The Secret of Porters Landing
A writer wrestles with four decades spent in a slave-trader’s Freeport Federal.
ABOVE Snapshots of the author’s former home in Freeport mingle with shards of willowware — likely imported in a ship owned by Rufus Soule in the 19th century — unearthed in the garden.
TEXT BY KATHLEEN SULLIVAN
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE SYKES
We were at the turnaround point in our walk, standing before a granite pier at the end of Freeport’s Wolfe’s Neck Road, used by ships in the 1800s for loading trade goods, mostly hay. The day was cold, but the sun was out, the ocean a calm baby-blanket blue; patches of clean white snow lay underfoot. As we took in the familiar scene, my friend asked what I knew about Maine’s famous 19th–century shipping trade. “Rum and sugar cane and granite of course,” I replied. “Maybe fish.” Yes, she said, but did I know about the slave trade? “Rufus Soule made millions in the enterprise.”
I stood still in shock. I lived in Rufus Soule’s 1803 Federal in the Porters Landing area of Freeport for 40 years. My husband and I raised our two children there, had our Thanksgiving feasts in the dining room with the hand-carved wainscoting and fluted moldings. My body learned that house, traipsing barefoot up and down the front staircase with its curved walnut banister, a turned pillar from a ship’s wheel carpentered into a newel at the base. I still walk the wide-pine floors in my sleep, though we moved a few miles away several years ago.
The news about Soule struck me like a blow to the good name of a close family member. I felt confused, ashamed.
Now when I drive along the coast and take in the many grand Federals, I wonder, cod and granite? Or the conveyance of humans against their will?
When you live in a house with more than 200 years of history, you live with ghosts. Nights when my infant son or daughter would wake hungry, I’d carry the soft bundle downstairs to the kitchen and sit beside the giant fireplace with the woodstove to nurse. And listen for the rustle and hum of the past. Where are you, Mrs. Soule, I’d wonder. I know you, too, spent long hours in this room; woke in the night; soothed children; worried about your family’s business; the world outside these walls. In a jar on the sink are shards of your willowware that I found in the garden, the china likely imported in the hold of your husband’s ship. How did you endure the long nights when he was far beyond the safe harbor of the marsh-limned cove outside the dark window?
Searching my memory for musings on Soule himself, I found only the stories of adventure and heroism I made up. Stories with breaching whales on the horizon, of ships caught in the mouths of waves, of sailors keeping watch for pirates from their perches atop lurching masts. I never told myself a story of predation. That was their albatross, the villainous, mendacious Southerners. We, the good people of Maine, of Freeport, of Porters Landing, are, like the driven snow, innocent.
In fact, recent research by scholars Kate McMahon, Ph.D., and Meadow Dibble, Ph.D., of the Atlantic Black Box public history project, indicates that by the 1850s Maine-built and -owned ships were the predominant vessels in the slave trade. Though profiting from the business was made illegal in 1808, the law was rarely enforced. From the early 1800s through the end of the Civil War, the transportation of enslaved people accounted for a sizeable portion of the great wealth accumulated in Maine. Now when I drive along the coast and take in the many grand Federals, I wonder, cod and granite? Or the conveyance of humans against their will?
Few people know that Freeport’s most celebrated shipbuilder, creator of the largest vessel the country had ever seen, was a Jacksonian Democrat who supported the expansion of slavery. Ship manifests suggest that sailors on his bark, Chieftain, forcibly conveyed 167 freed Blacks to Liberia in 1850, then traveled to Côte d’Ivoire, where they purchased hundreds of enslaved people to sell in Cuba, as evidenced by an empty hull and the massive amounts of Spanish gold and silver they came home with. In 1858, Soule’s eponymous ship was captured and burned off the coast of Africa by British sailors patrolling for slave traders. McMahon notes that beyond the wealth he might have amassed in direct participation in the slave trade, he also profited immensely from the movement of cotton and sugar produced from enslaved labor.
ABOVE A ship manifest records enslaved people a brig named for Rufus Soule’s wife, Susan, transported from Charleston to New Orleans in 1848.
And what of Susan Soule, my companion beside the fire during those long nights years ago? Manifests list enslaved people a brig named for Susan transported from Charleston to New Orleans in 1848 — 25-year-old Caroline, 6-year-old Harry, and 1-year-old Godfrey (who was too small, apparently, to warrant a notation in the “height” field) among them.
I come from a family that kept secrets. In 1919, my grandmother died of influenza in the world’s last great pandemic, three weeks after giving birth to my father. After her death, her name was never spoken; all pictures of her were destroyed. My father grew up believing that his father’s second wife was his mother. He was in his 50s when he learned that he’d spent the first year of his life with a foster family whose care was so neglectful that when my grandparents retrieved him from the home, his body was wrapped in gauze bandages, his arms and legs emaciated. As a clinical social worker, I’ve practiced the art of psychotherapy for more than 50 years. I can say with certainty that not knowing this story kept my father from understanding and healing the sadness and anger he hid just inside the front door of himself. Had he been able to identify the frightened, angry, helpless infant he once was, he might not have had as many martinis, might have been closer to my mother, to me. And, ironically, I might not have become a therapist intent on unveiling the secrets of my patients.
What if I had known the secret of Porters Landing four decades ago? What if, while setting the Thanksgiving table in the Soules’ gracious dining room, I had to reckon with where the wealth to ornament their home came from? Would I have asked more questions about where my own wealth originates, about what was exploited in my rush to buy a good set of china, a closetful of clothes? Would I have wondered what some woman 100 years in the future, also up in the night cradling a child, would think about what I’d exploited in order to live my comfortable life? I’m relieved, and heartbroken, to be asking these questions now.
Kathleen Sullivan is a grandmother, psychotherapist, and writer who lives with her husband in Freeport. Her poetry has been published in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Café Review, Poet Lore, and in various anthologies, and she is co-editor of the book A Dangerous New World: Maine Voices on the Climate Crisis. This essay is taken from a diary she kept last year called “Process Notes of a Pandemic,” which she hopes will find its way to a publisher.