Painting with Finer Brush Strokes: Finding a More Complete Local History
The history of the tri-town area is lovingly curated, celebrated, and kept alive by its communities. But what if this is only a part of the story? Certain groups of people, notably slaves, are often left out of the retelling even though they were very much a part of the Colonial landscape and history in the Connecticut River valley and New England. Because of the notable absence of slavery from popular historical narratives, a variety of experts including local historians and curators, archaeologists, folklorists, and others are now filling in the holes. The history of slavery, particularly African slavery, in New England and how it affected the local area, is being pulled back into the light, as local experts weigh in on why the narrative slipped away from public consciousness in the first place and why it is important to look at it closely.
A Darker Side of ‘Northern’ History
The history of slavery in Connecticut was complex, and, while the direct impact was perhaps not felt in the same way as plantation slavery in the south, as more of the history becomes searched for and uncovered, it becomes clearer that slavery had a large economic and historical impact on this region, and New England.
“There’s this misconception that we didn’t have slaves, and people think that New England was untouched by slaves and the slave economy. Realistically, that Colonial economy—the economy in the Connecticut River Valley—was promoted by slavery,” said Donald Perreault, a historian and history teacher at Valley Regional High School.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Native Americans, largely Pequots, were sold into chattel slavery in the West Indies as it became too hard to enslave them as a workforce locally; they knew the area too well and could escape easily. Those ships came back to New England with a different workforce—one that wouldn’t be able to either run away to rejoin their own people, or otherwise, escape the local area and blend into a different settlement elsewhere as those of European descent could.
“Native Americans were taken as slaves from as early on as the Pequot wars, but they would run away—so, they were sold to the West Indies, and traded for a handful of African slaves,” Perrault said. “That was how slaves were introduced into Connecticut, but the slave trade itself was because of how lucrative the triangle trade became.
“Traces of the history are still there: Families in Lyme had a number of slaves, maps of Middletown have slave traders marked on the map, there are graves of slaves in Old Saybrook,” Perrault continued. “It was small-scale, not southern plantation slavery, but it was part of the mentality of the time.”
Outside of the direct sale of human beings, the Connecticut River was a source of food and materials for the Caribbean in the 17th-century, particularly Barbados. Exports of dried shad, horses, and lumber helped to sustain sugar cane plantations, which made molasses that was made into rum. As part of this geographic triangle of trade, rum was also sent to Africa and slaves were brought to the Caribbean. Before the Civil War, cotton “packets” (ships that ran on a regular timetable) were built in Connecticut for New York-based companies to move cotton to mills in the north and in Europe and to bring manufactured goods to the south—as well as slaves.
The financial strength of the region was based on shipping and trade, what is often referred to as the Triangle Trade—the movement of slaves from Africa to the plantations in the southern colonies and West Indies, raw goods such as coffee, tobacco sugar cane, and cotton from plantations to the mills, factories, and manufacturers in the north, and manufactured goods to Europe. (This is a loose description of what were actually several trade routes at different periods of history, each with their own local financial impact.)
Easier to Forget
“Shipping had a lot to do with slavery and getting the raw goods that slavery made available at substantially low pricing. If they had to pay for labor, pay legitimate wages, they would not have afforded it. So, by getting cheap goods, you can be able to take those cheap, raw goods; make them into something; and be able to sell them at a significant profit rate,” said Connecticut River Museum Director Chris Dobbs. “Master mariners from across New England, Connecticut, and the River Valley profited immensely off of trade and the system, and slavery was certainly part of the system. You look at major ports, they’re all profiting off of the goods at certain times, and they are also profiting off of bringing enslaved Africans into the Colonies.”
And while the narrative persists that when it comes to slavery, the North was full of abolitionists and the South had the plantations, when looking closely at history, it’s easy to see that the North didn’t only benefit economically from the institution, but slavery was used as a mode of labor, including in the Connecticut River Valley itself.
