By James Smith, photographic collections manager


This past week marked the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to the English colonies. These “20. and odd Negroes” landed at Point Comfort, Virginia, where they were traded for food. This anniversary inspired a search of the Athenaeum’s collection on the topic of slavery.

Pictured above is a memorandum dated Jan. 5, 1730/1731. [S1045]

The court case involved Joseph Smith, a yeoman from Newmarket, NH, who had appeared in front of Richard Waldron, the Justice of the Peace, at the tavern of Henry Sherburne (located in what is now Prescott Park) in Portsmouth. Smith was named as the principal “for his negro man servant Sambo” and was now facing a penalty based on the actions of Sambo.

The memo stated “the condition of the above recognisance [sic] is that if the above mentioned negro man Sambo, servant of the said Joseph Smith, shall be of good behavior towards all His Majesty’s…subjects within the Province, and especially towards Edward Hilton from this time to the next court” then the penalty would be null and void.

So what had Sambo allegedly done? And in particular, what did it have to do with Edward Hilton?  According to New Hampshire Town Papers Vol XIII–the incident between Sambo and Hilton occurred on Dec. 28, 1730, and a few days after the incident, Hilton filed a complaint.  Hilton claimed he was “in Great fear (even of his life) by the threatening Speeches and actual attempts made against him with force & arms” by Sambo.

Hilton stated that on that late December day Sambo was carrying an ax, noted to be worth 12 shillings, and that Sambo struck at Hilton with a “ful blow with the Said ax.” Sambo then allegedly profanely swore that he was going to “split out the brains” of Hilton and bury him in a swamp.

Hilton also had two witnesses who could corroborate his account. Sambo was arrested and fined 10 shillings for profane swearing. Joseph Smith paid the fine and costs; however, it’s unclear if Joseph Smith owned Sambo or if Sambo was owned by Smith’s mother-in-law, Lydia Folsom Glidden. Most accounts indicate that Sambo was first owned by Lydia’s husband, Andrew, who had died. The second surety for Sambo’s recognizance was Joseph Glidden, who appears to be Lydia’s brother-in-law.

What is not mentioned is what led to the altercation, and given that Sambo was considered property, it is impossible to ever know Sambo’s version of events. And what became of Sambo after the incident is still unknown.

To learn more about the 400th anniversary, The New York Times created the 1619 Project.