Our Amazing History: Pyrrhus Concer’s Life

Pyrrhus Concer
Pyrrhus Concer
Courtesy Southampton Historical Society

In 1897, a prominent resident of Southampton living on Pond Lane died at the age of 83. Pyrrhus Concer was important enough to have earned an obituary in The New York Times (dutifully reproduced in The Southampton Press), and at the service about him in the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Meeting House Lane and Main Street, the speakers included the Rev. Jesse Halsey who, reading a poem he wrote about this man, described him as “good as gold.”

With the service over, the great crowd moved to the Old North End Cemetery to oversee his interment. He was buried besides his wife Rachel, who predeceased him. His tombstone reads, “Though born a slave he possessed those virtues without which kings are but slaves,” written by Elihu Root, a prominent neighbor of his who was also U.S. Secretary of State.

You may have read that the Village of Southampton is going to rebuild the modest home of this man. The house isn’t there anymore, but the village has the pieces and may soon recreate it. Pyrrhus Concer was born a slave in Southampton in 1814, the son of Violet William and Shadrach Concer, also slaves. At the age of 5, Pyrrhus Concer was sold for $25 to Charles Pelletreau to work on the Pelletreau farm. Freed from bondage between the ages of 18 and 21 by the Pelletreau family, he went on to have an extraordinary life.

Free at last, Concer signed on to a Sag Harbor whaling ship to visit points unknown. These trips lasted a year or more, and during the next 11 years, he went on four of them, the most interesting being the last. He was boatsteerer aboard the Manhattan, captained by Mercator Cooper of Southampton when, in 1845 in the South Pacific, they rescued 11 Japanese sailors stranded on the Bonin Islands. Further along they rescued another 11 fishermen from a ship sinking beneath them.

These men wished to be returned to Japan. But no foreign visitors were welcome in Japan. Anyone arriving was sent away or imprisoned. Nevertheless, they landed, creating quite a sensation. The Japanese had never before seen a Black man. Some tried rubbing the black off his skin. Others created paintings of this strange man. The emperor gave gifts. And this may have led the way to U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry successfully landing in Japan eight years later, thus opening the country.

Concer returned to Southampton a fairly wealthy man from his whaling adventures. He became a prominent figure in town and raised two children. In 1848, he went west for the Northern California Gold Rush, but on returning home, he said it didn’t get him much.

In later years, Concer ran a ferry service, taking passengers across Lake Agawam aboard his small sailboat from the center of town to the beach on the far shore. He didn’t make much money doing it—he charged 10 cents a trip—but he enjoyed telling stories along the way. He knew everybody and everybody knew him.

Concer lived his last seven years alone; his wife predeceased him and his two boys died before achieving adulthood. He gifted his estate, totaling $5,000, to the church and other charities.

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