How the Negro Islands Became Esther and Emanuel

Paddling to the newly renamed islands at the mouth of the Bagaduce River, one writer tugs on the frayed threads of Maine's Black history.

map of castine's former negro islands
Courtesy of the Castine Historical Society
By Florence Edwards
From our June 2023 Island Issue

The long drive to Castine from Portland puts me in a headspace where the present collides with the past. The sun is warm and bright; the car hums with the prospect of adventure. Beautifully maintained Federal and Georgian buildings line the cape where the Bagaduce River meets Penobscot Bay. As I round a corner onto Sea Street, along Castine’s harbor, it’s easy to juxtapose 18th-century life with the present day, as if the beautiful setting — the tidal shores, the pristine waters reflecting blue sky, the streets lined with majestic elms — has enticed my ancestors to join me on this trip. 

I’m here to see Esther and Emanuel, two newly renamed islands in the Bagaduce, and to uncover what I can about the people for whom they were named. Wherever the actual Esther and Emanuel came from, they wouldn’t have arrived here by land, as I did, but by sea — effectively the only means of reaching Castine in the 1700s. Fitting that their names have come to rest on a place inaccessible by roads: the Bagaduce River islands formerly known as Upper Negro and Lower Negro. 

Last November, after 18 months of committee meetings, listening sessions, and historical research, voters in Castine chose “Esther” and “Emanuel” from among two pairings of names in a binding town-wide survey (and “Meguntic Islands” as a collective term, an Anglicized Abenaki word associated with waves). The names now await final approval from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. A mile and a half upstream from Castine Harbor, the islands are small, wooded, and linked by a sandbar. The upper island is privately owned, while the lower is a preserve of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. They’ve been known as the Negro Islands since at least 1790, and their owners have all been white. The reason behind the name has been lost — or, depending on who recounts the mystery, unacknowledged or even erased. As a Black person and descendant of American chattel slavery, I can’t help focusing on the latter two explanations.

The renaming process in Castine was instigated by a complaint, in 2020, to the federal Board on Geographic Names, which the BGN relayed to the town. Earlier that year, a story in the Portland Press Herald reported that the Maine Coastal Island Registry still included three islands with the N-word in their names, plus two that incorporated a slur against Native American women. For decades, both words have been banned from place names under Maine state law. “Negro” is not, but shortly after the Press Herald story, summer-property owners on a Negro Island in Boothbay voted to become Oak Island instead. In Castine, in May of 2021, attendees at a town meeting also approved a name change, by a vote of 44 to 33.

At the time, one argument raised against changing the names was that the islands had a tie to the Underground Railroad — that renaming them would nullify a connection to the historic trail to freedom. But this was nothing more than local legend, as Lisa Simpson Lutts, executive director of the Castine Historical Society, explained in public meetings, producing a deed mentioning Negro Island from 1790 — 20 years before the Underground Railroad network formed. Lutts’s research, she told me more recently, suggests that when Maine place names had “Negro” as the descriptor, these places were historically considered uninhabitable fringes, not for the general public. Islands bearing the name were segregated directly by water and indirectly by the presence of Black bodies — places of marginalization and displacement rather than refuge. 

writer florence edwards in a kayak
The author, arriving at Emanuel Island. Photo by Karen Francoeur, Castine Kayak Adventures. Above: detail of Castine Harbor from the Maine nautical chart in Atlantic Coast Pilot, Eastport to Boston, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1879, from the collection of the Castine Historical Society.

As Karen Francoeur, proprietor of Castine Kayak Adventures, guides me over the waters of the Bagaduce towards Esther and Emanuel, she tells me it’s long been said around town that early Castine’s wealthy slave owners put enslaved servants on the island. Francoeur and I glide across the water, the shoreline of Castine behind us, the silhouettes of Esther and Emanuel ahead. Labor needed to be nearby, but Black labor needed to live outside of the view of the townspeople. 

Esther and Emanuel appear in the account book of one Colonel Gabriel Johonnot, with entries dated 1785 to 1790. Johonnot notes his dealings with a merchant named Matthias Rich and his “girl Esther,” as well as “Richard Hunnewell, trader, and negro man Emanuel.” Both were likely enslaved. What is now Maine was then part of Massachusetts, which had effectively abolished slavery, in 1783, but release from slavery was gradual. Free people, in documents from the time, have last names; Esther and Emanuel do not. A last name signifies that an individual belongs to a group, a family, and therefore society. It acknowledges someone is human, has a history worth remembering, is worthy of leaving a bread crumb along the trail of life — an opportunity to be remembered, identified, and acknowledged.

In the last year, I’ve been involved with an effort called the Place Justice Project, an initiative of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous & Tribal Populations. The project considers Maine place names and whether and how racialized and Native people are remembered, identified, and acknowledged. I’ve often heard it said at Place Justice events that the reaction of the “general public” must be cautiously considered when new place names are proposed, that the “general public” must be gently exposed to new ideas. The phrase often seems like code for “white people” — much as “urban” has become a white cultural code for “Black people,” regardless of where they live. In the 18th century — at a time when the new U.S. Constitution defined a Black person, for the purposes of taxation and representation, as three-fifths of a person — the code for “Black people” was withholding last names.

