Sunday, April 29, 2018

Slavery in Waterbury

Years ago, during a program on slavery at the Mattatuck Museum, a white audience member stood up and said that he had been taught that slavery happened only in the South and, later, that the slavery which happened in the North wasn't so bad, that there weren't very many slaves here, so what did it matter? His comments reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of slavery and the whitewashing of history which, at the time, the Mattatuck was trying to correct.

In the past year or so, it's become clear to me that there are still too many people who are dismissive of the history of slavery in the North and in Waterbury, and too many people who are dismissive of what that history means to people whose ancestors were enslaved and to people who deal with systemic racism every day.

The Fortune's Story website does an excellent job of presenting the history of slavery in Waterbury. Since that site was launched, I've uncovered a few more pieces of information that help tell the story.

Research Background

Way back in the late '90s and early '00s, I worked at the Mattatuck Museum. Fresh out of grad school, I started there as the Assistant Curator, eventually being promoted to Associate Curator, and then, after leaving the nest, returning as a Guest Curator. I had a Master's degree in history/museum studies, but it was at the Mattatuck Museum that I learned how to do community-based history. Working with Ann Smith, Marie Galbraith, Jeremy Brecher, Ruth Glasser, and so many others, I learned how to do oral history projects and, most importantly, how to listen to and show respect for the life experiences of diverse communities, how to present history in a balanced and comprehensive way.

Back then, the Mattatuck was focused on its role as the historical society for Waterbury, putting together a couple of exhibits every year about local history. We also worked on a series of community history projects which resulted in exhibits and small publications.

One of the earliest community history projects was "Ties That Bind," an exhibit and website created by the Mattatuck Museum through a collaboration with a community advisory group, the African American History Project Committee. The committee members included Maxine Watts, Lillian Brown, Betty Gibson, Ledonia Grey, Audrey Harrell, Gloria Patterson, Barbara Riddick, and Al Walton. "Ties That Bind" is a small traveling exhibit that is still in use; the website was taken down years ago but can still be viewed through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine here.

After the "Ties That Bind" project wrapped up, the African American History Project Committee turned their attention to the distant past and started asking questions about "Larry," the human skeleton that had been on exhibit at the Mattatuck for decades until finally being removed from public display in 1970.

The Mattatuck launched a major historical research project to find the truth about the skeleton, hiring professional historians, scholars, and scientists to guide us as we challenged the long-standing falsehoods that had been accepted as history for over a century. We learned that the skeleton had once been a man named Fortune, who had been enslaved in Waterbury along with his wife and children. Fortune's story can still be read online -- the website we created has not been updated, but is still there -- at

I assisted with the archives research "legwork" during the Fortune's Story project, poring through documents at the Mattatuck Museum and the Connecticut State Library to find not only any information about Fortune, but any information to provide the context for his story. That context is available on the Fortune's Story website, where there is an overview of slavery in Waterbury and short biographies of the many people who were enslaved here, as well as the people who enslaved them.

Since then, I've continued to search for more information about this aspect of Waterbury's history, finding evidence of more people who were enslaved here, and developing a deeper understanding of it.

About ten years ago, I put together a slideshow about slavery in Waterbury and presented it a couple of times on request. Since the topic has reemerged this week, I figure now is a good time revise my lecture for this blog.

Historical Note

During the 1700s, Native Americans and African Americans were considered to be at the bottom rungs of society. The people who were in charge considered them, with a few exceptions, to be unimportant. If you had one white parent, you were not considered to be white. You were called "mulatto," or mixed. Connecticut's legislature lumped these groups together, establishing laws specifically for "Negro, Mulatto, and Indian Servants and Slaves."

An Act to prevent the Disorder of Negro and Indian-Servants and Slaves, in the Night-season, 1716

The word "servant" usually meant an indentured servant, someone who was bound by contract for a set period of time to do manual labor for their "master." Servants had very few liberties -- they typically lived with the person they served and received no payment until the end of the indentureship. Whites could be indentured servants, but they could never be slaves. And as the colonial law states, non-white indentured servants had to obey laws that didn't apply to white servants.

Those laws included the following: travel beyond town boundaries without a pass was prohibited for free and enslaved; violating a 9 p.m. curfew was punishable by whipping; slaves convicted of slander would be whipped; and disturbing the peace or assaulting any white person was punishable by whipping.

