In Connecticut and elsewhere in New England, “All the best families owned ‘captives.” Anne Farrow, author
As Oregon has been coming to terms with its racist past*, I’ve found myself wondering whether Connecticut, where I grew up before moving to Oregon in 1984, shared some of that history.
Ahh, colonial Connecticut. Hardy Yankee farmers, white clapboard churches with tall tapering steeples, networks of grey stone walls, one-room schoolhouses….
Before the Civil War, nearly 4 million black slaves toiled in the American South. That’s the story we all learned in school, that slavery, with all its brutality, abuse and inhumanity, meant the South.
That’s what I was told when I grew up in the Connecticut town of Wallingford, settled in 1670, 50 years after the Mayflower’s 102 pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
I’m a descendent of one of the town’s original settlers, Samuel Hall, and of one of its most famous residents, Lyman Hall, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was born and raised in Wallingford. So you’d think I’d be well versed in Connecticut’s history.
But I wasn’t told during my schooling there that although the underground railroad helped escaping southern slaves in Connecticut, slavery flourished there at the same time. In other words, colonial Connecticut was hardly a citadel of racially progressive thought and practice. For many Africans, it was a citadel of broken dreams.
History of Slavery in Connecticut, published in 1863, pointed out that the earliest slavery in Connecticut wasn’t of blacks from Africa, but Native Americans captured in battle and sold as slaves. I don’t recall that being highlighted in my classes either.
In fact, the Articles of Confederation of the United New England Colonies, signed by representatives of the Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies, even stipulated that the signatories would equally distribute any “ persons,” lands, and goods “ taken as the spoils of war.”
In 1637, Connecticut colonial leaders, together with their Narragansett native allies, massacred the largest Pequot village at Misistuck on the Mystic River in present-day Connecticut, destroying it and killing an estimated 700 Pequots, including many women and children. Another 180 Pequots were killed when they were found hiding in a swamp near today’s Fairfield, CT. Many of the Pequots were captured and sold as slaves, leading to the near annihilation of the tribe.
But blacks from Africa soon surpassed Natives as slaves in America, although North America was a bit player in the overall slave trade, according to researchers at Slate, a daily web magazine. “From the trade’s beginning in the 16th century to its conclusion in the 19th, slave merchants brought the vast majority of enslaved Africans to two places: the Caribbean and Brazil,” Slate reported.
Less than 5 percent of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere came directly to North America, according to Slate. Most went, instead, to Spanish Central America, Brazil and British, French, Dutch, and Danish holdings in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, in New England, in 1650 Connecticut became the second colony after Massachusetts to recognize slavery as a legal institution.
Theophilus Jones, Jr. (1723-1815), whose father built a house on Cook Hill in the southwest corner of Wallingford in 1740, was a slave owner. The house, which is still standing, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another slave-owner’s house still standing in Wallingford is the John Barker House, built in 1756.
Slaves were brought into New England throughout the colonial period through multiple port cities:
- Portsmouth, NH
- Salem, MA
- Boston, MA
- New Bedford, MA
- Providence, RI
- Bristol, RI
- Newport, RI
- Middletown, CT
- New London, CT
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island ended up having the largest slave populations. If you’ve ever visited the historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Faneuil, who donated the site to the city, accumulated much of his substantial wealth from the slave trade.
Similarly, John Easton’s family in Middletown, CT were leading slave merchants.
In “The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory,” Anne Farrow wrote about the ship Africa, with John Easton as its captain, sailing out of New London, CT in 1757 bound for West Africa. It crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailed up the Sierra Leone River on the west side of the continent, docked at tiny Bunce Island and loaded a cargo of slaves to be sold principally on England’s colonial islands in the Caribbean. Some of the “human cargo” probably stayed on board to be brought to Connecticut, where they were sold and owned by residents there, Farrow said.
According to the Hartford Courant, when John Easton died in 1774 his will contained 20-page inventory of his property, which included two Negro men, Accrow, valued at 100 pounds, and Gambo, valued at 25 pounds.
One of the few first-hand written accounts of an African being enslaved and shipped to the New World is Venture Smith’s A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself, published in New London, CT in 1798.
Smith (His African name had been Broteer, 8-year-old son of Saungm Furro, Prince of the Tribe of Dukandarra in Guinea) was taken captive in West Africa around 1730 and taken to the coastal slave-trading center Anomabo (in present-day Ghana) for sale. Broteer later recalled that an officer on a Rhode Island slave ship purchased him for “four gallons of rum and piece of calico cloth.” Most of the captives were later sold in Barbados, but Smith went on to Newport, RI and spent the next three decades as a slave in New York and Connecticut.
