Home New England Historic Houses Moffatt-Ladd House: Colonial Portsmouth Mansion, Plus A Famous Tree

Moffatt-Ladd House: Colonial Portsmouth Mansion, Plus A Famous Tree

And a history in Black and white

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Portsmouth, N.H., has a long history of shipbuilding, still evident in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard across the Piscataqua River. But many of the city’s shipbuilders also bought and sold kidnapped Africans as slaves. You will learn about that historic inequality during a visit to the Moffatt-Ladd House, where a founding father slept in a feather bed and his enslaved servant slept on a mat on the floor.

During the 18th century, all of the people who lived in the Moffatt-Ladd House were associated with slavery, one way or another.

Aerial view of Portsmouth. The Moffatt-Ladd House is circled. Across the river from it is the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

John Moffatt outfitted a ship that brought 56 captured men, women and children from Guinea. Samuel Moffatt co-owned a slave trading vessel lost at sea in 1766-67. Moffatt’s nephew, William Whipple, co-owned a slave ship, the Black Pearl, that may have brought Prince, his brother and 184 others to the auction block in North America.

Moffatt-Ladd House History

John Moffatt was a wealthy New Hampshire shipbuilder who hired 12 men to build a grand house in 1760. It took them three years to finish. At three stories, it was the tallest building in Portsmouth. Moffatt then gave the house to his son Samuel as a wedding present the next year. Samuel had less luck in business than his father and fled to the West Indies to avoid debtor’s prison. His father moved back.

William Whipple married Samuel’s sister (and his own cousin) Katharine in 1771. He brought Prince with him when he moved into the Moffatt-Ladd House that year.

In 1775, New Hampshire sent Royal Gov. John Wentworth packing. The colony organized a provincial congress. Whipple won election as Portsmouth’s representative to the provincial congress, then to the Continental Congress. Prince accompanied him to sessions in Philadelphia and was with him when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

A depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the Declaration of Independence

Revolution

In 1777, William went to war with a commission as a captain. Prince went with him as his servant. Early in the war, the British had offered freedom to any enslaved men who fought with them. The Continental Army responded by enlisting Black soldiers. Prince got a promotion – to military aide and soldier in the New Hampshire militia. William also got a promotion to brigadier general.

Legend has William ordered to Vermont, and Prince saying to him, “”You are going to fight for your Liberty, but I have none to fight for.” Whatever the case, William did end Prince’s servitude in 1781, as the war wound down.

But before then, Prince and William fought at Saratoga and at the Battle of Rhode Island. Another legend has Prince Whipple accompanying George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware. It probably never happened. However, in the 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, some identify the black oarsman as Prince Whipple.

codfish-glovers-regiment

Crossing the Delaware. A Black man rows in the bow of the boat in front of Washington.

Return to Portsmouth

Before he won his freedom, Prince and 19 other enslaved men signed a petition for freedom and submitted it to the New Hampshire Legislature in 1779. Prince, who was literate, may have written the petition, which took some language from the Declaration of Independence.

The bondsmen emphatically rejected any idea that they are inferior to white people. And they ended with a prayer, “that the name of SLAVE may no more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom.”

They submitted the petition for freedom to the Legislature in Exeter on Nov. 12, 1779.

It was read in the House of Representatives on April 25, 1780, and ordered published in the New Hampshire Gazette. The newspaper printed it with a disclaimer that it was intended “for the amusement “ of its readers.

The House tabled it.

A Family Affair

For his service in the war, Prince received a small plot of land in Portsmouth. He married a woman named Dinah, freed from slavery on her 21st birthday. Prince, Dinah and Prince’s brother Cuffee built a house. Dinah taught children in the building, calling it the Ladies Charitable African School.

William Whipple became an associate justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire. He fell off his horse while riding the circuit in 1785, and he died of a heart ailment shortly thereafter. Prince outlived him by 11 years, an esteemed member of his community.

Moffatt-Ladd House today

Katharine Whipple, now widowed, held on to the house and ran the family business. Her granddaughter, Maria Ladd, inherited the house. Maria then bequeathed it to her four surviving children. The two women got their shares outright, but Maria gave their brothers the house in trust for their children.

