Paul Cuffe’s Special Relationships by David Cole

Paul Cuffe’s Special Relationships

 Paul Cuffe evolved from an unschooled child living within the Wampanoag community on the South Coast of Massachusetts into a charismatic and inspirational leader widely known and respected on both sides of the Atlantic. He was born on the island of Cuttyhunk in 1759, the son of a freed slave and a Native American woman. He was largely self-educated but attained a high level of literacy and writing abilities. He learned other skills such as navigation and shipbuilding through on-the-job experience. Within the short lifespan of fifty-eight years, Paul Cuffe became a widely respected leader in many organizations and causes devoted to abolition of slavery, bringing progress to the people of Africa and supporting Quaker groups in America and England to improve the lot of their fellowman.

Throughout his life, he built powerful relationships with key people in America, England and Africa that were most helpful in advancing the causes to which he was committed. Two of the most important of these relationships were with two very different families on the South Coast of Massachusetts: the Rotches, a prominent and wealthy Quaker family of Nantucket and New Bedford, and the Wainers, a humble Native American and African-American family of Dartmouth and Westport.

The Rotches

We do not know exactly when Paul Cuffe first met members of the Rotch family, but it probably was when he was still a teenager. It turned into an extremely close and multi-faceted relationship that lasted well beyond Paul Cuffe’s death. The Rotch Family was among the most prominent families of Nantucket before the Revolutionary War and again in New Bedford, where they moved their base of operations after the War. They were leading members of the Quaker community. They were leaders in  the whaling business as well as the financial and coastal trading businesses. The intimate relationship especially between Paul Cuffe and William Rotch, Sr. and William Rotch, Jr. over some forty years provides a powerful example of a sincere, unprejudiced, honorable friendship in that era of black slavery and native suppression.

Paul Cuffe crewed on whaling ships in 1773, 1775 and 1776. We do not know whether he crewed on any of the Rotches’ whaling ships, but he could well have. In 1775, 58 whaling ships sailed out of Nantucket, more than from any other town in North America. In 1776, the whaling ship on which Paul Cuffe sailed was captured by the British Navy and taken to Brooklyn, NY, where the crew members were held captive on a prison ship for three months. After his release, Paul returned to his family home in Westport, Massachusetts, but he had learned about the British Naval blockade of Nantucket and other offshore islands, and that the inhabitants of those offshore islands were in need of supplies.

Leonard B. Ellis quotes William Rotch, Sr. as follows (p. 2 of the biographical sketches):

“From the year 1775 to the end of the war we were in continual embarassments (sic). Our vessels were captured by the English, and we were sometimes in danger of being starved. The exposed situation of the islands made it extremely difficult to elude the numerous cruisers that were always in the vicinity, and months would frequently elapse before any supplies could be obtained from the main land.”

Mr. Rotch estimated the losses he had sustained by captures during the Revolutionary War at $60,000.

Paul Cuffe, being aware of this problem for the people of Nantucket, undertook to acquire a small sailing vessel and use it to slip through the natural hazards of Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound, as well as avoid the British blockade and numerous pirate ships, in order to deliver goods to Nantucket.

According to Daniel Ricketson’s History of New Bedford, published in 1858, Paul Cuffe, at the age of about twenty:

“undertook a trip to Nantucket with a boatload of produce, but in crossing Buzzards Bay was seized by “refugee pirates,” who robbed him of his boat and cargo. Nothing daunted, in connection with his brother,… they built another boat; and having procured a cargo upon his credit, Paul again started for Nantucket, and was again chased by pirates; but night coming, he escaped from them, but ran his boat upon a rock on one of the Elizabeth Islands, and so badly injured her as to render it necessary for him to return to his home on the Westport River. After having repaired his boat, he again set off for Nantucket, reaching there in safety this time, and disposed of his cargo to good advantage. On a subsequent voyage, however, he was again taken by the pirates, and deprived of all except his boat. Still he continued his trips to Nantucket until he had acquired enough to look for a more lucrative business.”

Given the prominence of the Rotch family on Nantucket during the War, it seems reasonable to speculate that they were engaged with Paul Cuffe in his Nantucket ventures especially if he had previously been aboard one of their whaling ships. They may have even helped Cuffe obtain the use of a boat.  William Roche, Jr. was born in the same year as Paul Cuffe which may have added to the likelihood of their early relationship.

