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Captain Paul Cuffe made waves in business

Ted Langston Chase | 11/16/2011, 8:13 a.m.
Paul Cuffe was born in 1759 and passed away in 1817, but his family tree extends to this very day. Pictured here are Cuffe descendents Charles “Burt” Walker (center) and his children, Alison Walker and Leighton Walker. Yawu Miller

It was not an easy start for Paul Cuffe.

He was born in 1759 on Cuttyhunk Island, the son of Coffe Slocum, an African slave, and Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Native American woman.

The family lived as conspicuous property-owning minorities on land that was difficult to farm. Their lives had all of the predictable obstacles and setbacks of a racial group thought not to be a part of the new nation that would emerge from the American Revolution.

In 1775, at the age of 16, Cuffe took his first job as a common seaman aboard a ship bound for the Gulf of Mexico. During his travels, Cuffe used every opportunity to advance himself with skills and education, but he also faced dangers made worse by the Revolution. In fact, on one trip the British seized Cuffe’s ship and he was imprisoned in New York along with other crew members.

After being released, he returned to his family’s farm in Westport. Life at sea made Cuffe realize that the trees on the family property could be used as lumber to build a boat large enough to haul cargo. The chance of making a living at sea was good, but so was the chance of running into pirates and thieves.

Cuffe and his brother encountered numerous robberies while sailing between Westport, New Bedford and Nantucket. Some of these “hold-ups” were worse than others, costing Cuffe cargo, money and occasionally even the shirt off his back.

Cuffe bounced back from these life-threatening experiences by building an even larger boat. This time, he was in the right place at the right time. The booming codfish industry in southern New England both provided Cuffe with a good living and enabled him to expand his cargo business.

Between 1780 and 1806, Cuffe owned and built ships ranging from 12 to 268 tons, ships that could easily compete in the cargo business along America’s East Coast. Cuffe never lost his interest in whaling, but in typical Cuffe fashion, he sailed beyond his early expeditions off Nantucket to better whaling prospects off the coast of Newfoundland. Maritime records suggest that Cuffe did well as a whaler, returning home with large inventories of sperm oil, whalebone and whale teeth.

With this success, Cuffe was ready to take a wife and start a family. He married Alice Pequit, a local woman of the same Wampanoag heritage as his mother. In 1799, 63 years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in America, the Cuffes purchased 140 acres of waterfront property for $3,500. Their Westport homestead included a well-appointed farm, a wharf and a storehouse; it was, in fact, a complex that accommodated a cargo business, shipbuilding and a place to bring up a family of eight.

Cuffe was a competitor who was open to the challenges of new experiences and relationships. One lasting relationship he established was with William Rotch, perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest resident of the New Bedford area. In addition to being an astute businessman, Rotch was a devout Quaker whose abolitionist views probably encouraged him to befriend a successful African American such as Cuffe.