Esther and Emanuel appear in no other town records or documents. And although they may have been excluded from town life, they weren’t the only Black people living in Castine around the turn of the 19th century. By 1840, according to Lutts, the town had several Black and biracial families, accounting for nearly one percent of the population — a percentage nearly three times greater, at the time, than in Maine overall. A prosperous port, Castine flourished during the 19th century, and Black families there presumably sustained themselves as sailors and domestic help. Sailing was one of the only occupations offering equal pay across races — ironically so, as Black men were considered worthy of equal pay only when they were helping perpetuate the slavery economy. Slavery in the 19th century remained an international business, with trade cycles that brought ships from Castine to southern ports as far as New Orleans and the Caribbean, carrying cargoes of salt cod that fed enslaved plantation workers. Ships were then packed with raw cotton produced by enslaved workers and sailed to textile mills in England, where they were emptied and filled with salt, which was then delivered to Castine, so that fishermen might salt and preserve their cod. The formerly enslaved and free Black people of Castine were still involved in the institution of slavery, just like everyone else in the seafaring community. 

Who were some of the Black people living in Castine as a result of this trade? The records are faint, but as Lutts, from the historical society, explained to me, traces remain. Jabin and Judy Niles were early Black residents of Castine, with records dating back to 1803. Their names were also considered for the islands. Unusual for the time, they were not recorded as living with a white family. In the 1820 census, they are the first African-descended family recorded as living independently in Castine. We know the Nileses were poor, as they’re listed in the Castine pauper records, and they lived in a house on a wharf, which Lutts says wouldn’t have been well insulated, hard to keep warm during a Maine coastal winter. The wharf and the islands: both places to keep a Black labor force marginalized, at the outskirts of town. Most of the Niles children didn’t stay in Castine. One son, who moved to Portland, helped to found the city’s landmark Abyssinian Church, now the country’s third-oldest African American meeting house, then a hub of abolitionism and Black cultural life — and an actual Underground Railroad site. 

In early Castine, only one Black resident owned land and voted. He was a sailor named William Defleet, and the town renaming committee also considered his name for the islands. Unlike most Black residents, Lutts says, Defleet left a bread-crumb trail, paying poll and real-estate taxes. He has a first name and a surname, and we know he owned land in both Maine and California — he was, judging from this, successful. Thinking of Defleet’s name passed over in favor of Esther and Emanuel makes me wonder, is it more important to shine light on the least recognized? To acknowledge unpaid labor over the successes of the formerly enslaved, and their descendants, who were not domestic servants? The stories of Black people blessed with success during that time, success that the enslaved could only dream of, are seldom told, a different sort of erasure.

The Black presence in Castine declined in the late 19th century, after the Civil War, when Castine’s importance as a shipping center waned. In a nation growing more industrialized, new jobs outside of Castine may have simply beckoned people away, changing migration patterns. Did Castine become more hostile to Black residents, these newly five-fifths people, as white residents felt the losses of family members and profits after the war? The details of what changed will remain a mystery, because like so much of Black history, they went unrecorded. Today, fewer than two percent of Castine’s 1,000 or so residents are Black, a slightly lower percentage than statewide. 

Once the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approves Esther and Emanuel, one Negro Island will remain in Maine, off Biddeford Pool and privately owned. The Place Justice Project has tracked 14 other sites with “Negro” in the name, including Negro Brook, in Somerset County, and Negro Hill, in Penobscot County. 

After Francoeur and I pull our kayaks ashore, I walk Emanuel’s perimeter trail, which is lined with dried sea urchins and pine needles. I examine the remnants of an old cistern, gaze across the Bagaduce River, and see the now-submerged sandbar that connects this island with Esther at low tide. I have just as many questions as before I stood on the island, stuck in the 21st century with only limited access to the marginalized past. I hope future visitors leave here understanding that it’s okay to have questions, that more will be uncovered about this parcel of land. Are Esther and Emanuel going to offer the same undeniable, visible history of Black-people’s experience and presence here that Upper and Lower Negro Island did? Visitors, and even those just looking at a map, will need to actively uncover the history to know that Esther and Emanuel Islands are named after the enslaved. Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which owns and stewards Emanuel Island, plans to install a plaque sharing the island’s history. I’m thankful that the people of Castine stepped into their truth, that history is being uncovered and shared, that Black heritage in Maine is being acknowledged. The islands belong to Maine’s expansive and rugged coast, so its historical inhabitants had to be full of the grit that it takes to be a Mainer. It’ll take our grit to get from here to there, from the 18th century to the future, from Underground Railroad folklore to recognition of real Black people’s lives and labor.

Listen to a companion episode of the podcast In the Pocket: Conversations with BIPOC Mainers, expanding on this essay’s topic and reporting.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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