Editor’s note: This is a past column by Tedd Levy, Old Saybrook historian, who wrote this for the ShoreLine Times a few years ago to commemorate Black History Month.
You may have noticed that human beings are fundamentally similar, but many seem to flourish by finding differences that emerge at birth, and over which we have no control – skin color and gender.
When differences develop between “us” and “them” and are enforced by social customs, religious beliefs and economic power, the result is dominance of one group over another.
It is a description of slavery and it existed for 200 years in Connecticut and along the Shoreline.
It probably began, and lasted for a limited time, with captured Native Americans and then with Africans, many of whom were taken to the Caribbean islands for “seasoning.”
The first record of slaves being brought to the New England colonies occurred in 1638 when Capt. William Pierce sailed the “Desire” into Boston Harbor with a cargo of salt, cotton, tobacco and Africans.
Not long after, runaways were apparently a problem and the Articles of Confederation, which formed a loose alliance of New England colonies, stated in 1643 that servants who run away shall be delivered to their master.
While this applied to poor Europeans who were hired out as apprentices or came as indentured servants seeking freedom or a fortune, it also applied to slaves who were forcibly removed from family and homelands.
The first record of a runaway slave in Connecticut was perhaps in 1681 when “Jack,” the property of Sam Wolcott of Wethersfield, got as far as Springfield before being captured.
For most of the 1600s, the slave population in Connecticut remained small and has been estimated at a few dozen. Gov. William Leete noted in 1679 that “as for blacks, there comes sometimes three or four in a year from Barbadoes.”
Slave labor was not as widespread or as profitable in New England as it was in the South. As a result, it was more common for white owners to have fewer slaves and in many instances, slaves were trained by their masters for trades or work on the farm.
Far from being equal, they often worked alongside each other and resided in the same house. There were fewer women and most all were required to do domestic work within the home.
A century later on the eve of the War for American Independence, Connecticut had a relatively small black population of about 5,700, but still the largest in New England. There were about 1,200 in New London County and others were located in Hartford, Stonington and Wethersfield, which were busy ports for fishing, whaling and trading slaves.
Early stirrings of opposition to slavery emerged at this time and the General Assembly moved to limit the number of slaves stating that “no Indian, negro, or mulatto slave shall at any time hereafter be brought or imported into this State, by sea or land.”
It was also the time when the first antislavery arguments appeared in print. Aaron Cleveland, of Norwich, the great grandfather of President Grover Cleveland, published an antislavery poem in 1775, one of the earliest writers in Connecticut to question the existence of slavery.
Although little has been written about slavery in Saybrook, Don Perrault, a social studies teacher at Valley Regional High School in Deep River, plowed through local histories, probate records, deeds, wills and other sources and concluded that slavery is rarely mentioned and that much of the African-American story has been lost.
However, he did find that African-Americans made major contributions to the economy in colonial Saybrook, and without this labor, the economy of the lower Connecticut River Valley would not have thrived as it did.
Those with great wealth and social standing, particularly with interests in shipping and trading in the West Indies, owned slaves which was a respectable and accepted part of everyday life.
Perhaps the most prominent family to become prosperous as a result of West Indies trade, was the Hart family whose residence included attic rooms where the slaves slept. Today, the building is maintained by the Old Saybrook Historical Society.
They, like others, purchased their servants and slaves at an auction held periodically at the corner of the Boston Post Road and Main Street.
Capt. Elisha Hart, brother of Gen. William Hart, had a “house servant” who served his family and was referred to as “old Leah.” She has been described as “large, pompous, superstitious, bowing to the new moon that it might bring her luck and making ready for company if she dropped her dish cloth by accident.”
“Old Leah” ruled the kitchen and “was much beloved by the family and at her death was buried in the family lot in the old cemetery, where a stone was raised to her memory and inscribed “Leah Lathrop Hart.”
The highly respected Rev. Thomas Buckingham, one of the founders of the Collegiate School, author of the Saybrook Platform, and like many ministers, had several slaves. In his will he leaves “To his son Hezekiah, the negro boy Peter — to be his slave servant which he values at 40 pounds” and “to his son-in-law John Kirtland his Negro boy Philip; valued at 50 pounds.”
At the time of John Kirtland’s death, his will listed “two negro boys named Cesar and Cato” and he left to his wife Mehitable, his “negro girl called Rose and one boy.”
Samuel Lynde, and later his son Willoughby, accumulated a large fortune through farming, weaving, spinning and trade with the West Indies. They had nine slaves, an unusually large number, who worked the crops, tended livestock, made repairs and brought goods to the wharf. The women cared for the house, and produced cloth by spinning and weaving.
In addition to livestock and lumber, Samuel Willard, Jr. had a grist mill and sawmill near Cedar Lake in Chester. Given the distance from Saybrook it is likely that Willard’s slaves — Lucas, Hagar, or Peter — worked at the mill as well as in shipbuilding, iron forges, ropewalks, distilleries and other businesses.
A growing number of Connecticut residents began to question the existence and morality of keeping people in bondage. Although its efforts were slow and weak, the Connecticut General Assembly in 1784 provided that no “Negro or mulatto born in Connecticut after March 1” was to be held as a slave after the age of 25.
This very gradual emancipation was followed by legislation in 1792 setting forth penalties for anyone who removed from the state a slave who was entitled to freedom would be punished by “a fine of $334.” The same session enacted legislation declaring all slaves between age 25 and 45 were entitled to freedom.
In 1797, laws were passed freeing all slaves after reaching 21 years of age. However, this deliberate process did not provide complete freedom for all slaves in Connecticut until 1848. After nearly 200 years, the practice of keeping people in bondage came to an end in Connecticut.
This gradual end to slavery also occurred in Saybrook. According to the 1790 census, there were 31 slaves in Saybrook and in the 1800 census, only 11 slaves remained.
From 1662 to 1800, there were approximately 60 individuals who owned slaves in Saybrook. The high point was reached in the 1740s when Nathaniel Lynde had 10 slaves. From 1800 to 1816 there were only six owners.
The Rev. Frederick Hotchkiss, who married Amelia Hart, daughter of Rev. William Hart, strongly disagreed with many of his Hart in-laws who owned slaves.
In his 50th anniversary sermon, Father Hotchkiss, as he was affectionately called, prophetically said that we were at the dawn of a glorious revolution and that it was “the entire abolition of that slavery of man, which has been for so many ages the blackest stain of the Christian nations…with all their boasts of civilization, refinement, pure religion, knowledge of the rights of man, and love of liberty…
“Let the slave go free,” he exclaimed, “and emancipate the world from the chains of degradation and bondage!” What he didn’t realize was that it would take the nation’s bloodiest war to remove those “chains of degradation and bondage.”
But that’s another chapter in history.