Early Charlotte Black History and We Revisit a Road Name

by Dan Cole, Charlotte Historical Society President

The area around the intersections of Guinea, Bingham Brook, and One Mile Roads has been primarily agricultural for over two hundred years. When the town’s first permanent settlers arrived in 1784, the original town center was established at the corner of Hinesburg, Church Hill, and Museum Roads, around a dependable spring, which is still there. While many of the wealthier settlers opted to build to the west toward Lake Champlain, others opted for the heavily forested acreage around Guinea Road. Several small brooks in the area provided reliable water for homes and farms.

David Hubbell of Lanesboro, MA, arrived in Charlotte with the earliest wave of permanent settlers in 1784. Hubbell was a Revolutionary War veteran who had fought with General Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec. Hubbell was a land speculator and farmer who amassed a sizeable amount of property. William Wallace Higbee, born in Charlotte in 1842 and Town Clerk and essayist from 1873 to his death in 1911, wrote that in 1799, three Black siblings (Peter and Edward Freeman/Shelton, and a sister known only as Lemon), arrived in town, possibly from Massachusetts, looking for suitable land to farm, initially boarding with David Atwood.

On November 24, 1800, the Freeman/Sheltons purchased 145½ acres bordering Atwood’s land on Guinea Road from David Hubbell for $400, which the brothers mortgaged. In those days there were no banks to finance, so the usual procedure was to deed the property back to the seller using the land as collateral. If the buyer failed to pay under the conditions of the mortgage the land would revert to the original owner. This is notable for three reasons: in the deeds they were listed as being Charlotte residents; were Free People of Color; and Peter was literate, as he signed the papers instead of making his mark.

Higbee noted that the surnames “Freeman” and “Shelton” were used interchangeably by the brothers. Higbee would know: he grew up on a farm on Guinea Road just south of One Mile Road and knew their stories well. He believed them to be former slaves, but there is no confirmation of that. They established what was for a time a thriving enclave of Black families in town.

Although there is no family named “Freeman” in the 1800 Federal Census, there is a listing for Peter Shelton: Head of household-Peter Shelton, 0 persons, with 3 “All other free persons except Indians not taxed.” It needs to be noted that early census enumerations as legislated by Congress were segregated by law. In the North, Free Blacks were usually recorded as “All other free persons …” and despite being named were not counted as part of a town’s population. The three “All other free persons …” here were Peter, Edward, and Lemon.

They set about clearing their land for farming. In the early days, stumps were used as fencing for livestock, and they were plentiful. The trees would be cut and used for building homes, barns and outbuildings, as well as for heating and cooking. The farmer would dig around the stump, cut the largest roots with an axe, and excavate a small space underneath. A can of black powder would then be inserted in the space and detonated by fuse. The explosion loosened the dirt around the stump, which could then be hauled away by horses. It was backbreaking work, yet the brothers persevered. According to Higbee the brothers prospered, paid their mortgage off, and had a comfortable home. Tragedy struck when Edward Freeman died about 1807, leaving his share to Peter, his brother.

Other Black families followed, including: Amos Morocco (born 1772 in Connecticut), who married Olive Freeman (born 1810 in Charlotte); Isaac Prince who married Edward Freeman/Shelton’s widow Rhoda (Morocco) Freeman in Charlotte on August 29, 1836; and John Jackson and his wife Julia Ann “Sarah” (Grain).

In December 1808, Peter Freeman, along with several of his white neighbors, became victims of a land speculation swindle. Peter lost everything, and was forced to sell his farm. Nathaniel and Abel Newell, Jr., purchased the farm from Peter on Christmas Day for $450, with David Hubbell as a witness.

Amos Morocco stepped in and purchased the property by Quit Claim from the Newells on January 7, 1811 for the same sum. Ezra Meech also held a mortgage valued at $115 on the Freeman property, and on January 14, 1811, Morocco agreed to pay that off. He mortgaged his acquisitions through Abraham Sowers.

In 1841, John Jackson and family moved in with Morocco, remaining until they purchased a small lot on what is now Jackson Hill Road. In the 1850s, Isaac Prince Sr. and family came from Lincoln and Bristol, VT, living in the oldest house on Bingham Brook Road, still standing and recently renovated, west of Spear Street.

Amos Morocco, at age 66, sold his property in 1838 to John Palmer, Jr., for $1430, and moved to Bristol, VT. Morocco financed the purchase for Palmer, which gave him a steady income until it was paid in full and the debt cleared in February 1846. Morocco died in 1855.

The Jackson family had remained in Charlotte, but was devastated by consumption. Between 1856 and 1862, all but two daughters were taken by disease. Emily, 18 and Susan, 12, were orphaned, and have been lost in the paper trail after relocating to Ferrisburgh, VT.

Isaac Prince, Jr., was selected in the Civil War draft of July 1863, and, with his father, brother, and uncle, enlisted in the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which had been decimated at Fort Wagner. That is a separate story on its own. Prince was wounded in the arm by a minié ball at the Battle of Boykin’s Mill, SC, on April 18, 1865, and discharged for disability in July. After the war, the Prince family split up, with some heading to Shelburne, others to Burlington, and one sister who settled in town after marrying a newly freed slave who returned from the war with her brother.

The foregoing research helped the Charlotte Historical Society resolve a conundrum about the name “Guinea Road.” When we collected W.W. Higbee’s essays and published them in 1991 in book form, in an essay from 1897 Higbee writes, “Near the school house lived … anywhere from one to a lot full from ‘Guinea’ (so called on account of the numerous colored folks who answered to the name of Morocco) …”

Now we know it refers to Amos Morocco.