“If you look at the Colonial history of Saybrook there were dozens of slaves working,” said Perreault, who noted that slaves worked at the Williams shipyard in Essex, at shipyards in Chester, as well as in local homes as domestics. “When it became such a moral issue, it became much easier for us to collectively forget.”
“New England didn’t have plantation slavery, [but] most wealthy people would have two to four slaves,” said Perreault. “They were additional laborers, skilled craftsmen. There were advertisements in the Connecticut Courier for runaway slaves that often included the statement ‘it is unlawful to employ these slaves.’”
“Slaves were used by artisans, tavern owners, for spinning flax in Fenwick—both in factories and cottage industries,” said independent historian and curator at Bushnell Farm Brenda Milkofsky. “Samuel Lyn had a large farm that grew flax, and nine slaves used for spinning and processing; the rope walk in Middletown had 11 slaves. They were used in both factories and cottage industries.”
Early on, slavery was determined as much by economic status as race.
“For the most part, the initial slaves that came to this area were white, and sent here through the English caste system,” said Wick Griswold, a sociologist at University of Hartford. “They used the colonies to get rid of the riff-raff.”
Indentured servitude was essentially slavery, according to Griswold, and so it was easy to both adopt African slavery and that of local indigenous people.
“It wasn’t a cultural leap,” he said. “Thousands of slaves were in the Connecticut River Valley in the early 18th century, for agricultural use and shipbuilding. The Industrial Revolution led to more interaction with southern American parts; mills needed cotton. This led to an industrial class in favor of slavery, and an aristocratic class in favor of abolition.”
Griswold noted that, while Underground Railroad ran through the area, local captains returned escaped slaves. Slavery fell out of favor only in the early 19th century in Connecticut, as tasks became more specialized, women in mills displaced the necessity of slaves, and shipbuilding petered out.
Perrault also noted that pre-Revolutionary War, New London county had the largest population of slaves in New England, and that the Colonial economy was supported by trade with the West Indies, which relied on slave labor. Once abolitionist sentiments took hold, however, the Underground Railroad—a network of people morally opposed to slavery who helped slaves find their way north to freedom—ran through Chester and Deep River.
“There were two stationmasters in the area, Deacon George Read of Pratt & Read in Deep River, and Judge Eli Warner in Chester. Slavery in Connecticut itself was phased out in the 1790s, and essentially gone by the 1800s, but the abolitionists themselves didn’t come into being until the 1840s. There are a couple of decades where it was being phased out and the moral aspect was raised,” said Perrault. “There was a strong abolitionist thread, but we cannot whitewash the whole area.
“Their stories are there, but we want to forget it,” added Perreault. “There was an entire population we chose to forget.”
Questioning the Narrative
The slaves' stories being willfully forgotten, as well as largely undocumented, presents a challenge to local historians and those who study contemporary race relations within the context of history alike.
"The textile industry depended on slave labor. They needed cotton from the south," said Deep River Historical Society Curator Rhonda Forristall. "It was a big thing in Deep River; George Read, the head of the Underground Railroad, was also the town's largest employer, but his industry depended on ivory from Africa, and there was a lot of slave labor involved in getting the tusks to Connecticut. So how do you equate that work helping [escaped] slaves with the guy that needs this ivory and is supporting slavery in that way?"
"I don't think we can look back and say we were morally superior," said Dr. Woody Doane, professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Hartford. Doane teaches courses on racism in American society, which include a historical component to provide a greater context. "A lot of the facts are there, but they aren't pieced together into a correct narrative. The one we have is that the south was full of cruel, greedy plantation owners, and the north was the 'good guys.'
"It's a self-serving narrative," continued Doane. "If [slavery in Connecticut] is painted as marginal, it creates a different picture regarding historical responsibility. In reality, slavery was the core of American politics and the economy, particularly in New England, which had the highest standard of living in the world at the time of the Revolutionary War, based on profits from trade.
