January 28, 2021

A black forefather died 100 years ago

Narcissus A. Matheas sailed up the Penobscot River to Bangor in 1834 when he was just 16. Back then Bangor was a boomtown, a capitalistic oasis and polylingual crossroads for all manner of ambitious men and women from every corner of the world.

Thirty-six years later, Narcissus sailed back down the river. He’d made enough money to spend the rest of his life as “a man of consequence.” By the time he died many years after his departure, he had become a legend in the Queen City, a symbol of “Old Bangor” – that golden lumber town of misty memory before electric light bulbs and gasoline engines.

“OLD BANGOR REMEMBERS HIM” declared a Bangor Daily News headline on March 30, 1907, over a large photograph of Matheas. “Death of Narcissus A. Matheas, Who Was a Famous Hackman and Fireman Here Before the War.” The photograph is of a man with a shrewd and energetic squint, curly hair and a white-tinged beard, high cheekbones and black skin. He and his wife, whose name we never learn, were the parents of one of Bangor’s first African-American families.

Matheas was from Saint Antoine in the Cape Verde Islands, then a Portuguese colony off West Africa. He was “a colored man of the progressive sort, who coming in youth from the African tropics entered with great energy into American life and made a comfortable fortune here in Bangor,” said the newspaper story. “He received a fair education in the Apprentice school here, and afterward, through the assistance of friends and by his own industry and business ability, got along very well in the world.

“At one time he had seven job wagons engaged in trucking and the transfer of baggage about the city, and enjoyed a practical monopoly of that business for years. He also owned and drove the first coach – a nine-seater — ever owned by a private individual in Bangor, was the first man to deliver ice to customers here and also the first to deliver express packages.” For many years his wagons stood in West Market Square. He was commonly seen at the steamboat landings waiting for passengers.

Part of Matheas’ fame rested on his heroics as a firefighter. Competing fire companies raced each other to fires. “From 1852 to 1856, Mr. Matheas was a member of the Bangor fire department, and his horses were always ready to haul the famous old hand engine, Eagle 3, to which he belonged, and in whose hot rivalry with Tiger 6 for ‘first water’ he was always active,” said the newspaper. “Stories by the yard could be told of the races between the Eagles and the Tigers – and the fierce combats too, between those famous companies.”

Matheas had another side as well. He was a quiet, genial and peace-loving man. He was honest and generous. He was cheerful and kindly. These were the characteristics that made him popular and successful as a businessman and a citizen. For 19 years, he was also sexton of the Hammond Street Church.

Matheas accumulated a considerable amount of property and he was looking forward to returning to Cape Verde. A disastrous incident delayed him, however.

In 1862, the Portuguese brig Jovan Arthur loaded with pine lumber was wrecked in the Penobscot when its crew attempted to take it downriver under sail instead of being towed. Matheas bought the wreck with the idea of having it repaired so he could sail back to Cape Verde in his own vessel. He underestimated the cost, and had to abandon the plan after losing a great deal of money.

Eight years later, in 1870, however, he was able to cross the ocean to the island nation with his wife and two of his children. “In the fertile island of Saint Antoine, the old-time Bangor hackman lived comfortably the rest of his days, returning once in 1892, to spend a year in Bangor with his son Fred. In Saint Antoine he was a man of consequence, having a plantation on which he raised fine crops of coffee and other crops that flourish in the balmy garden of the sea.” He died on Feb. 16, 1907, at age 88, said the newspaper.

Our interest in the family does not end there. Matheas’ wife died in 1904. The couple had four children – Joseph, Frank, Fred and Lucretia. Lucretia had returned to Cape Verde, married and died by 1907. The three sons lived in the United States. Joseph was an upholsterer in Camden, N.J. Frank lived in Philadelphia. Fred had remained in Bangor where he was in the trucking and furniture-moving business and a famous firefighter like his father.

“For years his huge moving van with its strikingly original legends has been a famous Bangor institution,” said a story about Fred’s death in the Bangor Daily News on June 8, 1912. There is no mention of his parents.

For a time Fred had worked with his brother Frank and Frank’s son Fred W., according to Maureen Elgersman Lee in her book “Black Bangor: African Americans in a Maine Community, 1880-1950.” Frank’s son, whose full name was Frederico Walter “Dick” Matheas, graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in civil engineering in 1907. He was probably UM’s first African-American graduate, according to Gerald E. Talbot and H.H. Price in their book “Maine’s Visible Black History.” He was an athletic star at Bangor High School and UM. He had a long career in Philadelphia city government, becoming assistant director of public safety.

Narcissus A. Matheas is not mentioned by Talbot and Price or by Lee. A century ago only “Old Bangor” remembered him, and then he was forgotten until today.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net

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