Augusta’s Forgotten Minister: John Eason (1786-1879)

Last week I transcribed a remarkable interview from 1877 detailing the life of John Eason of Augusta, Maine, an African American Freewill Baptist preacher who played by Plymouth Rock as a child. The interview contains numerous fascinating stories from John Eason’s life, as well as several inaccuracies. So let’s dive a little deeper into his background and life.

 

John Eason’s Controversial Birthyear – 1776 0r 1786? 

The reporter stated “The old bible in the chimney corner bears this record: John Eason, born May 14th, 1776, making Mr. Eason one hundred and one years old the 14th of May last [1877]. It is just to say that the old gentleman doubts the reliability of this record and believes himself ten years younger, but the evidences are against his theory.”

However, John Eason’s belief that he was ten years younger seems to be accurate, based on both the stories he told in this newspaper interview, as well as a reconstruction of his origins. Eason recalled that he was about 12 at the time of George Washington’s funeral, which occurred in 1799, making his birthdate more likely to be 14 May 1786. He also said he remembered Baptist minister John Drew preaching when he was 4 or 5 years old [Drew became a preacher in 1789], that Eason’s family moved to Maine when he was about 13, and that he was baptized at the age of 17 by Rev. Ebenezer Hamlin in Maine, which I will further argue helps to support a birthdate of circa 1786 rather than 1776. Thus, John Eason did not quite live to be a century old, despite the paper’s claims. Their mistake, however, was a valuable one, since their curiosity led to Eason’s interview.

John Eason’s Origins

The newspaper never named John Eason’s father and mother, who are both referred to in the article. John Eason was the son of Caesar Eason Jr. and his second wife Eleanor Boo/Booy/Boas/Boaz/Bowes of Middleborough, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and later Wareham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and Green Plantation, Maine.

Caesar Eason Jr. was the son of Caesar Eason Sr. and Mercy Gundaway, a free black couple who were granted land by the Titicut Indians on the Titicut reservation in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Caesar Eason Jr. was the grandson of Richard and Mingo Gundaway of Plymouth, Mass., an enslaved married couple who were the first black family in the First Plymouth Congregational Church, and later granted their freedom.

Caesar Eason Jr. first married Eunice Sewall in the Fourth Church of Christ, North Bridgewater (now the First Congregational Church in Brockton), on 19 March 1778. Eunice died sometime prior to 1785, and it is unclear if they had children. Eunice (Sewall) Eason’s brother, Elias Sewall, moved from Brockton, Mass. to Vassalborough, Maine by 1790. Elias Sewall moved to China, Kennebec, Maine by 1800.

Following Eunice’s death, Caesar Eason Jr. married Eleanor Boas. They published intentions in Middleborough, Mass. on 12 June 1785, described as “black persons, both of Middleborough.” Eleanor’s surname was mis-transcribed as “Bass” in Middleborough’s printed vital records, but the original reads “Boas”. She was the granddaughter of Sambo, who was enslaved by Middleborough minister Rev. Peter Thacher, and Titicut Indian Martha Chummuck/Chubbuck, who married in 1749. Sambo was manumitted shortly after Rev. Peter Thacher’s death, and he moved to Scituate with his wife and children in the 1750s. There, he went by the name Sam Bo, and his children took the surname “Bo”, which was alternatively spelled “Bo”, “Boo”, “Booy”. Years later, the surname also transformed into “Bowes”, “Boas”, and “Boaz”.

Sambo and Martha’s eldest son James Boo, born circa 1749 (although he later reported his birthdate as ca. 1754) married a Marshfield, Mass. Indian woman named Bethiah circa 1765. On 6 June 1767, Middleborough constable Job Macomber warned “James Booy, a negro man, and his wife Bethiah and small children Daniel and Eleanor, lately come from Marshfield to reside in this town, they being no inhabitants of the same, to depart.” James fought in the Revolutionary War as a soldier from Plymouth, Mass., and later moved his family to Maine where he received a Revolutionary War pension. His 19 year old daughter Eleanor was a resident of Middleborough, Mass. when she married Caesar Eason Jr. in 1785. Shortly thereafter, Caesar Eason Jr. found work in Wareham, Mass.

