Douglas A. Hall
The African-American history of Auburn, Maine, should start with who is the first African American to settle there. Census records are one of the few government documents in early times to capture race as a characteristic of its population, although sometimes a town's vital records made such a distinction.
No African-American appears in the area that later become Auburn when the first federal census of 1790 was compiled. The southern part of what is now Auburn was not counted in 1790. In Maine, the first federal census offered a glimpse of who and where the early blacks were living and can be found under the heading of "other free persons". There were officially no slaves in 1790 Maine because Massachusetts laws which governed the District of Maine prohibited slavery at that time.
The 1800 federal census for Pejepscot showed Primas Shapley heading a household of six "free persons". Pejepscot in 1800 was not the current little village in Topsham below Lisbon Falls of today. It was further up the Androscoggin River. In 1800, the Pejepscot Claim & Moses Little's Gore covered the tract of land later to be named Danville. Danville later was set off to Auburn. A post office for Danville keeps it as a village today. Before Danville was absorbed by Auburn in 1867, it reached from that current little village and the borders of New Gloucester to both the Androscoggin River and to the Little Androscoggin River.
The 1810 federal census continued to include Primus Shapleigh in the area; but his household was down to four. He is not found in the area by the time that the 1820 federal census was compiled.
Using deeds and tax records, we can conclude that he probably lived between Penley Corner and the Durham town line. Perhaps he lived along the Androscoggin River where Bell Farms now grow crops.
Before Cumberland County gave up some of its land to help form Androscoggin County; it had at least three deeds recorded by Primus Shapley or Shapleigh. The deeds suggest that Primus owned some 50 acres by 1803 and sold some of the land in 1813 and appears to have sold the balance by 1815. Primus is called a "labourer" and a "man of colour" in at least one of the deeds. He had a wife co-sign a deed in 1813 and her name was Lorania. No wife's signature was on the 1815 deed. (Cumberland County Deeds: Book 42, page 151; Book 71, page 90; and Book 136, page 393 are sources).
Early tax records support the location of Primus Shapleigh as they are grouped by where the resident lived and Vickery and Penley families were near-by.
Where did Primus Shapleigh come from?
Brian J.L. Berry wrote The Shapleigh, Shapley and Shappley Families, a 1993 genealogy, which includes a mention of Primus.
There is pretty good reason to believe that Primus Shapleigh of Auburn may have ties with a Primus Shapleigh who was freed from slavery when Captain John Shapleigh of Kittery, Maine, died on October 7, 1759. Captain Shapleigh had several "Negro" persons listed in his inventory including a person called Primus. (Maine Probate Abstracts, Volume I, page 507, item 10/243). It is possible that Primus the 1759 freedom finder was the father of Primus of 1800 Auburn.
Captain Shapleigh's estate had Prince as well as Primus and both were called "boys" in 1760. It is not clear if Prince and Primus were related, but later evidence would suggest that they might have been brothers or father and son.
Perhaps Primus, the man in Shapleigh's inventory of 1759 knew Rachel:
Kittery, Maine, vital records have Rachel, servant to Captain Dennis Fernald has having Primus, born May 3, 1774.
Although these leads are only reasonable hints as to Auburn's first black settler; they are offered as pretty good clues.
Who did Primus marry?
A Brunswick, Maine, marriage is found between Prime Chapley and Mareny Blake on February 13, 1793.
It is suspected that Mareny Blake was a descendant of Will Black or Black Will. Enter Captain John Shapleigh again who had freed Will Black or Black Will. The Blacks of the Kittery area had some children recorded there, but ultimately moved to what is now Bailey's Island and settled. Without good title to the land; they were soon displaced to Orr's Island. Some of the Black family in the area gradually changed their name to Blake.
There has been some evidence uncovered that Mareny and Lorania/Lorane/Lorene Blake were sisters. Perhaps Primus and Mareny were to have four children by the time of the 1800 census in order to have a household of six (although other relatives might have been included in the household to reduce the number of children). Perhaps Mareny died and Primus married her sister, Lorania by the time the 1813 deed was signed. Although there is a lot of conjecture here; a reasonable scenario could be developed to support the theory.
There is a Penley Corner Baptist Church in the area with a cemetery; but it is across the road from this cemetery resting on a boundary line in the Sylvester's door-yard lies an older, slate stoned small burying ground. Local newspaper accounts have speculated that it was a burial ground of slaves; but it appears few, if any slaves, ever lived in the area. Samuel Dyer had one other free person in his household for 1810 and with four other free persons in Primus Shapley's household; and the five was the total for Pejepscot at the time.
Although it is possible that Primus buried his wife (or two) and maybe a child (or more) in this cemetery; based upon one stove having a "H.G." inscription on it; this burial site may have been the first Roman Catholic cemetery in the area.. Although Lewiston-Auburn today have large Roman Catholic populations from the Irish and Franco-American immigration to the area; the Garcelon family was apparently an early French and "papist" settler to Durham and later Auburn. In Durham, the Garcelon family appears to have had two sons with names beginning with H.; but only one son grew to adulthood. History might support that local settlers who were "papists" or black might be limited on where they buried their family members. It is also possible that Primus lived in proximity to Garcelon and they just happened to share a family cemetery that adjoined each of their lands or was convenient to their lands.
Are there other links to the Garcelon family? Garcelon may have operated a ferry nearby and perhaps Primus was a "labourer" on that boat.
Where did the Shapleigh family of Auburn go?
For the federal census of 1830, Prince Shapleigh is found heading a household of four in Brunswick, Maine, downsteam from Auburn on the Androscoggin River. Is this a son of Primus? Was he named for a relative of his fathers? Remember Captain Shapleigh freed Primus and a Prince back in Kittery and the question of relationship was raised before in this article.
Eastern Cemetery records of Portland,Maine show: Eunice H. Shapleigh as having died October 28, 1869, at age 76 years, 3 days (evidence that she was born in October, 1783). Also buried there is Prince W. Shapley, having died April 28, 1843 at age 44 years (evidence he was born in 1799). Prince Shapley also appears in Ward 1 of Maine's 1837 state census for Portland, Maine. Both Prince and Eunice might possibly have been the children of Primus.
Although there are a lot of speculations included in this material, the reader should remember that major traveling was done by water during this era. Some of the Shapleigh's former slaves left Kittery for Casco Bay islands not far from Merrymeeting Bay and early travel to Auburn was often up the Androscoggin River, although rocks and falls limited the size of the vessels accessing the area.
The spelling skills of early official record keepers were frequently weak and Shapley, Shapleigh and Chapley could have been common errors. It is also suspected that record keepers may have tried to distinquish white and black Shapleigh's with different spellings of the names at times.
Although the details of who Primus Shapleigh was, where he came from and who his family was are skimpy; we can establish the reality of the first African American in Auburn.