Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Capt. Nathaniel Gordon made his fourth and final slave-trading voyage to Africa in 1860. Gordon sailed up the Congo River in August and traded 150 hogsheads of whiskey for 897 human beings. Half of them were children. He packed them into the hold of his ship, the Erie, as tight as he could. He knew many would die on the way to the auction blocks in Cuba.
But just two hours out of the river’s mouth, the U.S.S. Mohican captured his vessel. He later became the only American ever tried, convicted and executed for the federal crime of slave trading.
Oh, and he was from Portland. Yep. He was from right here. Not a proud moment for this city, but it’s the truth — and that hurts, sometimes.
Gordon was awaiting execution in a New York prison 156 years ago this week, in 1861.
Gordon was 34 when he made that voyage, leaving a wife and 2-year-old son behind. He came from a long line of seamen. His grandfather died in a Caribbean shipwreck. His father, also a sea captain, was once arrested trying to smuggle a slave into the United States.
Savage as it was, slaving was a lucrative trade. In the mid-1800s, a slave from Africa could bring an estimated $400 to as much as $1,200. That means Gordon’s cargo of 800 slaves might bring between $320,000 and $960,000. In today’s money, that’s easily a multimillion-dollar trip.
International slave trading was outlawed by the Piracy Act of 1820, but it was rarely enforced. The most anyone ever seemed to get was a slap on the wrist. Gordon had made slave voyages before, taking his cargo to South America or Havana. It seemed as long as you didn’t try and brings slaves into the country, law enforcement didn’t much care.
That changed with the election of Abraham Lincoln, just a month after Gordon’s indictment, in 1860. Lincoln appointed anti-slavery, Republican federal prosecutor, E. Delafield Smith, to the New York District Court. Smith went after Gordon with the full power of the piracy law.
It took two trials but Smith won his conviction on Nov. 9, 1861. The judge then sentenced Gordon to hang on Feb. 7, 1862.
The president had a reputation for pardoning people and lots of folks assumed he’d do the same for Gordon once the point had been made. Gordon’s lawyer and many politicians urged Lincoln to do so. Two petitions, numbering 18,000 total signatures, came from Portland asking the president to spare Gordon.
The total population of the city at the time was around 26,000. Of course, only about 300 were African-American.
Lincoln was only moved enough to grant Gordon two extra weeks. The night before his execution, he purposely swallowed strychnine. Doctors worked all night to save him for the next day’s hanging. At noon, on Feb. 21, 1862, Gordon was hanged at the Toombs prison in New York.
Gordon’s wife, Elizabeth, stayed on in New York and eventually remarried. Their son ended up back in Portland where he became a marine diver and owned a grocery store. His son, also named Nathaniel Gordon, was managing editor for the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers from 1927 to 1945.
So, there you have it, a disturbing local tale, if there ever was one. I suppose it’s good to remember amid the talk of Confederate statues and flags these days. Mainers’ hands and consciences aren’t entirely clean.
Note: I gleaned almost all this info from Ron Soodalter’s 2007 book “Hanging Captain Gordon.”
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.