidence against Abraham Pearse being black was substantial.

That pushed researchers back to square one in looking for a black Pilgrim.

“We still do not know who ‘the blackamore’ was, what his status in Plymouth was, or how long he had been or remained in Plymouth,” Stratton writes.

Stratton made the case that the blackamore listed in the 1643 militia document could have been a man named Hercules.

During that early era, Pickering said, “many Africans were given classical names by the English.”

Hercules, who was not listed in the court record with a last name, most likely was black, Stratton said.

Hercules was first mentioned in “5 March, 1643/64,” in a court record. In the case, the Plymouth court was asked to decide how long Hercules, who was an indentured servant, should serve William Hatch.

The court concluded that Hercules should serve Hatch for six years, Pickering said. “Then they would be free of each other.”

“Upon hearing of the difference betwixt William Hatch, of Scituate, & his servant Hercules, for the terme he should serve him, whether six or seavan yeares . . .  having heard the evedences on both sides, do order that the said Hercules is to serve the said William six yeares, which wilbe until the third day of July next & then to be free from him,” the court ruled.

Some evidence indicates that there was a black man who was considered a “transient in Plymouth Colony” as early as 1622, Stratton wrote. There was a man named John Pedro, who was also identified in records as “John Pedro a Neger and aged 30” who arrived on a ship called the Swan in 1623.

“It is not possible to tell how many blacks might have been in Plymouth Colony, for they would usually appear in records only when involved in some kind of legal situation,” Stratton wrote. “But gradually it can be seen that the black population was growing.”

On May 3, 1653, a black female maid, a servant to John Barnes, appeared in a court case accusing John Smith, Senior, of Plymouth, of “receiving tobacco and other things of her which were her masters, att sundry times, in a purloineing way.” Both Smith and the “maid” were cleared of charges by the court.

On Nov. 1, 1676, “a Negro named Jethro” was captured by Native Americans, according to Stratton. The man named Jethro was “retaken by colonists and ordered to serve “successors of his deceased master, Captain Willett, for two years and then be freed and set at liberty.”

On July 1, 1684, a man named Robert Trayes, who was described as a negro who lived in Scituate, was charged with firing a gun at the door of a man named Richard Standlake. The shot shattered the leg of Daniel Standlake, who died of the injury.

The jury decided the death was an accident and acquitted “negro, John Trayes,” with an admonition and fine of 5 pounds.

By the time of Trayes’s trial, slavery had been established in Plymouth Colony for over ten years,” according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum. “Slave owners were generally wealthy merchants and ship owners who had ties to larger communities, such as Boston and Newport, which were active in the slave trade.”

By 1715, records indicate there may have been more than 2,000 enslaved people in Massachusetts, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

As for the black Pilgrim, Pickering said, the search continues for the name of the man listed in the 1643 record as a blackamore.

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