Uriah Williams Family History

During the late eighteenth century, sailing vessels built ten miles from the Atlantic at Berwick, Maine, on the tiny Salmon Falls River that formed the border with New Hampshire, traded with Caribbean economies dependent on slavery.  Shipping lists in the National Archives of the United Kingdom recorded that such distant ports as Tortola, Saint Vincent, Barbados, the Grenadines, and even Venezuela traded cargoes of rum and sugar for wood products such as boards, oars and barrel staves made in Maine and New Hampshire.

Sixteen such voyages made in the 1750s and 60s were documented on ships owned by members of a prominent Berwick family named Lord. Though most of the cargoes brought north were sugar products and not human, several Berwick households, including that of the pastor of the Congregational Church, are now thought to have included enslaved workers. A provincial tax valuation list for 1771 shows 16 “servants for life” resided in 12 Berwick households, and one of these families was named Lord.

After the colonies declared their independence from Britain a few years later, a 28-year-old man, described in military records as “negro” with a height of five feet, seven inches, joined a company led by a Capt. Nathan Lord and became one of an estimated 9,000 colonial Black soldiers who served the Revolutionary cause. His name was Uriah Williams, and though his birthplace is not known, nor whether he had ever been in bondage, he joined about 250-odd White soldiers from Berwick who served in the Continental Army.

Private Williams’ wartime service record is brief. With the regular York County militia, he seems to have trained under Nathan Lord from May to August 1780 and served under General Peleg Wadsworth at Camden, Maine, for three months. Then, with other Berwick men, Williams marched 325 miles to New York to help defend West Point at a time when New York City was under British occupation and George Washington considered the Hudson River strategically important in preventing the British splitting the colonies. Williams apparently saw no action but was part of this deterrence force from July 13, 1780, to February 1, 1781, at which time he returned to Maine.

We don’t know what relationship Williams had with his commanding officer, Capt. Nathan Lord, or indeed anything for sure about Lord himself. More than one Nathan Lord lived in Berwick as well as adjacent Somersworth (now Rollinsford), NH, near the upper landing of the Salmon Falls River. Massachusetts, of which the District of Maine was still part, abolished slavery in 1780, though some enslaved people lived and worked in Maine until 1783. The 1790 census indicates three Lord families in Berwick with nonwhite household members.

And Uriah Williams’ ancestors might have been freemen in Maine for generations. In 1682 a local man known as Black Will had been among five enslaved persons included in the estate of wealthy English immigrant merchant Nicholas Shapleigh, a Quaker royalist, when he died.  His nephew inherited Will and freed him in 1700. Although he later went by the name William Black, it seems possible some of his descendants may have used Williams as a surname, and that Private Uriah Williams of the Continental Army could have been one of them and been a freeman his whole life.

Five years after America’s independence from Britain was won, Uriah Williams married a woman named Ami Hall in a ceremony performed in December 1788 by Judge Benjamin Chadbourne, whose house still stands today near the upper landing of the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick.  The couple, who may have made their home nearby, was part of a tiny nonwhite population – 42 in 26 households in the 1790 census – in all of Berwick, which was a small town -- only 3894 total residents in 665 households. 

As for Williams’ livelihood, an account book shows a list of purchases made by Uriah Williams, “Blackman, Painter,” on August 1, 1801 – a suit of clothes valued at $4.50, plus “sundries” like sugar, molasses, rum, tobacco and lamb, in exchange for 22 days’ work as a house painter. Williams, who would have been nearly 50 years old in 1801, signed his part of the account with an X.  The account book’s owner, who signed off on the record of Williams’ labor, was a Nathan Lord. Other names in the book include Judge Chadbourne and other leading local citizens.
An 1801 account of Uriah Williams, “Blackman-Painter,” appears in a ledger of Nathan Lord in the archives of the Counting House Museum, Old Berwick Historical Society.

In the last decade of the 18th century, Uriah and Ami Williams had at least two children, Grandus (sometimes spelled Grotius) and Sarah. Uriah seems to have passed away by 1810, when Ami was listed as head of household in the census; his date of death and his place of are burial unknown. But perhaps he lived long enough to see daughter Sarah married to John Lewis in 1809 by Judge Chadbourne’s neighbor, Judge Benjamin Greene.  Sarah and John Lewis had at least two children, and Grandus and Mariah Williams may have had a dozen. In the generations to come, Williams descendants would help shape their small community – and the wider country beyond.