"If you visit local historical societies, most show this image of hard-working people who lived off of the land, and there is no mention of Native Americans or Africans," said Doane. "But the truth is that one of the first commodities sold on Wall Street was human beings. Our system of slavery ended abruptly because of the Civil War, and gradual emancipation was painted as an act of nobility on the part of the slave owner. The ways in which we talk about white abolitionists fuels the 'north = good' narrative, but there is a reason that the Underground Railroad ran up to Canada.
"In order to deal with the present, we have to deal with the past; an accounting of the past lets us move beyond it," continued Doane. "We can see the plantation owner, but we don't see the person in Essex making wealth off of that, or in Hartford from insurance on slaves.
"It's important for historical societies to talk about those links. It's uncomfortable, but it needs to be told," said Doane. "We don't see the ways it affects people. We have to get away from the glorification narrative and to a realistic history. Context is important, making the history local is important, because it's how we say we should know better—and we will know better."
"The shadow of slavery lingers," said Griswold. "The River Valley for the most part is a white space demographically, which is a function of socioeconomics to a large degree. If you looked at the demographics, there is argument there that the area is segregated. It's the skeleton in our cultural closet—it's uncomfortable to confront; current racism is racism from the past."
They Were Here: Telling a Broader History
Local historians in the tri-town area have taken on the task of uncovering slave and Underground Railroad narratives, though it's a task with considerable challenges. But for those who know where to look, whether in merchant's records, in graveyards, in newspaper obituaries, or even in the towns' street names, traces of their stories are still visible today.
"It's a very difficult history to trace," said Forristall. "A lot of what we have is old newspaper articles, not primary sources. What we know of Billy Winters came from a reported story and I was able to trace information from the article back."
Billy Winters was originally named Daniel Fisher. He escaped slavery in South Carolina in 1828, and connected with "friends," the name given to abolitionists and members of the Underground Railroad, in Philadelphia. They helped him to reach Deep River where Deacon George Read, the founder of Pratt, Read & Co. advised him to change his name. He became a member of the town, well-known for his cooking, and bought much of the property on what is now known as Winter Avenue in Deep River.
"Because it was a secret, the Underground Railroad doesn't have a lot of documentation. It wasn't talked about for safety reasons," said Forristall. "Even now, I recently came across a new reference to someone who was instrumental in the Underground Railroad. David Ruggles was black, born of free parents and educated. He grew up in Norwich, and talks about Connecticut in the 1820s and 1830s. One thing he mentions is how some towns were considered safe for self-emancipated black men, how the whaling industry and fishing communities were safe because these men could be out on the ocean for long periods of time."
"It hasn't really come to the fore," said Rob Micelli, Chester town historian. "Where there was slavery, there wasn't a lot of documentation. It wasn't important; it was usually specifically mentioned in an inventory of belongings after someone had died. People have this idea that things were better in the north, but it's not true—it was more widespread in the north than people realize."
"History was written by people who wanted to deny that we had any role in that," said Milkofsky. "It was the moral stance; they denied it."
Milkofsky also noted that there were people on either side of the divide over slavery in the area: Dr. Ambrose Pratt, a doctor from Chester who lived at the time of the Civil War, brought freed slaves back to Chester to be integrated into the community. However, it was also known that Captain James Easton was a slaver.
"It's a difficult subject, an unpleasant subject. What I started with was, 'How do we do this without being offensive?' If you want to talk about the past, we're not going to learn without talking about the mistakes of the past. We have to because it happened," said Forristall. "Through stories, we learn to be more tolerant of all of our neighbors. A lot of our history is whitewashed; the truth is that there was slavery here. I think we just have to tell the facts, and not sweep this under the table and say, 'Oh no, we don't have any blood on our hands,' because we did. You have to be respectful of the history; you have to say 'This is what was.' You have to say this is the story, these are the facts, and people will either accept it or not."
But despite the difficulty, and the potential offense, the common thread running through those community members chasing down this other history is that it only benefits us to have a better understanding of the broadness of our regions' history.
