Published in Connecticut Magazine
Vol 5, No. 6, June 1899

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CONTRARY to the usual notion the first slaves in Connecticut were not chiefly negroes, but Indians taken in battle and afterwards distributed among the settlers. The first Pequot War, for instance, furnished a large number, even a superfluity of servants of this character. There is, however, reason to believe that the two institutions of indian and Negro slavery co-existed for a period: for in the famous "Articles of Confederation" of 1643 provision was made for the distribution among the inhabitants of "persons, as well as lands and goods, taken in the spoils of war." Whether, on the other hand, the deed given by William Holmes of Windsor, in 1638, to Matthew Allyn of Hartford, wherein he speaks of all "the lands,houses, servants, goods, etc.," meant Negro or Indian slaves, or servants pure and simple, we cannot say: but it is certain that Africans were introduced into the Colonies as early as 1620, and the fact that slavery existed in New Haven Colony in 1644 shows that the custom was rooted in the very earliest history of the state. It must be said in extenuation that the early settlers were but following the practice obtaining in England, their mother country, from the time of Elizabeth, with the difference that the slaves in England were not black, but white; again, that if we were among the first to introduce African slavery, we were among the first to abolish that institution.

Benjamin Trumbull, the eminent historian, maintained that the first black slave owned in Connecticut was Louis Berbice, killed at the Dutch Fort 'in Hartford by Gysbert Opdyke in 1639. It is certain that ownership of negroes was common among the leading statemen of our early history. Theophilus Eaton, the first governor of New Haven Colony; JohnTalcott of Hartford; Edward Hopkins, second governor of Connecticut Colony, and founder of the famous Hopkins Grammar Schools, were all owners of slaves. John Pantry of Hartford owned them, and the inventories of the estates of Col. George Fenwick in 1660, and of John Latimer in 1662, show those eminent gentlemen to be in a like category. Not only so, but many even of the leading clergymen were slave owners, and many deacons, the highest both in church and in state. The saintly John Davenport, pastor at New Haven, the accomplished and versatile Joseph Elliott of Guilford, the Rev. Timothy Woodbridge of Hartford, Rev. Jared Elliott of Killingworth, Rev. Nathaniel Chauncey of Durham, and the Rev. William Worthington of Saybrook all owned slaves and disposed of them in their wills as of any other property.

What the status of slave ownership was, and how strongly the custom was upheld by the officers of state, a case which came up for trial before the County Court in Hartford, in 1703, well illustrates. A slave, Abda by name, the property of Capt. Thomas Richards of Hartford, escaped and was sheltered by Capt. Joseph Wadsworth of the same town. This gentleman opposed a constable's executing a writ of arrest on Abda, and Abda brought a I counter suit against Capt. Richards, claiming damages, twenty pounds sterling; the verdict of the court rested with Abda, for it awarded him damages of twelve pounds and virtually established his freedom. That the fact that the slave was a mulatto, the son of an Englishman, had probably weighed with the court, no doubt influenced the General Court to whom the case was appealed in October, 1704. Here the former decision was reversed and the fugitive was ordered to be returned to his master. The opinion of the governor, Gurdon Saltonstall, himself a minister of the gospel, is very interesting, as showing the executive's belief in the practice. He said, "According to the laws and constant practice of this Colony, and all other plantations, (as well as the civil law) such persons as are born of negro bondwomen are themselves in like condition, that is born in servitude. Yet it saith expressly, that no man shall put away or make free his negro or mulatto slave, etc., which undeniably shows and declares an approbation of such servitude, and that mulattos may be held as slaves within this government." Yet it does not appear that individuals owned so large numbers of slaves in early times as in later years, for the largest owner in the colony was Godfrey Malbone, a wealthy gentleman, a graduate of Oxford, and a resident of Brooklyn. Dr. Fowler asserts that he had between fifty and sixty slaves on his extensive estate, which was modeled on the English fashion, and that descendants of them were living as late as 1874.