During the 1700s in Connecticut, if you were a minister, attorney, or doctor, you almost certainly were a slave owner. The economy was agrarian -- wealth was in farmland, and professional men relied on laborers to farm their lands for them. Slaves were the cheapest form of labor, and the intense racism of the era prevented even ministers from seeing the harm in it. This is not to say that all whites approved of slavery -- it was a hotly contested issue, leading to the gradual abolishment of slavery in Connecticut.

In the 1700s, western European culture was strictly hierarchical. The king was the most important person, followed in varying order by nobility, the wealthy, political leaders, lawyers, doctors, and the clergy. Men were more important than women, women were more important than children, whites of English descent were more important than everyone else.

If you weren't considered important, the only time your name would be recorded is when you were baptized, married, buried, or when a crime was committed. If you lived on the outskirts of society, if you were on the bottom rungs of society, if you weren't connected to a church, your name might never be recorded. Even the U.S. Census reflects this sense of hierarchy -- before 1850, the only names recorded were the heads of households.

If you immerse yourself in African American or Native American history or genealogy, one of the things you learn very quickly is that most of these people do not appear in official records. Many names show up in only one place, such as a document tucked away in an uncatalogued archive, where it hasn't been seen in decades, or in a newspaper ad for a runaway. Countless people have been lost to history, either because the only document bearing their name has been lost, or because their names were never recorded.

If you can't find a record of someone's name, it is not proof that someone didn't exist. Similarly, if you can't find a record of an event, it is not proof that it never happened.

Slavery in Waterbury

Waterbury started as a village called Mattatuck. It was a farming community started by a group from Farmington. The main settlement was built around what is now the Green. A common fence, with manned gates, separated the houses from the pastures to the south and west along the Naugatuck River.

Map of the Village of Mattatuck, published in Bronson's History of Waterbury, 1858.
North is to the right. The road at the top is West Main Street. The road at the bottom ("to Farmington") is East Main Street. Pine Hill on the map was removed during the 1800s.

Nathaniel Currier, color version of lithograph by Lucien Bisbee
showing Waterbury from Westside Hill, 1837

The Harry T. Peters Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute

Waterbury was a small town for its first century, but despite its small size, there were still more than 100 people enslaved here over the years. It's difficult to know exactly how many people were enslaved in Waterbury. We can only go by the names that have been found and the numbers included on the handful of censuses that were taken.

Most of their biographies can be found on the Fortune's Story website, and I encourage you to read about them there. I have included links to biographies were available.

The first African American known to have been enslaved in Waterbury was a boy named Mingo, who was brought here sometime around 1730. There may well have been others, including Native Americans, enslaved here before 1730. The Connecticut colonists used slavery as a way to control the Pequots and other native peoples they were displacing.

Two other people known to have been enslaved here during the 1730s were a man called Lewis and a woman called Filis (Phyllis). Lewis was valued as property worth £140; Filis was valued at £100.

Martin Molotts, born in Waterbury in 1748, was the son of a free Native American woman named Judah. His father, Larance, was enslaved by Captain Samuel Hickcox. The name "Molotts" isn't a real name -- it's a reference to his mixed parentage. Martin's legal status was as mixed as his parentage. Born free, but still considered a servant of Samuel Hickcox, he was sold at age 4 into indentured servitude following his mother's death. He was promised to be given his freedom on his 24th birthday in 1772. Samuel Hickcox died in 1765; no mention is made of Larance or Martin in his will or his estate inventory. More research might uncover what happened to them, but it is also possible that we will never know for sure if they died before 1765, were sold as slaves to someone else, or gained their freedom. That's the frustration of studying history -- we can't know everything.

Sometimes people who were enslaved in Waterbury stayed here their entire lives, remaining with the white families that owned them. More often, though, slaves were sold and resold, sent to other towns, separated from their parents and siblings. Slaves could be inherited or given as a wedding present to the owner's daughter.

Fortune died in 1798. His wife Dinah, also enslaved, was not allowed to give him a proper burial. Instead, the doctor who was their legal owner stripped Fortune's flesh from his bones and kept Fortune's skeleton for medical study. Dinah would almost certainly have seen her late husband's bones being handled as objects for medical studies. Dinah may have been handed a box containing her late husband's dissected skin and organs for burial after the doctor finished studying the remains.

Within a few short years, Fortune and Dinah's children were separated from their mother. We have never been able to find out what happened to any of them.

Facial reconstruction of Fortune, based on his skeleton, by forensic artist Frank Bender
Collection of Mattatuck Museum


Not surprisingly, many people tried to escape from slavery by running away. The Connecticut Legislature grouped runaways together with vagabonds, drunkards, fortune tellers, the mentally disabled, and others. If you were deemed to be one of these types of people and no one stepped up to claim ownership of you, the punishment, established by the Legislature in 1727, included imprisonment in a workhouse, no more than ten lashes of the whip upon arrival at the workhouse, and the occasional whipping and/or denial of food while at the workhouse. The nearest workhouse was in New Haven. 

