:Black Will" of Berwick and connections to John Black of Bailey Island

I am searching for the ancestry of John Black born 1790, died February 1849, married to Mary Goodrow and buried in the Orr’s Island cemetery, Orr’s Island Maine. The descendants of John Black are quite well documented and I am confident I have most of that well researched. It is his ancestry that is a roadblock.


Local legend and family lore says John Black (who is sometimes referred to as John Blake) is a descendant of “Black Will” a slave belonging to Nicholas Shapleigh of Berwick. I already know a good bit about him through the excellent research of the Berwick[Maine] Historical Society and from Patricia Quall’s book “Lives of Consequence”. “Black Will” had two sons, one being William who was the product of a mixed race relationship, and Joshua. Joshua remained in Berwick all his life and appears to have had a large family, while William eventually moved to what is now Bailey Island in Casco Bay along with his wife Elizabeth and children William and Elizabeth. William [the child of William] eventually moves to Neighboring Orr’s Island and married his cousin Mary Black who was the daughter of “Black Wills” other son Joshua.


This is where the disconnect comes in. I can not conclusively connect William and Mary Black to my ancestor John Black. I have some theories and it is possible there is a missing generation between John and William but no documentation. So, the question becomes, Is the legend true. Are we descendants of John related to “Black Will”. In my case I am am descended from John through my grandmother and 9 generations back, so if I understand DNA correctly, DNA would probably not show a connection to Black Will for me. I have cousins who do connect to John Black through the Paternal line but there is no clear indication of a connection in their DNA [Ancestry DNA].  


The next avenue to try is to find a more recent descendant of Black Wills other son Joshua, but keep in mind he has a different mother  and I believe she was a different woman from the mother of William.


I have spent some time trying to piece together Joshua's line but the spelling of the last name is randomly spelled Black and Blake. I think it depended on who was recording the information as to how they spelled it. Although I do believe that it was pronounced Black no matter how it was spelled.


This introduces another roadblock to the research. There are many…….many online (and written) genealogies that totally ignore the connection to “Black Will” and push this line back to Daniel Black and Faith Bridge of Boxford, Massachusetts. Daniel it seems was a Scott's POW. I have researched his line some to see if any of his descendants ended up in the Casco Bay area and might have come to Orr’s Island and had a child John Black but I do not find a connection…..yet. But several of Daniels sons ended up in York, Maine only a few miles from Berwick where “Black Will” was.


In the meantime I have found a large number of Blakes in Harpswell, Maine (which Orr’s Island and Bailey Island are both part of) and they seem to be descendants of William Blake and wife Agnas of Pitminster, Somerset, England. William Blake,  the  son  of  Giles  and  Dorothy  (Twecly)  Blake, of  Little  Baddow,  Essex,  England,  emigrated  to  America  in 1630,  with  his  wife  Agnes  and  five  children,  -  four  sons  and  one daughter.  They came in the ship "Mary  and  John," Captain Squeb, arriving at Nantasket May 30, 1630, and with the company settled in Dorchester.


I do seem to be related to these Blakes but……. not because they came to Harpswell or Orr’s Island. No….It seems one of these Blake men came to Greene, Maine, a bit inland from the coast, and married into the Rose family. ANNNNNND Mahala Rose married one of the descendants of John Black. (remember John from back at the beginning of this mess? So. I know I’m related to that line of Blakes.


So….This is a request for anyone researching Black/Blakes in southern Maine to jump in here. I am particularly interested in Joshua Blacks descendants and if any of them have had DNA testing done.

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Replies to This Discussion

I am not a Black or Blake, but this is a very interesting puzzle you are working on.

I am an experienced genetic genealogist willing to offer a few pointers.

It may be possible to unravel this mess using DNA matches, but you are looking at a huge project with lots of tree building and segment level analysis because the mystery is so far back in time. Besides the age of the mystery, there is the problem of the endogenous nature of Colonial New England making most colonial descendants related to each other in more than one way. Combine the two problems and you are forced to use y-DNA, mt-DNA, and segment analysis to find answers.

You are doing the right thing in trying to get other descendants interested - with DNA it is always the more the better - more data equals better confidence. Target testing (convincing key people to test) is often required and you need to be prepared to pay for the tests.

I am co-host of the Central Maine DNA Interest Group (DIG for short). We meet on Zoom the 3rd Saturday each month from 10 to noon. We try to help each other work through DNA projects and problems. If you would like to attend you can e-mail me at MaineDNA @ outlook dot com for an invitation. Please mention this post so I will know who you are.

I would like to recommend a RootsTech presentation (its FREE!) that should be very helpful as you begin to organize a formal project. 

DNA Problem Solving: Beginning Steps, Principles, & Examples
Allen County Public Library - Visit Fort Wayne
- excellent overview of how to organize your brickwall project and get it going in the right direction

Once you get some recruits and need assistance with segment analysis, I am willing to assist more directly.

Best of luck to you


Hi Nancy

I wanted to acknowledge your response. DIG sounds like a good resource. I am interested in sitting in on a meeting at some point but probably not this month. I would like to keep you in my back pocket as a resource for the future if/when I can get organized. At present there is a small core group working on a short video on the whole Will Black mystery project in an attempt to foster some interest in funding DNA testing but as you point out I have to first find that key group of descendants and persuade them they should be participants. Finding Your Roots wasn't interested. Dr Gates didn't think we fit the profile for their usual participants. I appreciate you responding and hope we can make something happen in the future


I am researching my BROOKS ancestry and came across a court "bastardy case" involving a Betsy Brooks and Black Will. Is this that Black Will you were speaking of? In the end, I do not think it is my Betsey Brooks (her maiden name was Betsy Remick) 

Interesting study. I have been trying to piece together if any of my family had or sold slaves. So far, I have only discovered fellow Christian parishioners who were black.

Yes, that is the same Black Will that I am working on. As far as I know Elizabeth's maiden name was Brooks but it is possible I'm wrong. I haven't really researched her because Will was apparently found not to have been the father and they do not appear to have had any further contact. Interesting character though. If you have not already looked at it, I would recommend "Lives of Consequence" by Pat Wall as a good reference for both enslaved people in the Kittery area and slave owners. She has done some impressive work.

Thank you. Interesting, indeed.

E-mail me off line to get on our DIG invitation list. You are not expected to attend every meeting and you don't have to speak or contribute - you can just say hi and listen. We have a code of ethics that basically says what you see and hear in a meeting is confidential - because we need to use "live" data in order to assist each other.

MaineDNA at outlook . com

Are you aware some scholars believe Black Will is a Native American? Scholars are seldom genealogists so I am not sure how this has been determined!


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