We have seen that clergymen owned slaves and that Rev. Gurdon Saltonstall, as Governor, could find such ownership, even in the case of mulattos, legal and Commendable. George Whitfield, an able English divine, and close friend of the elder Jonathan Edwards, went so far as to recommend the use of slaves; and it stands on record that the learned Ezra Stiles, president of Yale college, "once sent a barrel of rum by a slave ship to the coast of Africa to be exchanged for a negro, and one was procured and brought home to him to Newport." This nefarious business of importing slaves,. (which the learned and pious Stiles thus consciously or unconsciously abetted) was very lucrative, for a slave in the early part of the last century brought from sixty shillings to twenty-five pounds, and later from seventy-five to one hundred and twenty-five pounds, sterling; but the trade was usually clandestine.

In the opinion of one authority, slave traders were usually ashamed of their vocation and in some instances denied being engaged in it, but not a few mariners amassed large fortunes in the traffic. The slaves most prized were those imported from Guinea; for they were, according to the best reports, the most intelligent and altogether the most desirable. These, more than others, formed their habits according to the standard of morality of the masters; attended church regularly, and led altogether exemplary lives. How far the master's influence extended is shown by the, fact that the slaves of the clergy of Connecticut were distinguished for their Puritan piety and their high appreciation of civil and religious liberty."

This condition of things possibly arose from the imitativeness of the blacks as well as from the patriarchial nature of the institution. So much was the slave a part of the family that in every meeting house there was an "African corner" where the slave must sit while attending divine service. In one town, to be sure, the seats were hidden from the rest of the congregation by a tall board partition. It was even the custom in Puritan families to catechise the slaves Sunday noon regarding the sermon preached in the morning, a zimple method by which many an ignorant black learned the fundamental truths of christianity. Such authority as this would indicate, and the freedom accorded by the statues to the masters gave them, golden opportunities to be rigid if they so desired. That these privileges were not abused is attested by the extraordinary affection which often existed between owner and servant.

If the slaves were imitative in these more serious lines much more were they in their amusements. We read, for instance, in early colonial history of balls given by the blacks of a town, events of much pomp and splendor; military training days of a rather uncertain character and on a greatly reduced scale were regularly held; the slaves even went so far as to hold an annual election for governor.

This event, Dr. Steiner says, was "unique to Connecticut." At any rate it has been given considerable prominence in local histories, and although the whole proceeding was hardly more than a huge farce, it was of some importance at the time. It seems that there were negro governors in several towns and that each was really at the head of the slaves in that immediate vicinity. Dr. Fowler makes mention of a negro governor in the little town of Durham and Miss Caulkins gives a graphic description of an election in Norwich. There was evidently a governor in the capitol of the state, one in Derby and one in Norwich, but although it is highly possible that they existed elsewhere I have found no mention of them. Whether there was one governor who exercised authority over all other "governors" throughout the state or not, it is impossible to say. Some writers seem to think that this was the case, but after a thorough investigation of the subject I am unable to find it to be a certainty.

But the annual election of these governors usually took place the Saturday after Election Day; according to Steiner it took place as late as 1820, but other writers give a later date. The candidate was elected largely by proxy; he was usually one of much note—of imposing presence, strength, firmness and volubility; who was quick to decide, ready to command and able to flog. This last- was probably a very important qualification. He was the adjustor of serious disputes among the negroes, imposed fines and penalties for "gross and immoral conduct" and acted as a sort of supreme arbiter among his people. He displayed every evidence of regal authority; some of them even claimed descent from the kings of Africa. Miss Caulkips tells us that in the cemetery at Norwich was a gravestone with the following inscription thereon: "In memory of Boston Trouwt Row, Governor of the African tribe in this town, who died 1772, aged 66." She adds, "After the death of this person, Sam Huntington (slave to the governor of that name) was annually elected to this dignity for a much greater number of years than his honorable namesake and master was to the gubernatorial chair of this state."

