BELFAST, Maine — Gen. Samuel Waldo, the namesake of Waldo County, was a slave owner who made much of his fortune in the trade.
And in a time when monuments dedicated to historic figures with racist pasts are being removed across the country, some Mainers are questioning whether Waldo County and other places named after him — including the midcoast communities of Waldo and Waldoboro — should be renamed to reflect today’s prevailing attitudes.
“A lot of his wealth was inherited — but a lot was built on slavery,” said Mary Drymon DeRose, a Maine historian and author who learned about Waldo while writing her doctoral dissertation. “He is an important figure, but he’s gotten kind of lost in the shuffle. And he’s a slave trader. That’s hard to reconcile.”
Waldo was a Massachusetts land speculator, merchant and politician in the first half of the 18th century. He served as brigadier-general during the 1745 British expedition against the French settlement of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia during King George’s War. DeRose called him a “war hero” who helped secure Maine as an English colony.
“If it weren’t for Waldo, they might be speaking French in Waldo County,” she said.
He owned a huge tract of land between the Penobscot and Muscongus rivers, including all of what’s now Knox County and parts of Lincoln, Penobscot and Waldo counties, where he settled German and Irish immigrants.
If eighth-graders learned about Waldo in Maine history class at all, they probably failed to learn about his ties to slavery.
The recent scrutiny over Waldo’s legacy comes amid a national reckoning on race. Black Lives Matter protesters are calling for racial justice all across the country. Statues that honor Confederate heroes and other controversial historical figures are toppling.
Last week, a Reddit contributor from Waldo County pointed out Waldo’s ties to slavery and questioned if it’s time to rename the places that honor him “to something more deserving.”
David Patrick, the co-founder of Racial Equity & Justice, a statewide group based in Orono and Bangor, said he would be glad if Waldo went the way of Christopher Columbus, whose namesake holiday has been replaced in Maine and nearly a dozen other states by Indigenous Peoples Day. That decision honors the indigenous communities that contended with violence and disease when European explorers, including Columbus, arrived on the shores of the New World.
“It’s similar to native mascots and Confederate monuments. I think celebrating people who have had really nasty legacies in marginalized communities is not something we should be proud of,” Patrick said. “These people can be in museums, they can be in historical documents and books. I don’t think entire communities should be named after them.”
After Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783 some of Maine’s history of slavery became lost, or white-washed. Nowadays, people are much more likely to know about the state’s abolitionist history, such as the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the influential book that galvanized many to protest slavery, when she was living in Brunswick. Before the Civil War, anti-slavery societies flourished in many parts of the state, and Maine was a stop on the Underground Railroad for African-Americans who were racing north to freedom. Maine also sent more men to fight in the Civil War than any other state, on a per capita basis.
But long before that, when slavery was legal here, “lots of people” owned slaves, DeRose said, rattling off the names of Thomas Westbrook, the namesake of Westbrook, and the Skillings family, who owned land abutting Waldo’s in South Portland. Maine’s slave force wasn’t large, but it was important, she said.
“They worked the mills. They worked the farms. They were very early labor,” the historian said. “But that all got erased when Maine got abolitionist.”
Michael Alpert, the head of the Bangor chapter of the NAACP, said Mainers should be accurately informed of their history.
“We shouldn’t have a view of Maine’s history that has been thoroughly censored,” he said. “And there are reprehensible people in that history. Reprehensible people should not be honored.”
From a modern perspective, it is difficult to find a silver lining to what’s known about Waldo’s past. According to DeRose, he once advised the captain and crew of his slave ship Africa to use “harsh tactics to ensure profits,” and warned them against being sympathetic to women and children because they couldn’t be trusted.
Waldo also brought slaves from West Africa to his farm in South Portland, where DeRose said she found records showing he owned 21 enslaved people in 1749. At that time, there were more Africans than Europeans on his farm, the historian said.
“They did the work of the empire he was putting together,” she said.
Still, DeRose cautioned against using modern standards to judge Waldo.
“He didn’t treat people particularly well. I think he saw people more as commodities than as humans, which was an 18th century mindset,” she said. “How do you apply today’s standards to the past? Then we would be taking down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners.”
But Alpert pointed out that slavery has been vilified for centuries, and that ancient Romans used to adopt their slaves in order to free them.
“It isn’t as though slavery has ever been considered morally justified by responsible people,” he said. “And although you can’t do anything about yesterday, you can do something about today. We need to live by the values that we hold highest, and naming our counties after a slave holder is to compromise our values right now.”
Still, there’s no legislative push to do that anytime soon. Betty Johnson, a Waldo County Commissioner, said it likely would be expensive and complicated to change the name of the county, which was incorporated in 1827 — more than half a century after Samuel Waldo’s death.
“That’s where our history began, really,” she said. “It’s been this many years, and nobody’s said anything. I would hate to see it change.”
But J.D. Leone, who lives in the town of Waldo, said he wouldn’t mind if the names of his town and county were changed to something that doesn’t honor the slave owner and trader.
“You heard in history class all the time, you’ve got to learn from the past and fix your mistakes,” he said. “I hated history class. But that was one thing that stuck.”