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York’s Samuel Bacon was charged with founding the African colony that became Liberia

Samuel Bacon by York artist Lewis Miller

Samuel Bacon (1782-1820) packed a lot into his 38 years. He is described in the History of the York County Academy, as “educator, lawyer, Marine, Episcopal clergyman and missionary.”

In 1814, within two years after coming to York to teach at the academy, he married Anna Mary Barnitz, the daughter of Jacob Barnitz, Revolutionary War soldier and one of York’s leading citizens. Their son, Jacob Barnitz Bacon, was born the next year, but Anna Mary died that summer, leaving Samuel and their six-month-old behind.

The Barnitz family seemed to step in and help Samuel raise little Jacob, enabling Samuel to finished studying law and practice in York. According to his biographer, Samuel credited Anna Mary’s influence in turning him back to religion, and he became ordained in the Episcopal Church. He also became involved with the American Colonization Society, which planned to start a colony for freed American slaves on the African coast.

Congress passed an act in 1819 declaring African slave trade to be piracy and authorizing the U.S. Navy to capture slave ships and return them to Africa. Bacon was named by U.S. President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams as “Principal Agent upon the Coast of Africa for receiving the Negros, Mulattos or persons of colour delivered from on board Vessels, seized in the prosecution of the Slave Trade, by Commanders of the United States armed Vessels… .”

See my recent York Sunday News column below for more on Bacon and the outcome of the African venture:

Samuel Bacon, from York to Liberia

York resident Samuel Bacon (1782-1820) was very much involved in the settling of what became the country of Liberia.

Bacon was born in Sturbridge, Mass. on July 22, 1782. He attended Harvard and also studied law before he came to Pennsylvania in 1809. He started a school in Lancaster and edited a newspaper, The Hive. Both ventures failed, and Bacon came to York in 1812 to teach classics at the York County Academy.

At about the same time, Bacon received his previously requested commission in the United States Marine Corps. He taught for six months, but he then had to report to Washington. He was present at the 1814 Battle of Bladensburg; the American defeat that allowed the British to continue on in their destruction of the capital. A letter written by Bacon, highly critical of U.S. General Winder’s failure at Bladensburg, was discovered a few years ago.

While still in the Marines, in May 1814, he married Anna Mary Barnitz “to whom he had been for more than two years very tenderly attached.” Her father was Revolutionary War soldier Jacob Barnitz, who held numerous York County government offices. Samuel and Mary’s only child, Jacob Barnitz Bacon, was born in March 1815. Sadly, Mary died in August 1815, a few months after Samuel had been released from active duty.

Bacon stayed in York to be with his son, who the Barnitz family was helping to raise. He had finished his law studies, and he started to practice law. Bacon was soon appointed Deputy Attorney General for York and Adams Counties (now District Attorney). He also oversaw a regiment of local militia, with the rank of Major.

Samuel grew more religious as time went on. He knew of the Sunday School movement, started in England around 1780; in 1817 Bacon established the first Sunday School in York County. He is also credited with starting an evening school here the same year for African American adults and others. Bacon began theological studies and was ordained by Bishop William White of the Episcopal Church in late 1819.

Bacon had become involved with the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to eventually establish a colony on the west coast of Africa for free black Americans, emancipated slaves and slaves rescued from slave ships. England had already established a similar colony in Sierra Leone, and half of the two to three thousand settlers there were said to be American.

The Congressional Act of March 3, 1819 authorized the president to direct the U.S. Navy to seize ships heading from Africa to America with slaves, authorizing him to “appoint a proper person or persons, residing upon the coast of Africa, as agent or agents, for receiving the negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color, delivered from on board vessels, seized in the prosecution of the slave trade, by commanders of the United States armed vessels.” Samuel Bacon was that appointee, as attested to by an original document signed by President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. (A 1910 New York Sunday Sun article says the original document was in possession of Bacon’s grandson, a tea merchant in New York. A copy is in the Jacob Barnitz Bacon file at York County Heritage Trust.)

Bacon returned to York for several days in mid-January 1820 to say goodbye to his son, family and friends. The group was headed by representatives of the U.S.: Bacon and his assistant, John Bankson, and by Dr. Samuel Crozer, who represented the American Colonization Society. Over 30 families (about 88 individuals) consisting of free black men, women and children went as helpers to establish the colony. Almost all of these volunteers were from Philadelphia and New York, with just a very few from Maryland and Virginia. The brig Elizabeth was chartered, sailing from New York. It was escorted by the USS Cyane, sloop of war. Part of the Cyane’s mission was to intercept the slave ships. (Lt. Matthew Perry, who later opened Japan to the world, was aboard the Cyane, and his accounts have added to the documenting of the venture.)

It took longer to get the Elizabeth ready than anticipated, and New York’s harbor froze in the ships. The Elizabeth was freed via a channel cut through the ice by the ACS and set sail February 6, 1820. The Cyane didn’t catch up until they reached the coast of Africa.

They didn’t receive a warm welcome at Sierra Leone. Not being allowed to settle on the mainland, they were directed to swampy Sherbro Island. It was March by then and the rainy season set in. The majority of the party quickly became sick and many died of fever with deaths blamed on bad air and exhaustion; it would be nearly 80 years before it was discovered that mosquitos spread malaria.

Bacon outlasted many of the others, even though he had periods of unwellness throughout his life. Finally, although now also sick and suffering , he had himself rowed toward Sierra Leone to get help. Violently ill, he was landed at a recent English settlement at Cape Shilling, where he died on May 2nd at the home of Captain William Randall. He was buried in the churchyard there.

Much of the crew of the Cyane fared better. Their orders to anchor a distance offshore and not to sleep on the deck, to avoid the bad air, served the real purpose of keeping them from being infected by the fever carrying mosquitos. The Cyane did capture numerous slave ships and in December 1820 returned to America with the bad news about the Bacon expedition.

Ephraim Bacon, Samuel’s brother, was soon dispatched by the U.S. to find a settlement site and relocate the Sherbro survivors, but failed. President Monroe then sent Dr. Eli Ayers and Lt. Robert Field Stockton, USN. Accounts say these two persuaded local ruler King Peter, perhaps by force, to sell Cape Mesurado, the future site of Monrovia.

Many sources blame the autocratic policies and oppressions of generations of white authorities, continued by their black successors, for the turmoil that has roiled in Liberia for decades. Would the story be different if Samuel Bacon had lived?

York County Heritage Trust’s exhibit The Fiery Trial” York County’s Civil War Experience will open to the public on June 29, 2013. The exhibit will give an overview of the war including its coming and its aftermath, with the involvement of York County and its residents, including Samuel Bacon, from about 1820 to 1877.