After the negro governor was declared elected and inducted into office, if such it might be called, the whole black population formed an "election parade," in which the borrowed horses, saddles and trappings of their masters figured prominently. The Black King, as he was graciously dubbed, was escorted through the streets of the town while the din of fiddles, fifes, drums and brass horns filled the air with an unearthly noise which the blacks themselves modestly described as a "martial sound." "It was amusing to see the sham dignity, after his election, riding through the town on one of his master's horses, adorned with plated gear. An aide rode on either side and the gov.ernor, puffing and swelling with pride, sat bolt upright, moving with a slow majestic pace, as if the universe was looking on. When he mounted or dismounted an aide flew to his assistance, holding his bridle, putting his feet into the stirrups and bowing to the ground before him. The great Mogul in a triumphal procession never assumed an air of more perfect self im'portance than did the negro governor at such a time." After the parade the slaves repaired to a room where a great feast was spread, of which' they all partook, and it was not unusual for the day's perforrnance to end in a drunken riot.

On the whole, the ordinary slave without an overseer was a lazy, improvident individual. He was often an excellent cook; often he played the less important role of amusement maker to his master. One owned by the Rev. Jonathan Todd, minister in East Guilford, (now Madison) was so expert a fiddler that on many occasions the parson invited the young people of the village to his house "to hear Tom play on his fiddle." But in general the slave was his master's ward, and- it is not difficult to realize that slaves in Con necticut held during the eighteenth century, were far better off than after emancipation. Professor Fowler tells us that they were kindly treated in most cases, that every slave holder was bound by custom to furnish negroes with clothing, food, and to care for them when by reason of old age they were unable to care for themselves. The early records of New Haven Colony, for instance, makes mention of John Cram and Lucretia his wife, slaves to Governor Theophilus Eaton. They became old and refractory so that their master set apart for their use two acres of ground on which he caused to be erected a comfortable house. There the old pair lived and died happy and contented.

The negro nature being what it was, it was impossible that the slave's privileges should be far reaching. Sometimes a slave might, upon the death of his master, choose with which son he wished to live, but of public privileges, at least in the early part of the eighteenth century, he had none.

In 1717 the freemen of New London, in a town meeting largely attended, voted to "utterly oppose and protest against Robert Jacklin, a negro, buying any land in the town, or being an inhabitant." They sent a strongly worded petition to the General Assembly urging that body to pass a law that, "no person of that coloi (black) may ever have any possessions within the government." Their application met with speedy approval, for the month following the Assembly passed a bill, "prohibiting negroes purchasing land without liberty from the town," and, adds Trumbull, "from living in families of their own without such liberty." Later in the century the status of the slave had slightly changed; there was an agitation for emancipation, and the slave himself had earned a further title to respect by his service in the Revolutionary war.

The first official record concerning his employment in the Continental Army was in 1777 when the General Assembly appointed a committee "to take into consideration the state and condition of the negro and mulatto slave in this State, and what may be done for their emancipation."

The Hon. Matthew Griswold was the chairman of a committee which reported in effect as follows: If slaves could obtain by "bounty or hire" a sum to be paid their masters, which would equal in value the sum they were judged to be worth by the selectmen of the town, they should be allowed to enlist in the Connecticut Line and be henceforth, de facto, free and emancipated. A clause was added which made the master extempt, from the future support of the slave, even in case of disability or old age. The report failed in the Upper House, but at the same session an act was passed whereby slaves of "good life and conversation" when adjudged by the selectmen to be suitable persons for the army, were put into service and the master freed from future support of them. Many a slave enlisted, and, writes J. Hammond Trumbull, "neither the selectmen nor the commanding officers questioned the color; white and black, bond and free if able bodied, went into the roll together, accepted as the representatives or substitutes of their employers." Many masters, actuated either by money or motives of humanity, freed their slaves to allow them to go into the army. In Meigs' regiment one whole company was made up of slaves. This company was commanded by Capt. David Hurnphreys, one of the authors of the celebrated "Anarchiad" and aide to Gen. Washington; Doctor Steiner says that Humphreys took command after others had refused and remained at the head until the declaration of peace in 1783.

