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Sailing away to freedom: New research on a Shelter Islander’s quest

In recognition of Juneteenth, we present this story, which ran in February.

He vanished overnight, escaping injustice, leaving everything behind to find freedom in a new life.

William Pharaoh also vanished from history, until new research by Donnamarie Barnes, the Sylvester Manor director of history and heritage, takes us further along in the story of a remarkable life.

William and his brother, Issac, were brought to Sylvester Manor in 1830 and put into indentured servitude, which means slavery but with an end date to be decided by the enslaver. The boys, of African-American and Montaukett heritage, came to the Manor when William was 8 and Issac 5, and lived under the eaves in the attic of the Manor House.

The quarters were grim, made of rough boards. Bone cold in the winter, stifling in summer, it was a home to mice and with no screens to keep out mosquitoes.

Ms. Barnes, in her earlier research, came upon a letter written in August 1840 that began, “William has run away.” The letter, Ms. Barnes said, recounts how William and Isaac had gone to Greenport on errands one day and were seen speaking to the captain of a sloop that was bound for New London that night.

“The boys came home and had dinner,” Ms. Barnes said. “But the next morning, William and his things were gone. He was never heard from again.”

Until now. New research by Ms. Barnes carries his story a bit further. Recently she came upon Williams’s name in a database, whalinghistory.org, which revealed that after arriving in New London from Greenport that August day 182 years ago, he signed on to the Superior, a whaling vessel.

He lied about his age (and apparently his indentured status), saying he was 21, when he was 19. The ship’s manifest spelled his name “Faro,” and other log information noted that he was 5 feet 9 inches tall, “an Indian from Long Island.”

The Superior was bound for the South Atlantic and hunted whales for two years. When it returned in July 1842, William signed on as a crew member of the Jason, which went whaling off the tip of South Africa and into the Indian Ocean. The ship’s logs, Ms. Barnes said, record the Jason sailing to the island nations of Madagascar and Mauritius, returning to New London in May 1844.

Whaling in the 19th century was an enormously profitable industry, and working on the ships was a meritocracy, so no matter who you were or where you came from, you could advance in the seaman’s trade and be free. On the East End and throughout New England, hundreds of men of color — Native Americans and free black men — signed on to ships and plied the world’s oceans, often on voyages lasting more than three years.

“It is not a very well told story that men of color were such a big part of the whaling story,” said Sandi Brewster-Walker, who grew up in Amityville and is of Montaukett heritage on her father’s side. She has done extensive research and has written about Native Americans and free black men who worked in the industry.

As Times Review Executive Editor Steve Wick has written, “Before oil was pumped out of the ground in Pennsylvania in 1859, the oil of oils, the best of the best, was the pure oil found in the head of a sperm whale. Thousands of whaling vessels sailed the world’s oceans in search of whales to kill. On Long Island, Sag Harbor and Greenport were the main whaling ports, with small operations in New Suffolk and perhaps Jamesport. The industry made ship owners and captains wealthy, as is evidenced by the beautiful homes they left behind on the East End. Crew members received tiny portions of the overall value of oil.”

But the meritocracy meant that if you were hardworking you could move up the ranks of a ship’s crew, no matter your race or class.

“In terms of dollars, the whaling industry brought in huge amounts of money,” said Michael Butler, general manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. “It was the main center of employment and the main funding for the local economies. It made a lot of people very wealthy — in today’s dollars, hundreds of millions. We also know that probably 30% of whalers and sailors were people of color.”

The rest of William Pharaoh’s story remains to be told, Ms. Barnes said. New information about him following his dream of going to sea “is an incredible finding, and that there are many great stories waiting to be told,” she added.

That dream of escaping to find liberty and becoming a free man in the world is best illustrated, literally, by etchings of sailing ships on a wooden beam near a narrow attic window of the Manor house. You can see a progression in the work, from a suggestion of a ship to finely drawn images of sails and intricate renderings of ropes and riggings.

The drawings — probably etched into the wood by a nail — were made by William Pharaoh, speaking across the centuries of an indentured boy’s search for expression and freedom.

(Credit: Beverlea Walz)

Here is a link to the Shelter Island Historical Society and Sylvester Manor’s report: “See Their Names:” shelterislandhistorical.org/seetheirnames.html