 

John Eason was the firstborn child of Caesar Eason Jr. and Eleanor Boas. He reported that he was born in Wareham, Mass., although no record of his birth has been located. John believed that he was born May 14th, 1786, rather than the reporter’s belief that the family bible stated he was born May 14th 1776.  Eason could not read, so it is difficult to assess if the reporter mis-read the handwriting in the bible. Although a birthyear of 1776 could place John as a son of Caesar Eason’s first wife Eunice Sewall, his claim that he was born ca. 1786 and the memories of events in his childhood teenage years better fit a birthyear of 1786. Even the family’s residence helps to support this – the Easons resided in Middleborough and Brockton, Mass. in the 1770s, and in Middleborough and Wareham in the 1780s.

Another probable son of this couple, Peter Eason (likely named in honor of his paternal uncle Peter Boo, b. ca. 1763 in Scituate, a half brother of James Boo through Sambo’s second marriage to Indian woman Hannah Richards), was born to Caesar and Eleanor Eason in November 1787 [birthdate calculated from his age at death]. He was also probably born in Wareham, although no birth record can be identified for him.

In April 1788, white Rochester yeoman Jeremiah Clap [b. 1762, a descendant of Kenelm Winslow] was presented at Plymouth Court for assaulting Caesar Easton at Wareham. The case was brought forward to October 1788, where it was argued that Clap “did beat, wound, and ill treat” Caesar Easton. However, the court ordered a nolle prosequi, and the case was dropped. The family’s surname in Plymouth County records was spelled as both Eason and Easton.

John Eason’s “memory goes back to the age of four or five years, can recall distinctly to mind a Baptist minister who at that time preached in his town – Elder John Drew, who afterwards took to drinking, working Sundays, and behaving like any other backshodden critter, and finally left the ministry.” This refers to Rev. John Drew (b. 1759), who was ordained by Middleborough, Mass. Baptist minister Rev. Isaac Backus in 1789. John’s memory here is likely spanning several years and locations – he perhaps remembered a childhood visit that Rev. John Drew made to Plymouth County, Mass. sometime during the early 1790s – Rev. Backus did record visits with Rev. Drew. However during the 1790s Drew was based in Hartford, Vt. Drew became the Baptist minister at Carver, Plymouth County, Mass. from 1802-1803, but by then the Easons had removed to Green Plantation, Maine. Drew himself then moved to Green Plantation, Me. were he occasionally preached from 1803-1814, before moving to Pennsylvania. According to Eason’s memories, Drew was not an “ideal” minister during his time in Green Plantation.

John Eason recalled that when he was about 13, circa 1799, Caesar Eason and his family moved from Plymouth County, Massachusetts to Green Plantation in Maine. The town had first been settled circa 1790,  and was known as Green Plantation, Green’s Plantation, or just “Green”/”Greene”. It was incorporated as the town of Belmont in 1814. In 1855, North Belmont incorporated into the town of Morrill. The Easons lived in the section of Green Plantation that became the town of Morrill.

John “remembers when Washington’s funeral took place [1799] and all the men wore crape on their sleeves. He was then some 12 years old [b. 1788] and this establishes his present great age.”

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Massachusetts mourning arm band for George Washington. 1799. Courtesy of the MFA.

 

The Eason family was not listed in early Green Plantation, Maine census records. There were no black heads of households in Green in the 1790 Census.  There were two black heads of household residing in the town in the 1800 Census: 11 people of color resided in the household of Charles Bowes, and 7 people of color resided in the household of Sampson Freeman. Additionally, one person of color resided in white family of Jacob Stevens. The family of Sampson Freeman was discussed in “Appendix: Sampson Freeman”, from “Peter and Jane (_____) Freeman of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Their Descendants in Maine: An African-American Family” Register 164 (Jan. 2010), 52-54, which establishes that the Freeman family were not related to the Easons.

Caesar Eason and his family probably lived for a time with Eleanor (Boas) Eason’s brother Charles Boas/Bowes in Green Plantation, Maine. Caesar Eason perhaps died shortly after the move to Maine. In John’s memories of his religious conversion at the age of 17, he makes repeated references to conversations with his mother about the subject, with no reference to his father. Unfortunately, the Belmont [Green Plantation] Vital and Town Records burned in 1855, so early records related to the Eason family do not survive.

