Learn about the free and enslaved people who lived in the Moffatt-Ladd House.
Telling the Story: A Presentation on the History of the Free and Enslaved of the Moffatt Ladd House – given by the current president of the Colonial Dames of NH in Oct 2020
The Moffatt-Ladd House was built between 1760 and 1763 for the only son of John Moffatt, one of the wealthiest men in the colony of New Hampshire prior to the Revolution. Samuel and Sarah Catherine Moffatt were the first to live in the house and they took up residence shortly after their wedding in February 1764. They would be the beginning of almost 150 years of the same family living in the stately home on Fore Street (now Market Street), overlooking the Piscataqua River. For more information about each generation of family members, and their servants–both enslaved and free, please click on the names below.
When John Moffatt (1691-1786) planned the house that his son Samuel and his new bride would occupy, he hoped to create a grand statement of the family’s wealth, position, and sophistication. At the age of 70, John Moffatt could look back upon a successful mercantile career. He came to America as a ship captain engaged in the timber trade; about 1724 he married a young woman of means named Katharine Cutt (1700-1769), and through trade and land speculation rose to become one of the wealthiest men in the colony. Of their five children, four survived–three daughters and one son. In young Samuel rested all of his father’s hopes for the future.
John Moffatt employed the best Portsmouth craftsmen to build the new mansion on Front Street (now Market Street). Michael Whidden III billed Moffatt for bringing the pre-cut frame “from ye warf” and raising it on a bluff facing the river. Whidden lists the names of the eleven joiners who worked with him on the house, the counting house, shop, barn, and fences over the next three years. Ebenezer Dearing’s bill enumerates the woodwork that he carved for the house, including modillions, rosettes, stair brackets, capitals used throughout the house, and two chimney pieces, probably for the front parlor (now the dining room) and the chamber above it. Raising the three-story structure, the first house of its height in Portsmouth, challenged the workmen because of the sharp rise of the land. Made of red pine, probably cut from Moffatt’s own forest land, the frame was adapted during construction to create an unusual floor plan. Entering the Great Hall, guests were welcomed into a grand room stretching over more than one quarter of the first floor, graced by a broad and sweeping staircase with an exquisitely carved soffit panel.
At first, Samuel Moffatt and his young wife Sarah Catherine did well. The floor plan of their house gave it a particularly impressive entrance, one well suited to lavish entertaining. They traveled through town in a four-wheeled carriage, and their friends and Samuel’s business associates were from the first families of the colony.
Although some rooms were altered by later inhabitants of the house, the Yellow or Best Chamber has been restored to its appearance about 1765. The unusual wallpaper, with open reserves imprinted with engravings from a series of hunting scenes was in the latest fashion. There is no doubt that a room so appointed and furnished en suite with yellow damask bed hangings, window hangings, window cushions, and upholstered furniture was intended to be seen, and the room may have served as a retreat for the women who attended the Moffatt’s parties.
Letters to Samuel from his father suggest that Samuel lived lavishly and was not a good record keeper. These letters, in conjunction with court documents, indicate that Samuel was not an organized or disciplined merchant. His informal approach to business sometimes led to disastrous misunderstandings. He undertook several shipping ventures, including an ill-fated voyage to Africa to obtain slaves, with his brother-in-law Peter Livius. When most of the enslaved cargo of the ship Triton died during the passage to the West Indies, Livius declared that his share of the cost of the voyage was a loan, rather than an investment, and sued Samuel for his losses. It was this lawsuit that finally caused Samuel’s financial ruin. Plagued by his voracious brother-in-law’s determination to exact his due, Samuel fled the colony aboard the ship Diana in the company of his cousin William Whipple. Whipple transported Samuel to the Dutch-held island of St. Eustatius, where Samuel was able to escape his creditors and work to re-build his fortune.
In a bold move designed to thwart Livius’s efforts, John Moffatt sued Samuel for the amount he had advanced to his son to establish his mercantile business. John had never transferred the deed to the house to Samuel, so it was Samuel’s moveable goods that were sold at auction to satisfy his debt to his father. On June 29, 1768, Jonathan Parker wrote to Samuel in St. Eustatius and reported that the “Vendue was held in your Store, the Doors of the house open for any Body to go in & look on the Furniture &c but no Body went in save two or three in the front Room & returned immediately — the whole Vessells & all, were purchased by 8 or 9 different People on Accont of your Father, so that he has inevitably secured your whole Effects to himself in such an open fair Manner that there cant be the least Reflection and all at the trifling Expense of about £14 LM [legal money] and now the Czar [Peter Livius] has no hold on any thing of yours.”