In 1759, an enslaved man named Bill ran away from Westchester County and was captured in Waterbury. A newspaper advertisement seeking his recapture gave his physical description and noted that "he says he has a White Mother, and was born in New-England." I do not know if Bill was ever recaptured.

In 1762, a man named George Tankard ran away from Caleb Humaston, a Waterbury farmer, former town treasurer, and legislative representative. Tankard was described as a "Mulatto Servant Man." He took off on horseback, armed with a gun and ammunition. Humaston promised to repay anyone who could capture Tankard, whether they confined him in an official jail, or just held him hostage in their own home. I do not know what happened to Tankard.

Caleb Humaston lived in the part of Waterbury that later became Thomaston. In 1771, he ran ads for another runaway. This time it was an enslaved man named Boston, whom Humaston had purchased from someone in Lyme. Boston was shackled at the time of his escape: the advertisement states that he was wearing nothing but a pair of short trousers, a checked linen shirt, and "a pair of iron handcuffs which he may have got off." Humaston also noted that Boston was "pretty talkative and flattering, and will tell any story to deceive so as to prevent being secured." I do not know what happened to Boston.

Advertisement in the Connecticut Journal, 1771

When Humaston died in 1777, his estate inventory listed two people as his property: a man named Mingo and a woman named Silve. I have found no other information about Tankard, Boston, Mingo, or Silve.

In 1771, a teenager named Ben ran away from the man who had enslaved him in Waterbury. The advertisement seeking his capture gave a physical description and noted that he "speaks good English and is addicted to swearing." I do not know if Ben was ever recaptured.

Petitioning for Freedom

During the Revolutionary War, some slaves served in the Continental Army. One of those men was Joseph Munn, who had been brought to Waterbury as a slave in 1773. Originally kidnapped by slavers as a child in Africa, he was shipped to America and enslaved in Hartford before being purchased by a Waterbury resident. The only record of his history is a document at the Connecticut State Library Archives. Munn served honorably as a private during the war. In 1780, he petitioned for his freedom on the grounds that he was "entitled to Freedom and the unalienable rights of Humanity." Munn was clearly familiar with the Declaration of Independence and felt it should apply to all. Munn was denied his freedom. I do not know what happened to him.

In 1795, an enslaved girl named Comfort Homer was purchased by Waterbury's Miles Newton. Thanks to Connecticut's Gradual Emancipation laws, Homer was supposed to be automatically given her freedom on her 25th birthday. When Newton instead kept her enslaved, Homer successfully sued for her freedom. The two documents that tell this story were purchased on eBay and donated to the Mattatuck Museum.

Justice Noah B. Benedict's pronouncement of Comfort Homer's freedom and back wages owed
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

Another woman enslaved in Waterbury, Silence Will, was given her freedom after nearly half a century by Joseph Hopkins in 1798. Just before his death in 1801, he drew up his will with a section ensuring that her freedom would not be questioned and that his heirs would care for her in her old age.

Forced to Leave Town

During the colonial era, Waterbury was, essentially,  a gated community. During the 1700s, you needed permission to move to any town in Connecticut. If you couldn't guarantee that you could support yourself, if the town fathers thought you might become a burden, a charity case, the constables would run you out of town.

If you didn't leave town promptly, you would be fined ten shillings per week. If you couldn't afford the fine and didn't leave within ten days, you would be whipped no more than ten lashes on the bare skin.

I don't know if any of the many people, white and black, who were warned to leave Waterbury were ever whipped, but the sign post at Exchange Place, where such whippings would be held, stood as a tangible reminder of that punishment.

In the archives at the Mattatuck Museum is a collection of official documents warning specific people to leave town or suffer the consequences. Among them are a number of free and enslaved African Americans.

On March 15, 1775, a "Molatto Negro" named John Sedaw was warned to leave town. I have found no other information about him.

Warning to John Sedaw by Phinehas Porter, Selectman of Waterbury, 1775
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

On December 1, 1779, two African American families were told to leave Waterbury: "Cesar and Peter, Negro men & their Families that are now resident in [Waterbury, and] are likely to be chargeable to this Town...." In the document, the constables were instructed to "warn said Negroes & their Families forthwith to depart the Town of Waterbury and reside no more in said Town, if they mean to escape the rigor of the law in that case made and provided...."