The changing local economy, from sailing to textiles

As the 19th century dawned, Berwick’s indirect economic ties with slavery continued even though the practice was abolished in Maine itself. At first, a few local merchant ship owners like Jonathan Hamilton and the Lord family carried on the maritime trade with the Caribbean. But with nearby forests depleted, the region’s economy then shifted to textile manufacturing on rivers providing waterpower for looms and other machinery. Two cotton factories, Portsmouth Manufacturing and Salmon Falls Manufacturing, with their raw material dependent on slave labor in the South, were built not far from the Williamses’ likely home. Sheep farming and wool manufacture, which swept New England after Merino sheep were introduced in Vermont from Spain in 1811, were not related to slavery-based agriculture. By then Berwick had split into three towns that all remained small; South Berwick’s population never surpassed 3000 in the 19th century and remained predominantly White.

On January 1, 1814, the year South Berwick became a separate town, Grandus Williams married Mariah March. Her parents, Fortune March and Violet Lord, had been married in August 1788 by South Berwick’s Congregational minister, but Grandus and Mariah were married by a lawyer named Dudley Hubbard, another neighbor of Judge Chadbourne. Hubbard’s home had just been built on Academy Street, where today it is the residence of Berwick Academy’s headmaster.

Over the next two decades as many as twelve children of Grandus and Mariah Williams were born.  And in the 1820s and 30s there seemed to be an interesting connection to a White physician named Dr. Charles Trafton (1787-1855). Trafton was an active Baptist, arriving in South Berwick in 1817 from Massachusetts via another Maine town. The 1820s and 30s were an era of religious fervor and debate.  In South Berwick village, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists and Freewill Baptists all built new meeting houses.
About the same age as Grandus and Mariah Williams, Dr. Trafton lived with his family near the upper landing and the cotton mill. He was described in a contemporary account by a local resident as having “an extensive practice” and being “admired by the South Berwick people for his sterling qualities.” He was known for manufacturing Trafton's Buckthorne Syrup, “a most excellent medicine for all the diseases that mortal man ever dreamed.” Were Grandus or Mariah Williams employed by him?

Naming one’s children after friends and acquaintances was popular in those days. When a boy was born to Grandus and Mariah Williams on August 15, 1826 or 1829, they named him Charles Trafton Williams.  At the time the doctor had a namesake son of his own. Less common perhaps was that during the next 16 years, the Williamses gave three more of their children the names of Charles Trafton’s children – Augustus L. in 1828 or 1836, Ann T. in 1835 and William H. in 1842. Every living child of Dr. Trafton thus wound up with a namesake in the Williams family. (During that same 16-year period two more Williams children were born but not given Trafton names, Mehetable in 1830 and George in 1831.)

Grandus Williams is thought to have been about 60 when he died in the late 1840s. His mother, Uriah’s widow, Ami Hall Williams, lived to 94. She died in 1845, in Concord, NH, where she was buried by the Freewill Baptist Church.  She had apparently left South Berwick to follow the trail of Grandus’s sister Sarah and her extraordinary son.

The extraordinary career of Elder John W. Lewis (1809-1861)

Family records indicate Sarah Williams and her husband, John Lewis, had their first son, John W. Lewis – W for Williams, presumably -- on December 12 or 22, 1809, in South Berwick. A brother, Edward B. Lewis, was born March 13, 1812, and perhaps other children followed. The family’s home location and the occupations of Edward and any siblings and their parents are not currently known.

This woman is believed to have been Sarah Williams Lewis, mother of John W. Lewis, in the mid-1800s.

Young John W. Lewis followed a trajectory matched by few early 19th century youths of any race.  When barely a teen, around 1820, he traveled to the seaport of Portsmouth, NH, where he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was sent to a Methodist preparatory school near Springfield, MA, and on to Philadelphia, where he was ordained a Methodist deacon at the young age of 23 and began a ministry in Newark, New Jersey.  On a brief return to South Berwick in 1835, he joined the growing Freewill Baptist movement that was becoming outspoken in the cause of abolition.

Lewis did not seem to reside in South Berwick as an adult. He had become a reformer who preached the Gospel, temperance and abolition throughout New England and upstate New York. He founded an academy for Black students in Providence, RI, reported for Baptist newspapers -- the Liberator, the Colored American, and the Northern Star --and in 1852 published a biographical book The Life, Labors, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles, about a Black itinerant Freewill Baptist minister.

But with family ties in South Berwick, Lewis likely associated with abolitionist, pro-temperance members of the Freewill Baptist Church that still stands on Main Street today. That congregation is known to have opposed slavery, despite the local factories’ dependence on it, and members were rumored to have supported the Underground Railroad. In the 1840s the ardent preaching of their pastor, Rev. John Chaney, temperance leader and abolitionist, incurred the wrath of local temperance foes, who broke his windows and plotted to blow up the parsonage. On March 18, 1849, a ten-pound keg of powder detonated on the meetinghouse steps, one of a series of arson incidents throughout the town. Other Freewill Baptist sites in Maine, notably the Parsonsfield Seminary destroyed in 1854, were also targeted. The extent of Lewis’s connections with these events in Maine is unclear, but the cause of abolition was the one to which he devoted his life.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called Lewis “one of the oldest and ablest advocates for human freedom ever raised up among the colored people of the United States.”