Curiously, there are two probable records for Eleanor (Boas) Eason in Massachusetts records. In the 1800 Census, Eleanor Easton was a  black head of household with 3 freepersons (perhaps Eleanor, John and Peter) residing in Middleborough, Massachusetts. And on 18 March 1822, a division of the poor between Bridgewater and West Bridgewater included: “To West Bridgewater: Ellenor Ceaser”. Additionally, Peter Eason married Rhoda Cuffe, a daughter of Capt. Paul Cuffe, in Westport, Massachusetts in 1819. Rev. Peter Eason became a minister to the Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut from 1821-1823, before returning to Westport, Mass. where he died in 1824. Peter and Rhoda Eason had three sons who all died young: Peter Paul Eason (1819-1834), Charles Eason (1820-1845), and Daniel H. Eason (1822-1840). Perhaps Caesar Eason died immediately after the family’s removal to Maine, after which Eleanor returned (willingly, or unwillingly if Green’s selectman and Overseers of the Poor warned the family out) to Massachusetts with her two young sons circa 1800 before deciding to return back to Maine. In the fall of 1805, when John was 17 years old, he was working in Maine producing shingles and living with his mother when Rev. Ebenezer Hamlin, the Freewill Baptist minister of Knox, Maine, preached at Green Plantation and baptized John.

John Eason published marriage intentions with Eliza Swain in Belfast, Maine on 28 March 1810, and both were listed as residents of Green, Maine. They had three children, a son Peter (likely named in Rev. Peter Eason’s honor), a daughter Mary, and another son.

Perhaps following John Eason’s 1810 marriage, his mother Eleanor and brother Peter again returned to Massachusetts, since Peter married in Massachusetts in 1819. But Eleanor may have again returned to Maine in 1820, when she may have been the woman of color over the age of 45 residing in the household of John Eason in Belmont, Maine. The household consisted of two colored males under the age of 16 (Peter and the other Eason son), 1 colored male 26-45 (John), 1 colored female under 14 (Mary) and one colored female over 45 (perhaps Eleanor). John’s first wife Eliza had died by 1820, and he shortly thereafter married his second wife Catherine. Perhaps Eleanor again removed to Massachusetts by 1822. Or perhaps the “Ellenor Ceaser” in Bridgewater, Mass. in 1822 was a different woman altogether, since there were several people of color with the surname (or first name which was later used as a surname of a spouse or parent) Caesar in the area in the late 18th/early 19th century.

 

John Eason’s Conversion and Baptism by Elder Ebenezer Hamlin – Circa Autumn 1805

“I first felt a change of spirit in the fall of the year when I was 17 years old [1805]. There was Calvinist Baptist preaching in town [including Rev. John Drew] – no Free Will Baptists… The Freewillers were made fun of, when one was seen coming, the people would sing out, ‘Run, run, the Freewillers will take you and tear you all to pieces.'”

John worked as a laborer in a camp shaving shingles, and one night while working there alone he had a vision that God reproached him, and the same night he had a dream that it was judgement day, which he awoke from terrified. “The very next night went to hear the Free Will Baptist preacher, Elder Ebenezer Hamblen, who is buried in the Insane Hospital Cemetery [in Augusta, Maine] and who baptised me. They had got him down from Knox to preach, to make fun of. He came with some deacons and a number of young converts, meetings were held in the tavern. I had to walk two miles, and the minister was done with his sermon when I got there. As I sat down my dream came to me – the day of judgment, and I felt as though I ought to pray for mercy.”

As he prayed he had another vision, this time of falling into a pit to Hell. After his experience, he was baptized by Rev. Ebenezer Hamlin. His friends and family were perhaps confused by his experiences: “People said I had been frightened into religion, but bress de Lord, I wish everybody would be as scared as I was! Went home and they had a praying season. Mother says, ‘John, can’t you kneel down and thank God?’ I said, ‘O, mother, such as critter as I am, with no faith?’ When I sat down to breakfast the next morning, the words came to me, ‘Except ye eat my flesh,’ &c. and after that I felt happy – and was confident that God had mercy on my soul for Christ’s sake.”

John Eason’s Life in Belmont and Norridgewock, Maine

“The parson has had three wives, all of whom have ‘gone before'”. John Eason first married Eliza Swain in 1810, who died in Belmont, Maine by 1820. He married his second wife Catherine in Belmont, Maine circa 1822, who died in Augusta, Maine sometime between 1860 and 1868. He married his third wife Priscilla Thompson in Augusta, Maine on 21 January 1869, who died in Augusta, Maine sometime between 1870 and 1877.

In 1810, “he married his first wife [Eliza Swain] in Belmont.” Their children were mentioned above.

Following his second marriage to Catherine, “he removed from Belmont to Sidney where he remained a few years, cultivating the soil and doing odd jobs.” They had sons John Eason Jr. (b. ca. 1822), Daniel Eason (b. ca. 1833), and a third son, as well as a daughter Margaret (b. ca. 1829).

