Lost Atusville: A Black Settlement from the American Revolution

By Marcus LiBrizzi. 2009. Orono: The Maine Folklife Center. 118 pages. ISBN: 978-0-943197-36-4 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Daniel P. Compora, English, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.

[Review length: 642 words • Review posted on March 1, 2010]

Lost Atusville: A Black Settlement from the American Revolution examines the two- century history of an obscure black settlement in the town of Machias, Maine. Marcus LiBrizzi’s text explores, through narratives and research, the rich cultural tradition of a tiny community in the extreme northeastern tip of Maine, from its founding in the 1770s to its historical reconstruction.

The book’s introduction focuses on the name of the settlement and the problem with its inclusion in the text. While the name Atusville did not appear until 2002, this small community had been known orally as “Nigger-town,” and later as “NiggerTown Crossing,” for the better part of two centuries. LiBrizzi discusses the sensitive nature of the name and makes a compelling argument for its inclusion in the narrative. Racial struggles are a major component of the community’s history that is detailed in the chapters that follow. Failing to include the name as part of the narrative would not accurately depict the community’s historical identity and its struggle with racial issues.

The book is organized chronologically, with black-and-white images scattered throughout its pages. The images are logically placed and support the text without overwhelming it. Chapter 1 addresses the origin of this small community during the 1770s, detailing the life of London Atus, a slave who was owned by James Lyon, the first preacher in Machias, Maine. A coastal town in the extreme northeastern corner of the United States, Machias found itself involved in a few incidents during the American Revolution. LiBrizzi details the various, and sometimes contradictory, oral accounts that portray Atus as either a hero or a coward. Regardless, Atus served for five years as soldier and seaman privateer. Following his tours of duty, Atus married Eunice Foss, a white woman, illustrating the town’s openness regarding interracial unions. LiBrizzi weaves this theme throughout the text.

Chapter 2 focuses on the time period between 1800 and the 1840s and details the expansion of both London Atus’ family and the community as a whole. The formation of a burial ground becomes one of the more intriguing focal points of this chapter, as it plays an important role in the development of this community. Chapter 3 discusses the community’s heyday, from 1850–1870, in which population boomed, and possible connections to the Underground Railroad are explored here. Unfortunately, despite presenting some intriguing narratives, a connection to the Underground Railroad is never convincingly established.

Chapter 4 covers an immense time period, from the 1880s to the 1960s. The narrative in this chapter largely focuses on Harley Henry, the last descendant of London Atus who still lived in Machias at this time. Since he was a product of a long line of interracial unions, some people were unaware that Henry had black ancestry. A unique figure in his own right, Henry is depicted as a loner who surrounded himself with animals and collected garbage from the people of Machias. His death in 1965 brought the community of Atusville to an end.

Chapter 5 details the reconstruction of the community through narratives, research, and preservationist activities. Of particular interest in this chapter is the story of Corinne Rose Jackson, the great-great-great granddaughter of London Atus, who made her way back to Atusville in 1989 on a publicized Memorial Day pilgrimage. The author also touches on ghost stories of the region in this chapter and in the short conclusion that follows.

The text is very well organized, logically presented, and strongly supported by published narratives and historical documents. Since the narratives illustrate a progression through several generations of the same family, and some generations overlap a bit, some repetition is present. LiBrizzi keeps this to a minimum though, often using such retellings as transitions into a different era. Lost Atusville is a brief but powerful account of a small community’s search for identity and the importance of preserving its legacy.