He went on to say, that Livius, though frustrated in his attempts to sue Samuel directly, was “determined to get his Money out of somebody” and “Has found a Law of this Province made between 40 & 50 Years ago which says that every Master or Commander of a Ship that carries any Inhabitant out of the Province without giving Bond in the Secretary’s Office shall be subject to a Fine & pay all the Damages arising thereby.” Livius charged that William Whipple, as commander of the ship Diana in which Samuel fled from the colonies, had “subjected himself to this Law.” When Captain Whipple returned to Portsmouth he was “chagrined at finding a Stop put to his Business, for were he & his Brother to go on with any other Affairs” Livius might keep attaching their ships. The brothers dissolved their partnership so that Joseph would be free to carry on his business. William thereafter devoted himself to public service.
It was not until May 1769 that Sarah Catherine Moffatt left Portsmouth to join her husband in St. Eustatius, taking her oldest child Betty, Mrs. Sparks, “the two Negros & the boy James” with her. She left two of her children behind with her sister-in-law Katharine Moffatt. Katharine Moffatt split her time between caring for her ailing mother at her parents’ house on Buck Street (now State Street) and caring for her niece and nephew at her brother’s mansion. After the death of her mother, Katharine and her father took up residence in the newer and more grand residence.
About one year after moving into the large house on Fore Street (now Market Street) with her father, Katharine Moffatt was quietly married to her cousin William Whipple. The couple did not make the union public until well after people began to notice that Katharine was pregnant, at which point William Whipple joined the Moffatt household, bringing with him an impressive array of sophisticated furniture and his enslaved manservant, Prince. In 1773, the couple lost their only child, William Jr., at the age of eleven months. They raised their nephew John Tufton Moffatt until he departed for Demarara in October 1779, and their niece Mary Tufton (Polly) Moffatt until she married Nathaniel Haven in 1786 at the age of 17. Due to John Moffatt’s failing eyesight and advancing deafness, he relied on his nephew and new son-in-law William Whipple to take care of the property and to help him with his business affairs. As William became increasingly embroiled in the Revolutionary cause, some of these responsibilities devolved upon Katharine, which proved her to be a savvy businesswoman. Whipple served on Portsmouth’s Committee of Safety, was on the delegation sent by the town of Portsmouth to the new Revolutionary Assembly, and was chosen as one of New Hampshire’s representatives to the Continental Congress in which capacity he served form 1774 until 1779.
According to family legend, after signing the Declaration of Independence William returned to Portsmouth with a handful of horse chestnuts from Philadelphia, one of which he and Prince planted in the yard in commemoration of his participation in that momentous event. The tree is still standing, some 234 years later. Whipple also held the rank of Brigadier General of the First Brigade of New Hampshire Militia. In 1777, he led the regiment to Saratoga and in 1778, he participated in the abortive Rhode Island Campaign.
In November of 1779, Prince Whipple and Windsor Moffatt (John Moffatt’s slave) joined eighteen other men who described themselves as “native of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery” to petition the legislature of the state of New Hampshire for their freedom. This petition reveals that one or more of the petitioners was not only literate, but well-versed in Revolutionary theory and language. It is possible that this petitioner may have been Prince Whipple, who accompanied William to Philadelphia and undoubtedly overheard much of the rhetoric of the Continental Congress. However, the New Hampshire legislature denied the petition and the men were not given their freedom.
Prince married Dinah Chase, a free woman in 1781, and in late February 1784, William Whipple signed his official manumission papers, allowing Prince to be a free man. Prince continued to work for Katharine Whipple. In 1790 she purchased from Samuel Hobart a parcel of land facing High Street that was adjacent to hers. She gave the use of the lot to Prince and Cuffee Whipple and their wives Dinah and Rebecca. Prince and Cuffee purchased a house and moved it to the site. It was here that Dinah Chase Whipple and Rebecca Whipple conducted the first African Ladies Charitable School.
William Whipple retired from the Continental Congress in 1779, but he did not retire from public life. He continued to serve in the state legislature and was appointed a justice of the Superior Court. When he died in 1785 at the age of only 54, his wife Katharine was devastated. She was left without a husband of the first rank who was esteemed by the entire community, and whom she loved very much. Her father, very weak and feeble, still provided for her, but she was aware that at 93 years of age, he could hardly live much longer. With great foresight, she convinced her father to convey to her a farm on the outskirts of town at “the Plains” in 1779, and in 1784 she persuaded him to bequeath to her the right to live in the mansion house for sixteen years. When John Moffatt died in 1786, he stated in his will that the house was entailed to Samuel Moffatt’s eldest surviving son, Samuel R.C. Moffatt and his heirs. Samuel’s wife, Sarah Catherine Moffatt, received nothing, but bequests were made to the rest of her children. The house that Sarah Catherine had been living in was sold and she was forced to move. Katharine had indeed made sure she was taken care of, perhaps to the sacrifice of her sister-in-law.
