The story of the boy who was abducted from the eastern coast of Africa and wound up living among country folk in western Maine has captivated the residents of Paris Hill for more than 160 years.

It’s a revealing tale, at turns tragic, bewildering and inspiring, that stretches across an ocean, three continents and nearly two decades. It features a ship built in Brunswick, a Scarborough captain charged with illegal slave trading and a famous capital trial that illuminates both the complicated political landscape leading up to the Civil War and the racial fault lines still shaking our nation today.

But it’s a story little known outside of the small town where the boy, grown into a man, spent his last years.

Beth Miller first heard of Pedro Tovookan Parris in 2000, shortly after she and her husband, Bill, bought the Federal-period farmhouse on Paris Hill Road where the displaced African spent the last decade of his short life. Built in 1818 and located in the federally recognized Paris Hill Historic District, the stately white homestead was the perfect place for New Jersey natives looking to raise four boys in a rural community with deep roots. “The house just had good karma,” Miller recalled. “Almost no history was given to us when we bought it. But as soon as we moved in, people were telling us, ‘You know, there was a slave who lived in your house and he was an artist.’ I was intrigued and I had to learn more.”

Eighteen years later, Miller is president of the Paris Hill Historical Society, as well as a homespun expert on the life of Pedro Tovookan Parris and the house where she operates a rug-hooking studio.

On Tuesday, the society will host a presentation on Parris by Martha McNamara, an expert on early New England art and architecture who has studied his life in depth and is now writing a book about it. She’s expected to share fascinating information she has uncovered about Parris and the people who figured prominently in his journey.

“She really is the foremost expert on Pedro’s life,” Miller said of McNamara. “It’s an aspect of Maine history that’s well known among people who study African-American history, but his story is such a great microcosm of the antebellum era and it illustrates the complexity of the way people felt about slavery at the time.”

McNamara, who is director of the New England Arts & Architecture Program at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, discovered Parris through his artwork, which amounts to a watercolor banner and a couple of sketches. She was enthralled by the wider wake of his experience, viewed from a modern perspective.

She has crawled through every corner of Miller’s house, looking for remnants of Parris and finding little, except maybe a better sense of why we should remember him.

“He brings an understanding of the diversity of Maine through the years,” McNamara said. “We think of Maine at that time as being mostly white, rural and Protestant, but there were people who were different and they became part of the fabric of the community.”

TORN FROM HIS FAMILY

Parris was born around 1833 on the eastern coast of Africa, likely in the region of Tanzania or Mozambique, McNamara said. He was abducted when he was about 10 years old during a night raid on his village by a neighboring tribe, according to an early biography. He later recalled seeing his grandmother screaming after him as he was carried away.

On a forced march for several weeks, Parris was sold first to a Portuguese slave trader, then again to a slave trader from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s unclear how long Parris was captive in Africa before the traders set sail, because they sometimes waited months until they had hundreds of slaves to ship.

Faced with shifting global attitudes and markets in the early 1800s, slave traders and their allies went to great lengths to perpetuate an “outrageously lucrative” business, McNamara said.

Though Congress had outlawed importing slaves in 1808, the slave trade persisted as a fundamental part of the plantation system in the southern United States. Many northerners were involved through trans-Atlantic shipping, manufacturing of goods made with cotton grown in the South and other economic, social and political ties.

Meanwhile, Great Britain, which had outlawed slavery in 1833, was patrolling the Atlantic to block the slave trade from western Africa, which pushed some traders around the Cape of Good Hope to bring slaves from eastern Africa.

Branded and enslaved, Parris traveled to Rio de Janeiro in January 1845 aboard the Porpoise, a leased brig that was built in Brunswick and captained by Cyrus Libby of Scarborough. It was owned by Brunswick businessman George Frost Richardson, who was born in Limington. Whether Richardson knew his ship was being used in the slave trade is unclear, McNamara said.

Once in Rio, the disgruntled crew of the Porpoise reported Libby as a slave trader and the ship was seized by George William Gordon, U.S. consul in Brazil.

In a sworn statement recorded by Gordon, Parris said through a translator that he had been treated as a slave, serving at the captain’s table, and had been instructed to say that he was free if anyone ever inquired.

Asked where he wanted to go, Parris responded, “I desire to be a freeman and go to the United States.”

A CAPITAL TRIAL

The Porpoise was escorted to Portland, where Parris and other crew members were jailed for several months, waiting to testify in a federal trial against Libby. If found guilty, Libby would be executed.

But while Libby was charged with a capital crime, no one had ever been hanged for slave trading, McNamara said.