"We learn from the past. We find out more about ourselves, and the untold stories in particular, they're the ones that reveal more truths than we expect to find," said Connecticut River Museum Curator Amy Trout. "It's important to put a human face on things that we thought we knew, that aren't exactly the way we thought we knew them—and it's always okay to re-examine things and to get a better perspective. We go through various time periods in our history where it is important to look back and say, you know, it was a great time period, but it also had its challenges, too, and let's not forget that."
For more Information
For more information on slavery in the Connecticut River Valley, reach out to the Chester, Essex, Deep River, Old Saybrook, or Middletown historical societies. The full stories of Billy Winters, Jenny Floyd, and others can be found through the Deep River Historical Society. For further reading, Dr. Woody Doane recommends the Complicity series as republished by the Hartford Courant in 2014, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities by Craig Wilder, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore, New England Bound; Slavery and Colonialization in Early America by Wendy Warren, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, The Logbooks: Connecticut's Slave Ships and Human Memory by Anne Farrow, and the film, Traces of the Trade. Other places to reach out to either with questions or to explore: The Connecticut Pequot Museum, the Connecticut River Museum, and Mystic Seaport.
<p><strong>The Fountain Hill Cemetery</strong></p><p>While it is common to find segregated plots, or slave graves kept separately from the rest of the community in some graveyards and cemeteries, the Fountain Hill Cemetery in Deep River, which was designed in 1851, is a testament to the diverse history of the town. There is no specific section for African Americans, instead, their memorials are scattered throughout the cemetery in clusters of families and neighbors. Billy Winters rests there, along with his sister, her husband, and other family members; the last of his family was buried in that cemetery in 1964.</p><p>"According to Frank Mather's account of growing up in Deep River, at 15 years old [in 1850], Winters was the first black man he'd ever seen," said Deep River Historical Society Curator Rhonda Forristall. "But there had been slaves here since the middle 1700s, so were they just not in his scope?"</p><p>John Simonton, a black Spanish American war veteran whose mother was a slave, is also buried at Fountain Hill. Buried in 1890, he lived in Deep River for much of his life. There were other children of former slaves, such as Stephen Beale, who would have not been slaves themselves based on graduated emancipation—those born slaves had to give 25 years to their masters before they could be free. This was eventually moved back to 20 years.</p><p>Jenny Smith Floyd came north in 1869 after the Civil War under the Freedman Act, which was meant to help freed slaves learn to read and write and learn a trade. She worked for and lived with the Smith family on Elm Street, and kept a diary that has become an invaluable primary source. She adopted the Smith family name, and is buried with the family in their plot.</p><p><strong>The <em>Amistad</em> and Connecticut</strong></p><p>It's impossible to talk about the history of slavery in Connecticut and not talk about the <em>Amistad</em>. While the <em>Amistad</em> trial became landmark in the state's history, what most people don't realize is that if the ship had been towed in to New York or Massachusetts instead of Connecticut, there might not have been any trial at all.</p><p>"One of the critical things is that slavery isn't fully outlawed in Connecticut until 1848," said Connecticut River Museum Director Chris Dobbs. "They start getting rid of it in the 1790s, but there were still loopholes in the system."</p><p>The <em>Amistad</em> was a ship used to take slaves from one part of Cuba to another; in 1839 following a revolt in which the African captives tried to force their captors to sail back to Africa, the ship ended up zigzagging up the east coast of the U.S. for more than two months, until it landed off of Montauk Point, Long Island, and the Federal brig Washington captured it and its human cargo—and takes it to New London. Slavery had been abolished in New York in 1827.</p><p>"When the Washington is claiming the <em>Amistad</em> as a prize, what's the most valuable thing on board? It's the Africans themselves," said Dobbs. "If you take it to New York you lose your prize, if you take it to Connecticut you might be able to keep it and make good money off of it. Unfortunately, it's a pure economic decision—no matter where the boat was out of, it if had gone to New York, the <em>Amistad</em> case most likely would have never taken place. The fact that it was brought to Connecticut, which still had slavery on the books, made it instantly into the sensation and the issue that it became, and there is a monetary reason for that."</p>