After the War, when Paul Cuffe entered the coastal shipping business, he continued to utilize the services of the Rotch family in conducting his financial affairs. There are also stories in Ricketson’s book of how Paul Cuffe, when he was denied a seat at a table in the main room of a tavern in New Bedford, informed the innkeeper that he was on his way to dinner at the Rotch home. Another story from Ricketson informs us that, when William Rotch, Sr. had attended a gathering at the Friends Meeting House in Westport and was then invited to dinner at the home of Paul Cuffe and his wife, Alice, Mr. Rotch, when he saw that there were no places set at the table for Paul and Alice, allowed that he would not sit at that table until the host and hostess joined them. These are just a few examples of the respect and friendship that the Rotches, Sr. and Jr. expressed for Paul Cuffe and his family.

As Paul Cuffe expanded his shipping businesses across the Atlantic Ocean, he continued to rely on the Rotches for their financial services and their personal connections. There is much correspondence, easily accessible in Rosalind Wiggins’ book, that records such letters between Paul Cuffe and William Rotch, Jr and also with his brother-in-law, Samuel R. Fisher, a merchant in Philadelphia who handled several business matters for Paul Cuffe.

Another possible connection between Paul Cuffe and the Rotches relates to the British Colony of Sierra Leone. After the War, in 1786, the British Government was trying to deal with the many destitute blacks who were found in the streets of London and other major cities. In that year the Government decided to establish a kind of colony in Sierra Leone and to resettle the black people there who would be willing to go. This policy was strongly debated in the newspapers and many of the blacks who had been enticed onto ships at Gravesend found that they were being held captive and claimed that their lives were as bad as that on slave ships.

William Rotch, Sr. visited London in 1786 in an effort to gain British Government support for a scheme to transfer what remained of the Nantucket whaling fleet to England to resume their whaling activities. The British Government initially rejected William Rotch’s proposals and he went on to Paris where he received a much warmer reception. But, during the time that he was in London, he became aware of the deliberations relating to resettlement of free blacks in Sierra Leone, and according to Wiggins (p. 265) he discussed these matters with Granville Sharp and William Dillwyn, leading Quakers and Abolitionists in London. Wiggins also says that he undoubtedly reported on these matters to the Quaker community in New England when he returned home in 1791. He also probably spoke about it with his business partner, Paul Cuffe, thereby initiating an idea in Paul’s mind some two decades before he ever set sail for Sierra Leone.

Perhaps the ultimate confirmation of the close relationship between Paul Cuffe and William Rotch, Jr. is to be found in William Rotch, Jr.’s role at the end of Paul Cuffe’s life in September 1817. He was appointed the executor of Paul Cuffe’s will. He delivered a eulogy at Paul Cuffe’s funeral, and he may have been the author of a notice of his death in the New Bedford Mercury. The settlement of Paul Cuffe’s estate proved to be very complicated, and William Rotch, Jr. was involved in that process for most of the next decade. But, that was not the end of the relationship.

The New Bedford Free Public Library in 1943 acquired and preserved many of Paul Cuffe’s papers, ship logs and other documents, totaling 1,250 pages.[i] The source of these documents, as given in its Accession Report, was as follows:

The collection of papers of the Cuffe family, including Paul Cuffe, John Cuffe and Cuffe Slocum, were originally compiled by Samuel R. Fisher of Philadelphia, PA, brother-in-law of William Rotch, Jr. of New Bedford, MA. Fisher was the great-grandfather of Anna Wharton Wood, who ultimately donated the documents to the New Bedford Free Public Library.