One of the brothers, Alexander H. Ladd, bought out his siblings, modernized the house and created a Colonial Revival garden on the grounds. Eventually, the Ladd descendants leased and then sold the Moffatt-Ladd House to The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. The public can now take a guided tour from June to mid-October.

Freedom

Six of the Black men who signed the New Hampshire petition (including Prince Whipple) did gain their freedom after the Revolution. Others had to wait a lot longer. In 2013, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a bill to posthumously free the remaining slaves. Gov. Maggie Hassan signed it into law. King Nero Brewster won his freedom, on Friday, June 7, 2013.

Portsmouth Today

Time started to pass Portsmouth by when Thomas Jefferson declared his embargo. That stifled the shipbuilding industry, and Portsmouth no longer thrived. The happy outcome of Jefferson’s handiwork was the preservation of dozens of gorgeous Federal style homes and commercial buildings, since restored to their former glory.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum in Market Square.

Portsmouth has an abundance of historic house museums, many operating independently of each other. Strawbery Banke Museum, though, consolidates about two dozen buildings — including a tavern, a general store and a wigwam — into a single museum-going experience.  Click here for a guide to the city’s historic attractions.

Portsmouth also recognizes its Black history in its Black Heritage Trail. Click here for more information.

Or you can just walk around downtown Portsmouth, declared a National Historic District in 2017.

Five Things You’ll Remember About the Moffatt-Ladd House

Chestnut Tree

After William Whipple signed the Declaration of Independence, he and Prince Whipple returned to Portsmouth. They – well, probably, Prince or another enslaved servant — planted the seeds of the tree next to the house. Other signers of the Declaration also planted trees to commemorate the momentous occasion.

In the Moffatt-Ladd House garden, three probably grew to maturity, and one survives to this day.

That’s the tree to the left of the house.

Staircase

The broad and sweeping staircase is a work of art. Ebenezer Deering carved its elaborate modillions, rosettes, stair brackets and capitals. Each stair tread has three balusters, and each has a different kind of turning. The scenic wallpaper, probably added around 1820, adds to the majestic effect.

The staircase rises from a grand hallway, which takes up one-fourth of the first floor. The Moffats probably entertained guests in the impressive entrance. They may have used it as a ballroom.

William Whipple’s sword

There nothing like a Revolutionary War artifact to get the history buff’s juices flowing. The sword used by William Whipple during the battles of Saratoga and Rhode Island doesn’t disappoint.

William Whipple

Original Furnishings

John Moffatt did not scrimp on furniture, as some of the surviving pieces make clear. They include beautifully carved furniture from Portsmouth craftsmen and parlor chairs covered with fabric from England. The house also features fine China from England, fine glassware and carpeting, and baskets and woodenware made by local Native Americans. The surprisingly bold wallpaper will be hard to forget.

Some pieces, though, represent the period and didn’t belong to the Moffatt family.

Garden

Alexander Hamilton Ladd designed the terraced Colonial Revival garden. With waterfront views, it’s a delightful spot for eating lunch or even for getting married. (The house can be rented out for weddings.)

If you visit…

Guided tours of the house are available June through mid-October, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. Tours last 45-60 minutes.

The garden opens for self-guided tours around lunchtime during the workweek. Admission is by donation. It’s a beautiful spot to spend some time or even enjoy a bagged lunch on your lunch hour.

Parking can be tough in Portsmouth, but there’s a multi-story garage nearby on Hanover Street. It costs only $2 per hour.

The Moffatt-Ladd House has a quaint little gift shop that sells heirloom plants from the garden and seeds from William Whipple’s horse chestnut tree.

Click here for the Moffatt-Ladd House website.

Images: Aerial view of Portsmouth: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of a portion of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Maine, across the Piscataqua River, is to the left. United States Portsmouth New Hampshire, 2017. -10-18. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017884988/. Moffatt-Ladd House (featured image) By InAweofGod'sCreation – Blue -ti -ful Moffat-Ladd House, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70507899.

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