In the 1830 Census, John Eason was the head of household in Norridgewock, Maine. His household consisted of 2 colored males under 10 (John and another son), 2 colored males 10-23, (Peter and another son), 1 colored male 36 thru 54 (John), 1 colored female under 10 (Margaret), 1 colored female 10 thru 23 (Mary), and 1 colored female 36 thru 54 (Catherine). John reported in 1877 that he was been in Augusta, Maine for 43 years – moving about 1834 (and witnessed the January 1835 execution of wife murderer Joseph Sager in Augusta). John’s son Peter Eason, a mariner, was a resident of Norridgewock in 1836 when a seaman’s protection certificate was filed for him in Bath, Maine.

Moving to Augusta, Maine

John Eason moved to Augusta “43 years ago [circa 1834], and he has resided ever since here.” In January 1835, John Eason “Saw Sager hung, his whole family were there, and he had the baby [Daniel] in arms. He remembers distinctly Sager’s last words, ‘Gentleman, I am – but the fatal rope chocked the utterance of the last word – innocent.'”  On 2 January 1835, Joseph J. Sager of Gardiner, Maine was hanged in Augusta after being convicted of poisoning his wife. “He was charged with putting a “substantial amount” of arsenic in a wine-egg-sugar drink he gave her for breakfast. Joseph was executed on a gallows erected on Winthrop Street near the jail. It is reported that thousands, including many women, witnessed the execution.” Sager claimed his innocence to the end. At his trial, with anti-Catholic sentiment, Sager accused his Irish servant girl of the crime, stating the Catholics “believe they can have all their sins pardoned by the priest at all times.”

sagermurder

Sager murder trial report, courtesy of Harvard

When John Eason first moved to Augusta, “he says he got in to a state of back sliddeness because he didn’t join the church when he came here, although his hope was not at any time clean gone. He thought he wouldn’t go to meeting but keep up family prayers, then family prayers were dropped, and he prayed in secret, finally he laid down the duty of family prayer and that’s the way darkness temporarily shadowed his soul. He first lived near the State House, but afterwards removed to North Street. There were only three or four stores in the place. The Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists had meeting houses. He helped raise the belfry of the old Baptist meeting house.”

John Eason was an Augusta taxpayer in 1838. In 1840, the family of John Eason was enumerated in Augusta, consisting of one colored male under 10 (Daniel), 2 colored males 10 thru 23 (John and another son), 1 colored male 36 thru 54 (John), 1 colored female 10 thru 23 (Margaret), and 1 colored female 36 thru 54 (Catherine).

 

The Ministry of Parson John Eason, Augusta Free Will Baptist Church, ca. 1838-1852

“We refer to Mr. John Eason, the colored man better known as “Father Eason” or “Parson Eason”…He was sexton of the Baptist Church the first year he came here, but when Elder [Simon] Curtis came here to organize a Free [Will] Baptist Church, that being the people of his choice, he went with them. The Free Baptist Society then had meetings in the old Town House, and after Curtis left [circa 1838], Eason conducted the meetings, often taking texts and expounding in his original and quaint manner, the meaning of the Word, as it appeared to him. From this service he obtained the title of Parson, although the old gentleman in his great modesty, disclaims any such honor.”

“Father Eason never could read, but his memory was so retentive that it appropriated everything he heard, and thus he is able to quote scripture freely…In regard to preachers, his criticism is, “Any man is a good preacher who has the Holy Spirit to aid him, that is enough.”

Although never officially ordained, the illiterate Parson John Eason preached for over a decade with Augusta’s Free Will Baptist Society. “He did not, however, become a member of the church until the coming of Mr. [Oren Burbank] Cheney as its pastor [who served Augusta’s Free Will Baptist Church for “five years” beginning in 1852]. In the early struggles of the church, he often went into the woods, cut wood for fuel, to burn in the meeting house, and toted it home on his hand sled.”

Later Life in Augusta

In the 1850 Census, John Eason (67, laborer) was enumerated with is wife Catherine Eason (64), and 15 year old son Daniel Eason.

In the 1860 Census, John Eason (70, laborer) was enumerated with is wife Catharine Eason (66) and boarder Olivia F Too (61, widow). Olive Mann, an Indian woman, married David Too in Leeds, Maine in 1832. Monhegan, the cradle of New England: Genealogy of Some Livermore Pioneers claimed that David Too “was a negro [who] died in 1859 and as the town gave them assistance, his wife [Olive] asked the selectmen to give her a pint of camphor to rub on David’s face until his burial. This they did, but instead of David’s face being embalmed by the use of the camphor, she drank it all. The third day after, she was with David.” Since Olive was still alive in the 1860 Census with the Eason family in Augusta, this anecdote’s conclusion is obviously erroneous.