Venture Smith died in 1805. He was buried in the graveyard of the First Congregational Church in East Haddam, CT, along with his wife, Meg, and other members of their family. Smith’s gravestone can be seen there to this day.
For nearly two hundred years New England maintained a slave regime that some historians used to claim was quite different from in the South.
Instead of slaves performing mainly agricultural labor, as in the South, the Medford (MA) Historical Society and Museum says New England’s slaves performed more varied jobs. “Owned mostly by ministers, doctors, and the merchant elite, enslaved men and women in the North often performed household duties in addition to skilled jobs,” the Society says. “They worked as carpenters, shipwrights, sailmakers, printers, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers, and goldsmiths. Many became so talented in the crafts that the free white workers lost jobs to them.”
But the idea that New England slaves were not situated on large agricultural properties has been refuted by other historians.
A 1764 inventory of “living creatures” on a 3000 acre plantation in Pomfret, CT listed 80 cows, 45 oxen, 30 steers, 59 young cattle, six horses, 600 sheep, 180 goats, 150 hogs and 27 Negroes, in that order.
And in 2015, Central Connecticut State University archeologists uncovered in Salem, CT the remnants of a large plantation that was worked by as many as 60 slave families in the years before the American Revolution.
According to research by the Hartford Courant, the creation of that plantation began in 1718 when Col. Samuel Browne, a wealthy Salem, MA merchant, began amassing land. He rented out some tracts, retaining about 4,000 acres for himself. That passed to his son and then to his grandson.
In 1690 there were only an estimated 200 black slaves in Connecticut; by 1774, that had grown to 5,100.
“The effects of the New England slave trade were momentous,” wrote Lorenzo Johnston Greene in The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. “It was one of the foundations of New England’s economic structure; it created a wealthy class of slave-trading merchants…”
Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn, in an essay on how New Englanders had achieved such a high standard of living by the time of the revolution, wrote, “The most important underlying fact in this whole story, the key dynamic force, unlikely as it may seem, was slavery.”
That was only about 3.4 percent of the state’s population, “But it was slavery, nevertheless, that made the commercial economy of 18th-century New England possible and drove it forward,” Bailyn wrote. “The dynamic element in the region’s economy was the profits from the Atlantic trade, and they rested almost entirely, directly or indirectly, on the flow of New England’s products to the slave plantations and the sugar and tobacco industries they serviced.”
As the Black slave population increased, Connecticut’s lawmakers enacted more and more laws to control it, according to David L. Parsons of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.
The so-called Black Code, a series of laws passed between 1690 and 1730, described the rights and responsibilities of slave and master.
The Black Code formalized slavery in Connecticut. There were no laws specifically forbidding slavery, and custom and the laws controlling it combined to give slavery legal standing in Connecticut, according to Parsons. The early Capital Law of 1642, which prohibited stealing “man or mankind” was interpreted to mean only white mankind.
Parsons wrote of how black servants were required to carry passes outside of town or be treated as runaways. Sellers of liquor were not allowed to serve Blacks without permission from their master. It is not clear what was done to Blacks who drank without permission. Blacks were not allowed to sell items without proof of ownership or written permission from the owner. Blacks were liable to whippings for disturbing the peace or “offering to strike a white person.” Blacks found outside after 9:00 p.m. without a pass could be whipped. Whipping was also the punishment for slaves who used unseemly language.
As late as 1774, the Connecticut Journal justified the subordinate status of blacks, stating baldly that “God formed [blacks] … in common with horses, oxygen, dogs &c. for the white people alone, to be used by them either for pleasure or to labor with other beasts.”
On the eve of the American Revolution, Connecticut had 6,464 slaves, the most of any state in New England, according to one historian.
During the American Revolution (1765 – 1783), when at least 820 free and enslaved African Americans from Connecticut served on the Patriots side, some Connecticut slaves gained their freedom in exchange for service (The National Mall Liberty Fund has collected a list of Enslaved and free blacks from Wallingford, CT who served on the patriot side during the Revolutionary War.).
Other slaves purchased their freedom. Wallingford’s archives include an April 2, 1776 note about a local man, Mr. Elisha Brackett, freeing his “Negro Wench Slave named Nancy” in return for her paying him “32 Pounds Lawful money.”