This indicates that William Rotch, Jr. probably arranged for preservation of many Cuffe documents, then passed them along to his brother-in-law, Samuel Rowland Fisher, a prominent Quaker Merchant in Philadelphia and friend of Paul Cuffe. Fisher’s descendants preserved them for over a century before turning them over to the Library. The line of genealogical relationships, and possibly of transmission, is as follows:

  1. William Rotch, Jr. married Elizabeth Rodman in 1782;
  2. Hannah Rodman, sister of Elizabeth Rodman, married Samuel Rowland Fisher (1793);
  3. Deborah Fisher (1795-1888), daughter of Samuel and Hannah Fisher, married William Wharton (1795-1856) in 1817;
  4. Hetty F. (alias Esther) Wharton (1836-1915), daughter of William and Deborah Wharton, married Benjamin R. Smith in 1859;
  5. Anna Wharton Smith (1864-1945), daughter of Benjamin R. and Esther Smith, married Henry Austin Wood (1855-1942) in 1898, and they lived in Waltham, Ma.
  6. Anna Wharton Smith Wood gave the Cuffe papers to the New Bedford Free Public Library on October 23, 1943.

These documents have proven a rich source for research by many who have sought to gain a better understanding of and appreciation for Paul Cuffe – a remarkable act of honor and respect for a dear friend and a great man.

The Wainers

Paul Cuffe’s relationship with Michael Wainer and his family proved extremely important, much as his relationship with the Rotch family did.  However, the ancestry of Michael Wainer and the nature of Paul Cuffe’s relationship with Michael and his family was markedly different from that with the Rotches. Michael Wainer, named Micah Quebbin at birth in 1748, was the son of a Wampanoag woman, Mary Quebbin, and lived his early years in a Native community on either Martha’s Vineyard or in Dartmouth, or both. He had no formal education and apparently never learned to write as he, late in life, still signed deeds with his mark rather than a signature. While Paul and Michael were living within a few miles of each other and may have known each other beforehand, the relationship undoubtedly got a strong boost when Michael married Paul’s older sister, Mary, in 1772 a few months after Paul and Mary’s father, Cuff Slocum, died.

Michael Wainer probably crewed on whaling ships out of Nantucket or Dartmouth in his teen years, but he also probably worked as an assistant or apprentice to some tanners in the Russells Mills section of Dartmouth because he became sufficiently skilled to set up a tanning and shoemaking business on a property he purchased in Russells Mills in 1776. There is no record of when he changed his name from Quebbin to Wainer, but it is conceivable that he took the name Wainer as a shortened form of “cordwainer,” which was the common name of a person engaged in the shoemaking craft that he was practicing.

Michael Wainer may well have been like an older brother to Paul Cuffe and probably helped Paul get hired as a crew member on whaling ships beginning when he was only 14 years old. He may also have employed Paul in his tanning operations. There is no evidence that Michael was involved in Paul’s Nantucket supply runs during the War, but after the War, he may well have helped Paul launch his coastal shipping business.

When Paul Cuffe bought a small property on the west bank of the East Branch of the Acoaxet River and set up a shipbuilding business there in 1789, there is ample evidence that Michael became an active partner in that business. Within two years, Michael and Mary sold their property and tanning business at Russells Mills and bought some farm land nearer the shipyard. Michael and Paul became the owners and captains of the increasingly larger sailing ships that were built at that shipyard.

One of the most important links between Paul Cuffe and the Wainers was the fact that Michael and Mary Wainer had seven sons and all of them sailed on and captained the ships that were built and owned by their Uncle Paul and their father. One of the sons, Jeremiah, was lost at sea while captaining one of those ships Ranger in 1894. All of the other Wainer sons, Thomas, Gardner, Paul, David, John and Michael were very much involved in the Cuffe/Wainer shipping business and three of them, Thomas, John and Michael sailed with their Uncle Paul on his first trip to Sierra Leone in 1811.

Another manifestation of the close relationship between Paul Cuffe and the Wainers occurred in the years 1799 and 1800. Ebenezer Eddy, who had inherited much of his father’s property along the west bank of the East Branch of the Acoaxet River, wanted to sell two large parcels. They were the 100-acre Eddy family homestead and a 40-acre farm field known as the “Allen Lot.” Paul Cuffe purchased these two properties from Ebenezer Eddy in March of 1799, the homestead for $2,500 and the farm lot for $1,000. It is clear that he bought the Eddy homestead not for himself but for his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Michael Wainer and their family. The following year Paul sold the Eddy homestead to Michael and Mary Wainer and the deed records that the Wainers were already living on that property. Paul retained the “Allen Lot” and subsequently willed it to his youngest son, William Cuffe.