John Eason’s wife Catherine died by 1868. He then married Priscilla Thompson in Augusta, Maine on 21 January 1869. In the 1870 Census, John Eason (80, laborer) was enumerated with his wife Priscilla Eason (75, keeping house), his son John Eason Jr. (45, laborer), Mary Eason (49, keeping house), his son Daniel Eason (40, laborer), Daniel’s wife Hannah Eason (35), and Daniel and Hannah’s son Raphael Eason (10).

In the 1871 Augusta City Directory, laborer John Eason resided in the rear of a house located on North St. near Bennett St. His son Daniel also lived in the house, and worked as a hosteler at 4 Reed St. His son John Eason Jr. worked as a laborer, and had moved to a house on Bangor Road near Pettengill’s corner.

northst-augusta

North Street and Bennett Street in Augusta, Maine, where John Eason lived in 1871. From 1851 Augusta Map, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On 20 September 1873, the Daily Kennebec Journal reported that: “Uncle Eason, or Parson Eason, that good old colored man, nearly 84 years of age, now feeble and past all labor, sits calmly and peacefully in his hut in North Street, in this city, waiting for the Son of Man to take him home to the place where all good colored folks go. He asks for nothing, but is very grateful for anything given him, of which food and firewood is most needed.”

Laborer John Eason still resided in the rear of a house on North St., near Bennett St in the 1876 Augusta City Directory. His son Daniel Eason lived in a house on Prospect St., working as a hosteler on 4 Reed St.

 

Where did he live at the time of the interview?

“He lives with his daughter, Mrs. [Margaret] Williams, on Cushnoc heights in this city. The other day in company with his beloved pastor, Rev. Mr. Penney, we visited Father Eason and spent a delightful hour in his company. The cottage in which he resides on Washington Street is a humble, though a comfortable one, a one story wood colored domicile. Kindly hands prompted by warm hears minister to him and perform those loving offices so comforting to a person in his present condition.”

“Though for about four years deprived of the privilege of attending preaching services, the old man has been comforted by the frequent visits of praying friends, and on the very day of our visit he was looking forward with kindling ardor to a prayer meeting appointed to be held at the house that evening. ”

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Washington St. on Cushnoc Heights, where John Eason resided at the time of his interview in 1877. From 1878 Augusta Maine map, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Death of Parson John Eason, 1879.

John Eason died in Augusta, Maine, 12 February 1879 at the age of 92 [local newspapers, relying on the 1877 Daily Kennebec Journal article, reported his age at death as 102].

Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), 18 February 1879, reported: “John Eason of Augusta, colored, known as Parson Eason died Wednesday, aged 102 years. He was born in Wareham, Mass.”

Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, Maine) 24 February 1879, p. 3 reported: “The funeral services of Mr. John Eason, known in the community as Father Eason, will take place at the Free Baptist Church tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon at 2 o’clock.”

No gravestone has been identified for John Eason or any of his family members in Augusta, Maine. However, he may have been buried in an unmarked grave in the Forest Grove or Mount Hope cemeteries, located in downtown Augusta near where John Eason lived.

 

Parson John Eason spent his childhood years playing by Plymouth Rock, a descendant of Wampanoag and Massachuset Indian families, as well as one of Plymouth’s earliest enslaved African families. Poor and illiterate, he moved with his family from the south shore of Massachusetts to the frontier in Maine in the wake of the American Revolution, and went on to became a leader of Augusta’s Freewill Baptist Church for over a decade. Since he was not ordained, he was not recognized as an official minister of the church during this time, but his 1877 interview makes it clear that both black and white citizens of Augusta recognized John Eason as the Freewill Baptist minister during those years and valued his passionate sermons. Eason’s replacement at Augusta’s Freewill Baptist Church, Rev. Oren B. Cheney, went on to famously create Bates College, but it appears that Augusta’s history books have forgotten Rev. John Eason and his fascinating life.

 

Up Next: A Tragedy in the Home of Daniel Eason (son of Parson John Eason)

 

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One thought on “Augusta’s Forgotten Minister: John Eason (1786-1879)

  1. Pingback: The “Man of a Century”: Parson John Eason of Augusta, Maine | Of Graveyards and Things

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