Connecticut’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784 halted the importation of slaves and declared that children of black slaves born after March 1, 1784 were to be freed after turning 25. No current slaves were freed by the Act, however, and slaves born before 1784 remained slaves for life.
Not only that, but the act had a pernicious effect in that it encouraged some slaveholders to sell slaves and their children to residents of other states before the children reached 25, an action not prohibited by the law, where they would again be slaves for life.
Some historical writing on American history downplays the maintenance of slavery in Connecticut after the American Revolution and the Gradual Abolition Act.
In Hope of Liberty, James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton wrote, “ [m]any slaves were freed by the gradual emancipation laws in the North, and in a relatively short time (relative to the existence of the institution of slavery) slavery was abolished in the free states.”). Similarly, in Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery, Nathan Irvin Huggins wrote, “…after the Revolutionary War] [t]hose states of New England, where there was a slight investment in slave property, were rather quick to disavow the institution.”
But other historians have challenged that view. In a 2001 Yale Law Journal article, Abolition Without Deliverance: The Law of Connecticut Slavery 1784-1848 , David Menschel presented evidence that the Gradual Abolition Act did not remove slavery from the state in a prompt and orderly fashion at all. Instead, he said, slavery’s termination was protracted because, “Legislators feared that uncivilized and uneducated blacks, emerging en masse from bondage into freedom, would endanger the fragile workings of Connecticut’s new republic.”
“In fact, though the number of slaves in the North declined after the Revolutionary War, slavery continued to exist there well into the nineteenth century,” Menschel said.
Even the State of Connecticut itself seemed to endorse continued slavery when, in 1784, it seized the estate of a William Brown, which included a number of slave children. An administrator of the estate petitioned the Legislature to free the children, but it rejected the petition and ordered that the children be bound out for the District of Norwich.
“In addition to protecting the state coffers from the costs of caring for such dependents, the Assembly also seems to have believed that Brown’s former slaves would benefit from bondage, as this would ensure that the slave children would be ‘well governed and educated,’ ” Menschel said.
In 1790, the first Federal Census showed there were 3,763 people held in bondage throughout New England, including 2,648 in Connecticut.
A 1797 act changed the emancipation age under the Gradual Abolition Act age to 21, but still didn’t abolish slavery.
By 1800, 83 percent of Connecticut’s Blacks were free, leaving 951 enslaved, but these were still being held onto vigorously, as the 1803 runaway slave ad below shows.
In 1810, the number of slaves in Connecticut had gone down to 310 and by 1820 the census put the number at 97.
The 1840 Census showed 17 African-Americans still enslaved in Connecticut, but anti-slavery attitudes were prominent.
Even free blacks began to speak up. The words of one free black man, Peter Osborne, are preserved in “An oration delivered before the people of color of New Haven, assembled at Wallingford on the eighth of July, to celebrate the fourth.”
In vivid, forceful language, Osborne applauded the displays of patriotism on the 4th of July 1845, but castigated white Americans for not sharing the freedom the American Revolution produced.
“The heroes of the revolution were gallant and terrible to establish and secure a government for the peace and happiness of the descendants of Europe, but they were not the less so to deprive the descendants of Africa of its protection,” Osborne said. He called upon all blacks to “…like a Roman army, invade prejudice, storm the castle of expediency, — to annihilate the inhuman trade of transportation–the deluded scheme of Colonization, the scourge and curse of slavery.”
Connecticut finally abolished slavery entirely in 1848, when there were just six slaves left in the state, making it the last state in New England to fully abolish slavery.
We should know these things.
As Holocaust survivor and scholar Dr. Dori Laub has written, we must face our buried truths in order to live our lives.
*Recommended readings about Oregon’s racist past:
Breaking Chains – Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory by R. Gregory Nokes
Tells the story of the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts—Holmes v. Ford. Drawing on the court record of this landmark case, Nokes offers an intimate account of the relationship between a slave and his master from the slave’s point of view. He also explores the experiences of other slaves in early Oregon, examining attitudes toward race and revealing contradictions in the state’s history.
When Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state, Washington Post, June 7, 2017
Few people are aware of Oregon’s history of blatant racism, including its refusal to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.
Oregon’s Provisional Government passed the first Exclusion Law in the Oregon Country in 1848. It made it unlawful for any Negro or Mulatto (of mixed ethnic heritage) to reside in Oregon Territory.
The persistent myth that Oregon was a free land where white unity against slavery made free-state status nearly inevitable often obscures the prominence of the slavery question in provisional, territorial, and state politics.