Mathias de Sousa
MSA SC 3520-2810
Freeman in attendance at the Legislature, 1642
Founding of Maryland - Educational Project for Elementary
and Middle School Students
Maryland Public Television and Maryland State Archives (January-February 2003)
written by Maria A. Day, MSA Archival Intern
Historians know very little about an early settler to Maryland named Mathius de Sousa. Only a few documents record the details of his life. Some people recognize Mathius as the first, free person of African descent living in Maryland. Others simply find his life inspiring. Mathius was a servant who learned skills as a sailor and fur trader to win his freedom. There are some details about Mathius' life we will probably never know, but there are enough facts to tell his story.1Stone, Garry Wheeler. "Fur Traders and Field Hands: Blacks in Manorial Maryland, 1634-1644." Unpublished manuscript, 1984. See also Maryland State Archives SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Biographical Series) Mathius de Sousa file, MSA SC 3520-2810.
Mathius was an indentured servant who worked for Father Andrew White, a Catholic priest. An indentured servant is someone who has to work as a servant to someone for a period of four to seven years. Sometimes the servant agrees to work because they have no money and need to pay off their debts. Sometimes a servant needs to work because they cannot find another job. Sometimes he or she simply wants adventure and a chance to visit faraway places. No matter what reason Mathias agreed to work for Father White, his job gave him a chance to see the New World. When Mathius voyaged to Maryland, he worked for Jesuit priests, who were on a mission to establish churches in North America for the Catholic Pope in Rome. When Jesuit officials gave Father Andrew White the chance to settle in Maryland, he brought along with him nine servants, including Mathius.1 Mathius may also have been a Catholic. Its likely that many of the servants who came to America with the Jesuits were Catholic.2
We don't know exactly what Mathius did in the first few years he lived in Maryland. He probably worked very hard with other indentured servants building houses and the new church for the Jesuits. Many servants also planted and harvested crops for food. He probably traveled by boat to Maryland's Eastern Shore with Father White. The priests visited the Native American people who lived there. We know that one of the Jesuit priests identified Mathius as, "Mathias Sousa, a Molato" in an important land record3 The record listed all of the people who came to Maryland with the Jesuits. Governor Leonard Calvert said the Jesuits owned farmland near St. Mary's City. The Governor allowed the priests and their servants to continue to lived and grow crops for food on this land.
The term "molato" used by the priest, is the old spelling for "mulatto," defined in the seventeenth-century as a person of mixed African and European descent. It is sometimes difficult to find out about a person's race if they lived in the seventeenth-century. "Mulatto" can also refer to the complexion (lightness or darkness) of a person's skin. We can only guess if this refers to Mathius' ancestry or to the color of his skin tone.4 His last name, "de Sousa," is common in Portugal, where perhaps Mathius' father was born. We also do not know how Mathias de Sousa thought of himself. Mathius left us no written record of what he said or thought. Several priests and public officials who knew Mathius recorded all of the information known about him.
Information from Maryland government records and court cases show that Mathius was treated well compared to than most people with African heritage in Maryland. The English settlers brought Africans to their colonies as slaves. African slaves in Maryland lived harder lives than the free settlers. Most slaves had little or no chance to earn their freedom. It was not considered a crime for masters to beat slaves and servants for misbehavior. Since Mathius was an indentured servant, he had to work for the Jesuits for four years. In 1638, the priests allowed Mathius to go free. Now he had to earn a living for himself.
During his years of service to the priests, Mathius had learned how to sail the small ship owned by the Jesuits. Mathius decided to earn his living as a fur trader and sailor. He earned money by trading English goods with Indians for animal furs and food. For a few years, he continued to work for the priests. The priests made him captain of their trading ship. Later, Mathius was captain of a trading ship owned by John Lewger, who was Secretary in the Maryland government. In March 1641, Mathius was elected as a representative at a Maryland Assembly meeting. This proves that Mathius was no longer a servant. He voted as a citizen. Then, colonists had a very hard year in 1642. The Susquehannock Indians attacked the English settlers. Mathius could not trade for furs during the Susquehannock invasion. He had trouble paying his rent and buying food. He owed money to three wealthy men: Governor Leonard Calvert, Captain Thomas Cornwaleys and John Hallowes.
There is no information about Mathius' life after 1643. No one wrote down what happened to him. The Indians killed some colonists in battles during 1643. Other colonists became sick and died from disease and lack of food. We don't know about the end of Mathius' life, but we do know that he lived as a sailor and trader. Important people like the Jesuits and John Lewger trusted him to be captain of their ships. Even if they called him a "mulatto," they trusted Mathius to lead white crew members on their vessels. His life shows that early Marylanders did not always dislike someone of a different race or heritage. The settlers thought of Mathius as a skilled and hard-working citizen.
Berlin, Ira. "Chapter 1: Emergence of Atlantic Creoles in the Chesapeake," in Many Thousands Gone: The First two Centuries of Slavery in North America. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998). [NOTE: Dr. Berlin's research discusses the culture of "Atlantic Creoles," or persons of mixed African and European descent, as they came to Maryland and other Chesapeake colonies.]
Bogen, David S. "Mathius de Sousa; Maryland's First Colonist of African Descent." Maryland Historical Magazine 96(1) (Spring 2001), pp. 68-85.
Gray, Steven. "History Emerges in Md.; Settlement Thought to be One of State's First." Washington Post, October 6, 2000.
King, Julia A., Edward Chaney, and Iris Carter Ford.
"Defining Race and Identity in Early Md." Baltimore Sun, February 4, 2001.
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