Digging through ground, records uncovers truth about early African-American settlement in Waldo County

Posted Aug. 13, 2014, at 5:50 p.m.

TROY, Maine — When Chris Marshall first came to central Maine, he heard rumors about a long-ago African-American settlement in the Waldo County farming town of Troy. The settlement disappeared into the mists of time, but it remained in stories and in part of town referred to as “Negroville.”

Marshall, an anthropology professor at Unity College, was intrigued and decided he wanted to work with his students to track down whether the story was true. Years later, after digging through old foundations and original Waldo County probate records, he thinks they’ve figured it out.

“There were African-Americans settled in Troy — it’s true,” he said. “African-Americans have been in Troy and all these towns since the first non-Indian settlements. In Montville, the first census in 1810 has an African-American guy.”

But Mainers today may not know African-Americans have been part of the state’s history for centuries, often assuming they lived only in the southern United States. That’s a loss, Marshall said.

“It makes us think about who we are and about what the truth is about our national story,” he said. “The more complex story is the more true story.”

Beginning in 2003, he and his students brought shovels to sites in the northwestern part of Troy, near the bogs called Chain Meadows. It was hard work to find historical artifacts in places that were highly disturbed, but they persevered.

“There wasn’t much we could do, working in woods that have been cut over and over again. It’s been ‘skidderized,’ as archaeologists say,” Marshall said. “It was also difficult because it was dense, small forest. But we did find evidence of buildings — evidence of personal property, like glass and ceramics. We found evidence of how they were using the land and where the land had been tilled.”

Marshall brought his students to Belfast, where they pored through old, wax-sealed probate records, which often included lists of everything people owned when they died. They also talked to old-timers, who remembered their parents and grandparents telling them stories about the area.

“There are two sets of stories, two kinds of traditions. I wanted to know which one was more true,” he said. “We did archaeology and we did documentary research to learn more about these legends.”

Though Marshall did not divulge many details about what they learned — where the African-Americans came from, who they were, what they did or why they left — he did say it was not as sad or tragic as the story of Malaga Island. On that island near Phippsburg, a mixed-race community of about 45 people were forcibly evicted by the state of Maine in 1912.

“It’s only sad when memories get lost and when the history fades away,” Marshall said. “I like to preserve memories.”

Marshall will give a talk about his findings, “Knowing Their Place: Two Stories (and the truth) About an African-American Settlement in Troy,” which will be held from 7-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, at the Penobscot Marine Museum’s Main Street Gallery in Searsport. Tickets will be $8 for members and $10 for non-members.

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