Mary Perth (c. 1740s-1813), renowned for her devotion to preaching and proselytizing, lived an extraordinary life that spanned across the North American, African, and European continents. Her exact date and place of birth is unknown, but in 1768, when in her early twenties and pregnant with her second child, Mary was purchased by John Willoughby to work as his house servant in Norfolk, Virginia. Mary’s first daughter Patience Freeman arrived along with her at Willoughby’s residence, and Mary would have two more daughters, Hannah and Zilpha Savills, while in bondage to Willoughby. By 1772, Mary was spending some of her nights absconding to the Great Dismal Swamp to preach to maroons and other self-emancipated Africans and African descendants who had sought refuge there, along with some European and Native Americans. One late 18th century traveler to the Dismal Swamp noted that “Runaway negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls....[On higher ground] they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them.” (Grant)
According to an account she gave in Sierra Leone a quarter centry later, Mary would strap her infant daughter Zilpha to her back and embark on a ten-mile journey to the woods. There, she read from the Book of Exodus and Galatians, which exhorts believers to find liberty from bondage in Christ. One account states that Mary’s source material came from Willoughby’s wife, who gifted her a copy of the New Testament during her time as a house servant. Others believe that her conversion to Christianity came through Robert Williams, an intinerant Wesleyan preacher from Ireland who opposed slavery and who inspired many enslaved people in the vicinity of the Dismal Swamp in the early 1770s. Though she could have marooned permanently in the Dismal Swamp—as many others did—Mary always made the journey back to Willoughby’s--and to her other children--by morning.
The American Revolution would be a turning point for Mary and eventually provided an inroad to freedom, In 1776 John Willoughby was suspected of being a British loyalist, and as such, was required to move at least thirty miles from the shore. Additionally, the Virginia Committee of Safety directed him to turn his human property over to the militia. Historian Cassandra Pybus, however, argues that Willoughby personally turned his property over to John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and governor of Virginia, which suggests that Willoughby was indeed a British loyalist. With Willoughby’s property turned over to Lord Dunmore, Mary and her three daughters became part of his British camp in Mills Point near Portsmouth, Virginia, where Dunmore also held hundreds of other Black recruits prepared to battle for the British in the Revolutionary War. At Mills Point Mary would have been exposed to a number of Black Methodist preachers
Mary’s time at the Mills Point camp was also plagued by a smallpox epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly 300 people. Dunmore thus moved camp further north to Gwynn Island to isolate the sick and bring in new recruits. Nevertheless, people continued to fall ill and many of those who recovered eventually suffered from typhoid fever. Dunmore and other survivors like Mary were forced from the island in July 1776, just as the American colonies declared independence from Britain. By September of that year, Dunmore had relocated his band of recruits to New York where Mary and her family joined the growing community of enslaved fugitives behind British lines. In New York, Methodists from Virginia formed their own community circle in which Mary played a central role as one of the few who could read and write. While in New York, Mary would also unite with her soon-to-be husband, Caesar Perth, a tradesman owned by Hardress Waller, a near neighbor of Willoughby’s in Norfolk. As such, it is probable that Mary and Caesar already knew each other before his escape to British lines.
In 1781, the British camp received news that General Charles Cornwallis had been forced to surrender his Loyalist army to the Patriot forces led by General George Washington at Yorktown. Enslaved fugitives in the British camps were thus swept with fears of being returned to their owners as stipulated by the provisional peace treaty signed on 29 November 1782, which prevented the British from taking runaway slaves. These fears were not unfounded for on 28 April 1783, John Willoughby Jr. petitioned British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Guy Carleton for a return of his inherited property, who were preparing for a journey to Nova Scotia in Loyalist Canada, under Sir Guy Carleton’s instruction. Fortunately for Mary and her growing family, Carleton issued certificates of freedom and transport for all enslaved fugitives who had been behind British lines for more than a year. With freedom certificates signed by General Samuel Birch, Mary and her growing family embarked on the ship L'Abondance heading for Nova Scotia on July 31, 1783. Some sources say that Mary was pregnant with her fourth daughter Susan while enroute to Nova Scotia while others say Susan had just been born.
In Nova Scotia, Mary and family settled in the community of Birchtown, which was named after the General who signed their freedom certificates. Though the Black Methodist community met freely for worship every night and no longer had to conceal their meetings from slaveowners, life in Nova Scotia was still marked by discrimination from white settlers, harsh winters, and the government’s delay or denial of land grants for freed people. Disillusioned with life in Nova Scotia, nearly 1200 people of the Black Birchtown community, including Mary and her family, readily accepted John Clarkson’s offer of land and freedom at the Sierra Leone Company’s colony in West Africa.
In early 1792, the group of emigrants crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Sierra Leone. Clarkson’s promises of land were indeed fulfilled, but the Birchtown emigrants now had to undergo the arduous task of clearing the land for settlement. They constructed their huts, cleared bushes and trees, and determined to name the settlement Freetown. The weather again proved to be an obstacle for settlement in Sierra Leone as a monsoon storm that would claim the life of Mary’s husband Caesar tore through the community on April 2nd and 3rd of 1792. Despite the threatening weather, the dangerous wildlife, and the death of her husband, Mary remained determined to carve out a life for herself, which became centered around hospitality, teaching, and religion. Mary opened her own boardinghouse and chophouse, which catered to Company employees and sailors. Moreover, she gained the favor of Sierra Leone’s governor Zachary Macaulay, a Scottish Evangelist who employed her as his housekeeper and as the educator of a group of African children who lived with him. Despite Macauley’s continual antagonism toward Black Methodist churches in Freetown, Mary remained in his high esteem. Mary’s piety was apparently well received by another opponent of the Black Methodist church, Scottish Presbyterian John Clarke. Clarke was so moved by Mary’s devotion that he published a story about her in the Evangelical Magazine where he praised her as a woman “come down out of heaven to earth” (Pybus).
Mary's relationship with the Governor eventually soured around 1798. His journal exposed his feelings that she had become “vain, worldly, and arrogant” (Pybus), which he blamed in part on the story published about her in the Evangelical Magazine. He thus terminated her as the teacher of his African missionary students. Macaulay, however, had no say in the operation of Mary’s other businesses, which she returned to after her termination by the Governor. By 1799, however, Mary and the Governor’s relationship was restored as she and Susan joined him and his African students on the journey to Clapham in London, where they would study as Christian missionaries under Mary’s supervision. Mary’s motivation for taking the job may be owed to her desire to get adequate healthcare for her ailing daughter. Susan died in 1800, and Mary returned to her boardinghouse duties in Sierra Leone where she lived and worked until her death in 1813.
Online ResourcesRichard Grant. "Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom," Smithsonian Magazine, Sept. 2016.
Will Molineux. “Readers Greet Mary Perth with Wonder,”
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Morris, J. Brent. Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2022.
Pybus, Cassandra. "“One Militant Saint”: The Much Traveled Life of Mary Perth." Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 9, no. 3 (2008) doi:10.1353/cch.0.0035.