Discovering an 18th-century Maine coast African American settlement
The community of Atusville, the African American settlement in Machias since the time of the American Revolution, is gone now, faded out after two centuries on the edge of town. But the story of Atusville is alive and well, thanks to the diligence of several U Maine Machias history students and professors across a range of disciplines.
An Inconvenient History
Professor of English Marcus LiBrizzi's book unearthing the sometimes dark underside of this forgotten chapter in Maine history is set to be published in 2008. It explores a little-known angle of the history of Machias, today an overwhelmingly white Downeast town that for 200 years housed an African American community founded by a former slave who became a Revolutionary War hero.
The book is the first compilation of materials about the place known locally as Atusville, or the Atus District, so named for London Atus. A remarkable former slave of the town's minister, Atus himself fought in the June 1775 Battle of the Margaretta alongside his master. He later bought his own freedom with his spoils from the battle and married the daughter of Benjamin Foss, another of the heralded Machias patriots.
A Common Pursuit
The Atusville site is located out Upper Court Street, about two miles from the U Maine Machias campus. It became a point of intense study a few years ago, when a Maine Humanities Council grant supported three U Maine Machias professors in their common pursuit-- LiBrizzi, a folklorist; Kay Kimball, a historian; and Mike Kimball, an anthropologist. Students in each of these professor's courses researched the Atusville site, digging in the dirt to piece together the bits of history connected to the community. "The project unspooled over several semesters," Kay Kimball says. "It brought UMM and our students in greater contact with local resources and the public than is ordinarily possible at most colleges."
Students in Kimball's Maine and Local History courses did most of the archival digging. Working in teams, they concentrated on uncovering public records-- newspaper accounts; genealogies; marriage, death, and probate records; census data and the like-- that pertained to African Americans in the area. Despite the tedium and frustrations that can accompany historical research of this sort, the students loved the work. They knew they were making significant contributions to local historical knowledge.
Megyn Winchester, one of Kimball's former students, observed, "Usually when I am assigned something to research, it's pointless-- it's something simply for a grade and that's it. This assignment was much different. Whenever I found something about Atusville or African American history in general, it seemed exciting. It seemed as if I had accomplished something that wasn't just for the benefit of me, but also for other people."
Looking back on the project, Professor LiBrizzi notes: "The students were indispensable. Without their gathering of primary materials, or their interviews with historians in our community such as Lyman Holmes, John Ahlin and Valdine Atwood, there would not be this story to tell.
"It is amazing to go from a complete dearth of information, to having a book manuscript about Atusville. Not only was the community lost, but its history, as well. Atusville had just this really negative space. As the material began to come in, suddenly the stories began to resurface, decade by decade. It is so incredibly rich."
A Point of Honor
The story of Atusville is now a point of honor amid Machias historians. For the longest time-- until the UMM project-- it was a bare-bones story known only to the keenest of researchers. The more celebrated Burnham Tavern, a 1770 gathering place now on the National Register of Historic Places, for decades has drawn the Revolutionary War buffs to Machias, leaving the Atusville history to be drawn out by the university community.
Fortunately, before U Maine Machias students and professors became involved, there was a sense of town pride in place when the four acre parcel where Atusville used to be-- owned by the town of Machias since 1841-- came under threat of development. The town held on in the 1980s as public awareness of Atusville grew. But it took another 25 years for the U Maine Machias group to bring the story of Atusville to completion. Details of the settlement with African American and mixed-race families persisting for 200 years on the edge of town were teased from the public record. These were enhanced by oral histories, supported by the archaeological data that revealed a burial ground on the site.
These families lived largely ordinary lives, yet also made extraordinary contributions to local and national history, with some fighting in the nation's wars. Others raised children, paid taxes and paid fines. They worked through the decades as servants, sailors, farmers, laborers and woodsmen. The story of this lost African American community is now part of the town's history.
It was a proud day in Machias in October 2005 when U Maine Machias students joined with town leaders to dedicate a historic marker on the Atusville site, close to where the schoolhouse had been located. Sadly, the burial site itself remains an unsolved riddle. "With no grave markers, incomplete records, and a site overgrown with trees, we may never know with any certainty who is buried there," Kay Kimball says. "But perhaps with new technology and a fresh group of students rolling up their sleeves, even this piece could be recovered."