On the back of the documents are the following notations added by the constables: "December the 16 1779 then Read the within writ in the hearing of the within named Cesar and Peter and their families..." and "Cost of carrying children to New Haven, £15; to keeping Old Franklin, 10 days."

Since they were "likely to be chargeable," the two families were probably free but living in poverty. If they weren't able to leave within ten days, presumably everyone in the family, even children, would be whipped to teach them to obey the laws. Connecticut's ruling class was not particularly charity-minded. When faced with a family on hard times, unable to support themselves, the response was to threaten them with a whipping if they didn't leave town.

Notice to Constables regarding Cesar, Peter, and their families
from Timothy Judd, Justice of Peace, 1779

Collection of Mattatuck Museum

Reverse of the notice regarding Cesar, Peter, and their families
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

In May 1782, an African American girl named Ame Duart was told to depart the town forthwith. She was living in the home of Roger Isaacs (the name is hard to decipher, but I think that's what it is). The only Roger Isaacs I've found in the historical records is a free African American man who lived in Oxford with one other free African American person (perhaps his wife, perhaps Ame?) from about the 1790s to the 1820s.

Warming to Ame Duart from Selectman Isaac Bronson, Jr., 1782
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

In July 1782, Waterbury's Justice of the Peace issued the following notice to the town's constables:

     "Whereas Capt. Isaac Bronson, Jr. and others of the Selectmen of the Town of said Waterbury have Complained that one Ruel Affrica and Else Payne and her Child all late of Wallingford endeavor to thrust themselves in and now reside in said Waterbury without obtaining leave [permission] as the Law Directs and is likely to become Chargeable to said Town ---
     These are therefore in the Name of the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut to Command you forthwith to warn said Ruel Affrica and Else Payne with her Child to Depart the Town of said Waterbury within Ten Days and reside no more therein upon the Penalty of the Law...."

Ruel (or Reuel) Affrica was black. Else Payne was white. If they were a couple, they would not have been allowed to marry, but their relationship may have been something other than romantic.

The Affrica-Payne family was back in Waterbury a year and a half later, now with three children. They were once more warned out, this time in January 1784 by Selectman David Hotchkiss.

Reuel Affrica was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He was one of a dozen African Americans who enlisted at Wallingford. He signed up for three years in the Seventh Regiment, Connecticut Line, enlisting on January 10, 1777, but was discharged on June 3, 1778, unfit for service (a phrase that often refers to health issues or physical infirmity).

Affrica and Else Payne were living in Cheshire in 1800. Although listed one after the other in the census that year, they were considered to be in separate households. Affrica lived alone; Payne, who was listed as being 45 or older, lived with a white boy under the age of 10.

Affrica died in Cheshire on January 7, 1801. The church records list him simply as Ruel, negro.

Else Payne appears in the 1810 Cheshire census, living alone.

Notice to the Constables regarding Ruel Affrica, Else Payne
and her child from Justice of Peace Ezra Bronson, 1782

Collection of Mattatuck Museum

Warning issued to Reuel Affrica, Else Payne,
and three children by Selectman David Hotchkiss, 1784

Collection of Mattatuck Museum

On January 28, 1784, an African American woman named Hanner was warned to depart Waterbury by Selectman David Hotchkiss.

Warning to Hanner from Selectman David Hotchkiss, 1784
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

In September 1784, an enslaved husband and wife, Cato and Pitty, were warned to "depart this town forthwith" with all their effects (possessions). The couple were the property of Samuel Bartholomew of Branford. Only a few months earlier, in April, the couple had suffered the loss of their daughter Content, who was buried in the Farmingbury cemetery in what is now Wolcott. The family's last name was listed on the grave marker as Bartholomew. I have found no other records of their existence. 

Samuel Bartholomew owned land in Waterbury and Southington, as well as in Branford where he lived. There was also a Samuel Bartholomew, Jr., who enlisted from Waterbury during the Revolutionary War.

Warning to Cato and Pitty from Selectman Charles Upson, 1784
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

A few of the free African Americans living here during the late 1700s were able to establish roots and even own their own farms. The Freeman family was the most successful, living in what is now Watertown, on Echo Lake Road. Their farm was in a relatively remote location. The Freemans came to downtown Waterbury to attend church at St. John's Episcopal. The family name is indicative of their legal status. Even as free people, they would have been subjected to more restrictive laws than their white neighbors.

For more information on Waterbury's early African Americans and the history of slavery here, please visit the Fortune's Story website.

1 comment:

emeritus said...

Terrific job. Thanks.