Revealing the hidden figures of black history in Acadia

More than 200 years ago, a free African American named Thomas Frazer settled at what is now a picnic area in the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park. He fished, farmed and operated a salt works, and was the first non-Native American resident of the area.

black history in Acadia

A close-up of the Frazer Point Picnic Area wayside exhibit reveals a little bit about Thomas Frazer, a free African American who first showed up in the 1790 federal census. (Photo by Jana Matusz, NPS volunteer)

It’s a little-known aspect of black history in Acadia and surrounding communities, along with the rarely told stories of the Bar Harbor visits by NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois and black educator Booker T. Washington in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frazer’s story is briefly shared on a relatively new wayside exhibit at the Frazer Point Picnic Area.

While the National Park Service marks African American History Month every February by commemorating the civil rights struggles, it’s barely scratching the surface in relating other aspects of black history in Acadia and other national parks.

“Tell the full story,” said Audrey Peterman, an advocate of diversity in national parks, who has visited Acadia several times and had never heard about Frazer until contacted by Acadia on My Mind, and who only learned recently of DuBois’s visit to Bar Harbor.

“If you’re going to reach out to black people and brown people, you’re not going to reach them with the Rockefeller story…,” said Peterman, who blogs about diversity and parks for Huffington Post. “You reach them with the Thomas Frazer story, the W.E.B. DuBois story.”

audrey peterman

Audrey Peterman became an advocate of connecting all Americans to public lands after visiting Acadia. But she didn’t learn of Thomas Frazer until now, and says his story needs to be told. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Peterman)

“It would be nice if the park could do more,” agreed Allen K. Workman, who included Frazer’s story in his 2014 book, “Schoodic Point: History on the Edge of Acadia National Park.” (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links)

But he said he didn’t fault the park for focusing more on rich Rusticators who gave land for the park, than on Frazer, the history of quarrying and Italian immigrants to the area, or other lesser known aspects of the past. “Their resources are spread pretty thin.”

Unveiling little-known black history in Acadia National Park

With 3.3 million visitors to Acadia last year, the most since at least 1990; a deferred maintenance backlog now topping $68.25 million; a temporary hiring freeze under the Trump administration; and other challenges, it’s easy to see how telling the full history of the park and its people could fall by the wayside.

black history in acadia

Marie C. Yarborough, Acadia curator, helped research this wayside exhibit in front of the Rockefeller building, as well as one at the Frazer Point Picnic Area, both in the Schoodic section of the park. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Acadia National Park)

But Marie C. Yarborough, Acadia’s curator and cultural resources and interpretation liaison, and others, like education coordinator Kate Petrie, are trying to prevent that.

In researching the Frazer Point Picnic Area wayside exhibit, Yarborough included not only some of the history of Thomas Frazer from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also of the Wabanaki people who camped at the same point of land 2,000 years ago, and the artifacts from those distinct eras uncovered during park-sponsored archaeological digs in the 1970s and 1990s.

Petrie, who coordinates educational programs for the park’s Schoodic district, says the Frazer Point Picnic Area is used for middle school groups studying cultural history.

A wayside exhibit by its nature can’t go into much depth, and what Yarborough has uncovered so far about Frazer is just the tip of the iceberg. Yarborough just received a grant for a special Frazer research project, and expects to discover more about this hidden figure of black history in Acadia.

“The challenge always is…changing the dominant ‘cultural story’ we tell,” said Yarborough in an e-mail. She started at the park in 2009 as a seasonal ranger with a focus on cultural interpretation, and is now part-time curator who works with the park’s division of interpretation.

