The Skolfield family built the Merrucoonegan Farm. Nearby, the family also built ships that carried sugar, cotton and other goods produced by enslaved people, whose labor helped make the family rich, according to recent research by the Pejepscot History Center. (Sam Lemonick photo)

New research is revealing the historical Skolfield family’s connections to slavery. As merchants, shipbuilders and sailors in the 1800s, the Skolfields profited from trading goods like cotton that were produced by enslaved people.

Their activities, and those of other prominent area residents of the time, stand in contrast to Brunswick’s reputation as a stronghold of abolitionist ideas. And today, sites in Harpswell and Brunswick still bear the family name.

According to Genevieve Vogel, a student researcher at the Pejepscot History Center, the patriarch of the Maine Skolfields, named Thomas, arrived from Ireland in the mid-1700s. His son Clement built Liberty Farm on what is now Route 123 and began building ships on the other side of the peninsula, in Skolfield Cove. Clement’s son George built the Merrucoonegan Farm. For several generations, the Skolfields lived and built ships in the area, which carried goods to the Caribbean and Europe.

The Skolfields were divided on the political question of slavery. George Skolfield’s nephews Thomas and Clement were Republicans who supported the Union. George and his sons, on the other hand, were Democrats who sympathized with the Confederate cause.

In practical terms, however, the Skolfields on both sides of the family were deeply connected to slavery. While none of the Skolfields are known to have ferried enslaved people from Africa across the Atlantic, members of the family built, owned, sailed on and profited from ships carrying cotton, tobacco and other commodities that were grown by enslaved people.

These details about the Skolfields and their activities come from research Vogel, of Brunswick, did at the History Center in the summer of 2022. She focused in particular on Alfred Skolfield, one of George’s sons, who built the mansion that now houses the History Center.

Vogel also found that Alfred worked as a sailor and captain for his uncle Clement, and later for his father and brothers, frequently carrying cotton from Southern ports to Europe. With his brother Samuel, he paid to build the double mansion now known as the Skolfield-Whittier House, on Park Row in Brunswick, around 1860.

When he retired from sailing in 1867, he became a ship broker and merchant in Liverpool, England, a major port for cotton imports. Liverpool was also known as a locus of support for the Confederacy, because of its interest in the cotton economy. In 1885, Albert returned to Brunswick and the mansion, adding new European furnishings.

The Pejepscot History Center now includes a link to Vogel’s research on the Skolfield-Whittier House’s webpage. The center’s executive director, Larissa Vigue Picard, says she proposed the research project to Vogel so the museum could give visitors a more complete understanding of the house’s origins.

We wanted to tell the truth about where the money for the house came from,” Picard says. Museum tours also include positive stories, especially about the houses’ later inhabitants, who were in the vanguard of science, medicine and women’s rights. But, Picard says, “You have to tell the good with the bad and present a full, honest story.”

Vogel’s work is part of a larger movement to reexamine America’s racial history. And the Skolfields’ story is not unique. Maine’s mills and rum distilleries imported their raw materials — cotton, grains and sugar — from the South, and exported the finished products. That trade made some Maine and New England families very wealthy, says Kate McMahon, head of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For most of them, including the Skolfields, she says, We don’t have evidence they bought and sold people, but we do know they deeply profited off slavery.”

The Skolfield name remains common in and around Harpswell. The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Skolfield Shores Preserve includes parts of the Liberty and Merrucoonegan Farms once owned by family members. One can also find a Skolfield Cove near the farms, and the road to the farm and preserve is Skolfield Place. Records indicate that descendants of the Skolfield family still live at the Merrucoonegan Farm property, but the Harpswell Anchor was unable to contact them.

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust maintains the Captain Alfred Skolfield Preserve north of the town line. And there is the Skolfield-Whittier mansion, which was donated to the Pejepscot History Center in 1982 by one of Alfred’s descendants.

McMahon says organizations and scholars in Maine and elsewhere are currently grappling with how best to handle similar situations, where place names reveal the benefits white Mainers derived from enslaved people. The Pejepscot History Center, for one, has chosen to use Vogel’s research to provide more context to the Skolfields’ wealth and legacy.

Julia McLeod, executive director of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, was not aware of Vogel’s research into the Skolfield legacy before the Anchor contacted her. She says the organization might consider changing its description of the Skolfield Shores Preserve’s history, which is presented on a sign at the trailhead and on the Land Trust’s website. Those descriptions do not currently include information about the family’s connections to the slave economy, referring only to the goods the Skolfields’ ships carried, among them sugar and cotton. Any such changes, she says, would require input for the organization’s board.

Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.