Mathias de Sousa
Historians know very little about an early settler to Maryland named
de Sousa. Only a few documents record the details of his life. Some
people recognize Mathias as the first, free person of African descent living
in Maryland. Others simply find his life inspiring. Mathias was a
servant who learned skills as a sailor and fur trader to win his freedom.
There are some details about Mathias' life we will probably never know, but
there are enough facts to tell his story.
Mathias de Sousa was an indentured servant who worked for Father Andrew
White, a Catholic priest. When Mathias 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 Mathias who may also have been a Catholic. It
is likely that many of the servants who came to America with the Jesuits were
We don't know exactly what Mathias 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 Mathias as, "Mathias Sousa, a Molato" in an important
land record. 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 Mathias'
ancestry or to the color of his skin tone. His last name, "de
Sousa," is common in Portugal, where perhaps Mathias' father was born. We
also do not know how Mathias de Sousa thought of himself. Mathias left
us no written record of what he said or thought. Several priests and public
officials who knew Mathias recorded all of the information known about him.
Information from Maryland government records and court cases show that Mathias
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 Mathias was an indentured servant, he had to work for
the Jesuits for four years. In 1638, the priests allowed Mathias to go
free. Now he had to earn a living for himself.
During his years of service to the priests, Mathias had learned how to sail
the small ship owned by the Jesuits. Mathias 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, Mathias was captain of a trading ship owned by John Lewger, who was
Secretary in the Maryland government. In March 1641, Mathias was elected
as a representative at a Maryland Assembly meeting. This
proves that Mathias 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. Mathias 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 Mathias' 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 Mathias' 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 Mathias 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 Mathias as a skilled and hard-working citizen.
Source: Adapted from "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
National History Standards
Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators
to fulfill the following National
History Standards for Grades K-4:
Topic 1: Living and Working Together in Families and Communities,
Now and Long Ago
STANDARD 2: The
history of studentsí own local community and how communities in North
America varied long ago.
Standard 2A: The student understands the history of
his or her local community.
K-4: Identify historical figures in the local community
and explain their contributions and significance. [Assess the importance of
the individual in history]
STANDARD 3: The people, events, problems, and ideas that created
the history of their state.
Standard 3B: The student understands the history of the first
European, African, and/or Asian-Pacific explorers and settlers who came to his
or her state or region.
K-4: Use a variety of sources to construct a historical narrative
about daily life in the early settlements of the studentís state or region.
[Obtain historical data]
3-4: Gather data in order to analyze geographic, economic, and
religious reasons that brought the first explorers and settlers to the state
or region. [Obtain historical data]
Standard 3C: The student understands the various other groups
from regions throughout the world who came into the his or her own state or
region over the long-ago and recent past.
K-4: Examine photographs and pictures of people from the various
racial and ethnic groups of varying socioeconomic status who lived in the
state 100-200 years ago in order to hypothesize about their lives,
feelings, plans, and dreams, and to compare ways in which their
experiences were similar and different. [Formulate historical questions]
3-4: Develop a timeline on their state or region and identify
the first inhabitants who lived there, each successive group of arrivals,
and significant changes that developed over the history of their state or
region. [Establish temporal order]
3-4: Examine newspaper and magazine accounts and construct
interview questions for a written, telephone, or in-person interview with
a recent immigrant in order to discover why they came, what their life was
like, and to describe some of the experiences that they have had in
adjusting to the state or region. [Obtain historical data]
Listing de Sousa as being brought into the province]
DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1633
SOURCE: LAND OFFICE (Patent Record, Original) MSA S 920-1 ff. 19,
20, and 37
REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
record from March 23 showing De Sousa's presence (Matt das Sousa)]
DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: March 23,
SOURCE: GENERAL ASSEMBLY UPPER HOUSE (Proceedings) 1637-1658, Liber
MC, folio 178, MSA S-977-1, 2/20/4/42
REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
listing de Sousa as a mulatto ("Mathias Sousa a Molato")]
SOURCE: LAND OFFICE (Patent Record, Original) 1646-1657, liber ABH,
folio 65, MSA S920-4, 1/29/2/45)
REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
See also: Planting of the
Colony of Maryland
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.
Bogen, David S. "Mathias de Sousa: Maryland's First
Colonist of African Descent" Maryland Historical Magazine (Spring
Brugger, Robert. "From Province to Colony (1634-1689)." In Maryland: A Middle Temperament.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the
Maryland Historical Society, 1988.
Callcott, George H. "The Quality of Life in
Maryland Over Five Centuries" Maryland Historical Magazine 2001
vol. 96, no. 3, pp. 272-302.
Stone, Garry Wheeler. "Fur
Traders and Field Hands: Blacks in Manorial Maryland, 1634-1644."
Unpublished manuscript, 1984. In Maryland State Archives SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
(Biographical Series) Mathias de Sousa file, MSA SC 3520-2810.
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American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.
Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.
This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.