There are logical explanations for this two-stage transfer of the Eddy homestead. Paul Cuffe had recently built a sizeable new home on his shipyard property that was valued in a property tax assessment in 1798 at $600 and he was probably comfortably settled with his family in that new home. Michael Wainer had just purchased a 24-acre farm property on Hix Bridge Road that probably had a house on it for $600 in January 1799. This may have left him with insufficient funds to purchase the Eddy homestead, so his brother-in-law, Paul Cuffe, put up the money and put his name on the deed. The Eddy homestead was a much more favorable location than the Hix Bridge Road property. It was closer to the Paul Cuffe residence and docks and the house on it was most likely much more livable than the one that the Wainers had just purchased. It was probably a joint decision of Paul and Michael to buy the Eddy property and move the Wainers into that residence. When Michael did pay Paul the $2,500 one year later, he concurrently sold the Hix Bridge property to his oldest son, Thomas, and thereby raised a part of the money needed for the new transaction.

Michael Wainer’s wife and Paul Cuffe’s sister, Mary Wainer, died in Decenber of 1804. Two months later, Jeremiah Wainer, died at sea while captaining the Cuffe and Wainer ship Ranger. These two tragedies at the core of the two families must surely have drawn them even closer together. Michael, who was eleven years older than Paul, seems to have largely given up his sailing voyages by this time and was spending most of his time at home. But he still probably visited the shipyard and the Cuffe family home nearby on a regular basis. He also had taken on an apprentice cordwainer, Henry Peters, shortly after he moved to his new homestead and was undoubtedly active in this trade as well as instructing and supervising his apprentice.

One final testimony to the close relationship between Paul Cuffe and Michael Wainer is that Michael, when he drew up his will in 1814, designated Paul Cuffe, along with his eldest son, Thomas, and his immediate neighbor, Tillinghast Tripp, as the executors of his will. The fact that Paul Cuffe made his final long trip to Sierra Leone shortly after Michael’s death, and then became ill and died within a few months after his return from Sierra Leone meant that the burden of executor fell mainly on the other two designees.

Summing Up

In one sense, the Rotches provided Paul Cuffe with strong connections to the outside world – to the Quaker community, the Abolitionist community, the financial and business world and to the upper echelons of the English, European and American societies. The Wainers, on the other hand, helped Paul Cuffe build his connections with the Native American community and the seamen and workers of the South Coast of Massachusetts. These two sets of relationships began when Paul Cuffe was a teenager and lasted throughout his life. There was mutual respect and obviously great affection inherent in both of them. They helped Paul Cuffe to realize his inherent full potential and achieve greatness in a world that was rife with prejudice and disrespect for persons of his heritage.


Braidwood, Stephen J. Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London’ Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786-1791. Liverpool University Press, 1994.

 Bullard, John M. The Rotches. New Bedford, 1947.

Campbell, James. Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. New York, The Penguin Press, 2006.

Clifford, Mary Louise. From Slavery to Freetown: Black Loyalists after the American Revolution. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co. 1999.

Peterson, John. Province of Freedom: A History of Sierra Leone 1787-1870.  London, Faber and Faber, 1969.

Pybus, Cassandra. Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. Boston, Beacon Press, 2006.

Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution. New York, HarperCollins, 2006. (Paperback).

Sidbury, James. Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Thomas, Lamont D. Rise to Be a People: A Biography of Paul Cuffe. Urbana and Chicago, Univ. of Ill. Press, 1986.

Wiggins, Rosalind Cobb. Captain Paul Cuffe’s Logs and Letters, 1808-1817: A Black Quaker’s “Voice from within the Veil”.  Washington, Howard Univ. Press. 1996

Wilson, Ellen Gibson. The Loyal Blacks. New York, Capricorn Books. 1976.

Wilson, Ellen Gibson. John Clarkson and the African Adventure. London, MacMillan Press, 1980.

[i] The collection at the New Bedford Free Public Library entitled: Cuffe Collection: Manuscript and printed material relating to Paul Cuffe, his relatives and friends, is a combination of the documents obtained from Anna Wharton Wood and documents collected by James B. Congdon, for many years a leading member of the Board of Trustees of the Library as well as a collector of documents relating to Paul Cuffe. The collection is available on the Westport Historical Society website and the Town of Westport website.

David C. Cole

Westport, MA


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