“As a minister for the Freewill Baptists,” writes modern researcher Dr. Ben Baker, “Lewis engaged in a holistic ministry, preaching a gospel that prominently featured abolitionism and black uplift. His modus operandi throughout his ministerial career was to go to a town and preach the gospel, the first precept of which was antislavery.”

In 1860 Lewis went to Haiti to explore the establishment of a model settlement of racial equality but died at 51 there the following year.

Serving the Union in the Civil War

Back in South Berwick, four of Lewis’s cousins, sons of Grandus and Mariah Williams, were entering the fight to free all enslaved Americans 83 years after their grandfather, Revolutionary soldier Uriah Williams, had taken up arms against Britain in a cause that proclaimed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Civil War records show Augustus Williams, a married Black laborer of South Berwick, Maine, age 27 (but also reported as 29 or 32 years old), registered for the draft in June of 1863. He served for three years with the 1st Regiment Louisiana Cavalry Corp d’Afrique, Company B, which became 4th United States Colored Cavalry, Company B, in New Orleans after its capture from the Confederacy.
Records also show his older brother, George Williams, registered at age 31, though he may actually have been 29. He was identified as a single laborer from South Berwick. Another family member who registered in 1863 was William H. Williams (c. 1842-1901). George and William’s wartime assignments are unknown.

Older brother Charles Trafton Williams had married a White woman, Elizabeth, born in Ireland. They had four children and lived in a house near the woolen mill. Military records show Charles Williams entering the army October 31, 1864, when he would have been in his late 30s and supporting this family. He deserted in Tennessee in January 1865 and died four years later of consumption (tuberculosis), a common affliction among those working in textile mills. He was about 40 years old.

All four Williams veterans of the Civil War, as well as a number of other family members, are buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery near the mill.  Augustus and George’s graves were given markers recognizing their role in the Grand Army of the Republic. Charles’ wife Elizabeth died in 1877 and is buried beside him in Pleasant Hill Cemetery.

Some of the Williams family veterans are buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery on Wadleigh Lane in South Berwick.

Railroads and the Woolen Mill

The distance from the upper landing, where Uriah and Ami Williams had probably lived after the Revolution, and the Newichawannock Company woolen mill where their grandchildren found employment before and after the Civil War, was only about a mile. One structure of the water-powered mill, which now produces electricity, can still be seen today.

In 1846, not long before his death, Grandus Williams and his son Uriah (b. 1824) acquired 22 acres in the vicinity of the mill, which was served by a railroad.  The 1860 census shows Mariah Williams, Grandus’s widow, at age 70, in a household that included Augustus and his wife, and other family members including William H. Williams. George Williams, meanwhile, was listed in the household of Thomas Jewett, where he may have been employed before entering the army. Jewett (the great uncle of author Sarah Orne Jewett and a wealthy merchant from the seafaring era) had married Elizabeth Lord, who perhaps was related to the man who went to war with elder Uriah Williams in 1780 and employed him as a painter in 1801.

A map of 1872 shows the younger Uriah Williams and the surviving family of his brother Charles Trafton Williams each with homes in the vicinity of the mill. Uriah and his wife had three children in the 1860 census.

It’s believed that throughout the rest of the 19th century, many members of the growing Williams clan worked for the mill and the railroad. Some may appear in local photos, the only Black faces. One is a member of the crew of the volunteer fire department. 

A fire brigade posed near a Great Works sawmill in an undated photo from the period that members of the Williams family lived near and worked at the Newichawannock woolen mill, shown in the background.  A Black man wearing a hat stands near the wheel of the fire truck. 

George, Augustus, probably Uriah, and William H. Williams all lived into their 60s and died within a few years of each other at the turn of the century. By then, one of the four orphaned children of Charles T. and Elizabeth Williams was working as wool spinner and living in a Williams home with family members, including one who was a locomotive steam engineer.  The wool spinner had also been named Uriah Williams, after his great grandfather. He lived until 1927.

Throughout World War II the Newichawannock woolen mill produced blankets, some for the military.  But in 1949 the mill closed. In 1952 the railroad ceased operations and was replaced by a highway.  South Berwick’s population finally crept past 3000. But most of the jobs had disappeared, and Williams descendants eventually moved elsewhere.  The last members of the family had gone by the mid-twentieth century.

-- Written in 2023 by Wendy Pirsig, with research by Sheila Findlay, Benjamin Baker, Patricia Wall, John Demos, Bruce Tucker, Sean Furness, Art Stansfield, Nina Maurer, Norma Keim and Beth Tykodi.