Many slaves, both in the regiment and elsewhere, displayed superior bravery when death was imminent. Wilson instances the case of a negro, Lambert by name, who at Fort Griswold, Sept. 6, 1781 slew the British officer who murdered Col. Ledyard; he then fell,'-pierced by thirty-three bayonet wounds," as true a hero as ever lived.

J. Hammond Trumbull, in describing the efficiency of slaves as soldiers writes:
"So far as my acquaintance extends, almost every family has its traditions of the good and faithful service of a black servant or slave, who was killed in battle or served through the war and came home to tell stories of hard fighting, and draw his pension. In my town I remember five such pensioners, three of whom, I believe, had been slaves." As late as 1840 Oliver Mitchell, a black Revolutionary soldier, died of a fit in his boat on the Connecticut river. He had but just drawn his pension at Hartford and was returning to his home up stream.

It has been said that many masters freed their slaves to make soldiers of them, and it cannot be doubted that the aid thus furnished to the masters in the struggle for freedom was a factor in the movement for freeing the blacks themselves. it must not be supposed, however, that this was the initial step: nor must we fall into that other error of supposing that the sole or controlling motive was humanitarian. It may possibly be true, as a prominent writer has said, that the importation of Africans into the state reduced the price of labor to such a degree that the service of freemen was not required and that this consideration influenced the legislature to some extent, but it is quite evident from the records of the twenty years previous to 1784 that the ceaseless, uncompromising agitation against slavery, carried on by the clergy of the state was the real reason for the extinction, within Connecticut borders at least.

Before the opening of the Revolutionary war. then, the sentiment against slavery and practically against the slave trade, had considerably grown. For ten years, 1774— 1784, there were many eloquent sermons hurled from pulpits all over the state against slave owners and traders. About 1776, the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, pastor of a church in Housatonic (now. Great Barrington, Mass.) but a native of Waterbury, a man of great power, issued a "dialogue" wherein he proved beyond doubt that it was the plain religious duty of every slave owner to liberate his slaves. This "dialogue" was interestingly written and had its mission. As the sturdy Connecticut farmer, sitting before his fireplace after a hard day's work, read this little pamphlet, he was probably brought for the first time to realize the wickedness of African slavery. The younger Jonathan Edwards also published an anti-slavery pamphlet, "The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade ;" both from the pulpit and from pamphieteers, by 1776 petitions began to be presented to the General Assembly, praying for the emancipation of slaves in Connecticut. Public opinion at last turned the tide and the agitators saw their hopes realized, for in 1784 the legislature passed the first emancipation law. On this important issue Connecticut has the honor of being about the first to commit herself.

The law, originally drafted, I think, as early as 1780, provided for a gradual emancipation, whereby every negro or mulatto child born after the first of March, 1784, should not be held a slave after reaching the age of twenty-five years. Although this law was not radical, it was meant by its authors to be very firm, for slave owners who did not file certificates of birth of slaves at a specified time, or within six months of that date, were required to pay a fine of seven dollars for every month over due. In 1797 another act was passed making all born after Aug. 1, 1797, free at the age of 2 1 years.

Although the use and importation of Africans had been believed in and countenanced by the best citizens, yet such eminent statesmen as Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, our representatives in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Came out boldly against the traffic, and the former declared it to be iniquitous.

The law worked silently and steadily, and when, in 1848 the act was passed which abolished slavery in this state forever, there were, according to the eminent authority, John Hooker, only six slaves surviving.

