Sam Guess was a well-known member of Bangor’s small African-American community after the Civil War. “For years he was one of the best known characters of the city, doing whitewashing and odd jobs and for years was regularly elected field-driver,” noted the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 18, 1910, the day after Guess died at the National Home for Disabled Veterans at Togus.
I checked various public sources, including the U.S. Census, the city directory and municipal reports, to find out more about Guess’ life in Bangor. A Kentucky native, he was married to a woman named Rosa Maria. They had several children, including a son, Samuel J., and daughters, Josephine, Annie, Mary and Flora. By 1900, he was living alone with Josephine at 200 Fourteenth St. He and some family members are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.
Guess usually was identified as a whitewasher, a worker who applied a mixture of lime and water, often with whiting, size or glue added, to whiten walls, fences or other structures (according to my dictionary). I assume he is the “Mr. Guest” mentioned in H.H. Price’s and Gerald E. Talbot’s book, “Maine’s Visible Black History,” who “whitewashed the entire Brewer Free Bridge. … It was a covered bridge and the only bridge across the Penobscot River between the two communities.”
Guess had additional status in the community through his appointment as field driver. He was responsible for bringing stray farm animals to the pound to be kept until their owners claimed them. He held this office, either alone or with other men, for a number of years.
Guess was best known, however, for the lectures he gave about his days as a slave. His first talk is mentioned briefly in the third volume of Judge John Edwards Godfrey’s Journals. I found detailed accounts of this event in the city’s two daily newspapers, the Bangor Daily Commercial and the Whig and Courier, on Dec. 30, 1878. Held in City Hall, the event was attended by a large audience. Guess was introduced by a Dr. Jordan as “a first-class wood sawyer, an excellent carpet cleaner and the boss white-washer in Penobscot County.”
His family was sitting in the front row. He brought five of his children — identified as Annie, Mamie, Flora, Belle and Samuel J. — up on the stage to sing two songs, “We are marching on” and “I am going to be a soldier.” The response from the audience was so enthusiastic that one of the children was nearly knocked over by a bouquet thrown through the air.
Then, Guess told his story, quietly but with enough touches of drama and humor — singing a song of his own as well— to keep the audience liberal with its applause. He made $75 that evening.
“This will be enough to keep the family through the winter,” remarked the Commercial.
The newspapers in 1878 gave few details of the actual talk. Guess’ death notice on Nov. 18, 1910, a century ago this week, however, provided a summary of one of his talks, a lengthy “extract from the story of his life as he told it.” Guess was illiterate, according to the U.S. Census, so the account is probably from a transcription taken down by a newspaper reporter or some other person who attended.
Guess was in bondage until the Civil War, when he escaped into the hands of Maine regiment troops where he was taken in by two soldiers, Albra G. Hammons and George W. Herrick.
“It seemed then that the gates of heaven had opened to me,” he said.
Guess recounted how he was separated from his mother, who was traded to another master, when he was a small boy.
“We were like cattle. They kept us in cabins … and turned us out every morning … under overseers who drove us into the fields to pick the cotton and kept us at it all day long. It was hard work and it made us tough and strong,” said Guess. In his youth he had “good masters” who didn’t allow their slaves to be whipped and “kept their overseers down.” But one day one of these “good masters” transferred ownership of Guess to his daughter, “and when she married she took me with her as part of her belongings.”
“Then I got my first whipping. I had never been ill treated and intended to do right, but my new master was cruel and whipped me for nothing — just nothing at all. I had been the favorite of my mistress for a number of years and she had always treated me kindly, and when they got ready to whip me I thought of her and felt sure she would make trouble with the master when she heard of it.”
But nothing of the kind occurred. Guess was whipped until he bled and when he went to serve her in bloodstained clothes, she never said a word. “She didn’t even feel for me as she would have if they had abused one of her pet horses.”
Guess described the markets where slaves were traded at public auctions “just as Mr. [Charles W.] Morse does horses in Bangor today.” He said he was sold 10 times in all for a total of $10,000 in cash.
His last master lived in Louisiana, where he was kept hauling salt to the plantation with a team of horses. He was familiar with the countryside when word got around that Yankee troops were in the area.
He and a friend took off after dark on the best horses toward Baton Rouge. They had to abandon the horses eventually, because “the white folks would have suspected that we were escaping and that would have been the end of us.”
They fled through the woods without food, dodging Rebel soldiers. When they were spotted on a road by a cornfield, Guess’ friend was shot dead just a few feet in front of him.
Guess escaped into the corn and crawled along into a ditch and under some bushes. Later, he was chased by the occupants of a house where he had tried to beg food. In a nearby Rebel camp that night, he picked up a stick, carrying it as one would a rifle, marching along the perimeter like a sentry.
That same night he stumbled into a Yankee camp. Hammons and Herrick (who were members of the 22nd Maine Regiment from Corinth, according to another source) “took me in and treated me like a long lost brother.” Afterward, he was assigned to the 41st U.S. colored troops where he served as a soldier, which qualified him to enter Togus in old age.
That was the story of Samuel Guess as told by Samuel Guess, boss whitewasher, first-class sawyer, carpet cleaner, field driver and public speaker in the days when many Civil War veterans still walked the streets of Bangor.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at email@example.com.