“I have been questioning the cultural stories we tell since I began here,” said Yarborough, although she added that the history of George B. Dorr, the Rockefellers, the French explorers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations and others still need to be shared.

frazer point

This graphic of the Frazer Point Picnic Area wayside exhibit includes some of the artifacts uncovered during 1970s and 1990s archaeological excavations of Wabanaki and Frazer sites, dating back 200 to 2,000 years ago. (Image courtesy of National Park Service, Acadia National Park)

“I push to recognize that there are OTHER stories to tell at the same time, and we need to open up our narrative to tell them. Like, women in Acadia? Eliza Homans…first large gift of land to Acadia was from a woman! We never hear about the women who were working to make this place Acadia. Also, I cannot believe that there were no other African Americans here…. What about the Italian and Portuguese immigrants? Oh, there are lots of stories to tell. I just need the time and space to find them.”

Yarborough, who has helped develop the park’s materials and programs about the Wabanaki and other aspects of Native American history and culture, hopes to add the same depth to the park’s information about Frazer with the new research grant.

“There is more to Thomas Frazer than I have found, and I intend to keep looking,” Yarborough said.

Uncovering black history in Acadia through story of Thomas Frazer

But what Yarborough, Schoodic historian Workman and others have already uncovered about Frazer is already engrossing.

As part of research into his book, Workman found that Frazer was listed as a “mulatto with wife and seven children” in the 1790 federal census, with his handwritten name squeezed in vertically in the margin, as if an afterthought.

schoodic point

Allen K. Workman included a section on Thomas Frazer in his book, “Schoodic Point.” (Image courtesy of Arcadia Publishing; see sidebar about Amazon.com links)

Frazer never owned the property that he developed, although he paid taxes on it, according to Workman’s research. And it’s unclear what his relationship to one of the London proprietors of the area, by the name of Thomas Frazier, was, according to Workman. During Colonial and early US history, there were African Americans who worked on ships and in the maritime trade, and not necessarily as slaves, he said.

“Not a lot is known about that gentleman,” said Workman, who is also secretary for the Gouldsboro Historical Society. “He comes out of nowhere and disappears into oblivion.”

As part of her research into the Frazer Point Picnic Area wayside exhibit, Yarborough consulted with academics who’ve specialized in African American history in Maine, and the archaeologist who was contracted by NPS to unearth the Frazer family homestead.

Among the items uncovered during the 1998 and 1999 excavations of the Frazer site: Pieces of ceramics, an 1802 coin, a pewter spoon, and animal bones, including those of farm animals, and those of the now-extinct sea mink.

In fact, the discovery of the sea mink bones in the Frazer cellar hole makes the homestead a “first” in more ways than one: Not only is the site historic for being where the first non-Native American in the area settled, it’s also the only site in Maine to have sea mink bones unearthed.

The items identified during the Frazer site excavation are stored in a climate controlled collections facility and generally restricted to the public, to protect the resource and discourage vandalism, according to Yarborough. But researchers interested in black history in Acadia can request an appointment.

Site of black history in Acadia not part of Schoodic historic district

While so much is still unknown about Thomas Frazer, it might seem that the name Frazer Point at least serves as a testament to the first African American settler in the area, and as a way to mark the importance of this little-known black history in Acadia.

frazer point

This historic photo, dating back to the mid-1800s, shows Frazer Point in the upper left-hand corner. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Acadia National Park)

But who Frazer Point was originally named after is clouded by the passage of time. Was it after Thomas Frazer the free African American? Or after the earliest recorded landowner, the London merchant Thomas Frazier, who may never have stepped foot on these shores?

And while NPS sponsored the archaeological excavation of the Frazer homestead, it didn’t include the site as part of the Schoodic Peninsula Historic District in its National Register of Historic Places designation in 2007.

Rather, the district encompasses the years 1929-1935, the era of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Civilian Conservation Corps and the development of the Schoodic section of the park. But in its registration form, NPS left open the possibility that the earlier history of Frazer Point, as documented by the archaeological excavations of Wabanaki and Frazer sites, could be added later, based on further research.

The Frazer history “is remarkable and definitely contributes to the ‘untold stories’,” said Nina S. Roberts, professor in San Francisco State University’s department of recreation, parks, and tourism, who specializes in race, culture and gender issues in parks and outdoor recreation, in an e-mail. “Lots of work still needs to be done.”

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