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Read Ona's escape to NH as poetry

Connoisseurs These two poems by Celia Thaxter and Clara Lynn rate no literary kudos. They are distinctive only because the poets, both white women from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, selected African American protagonists. Yet they will never be found in black history texts either. We "discovered" both poems quite by accident in the archives of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and include them because information on New Hampshire black history is hard to come by. These poems survive, like Louis de Rochement's film "Lost Boundaries" as footnotes to African American heritage in a New England town.

Thaxter's poem, though far from politically correct today, shows a local white citizen struggling to understand the reasons behind the bloody Civil War. While it did not directly touch her distant Isles of Shoals, as member of the Boston literati and close friend to abolitionist like John Greenleaf Whittier, Thaxter experienced the war from a distance. "Connoisseurs" appeared with an illustration of two black children staring at a large painting on an easel. In a tone that is condescending and moralizing, Thaxter explains to the "dusky children" that the Civil War was fought exclusively to free them from slavery, a common Northern misconception that still exists today. While the poem places a heavy message of guilt on the innocent African-American children, it may be assumed that, in her time, Celia Thaxter believed she was being open-minded and even helpful by including this poem among only 25 illustrated poems in her 1891 anthology for children.

Like the verse tale of Washington's slave Ona Judge Staines (1900), it remains one of a very few local poems written about black protagonists at the turn of the 19th century. Like MO Hall's portrayal of Ona, Clara Lynn tells a relatively straightforward tale in her poem about a black Portsmouth sailor named John Frances. Despite the subtle inequities of her presentation in "Hidden Gold", it is clear that Lynn saw her protagonist as nothing less than a hero. Frances is resourceful, brave, good-hearted, hard working, well-liked -- a classic good Samaritan. He uses his low social status to trick a group of white privateers, slipping $15,000 in gold out from under them by hiding it in a pot of grease aboard a sailing ship. Because he did this to protect the riches of his white bosses, members of Portsmouth's Haven family, the story played well with white audiences who make up 99% of the local population.

All the same, in a region of too few African American heroes, Richard Frances deserves legendary status. His house on High Street, given to him by the Haven brothers, has been selected as part of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. While "Hidden Gold" is an amateur effort with a sing-song meter, it remains an honest attempt by Lynn to tell a fascinating tale. Like much of her writing in "Poems About Portsmouth" (1929) published after the author's death, Lynn drew her information without question from the Charles Brewster's "Rambles About Portsmouth."

Notes by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2000

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By Celia Thaxter (1891)

O look at the horses and people!
   How they hurry and trample and fight!
And the smoke blowing over the steeple,--
   O look, how the guns shine bright!
See this one, this soldier, he's swinging
   His sword over head in the air;
How the shot must be leaping and stinging!
   See the men falling down everywhere!
Isn't this what the white folks call the war?
I wonder what they are doing it for.

And there's the big flag flying splendid,
   White stars pretty red, pretty blue,
All torn. Do you think 'twill be mended,
   And fly out again, good as new?
See the blue coats and gray coats, --I'm sorry
   They bleed and they suffer and die;
What made all the fighting and worry?
   Can you think of the reason why
They killed each other, the gray and the blue?
O dusky children, it was for you!

Source: "Verses," by Celia Thaxter, D. Lothrop Company, 1891. Illustrated by TW Wood. Courtesy ISHRA special Isles of Shoals collection at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Read more poetry by CELIA THAXTER

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The Hidden Gold
By Clara Lynn (1929)

'Twas in the year of eighteen twelve,
   War waged with Mexico,
And sailing vessels took a risk
   When going to and fro.
A ship that had the "Princess" name,
   From Portsmouth sailed away,
The Haven brothers owned the ship
   That went from port that day.

A flag all ocean ships must have,
   False colors oft they'd show,
This ruse helped them to sail along
   In days of long ago.
A privateer, the "Princess" met,
   And it did not sail by,
Although it saw the stars and stripes
   Above the vessel fly.

Command to stop was quickly given,
   Men on the "Princess" came,
The papers failed to satisfy,
   Or prove the Haven name.
The "Princess" officers were soon
   Put on the privateer,
The crew left on the Portsmouth ship
   For safety had great fear.

The crew was under new command,
   Their treatment was severe,
The first mate of the privateer
   Said, "I' am captain here."
A colored man on board the ship
   He gave much work to do,
John Frances was the sailor's name,
   He'd long served with the crew.

This fellow was a handy chap
   The first mate soon found out,
Both day and night aboard the ship.
   He sent the man about.
Not only did John Frances know
   How sales should reef and fold,
But he knew on the captured ship
   Was hid a bag of gold.

The captain of the Haven ship
   The gold had hid away.
Beneath a pile of dirty sails
   Concealed, the money lay.
John planned how he could manage it
   To take the gold away,
Elude the first mate's watchful eyes,
   So keen both night and day.

A tub of grease was on the deck,
   'Twas used to slush the masts,
John chose this as the hiding place,
   The bag of gold to cast.
The contents there did not invite
   The first mate to inspect,
The men in charge one night drank wine,
   And soundly they all slept.

That night, John had ship's watch alone,
   The chance he then improved,
The hidden gold from 'neath the sails,
   He hurriedly removed.
And in the slush tub on the deck,
   No trace of it was seen,
John smiled and thought, "Though dirty now,
   Someday it will be clean."

The captured ship its anchor cast
   In port on one fair day,
And John on deck made fast the ropes,
   Gave service every way.
And when the "Princess" reached the wharf,
   The mate said, "You may go,"
With sober face John turned away,
   His footsteps then were slow.

Then turning to the mate he said,
   "Sir I would like to ask,
If you will give to me the grease,
   That's on deck in that cask?
I have but little money, Sir,
   And that grease I can sell,
The contents will bring me some change,
   And every cent will tell."

The answer was, "Take it and go."
   John thanked him with a smile,
Then took the cask upon his back,
   And carried it a mile.
His back ached 'neath the heavy load,
   His quick pace did not cease,
When people smiled, John only thought,
   "There's gold hid in this grease."

His anxious fears and backache, gone,
   His heart was light that day,
When safe within a savings bank,
   The gold was put away.
John knew the tub had heavy been,
   But was surprised when told
That fifteen thousand dollars bright,
   Lay in that bag of gold.

The Haven brothers gave to John,
   A house that stands today
On Union Street, it has his name,
   His deed on annals stays.
This town has been the dwelling place,
   Of many men forgot,
His deed gave to John Frances, fame,
   That lives when he is not.

Source: " Poems About Portsmouth,"
By Clara Lynn (1929), Self published.

Read more poetry by CLARA LYNN

© 2000

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