The 18th Century Tobias Lear Household Owned at least Two Enslaved Persons; One Served in the Continental Navy as a Lear Substitute
By Stephen Foster based on research by Jo Foster Keefe
At least two enslaved persons were part of the households of the three Tobias Lears — numbers III, IV and V — who lived in the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in Portsmouth during the second half of the 18th century. One of them, named Caesar Lear, served in the Revolutionary War as a seaman on a Portsmouth-built frigate, the Raleigh, quite possibly as a substitute for Tobias Lear V, the young man who later became personal secretary to George Washington.
As noted in Sandra Rux’s “History of the Lear House and Families,” posted on this website, evidence that the Lears were slave owners can be gleaned from the estate inventory of ship captain and merchant Tobias Lear III, who died in 1751. The property inventory references “a Negro woman and her child,” valued at £250.
Ownership of slaves was not uncommon among Portsmouth’s merchant class in the 18th century. New Hampshire had some 656 enslaved persons in 1775, according to “Black Portsmouth,” out of a total population of some 60,000. A 1767 tally of “African slaves” in Portsmouth put the number at 187, out of a total city population of some 4,000.
Venus was the name of the “Negro woman” owned by the Lears. This we know from a 1754 church record noting the baptism of a Venus Lear, described as “Mrs. Lear’s Servant,” on July 28 of that year. The “Mrs. Lear” in question was Elizabeth (Hall) Lear, the widow of Tobias Lear III. Her widow’s inheritance could well have included both Venus and her child.
Mrs. Lear Sells Violet to her Sister
Twenty years later, on March 1, 1773, Elizabeth (Hall) Lear is recorded as selling a “Negro wench named Violet” to her sister Mary (Hall) Langdon, wife of John Langdon, Sr., for a sum of £25, payable in six installments. The friendly transaction between sisters provided that the installment payments would “die” with Violet.
Was Violet the child of Venus, or had she been acquired separately by the widow Lear? We do not know. Elizabeth Hall Lear, incidentally, died in 1774, the year following her sale of Violet to the Langdons. A burial ground on the edge of Portsmouth towards Rye contains the undated graves of several slaves owned by the Langdon family, a Violet among them.
Caesar Lear Serves for Tobias Lear
If Violet was not Venus Lear’s child, another possibility is suggested by a Continental Navy document from 1777. That’s when a “Casar [sic] Lear” appears as a seaman on the roster of the newly built frigate Raleigh as it prepared to enter service in the war of independence against the British. The entry reads in its entirety:
“Casar Lear * for Tobias Lear, Seaman; time of entry, June 16; time of appearance, June 16; time entered for, 1 year; place of residence Portsmo; stature, 5 ft. 5 in.; complexion, black; Affrican. [N.B. The asterisk denotes illiteracy.]
If this Caesar Lear was the young child of Venus noted in Tobias Lear III’s 1751 estate inventory, by 1777 he would have been a mature man in his late thirties or early forties. In any event, he was almost certainly an enslaved person owned by the Lears. The most provocative piece of information in this rich historical record is that this 5 ft. 5 in. “black,” enslaved, “Affrican” named Caesar Lear, was to serve in the Constitutional Navy “for Tobias Lear,” that is to say, as a substitute for Tobias Lear.
Which Tobias Lear, IV or V?
Ah, but which Tobias Lear? Tobias Lear IV was 41 years old at the time and well within the age range of potential conscripts into the fledgling Continental military forces, which typically ran from ages 16 or 17 to 60. Tobias Lear V, on the other hand, was a mere 14 year-old boy, and officially too young to be conscripted, though the American forces were replete with boys his age, and even younger.
Perhaps Caesar Lear was to serve as a substitute for both Lears, father and son. We don’t know what the precise conscription rules were in New Hampshire at the time, but earlier conscription rules in the Colonies allowed two potential conscripts to avoid service by providing a single substitute. Or perhaps the elder Tobias Lear had independent grounds for exemption from service, as he played an important role in the war effort as a building supervisor in the Langdon family shipyard, which built the Raleigh on which Caesar Lear would serve, as well as the more famous Ranger, captained by John Paul Jones. In that case, it would have been the younger Tobias who needed to be protected from conscription.
Caesar Goes to War, Tobias Goes to School
Whatever the case, the Lear family clearly favored further education over military service for the young Tobias. Through the Revolutionary War years, Tobias Jr. studied first at the Dummer Charity School (now The Governor’s Academy) in Newbury, Massachusetts and then at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1783. A year later, in 1784, he became the personal secretary of George Washington.
Despite all the factual uncertainties, it would not be a bridge too far, then, to suggest that, while the young Tobias was working on his Greek, Latin, and French, Caesar Lear, an enslaved member of the Lear household, endured the toils and perils of a seaman in the fight for American freedom, serving in lieu of the young man who would become George Washington’s personal secretary for more than 14 years. That is, to be sure, the more dramatic story, and perhaps the more telling one as well.
Freed, at Last?
After an event-filled year picking up arms in France, travelling to the west coast of Africa and engaging the British Navy on several occasions, the Raleigh returned to American shores in Boston, not Portsmouth, and the trail of Caesar Lear goes cold. Did he survive the voyage and return to the Lear household in Portsmouth? And if so, was it as an enslaved person or had he been given his freedom, perhaps in exchange for his military service? The estate inventory of Tobias Lear IV, who died in 1781, tellingly did not include any enslaved persons. Their absence could be explained by their death, or their prior sale, but a third possibility is that Venus and Caesar had both been given their freedom, an act that would be consistent with changing attitudes regarding slave ownership among the Portsmouth elite during the early years of the Republic.
A final note in the historical record also asks us to consider this third possibility as the most likely. An 1807 St. John’s Church record makes reference to a black freed woman named Venus who received a $1 Christmas gift from the church. Venus was a common slave name, but it is tempting to think that this Venus was Venus Lear, who would have been by then an old woman in her late 70’s, living out her last years, freed, yes, but impoverished and perhaps never really free.