Samuel and Sarah’s second daughter, Polly, had married Nathaniel Haven in 1786 and it was Haven who immediately began acting on behalf of his wife and his mother-in-law. He raised questions about how John Moffatt’s estate was being handled. The feud between Sarah Catherine Moffatt and Katharine Moffatt Whipple simmered for several years until Sarah’s death in 1802. Samuel’s children brought suit against Katharine Whipple and eventually won their case, with Nathaniel Haven acting as their proxy and the famous orator Daniel Webster as a consulting lawyer. By the time the affair was settled, Samuel R. C. Moffatt had died, and his wife decided to sell the property. Nathaniel Haven acquired the house in 1818 and the next year conveyed it to his daughter Maria Tufton Haven Ladd, the wife of the merchant Alexander Ladd, for one dollar. The house and surrounding property would remain in the Ladd family until 1911.
The Ladds made significant changes to the house. They moved and added several buildings on the property, including a warehouse situated on the working side of the house, near the yard, most likely from a neighboring property. Inside, they converted the Front Parlor into a Dining Room with the addition of a sideboard niche and the removal of closets. They also redecorated by papering the walls of the Great Hall and staircase with a Federal grisaille wallpaper by DuFour in the Vues d’Italie pattern. The parlor was comfortably furnished in the prevailing fashion with a marble-top pier table and glass, a hair sofa and two large old armchairs, possibly from the set of London-made furniture in the Chinese taste purchased from the Wentworth estate by Nathaniel A. Haven in 1794, and given to Maria by her mother after her father died.
Alexander Ladd had wide-ranging civic interests and was an accomplished writer. He was elected to the State Legislature in 1826-27 and 1830, and held the city offices of Selectman, Fire Ward, and Justice of the Peace. As secretary for the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Portsmouth in May 1823, he submitted his proceedings for publication in the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Collections. The parchment record of the participants in the festivities includes both Alexander’s and Maria’s signatures. The following year the selectmen chose Alexander and two others as a delegation to go to Boston to persuade the Marquis de Lafayette to include Portsmouth in his tour of New England.
Maria Tufton Haven Ladd was educated at Miss Kimball’s school, possibly in Portsmouth, and at the Berry School in Boston. Maria was a well-educated woman who kept up with the latest literature. She was the family curator, lovingly preserving and labeling many items now in the house’s collection, including the set of London-made furniture in the Chinese taste seen in her portrait, and her wedding dress, and several dresses of her daughters.
Maria and Alexander were married on December 29, 1807, and quickly began a family. They would have 13 children over the next 20 years, but only 5 of whom would live to adulthood. Oddly enough, no child born in the large house on Fore Street (now Market Street) would live to be an adult.
Alexander died in 1855 and Maria in 1861. Maria left the house to her daughters, but her son Alexander Hamilton Ladd bought his sisters’ shares and assumed full ownership of the house in late 1861. A.H. Ladd entered into partnership with his brother Charles Haven Ladd and among other ventures established Portsmouth’s only whale oil refinery which operated from about 1836 through 1849. He invested in the Portsmouth Pier Company and its whaling ventures, and he and his brother were part owners of the famous whaling ship the Ann Parry. One of the primary investors in the Portsmouth Steam Factory for the manufacture of cotton cloth, he opened a cotton brokerage in Galveston, Texas, working on behalf of several New England cotton mills, spending the winter months in Galveston. His wife Elizabeth Jones Ladd died in 1865, and in about 1875 A.H. retired from business and set up housekeeping in Portsmouth on a full-time basis.
A.H. Ladd seemed to delight in modernizing the working systems of the house. He constructed an extensive drainage system under the house to deal with flooding in the basement, and equipped his home with the latest in modern conveniences including updated stoves, a patented earth closet, and a combination refrigerator/ dumbwaiter marketed as an “elevating refrigerator”.
His love of color he indulged in the beautiful terraced formal garden behind the house. His mother’s letters mention the garden, and references to it go back to the first bills for the house, but it was A.H. Ladd who immersed himself in his garden project with particular intensity. He became an avid cultivator of tulips, and kept beehives to ensure that his flowers would be properly pollinated. In one year he complained that bad weather had caused him to lose 60,000 of his bulbs.
In spite of the beauty that he brought to the house and grounds, A.H. Ladd could not stay the decline of the port of Portsmouth. As Portsmouth’s maritime trade diminished, its dockyards became unpleasant places. Freight trains pulled into the coal yards along the banks of the Piscataqua River within a hundred yards of Ladd’s garden oasis, and more than once he repelled would-be robbers. His children tried to persuade him to give up the family home, but A.H. Ladd insisted on protecting and preserving the house as he was profoundly aware of the imports of the house, and the family who had occupied it for more than a century.
A.H. Ladd died on May 21, 1900. His children inherited the family home, and for the next eleven years they maintained it and used it on occasion; his daughter Elizabeth Hamilton Ladd and her husband Charles Wentworth briefly resided in the house, but no one chose to make it their permanent home. In 1911, the heirs of A.H. Ladd offered the house to The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire to be preserved as a museum and maintained as the group’s headquarters, bringing an end to a nearly 150 year occupation of the house by the same family.