“Most New England fortunes were linked to the slave trade in some way,” she said.

At that time, it was common for ships to leave New England ports carrying shook, a term for materials used to make molasses barrels in Cuba, according to an early biography of Parris.

The ships would stop in Cuba to offload the shook and sail to Africa seeking slaves, many of whom would die on the trip back to Cuba. After selling the slaves in Cuba, they would take on molasses and bring it home to make rum and other products.

Despite the testimony of Parris and other crew members, Libby was acquitted in 1846. During the trial, Parris got to know Virgil D. Parris, a U.S. marshal and former Maine congressman who took a liking to the friendly boy. When the trial was over, the marshal brought the boy to live at his home in Portland.

Sometime after that, he began calling himself Pedro Tovookan Parris. The first name he likely acquired from Portuguese-speaking slave traders, McNamara said. The middle name is believed to be his original African name. The last name he took from the family that welcomed him when he had few options as a young black man from a foreign country without a family, English skills or work experience.

Exactly what his status was when he lived with the Parrises is unclear. He wasn’t a slave, but he wasn’t exactly free.

“Today, we think of slavery as a bright line, but in the 19th century, it was a lot more gray,” McNamara said. “He was taken in as a ‘boy of all work’ and he was listed as a servant in the 1850 c ensus. I think he was a sweet kid and my speculation is that Virgil Parris’ wife, Columbia, had a house full of kids and needed help and took him in as a kind of handy person.”

‘A FAVORITE IN TOWN’

By 1851, the Parrises had moved to the house on Paris Hill, named after the city in France, not the family. Formerly the bustling Oxford County seat, Paris Hill today is a quaint village in the town of Paris. Both Virgil and Columbia Parris had grown up in the area, which had become a center of the antislavery movement in Maine.

Virgil Parris, however, was active in the Democratic Party, which supported slavery as a matter of states’ rights, unlike Paris Hill native Hannibal Hamlin, who was vice president to President Abraham Lincoln – founder of the Republican Party and author of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Still, the Parrises sent Pedro Tovookan Parris to school, where he learned to read and write English and studied mathematics. He also sang songs from his childhood in Africa and learned to paint, including a 6-foot-long watercolor banner that depicted his journey from Brazil to Maine.

McNamara believes Parris used the banner when he spent six weeks campaigning for George Gordon, the former U.S. consul in Brazil who rescued him from slavery. Gordon ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts in 1856 as a member of the short-lived American or Know-Nothing Party, which opposed slavery and its expansion, as well as immigrants, Catholics and any “foreign pauper” workers who would take jobs away from native-born Americans.

“It was a complicated and tumultuous time in American politics,” McNamara said. “New political parties were rising and established parties were splitting. It’s a period that has real resonance today.”

Parris lived in the house on Paris Hill until his death from pneumonia in April 1860, according to a biography written by Percival J. Parris, who was a boy when the former slave lived with his family. The native of Africa was about 27 years old.

“He was as much attached to the members of the family as they were to him, and he was a general favorite in town,” Percival Parris wrote. “This fact, combined with that of his having been captured as a slave and the strong antislavery sentiment in Maine at that time, probably account for his funeral being one of the most fully attended that had been held in the village.”

An obituary in the local newspaper concluded, “Few have gone from our midst whose loss is more generally or sincerely mourned.” He was buried in the family plot, with a marble marker on his grave. The Civil War started one year later.

“It’s clear that he was fondly embraced by the family and the community, but he was still very much a worker,” McNamara said. “He never established an independent life. I’m just sad he died when he did, because in the years after the Civil War, his life might have taken a whole different route.”

Beth Miller poses for a portrait in a bedroom at her home in the Paris Hill Historic District. For almost a century the home belonged to the Parris family, who bought it in 1853. Miller said that the “village legend” is that the back room in the home above the kitchen, pictured here, belonged to Pedro Tovookan Parris, a formerly enslaved man who was adopted into the Parris family in the mid-1800s and who died in the home from pneumonia at age 27. Miller immersed herself in the history of the home and Pedro’s story when she moved there 18 years ago. “I feel like I’m one of his memory keepers,” Miller said. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

Pedro Tovookan Parris’ gravestone sits off to the side in a private graveyard where the rest of the Parris family is also buried. He died at 27 of pneumonia. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

This is an ambrotype of Pedro Tovookan Parris, who was captured on the eastern coast of Africa as a boy, sold as a slave and freed in Brazil. He spent his final years as a young man in Paris Hill in the late 1850s. Courtesy of Historic New England.

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