Whether the liberation of the blacks was a benefit to them as individuals or not has been a matter for grave dispute. Undoubtedly it was sometimes an injury to both master and slave, but Professor Fowler avers that his experience in gathering testimonials for forty or fifty years regarding this question convinced him that emancipation was more advantageous and less injurious to the slave. Noah Webster, however, writing about the time of emancipation, took a dismal view of the case. He said, "Slaves born and bred beneath the frown of power, neglected and despised in youth, they abandon themselves to ill company and low vicious pleasure, till their habits are formed, when manumission, instead of destroying their habits and repressing their corrupt inclinations, seems to afford them more numerous opportunities for indulging both." In direct opposition to this doleful opinion of the great lexicographer, Prof. Fowler, an unimpeachable authority, says that, in talking with men born in Connecticut notfar from 1760, he learned that slaves in this state "were more moral, religious, had larger families of children and lived longer than their free brethren." This is the opinion of a man who made a study of slavery in its every aspect.

The condition of the blacks under slavery is very comprehensively viewed by Tapping Reeve, the famous head of the more famous Litchfield Law School (now the Yale Law School) in his able work entitled "Domestic Relations

"In 1816," he says, "it is difficult to find in the state of Connecticut a slave." In discussing the relations between master and slave, he writes: "The master had no control over the life of his slave. If he killed him, he was liable to the same punishment as if he killed a freeman. A slave was capable of holding property in the character of devisee or legatee. If a slave married a free woman with the consent of his master, he was emancipated: for his master had suffered him to contract a relation inconsistent with a state of slavery. The master by his consent had agreed to abandon his rights to him as a slave."

Notwithstanding the beneficent working of the law, and the desire of the law'makers to do away with slavery, the records of events show an evident desire on the part of the public still to antagonize negroes individually whether bond or free. In the year 1831 a movement was inaugurated at New Haven, by the friends of the blacks, to establish there a college where negroes might receive a proper education. But a large mass meeting of prominent citizens passed strong resolutions against the project; they declared in vigorous language they were utterly opposed to abolition sentiment. So strong was the feeling that the legislature in sympathy with the meeting passed, two years later, an act which rendered the establishing of schools in Connecticut, for the instruction of pupils from other states, unlawful. The excuse for its passage was given that such schools would" tend to the great increase of the population of the state, and thereby to the injury of the people.

How an increased population could be an injury to the people was not explained, probably the wiser course. But it was under the provision of this act that a famous prosecution was made, which attracted widespread attention, not only in this but in many other states. Miss Prudence Crandall opened a young ladies' school in the small town of Canterbury. She had taught with marked success in other places, and the leading citizens of Canterbury prevailed upon her to move thither. This she did and opened the school in the fall of 1831. Miss Crandall prospered until she allowed a colored girl, the daughter of a respectable resident of the town, to become a pupil. It appears that Miss Crandall had access to Garrison's anti-slavery paper, "The Liberator," and had imbibed from it sentiments decidedly favorable to abolition; she' therefore had no hesitation in starting the girl on a course of study which would enable her to "teach colored children." This innocent act precipitated a little storm, instigated by the wife of an Episcopal rector, residing in the town, and a general boycott was declared. This fierce opposition only nerved the brave little woman in the determination to carry out her design; she soon afterwards made the public announcement that she proposed opening a school for "little misses of color."

The ire of the townspeople was thoroughly aroused. At a public town meeting held in the Canterbury meeting house, March, 1833, resolutions were unanimously adopted denouncing and vehemently opposing the opening of the school for colored girls within the limits of the town; a committee was appointed to confer with Miss Crandall and persuade her to abandon the project. At a second town meeting a committee was appointed to apply to the next legislature for a law to meet the case and as a' consequence the disgraceful law of 1833, alluded to before, was passed. From this time on her school was treated with an extreme of lawlessness which would have astonished even a party of western cowboys.

Unruly boys, encouraged by their seniors, created an unearthly noise in front of her school and threw rotten eggs and other offensive missiles. She and her pupils were even debarred from purchasing goods at the village store. She was warned that if she continued teaching colored children not residents of Connecticut, the law would be rigidly enforced, and, in very truth, on the 27th of June, 1833, the amiable, Quaker schoolmistress was arrested and committed by a justice of the peace for her trial before the Windham County court in August.

