In the spring of 1837, Maine and Georgia nearly came to blows over the "law", the Constitution, abolitionism and States’ Rights. The brouhaha was another of those little events that added up to the big Civil War. It all started innocently enough. The schooner Boston with a cargo of lime left Rockland for Savannah, Georgia. Lime was a lucrative money maker for people in the Thomaston and Rockland area. Many local fortunes were built on a backbone of lime. Nearly every local landowner engaged in the production of quick lime for agricultural and construction usage. Nearly everyone else eventually became labor or engaged in the support industries (firewood, cooperage, shipping). By 1881, the area was shipping 1,200,000 casks per year. It was a very lucrative business that made the name Thomaston synonymous with the word lime.
Events were set in motion on the return trip by the ‘discovery’ of a stowaway. A young slave known as Atticus had been befriended by the crew during the layover in Savannah and wished to escape to what he thought would be paradise- Maine as described by his new friends on the Boston. This attempt at running away to freedom did not work out so well for Atticus. He was soon on his way back to Georgia after being run down in Thomaston by his furious, pistol-packing owner, Henry Sagurs. But, this is just the beginning of the story of Atticus and the Fugitive Slave laws.
Marshalls were sent out from Georgia to fetch Captain Daniel Philbrook and First Mate Edward Kellerin for violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. The locals told the lawmen that the two supposed felons had ‘gone fishing’ out on the banks. Projected time of return? Unpredictable.
“Will the State of Maine, Under Circumstances and in Violation of Her Duty to Her Sister State, Persist in Refusing?”
This began a long period of legal and political wrangling between Georgia and Maine. Georgia demanded the extradition of the Boston’s officers; Maine skirted the issue. Georgia sought help from Congress and from the governments of other states in forcing Maine to uphold the Constitution and the (1st) Fugitive Slave Law; Maine hoped that the issue would just go away with the passage of time. The two men never actually ended up in court.
Between 1837 and 1844, three Maine Governors were embroiled in the fugitive slave case of Atticus. Pictures from Maine.gov.
The Atticus case occurred at the beginning of the abolition movement in New England. Maine, with its small free black population, had little understanding of the plight of slaves in the South, but it would be a mistake to think it did not profit from dealings with the peculiar institution. Like the rest of the country, it would take time for the idea of the abolition of slavery to take root. Atticus was an important part of Maine’s coming to an understanding of slavery in the United States.
This is a very abbreviated account of Atticus and leaves out many interesting facts about slavery and abolitionism in Maine.
- Was there ever a time when there was slavery in Maine?
- Who owned slaves and how were they treated here?
- Why and when was slavery abolished in Maine?
- Why was lime such a big industry in the Midcoast?
- How was it processed and shipped?
- What did 19th century Mainers think about the abolition movement?
- One would think that, as northerners, we would support the movement. Why would many Mainers be against abolition and what were their reasons?
- What happened between the two groups? In the State Legislature?
- How did the three Maine governors hold Georgia at bay and why bother? Harboring an escaped slave was against the law, after all.
- What was the fallout from the Atticus case for Governor John Fairfield and for Maine?
- Is anything further known about Atticus and what happened to him after his return to Georgia?
If you are interested in the complete story of Atticus and abolitionism in Maine, please read the my MaineStory in
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.