Living to the ripe age of 105, George Peake was the first African American to be a part of the colonial settlement that became Cleveland, Ohio. He also invented a hand mill to be used in agricultural work.
Peake was born in Maryland in 1722. His family traveled to Pennsylvania, presumably where he was raised. In 1754 at the age of thirty-two, Peake was reported as a soldier for England. After participating in the battle of Quebec, he stole his comrades' pay and deserted the military. Little is known about his life until 1809, when at the age of eighty-seven he arrived in Cleveland, seven years after the first census was taken. According to Russell Davis in Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl Stokes, 1796–1969, two sons accompanied Peake to Cleveland; his wife, Hannah, and other two sons followed later. Local records suggest that as of 1811 Peake owned 100 acres of land and that he was a freeborn African American. Thus, he inaugurated the black middle class in Cleveland.
Landownership and Membership in the Community
Peake's early crime in stealing military funds when he deserted from the army gave him the money he needed to purchase land. Why he deserted can only be guessed, but it suggests the possibility of tensions between black and white soldiers in colonial times. Nonetheless, by the time he was a landowner, Peake, as a rare black man in a virtually all-white community, apparently got along well with other settlers. As the town developed, he lived among whites on the west side while most other blacks lived on the east side of the city. Peake may have blended in because of his mulatto traits and those of his sons.
In his book, Black Image in the White Mind, George Frederickson explains the mid-nineteenth-century attitude towards mulattoes: they were fortunate because they had the mother's brute strength from Africa and their father's intellect from Europe. This perception may explain the social acceptance of miscegenation and thus the opportunities afforded to biracial individuals because they were more acceptable than darker individuals.
- Born in Maryland
- Fights in Battle of Quebec; later steals comrades' pay and deserts the British Army
- Arrives in Cleveland as the first African American settler with two of his sons; his wife, Hannah, and other two sons arrive later
- Purchases over 100 acres of land; later invents a hand mill
- Divides and allots his land to three of his sons
- Dies in Cleveland at the age of 105
African American Inventor
In addition to his positive status as a mulatto, Revolutionary War veteran, and a landowner, Peake was respected for his invention, a timesaving labor device for crops. Peake's invention allowed settlers to replace the tiring manual pestle and mortar derived from the Native Americans with his hand mill, which was made of two round stones nearly nineteen inches wide. Stone-milled corn achieved a smoother consistency. Though no record of a patent connects the hand mill to Peake, the invention is still traceable to him via an article from the November 8, 1858 Cleveland Leader (noted in Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl Stokes, 1796–1969); this was an unusual instance, since African American inventors of the time were rarely credited. In fact, many African Americans invented tools, but they did not receive public acknowledgment; they were also unable to patent or protect their inventions from others or to finance the production and distribution of the product. Peake's connection to the hand mill is undoubtedly a testimony to his character.
Little is known of George Peake's wife, Hannah, except that she was a woman of means, possessing apparently a half-bushel of silver dollars. Davis notes that most women used barter to conduct business. It would be very unusual for a woman to have cash, and that she is reported to have had money suggests she had separate class distinction from her husband. Nonetheless, her name rarely appears in early accounts. Peake's alliance with such a woman would have contributed to his standing in the community. He and his wife had four sons, which was definitely an asset in an agricultural community. Peake's son, Henry, entertained people by playing the fiddle. Later records show that in 1816 Peake issued his land in three portions for three of his sons. The fourth son is not noted.
Cleveland became a center for African American ingenuity, industry, and promising wealth, certainly resulting from the legacy of Clevelanders such as George Peake. He died in Cleveland at the age of 105, but his burial place is unknown.
Davis, Russell. Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl Stokes, 1796–1969. Washington D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1972.
Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny 1817–1914. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
Johnson, Crisfield. History of Cuyahoga County, Ohio … with Portraits and Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign, 1879.
Kusmer, Kenneth L. Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland 1870–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
Davis, Harry E. "Early Colored Residents of Cleveland." Phylon 4 (July 1943): 235-36.