Her friends refused to furnish bonds, preferring rather to let the law take its course; accordingly Miss Crandall passed one night in a cell previously occupied by a condemned murderer. Bail was, however, furnished by an unknown person next morning, but the fact rather turned public sentiment in her favor, for the Honorable Arthur Tappan of New York, the famous anti-slavery agitator, notified Miss Crandall's friends to spare no cost in obtaining the ablest lawyer in her defence. The case of the state versus Crandall came to trial before Judge Eaton at Brooklyn on the 23rd of August, 1833. The jury stood seven for conviction and five for acquittal, and the case was brought before Judge Daggett in the October session of the Superior Court. The verdict again went against Miss Crandall. Her counsel appealed to the Supreme Court of Errors, where the case was heard on the 22d of July, 1834. Here the previous decisions were reversed on the ground of "insufficiency of information."

The school was continued through this long bitter controversy, but popular indignation did not decrease. The prosecution having failed in the courts, the thirst for vengeance broke out afresh; the officers of the Congregational church refused to allow Miss Crandall or her pupils to worship within its walls; her barn was set afire, fortunately without bad results; and On the night of Sept. 9th a crowd of men and boys attacked the house, breaking all the windows and doors and almost totally ruining the structure. After this barbarous Outrage the school was discontinued and the miserable affair came to an end, yet the little town, in justification of its conduct, placed this resolution upon its records: "That the Government of the United States, the nation with all its institutions, of right belongs to the white men who now control them, that our appeal to the legislature of our own state in a case of such peculiar mischief was not only due to ourselves, but to the obligations devolving upon us under the Constitution. To have been silent would have been participating in the wrongs intended. We rejoice that the appeal was not in vain."

Numerous incidents of the irrepressible conflict in Connecticut might be cited. The famous "Amistad Case," which lack of space prevents our discussing, began in 1839 and ended only in 1844 in the Supreme Court of the United States; a signal legal victory was then won by John Quincy Adams and Roger Sherman Bald'win for the Amistad captives. At public meetings held in Hartford and New Haven in 1835, the Abolitionists were roundly denounced for sending their "inflammatory literature" into the Southern states.

Governor Isaac Toucey himself presided over the Hartford meeting. Later in 1850, there is record of transaction, significant as showing the evolution of public feeling. Joseph R. Hawley, agent, purchased for John Hooker, Esq., of Hartford, Rev. James Pennington, D. D., ("Jim Pembroke ") an escaped slave who had previously served as pastor of a church in that city. He was fearful of capture afrer the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and had adopted the means of going to Canada and afterwards to Germany to obtain his freedom. Mr. Hooker paid one hundred and fifty dollars for the doctor of divinity, owned him one day and then executed a writ of manumission.

The sentiment against the Abolitionists throughout the state was certainly bitter, yet through the work of the "Christian Freeman," afterwards known as "The Charter Oak," with the able Burleigh as editor, the cause was continually agitated and steadily advanced. In 1840 James G. Birney, candidate of the Liberty Party for president received only 1 votes; four years later he got 1,943. In 1852, John P. Hale received 3,160, and but two years later the candidate for governor obtained 19,465. In 1856 Fremont, for president, carried the state with 42,715 votes, and from then on the gain was rapid, placing Connecticut in the Republican column for many years.


To Dr. Steiner's "Slavery in Connecticut," J. H. U., 1893, and "The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut," by William C. Powler, L. L. D., I am especially indebted. Prof. Fowler's valuable work was printed in Dawson's Historical Magazine, 3d series, Vol. III, 1874.

I have also consulted the following works in the preparation of this article: De Forest's "Indians of Connecticut;" Moore's "Notes on Slavery;" Caulkin's "Norwich" and " New London;"Williarn's "History of the Negro Race in America;" Jameson's "Essays in Constitutional History;" Wilson's "Rise and Fall of the Slave Power;" Bacon's "Slavery Discussed in occasional Essays;" the general Histories of Connecticut, by Trumbull, Hollister and Barber, and numerous town histories.

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