Slavery, Liberty, and Revolutionary Connecticut

Author: Ryan Paolino

An enslaved man refused to work further and upon his master’s inspection lashed out with a knife. The slave killed his former master and wounded the master’s son in the cheek. Both the son and mistress escaped without further harm. The Connecticut Journal, as well as the New-Haven Post-Boy, reported that the captive stole the knife and an ax as he escaped into the woods. In 1767 the colony was eight years away from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. During the war, some slaves were offered a chance to fight for their freedom. Others seized the opportunity to runaway and join the British. What this article from 1767 provides is confirmation that the idea of freedom did not begin with the Revolution. The Revolution simply offered  a venue that did not make obtaining freedom a crime. Moreover, runaway slaves were not restricted to the southern colonies; many in the North attempted their escape as well.

The American Revolution became the fight for liberty and independence yet served as an ambiguous symbol for who received such benefits. Slaves in the revolution generally fought for the side of the their owners. While approximately 12,000 slaves defended the British Parliament with their loyalist masters in return for freedom, a large number resisted such “tyranny” fighting for the Patriot cause in the place of their owners. Connecticut struggled to meet its supply of soldiers for the quota of the Continental Army and filled the gap with black soldiers. Masters, on both sides, commonly promised their servants freedom after the revolution’s victory, yet such a promise never saw fulfillment.  Slaves challenged British rule for the hope that the liberty they fought for might include them, yet many others resisted their masters despite the possible reward, or for some, lack of an offer.

Slaves who fought in the revolution were betrayed by both sides. The patriots gained their liberty that was applied to only white males while the British and loyalists lost with little opportunity to compromise at the Treaty of Paris. Those captives who fought and survived for self-betterment received nothing. Often those who fought in place of their master’s went back to work and continued their lives as they did prior to the American Revolution.  Even men like Sharp Liberty, who was formerly enslaved in Wallingford and manumitted after the war, had trouble collecting wages that allowed them to live securely after the war. Connecticut struggled with the ways that slaves were handled as many white citizens disagreed about to whom liberty applied. Connecticut was far from abolishing slavery and the betrayed black soldiers and servants did not have another opportunity such as the revolution and the discussions about liberty. Many attempted an escape either stealthily or with violence although success was unlikely.

Simeon Olcott was a graduate of Yale law school and judge of Hartford County Court. Col. Sam A. Joley asked for his opinion about the law’s relationship to a runaway slave in the State of New Hampshire in 1788. Olcott looked to a similar case in New York where another slave deserted his master’s service. Upon capture he was prevented return by citizens who believed he was free. It was ruled the slave was freed based on the Constitution and a unanimous decision by the court. Yet, Olcott believed, according to State law and the Constitution, slaves were not liberated by the Constitution and disagreed with such results. His response was reflective of the divisions that existed in Connecticut even in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Independence and liberty were achieved, yet several people disagreed about who was eligible to receive such liberties. Olcott’s letter currently remains in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.

The betrayal of allied slaves from the Revolutionary War was not absolute. Many freed slaves enlisted in the war, such as Liverpool Wadsworth, from Farmington, Connecticut, who took the name of his former owner, Thomas Wadsworth, after Liverpool was freed in his owner’s will. A Connecticut slave named Jack was owned by a patriot clergyman and asked his master about the hypocrisy of the language of liberty while he was a slave. His owner agreed that Jack also deserved liberty and after an additional year of service granted his freedom.

Connecticut was not in agreement about slaves and the concept of liberty. Some owners accepted that liberty was not for white men alone and granted their slaves freedom after the American Revolution. Freed slaves were uncommon due to the fact that the law did not state slaves had such liberties. While few were lucky to escape the lives of servitude an overwhelming majority were betrayed by the patriots and loyalists alike.

For Further Information:

Cooper, William Neil. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1885.

Orcott, Samuel. Opinion on Freedom of African Americans in New Hampshire, 1788. Connecticut Historical Society. Hartford, Connecticut.

A Deeper Look at Loyalists in Newgate Prison

Author: Morgan Bengel

On May 12, 1781, one woman was permitted to visit her prisoner husband in the mine shaft of New-gate Prison. Upon entering, the door was unlatched and roughly twenty men rushed through in an attempt to escape their living “hell.” Killing six guards on their way, Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith led the group of prisoners to freedom. As Loyalists, these men were considered enemies of the state. Their escape on May 12 was the largest in New-gate’s history and although the details are intriguing and exhilarating the escape did not happen as a solitary event. Understanding the laws and events that took place months before the escape is crucial to the history of Loyalists in Connecticut and specifically New-gate Prison during the American Revolution. The laws instituted against Loyalists were put in place to assert Patriot dominance in America. The Loyalist’s actions against the United States were their assertion that the rebels did not govern them. 

When the United Colonies  declared war on the King of Great Britain they passed laws to punish anyone who treasonously aided the enemy. Individuals loyal to the King were persecuted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for their beliefs and actions. New-gate Prison, in Simsbury, Connecticut, was the most notorious prison used to contain Tories. Prisoners were confined in an abandoned copper mine, 40 yards below the surface. Referred to as the “catacomb of loyalism,”  New-gate was a dark, damp hole. The repression of Loyalists was not constricted to poor treatment at New-gate. Prisoners were put in New-gate because of laws instituted to punish anyone opposed to the United States America.

In February 1781, the Governor of Connecticut and council of representatives issued, “An Act For Punishment Of High Treason And Other Atrocious Crimes Against The State.” In the midst of the war, this act sought to enhance punishment for those loyal to Great Britain. The law outlined that citizens or subjects of the United States who declared allegiance to the King of Great Britain, persuaded inhabitants to renounce their allegiance to the State, or aided the enemy would be guilty of high treason and sentenced to death or imprisoned at New-gate. In addition, those persons who joined the enemy, robbed, or plundered would not be considered prisoners of war, but convicted before the superior court and either sentenced to death, whipped, or imprisoned at New-gate. Loyalists were not considered prisoners of war, in order to prevent them from being exchanged and released. In 1781, the Patriots were cracking down on the Loyalists amongst them. Two months later, Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith were imprisoned at New-gate Prison, for “joining the enemy,” just as the law had demanded.

Hathaway and Smith were captured in Huntington Bay off Long Island on April 7th, 1781, while aboard their “Privateer Boat Adventure.” After their capture the men were tried before the Superior Court, where they were urged to plead guilty. Hathaway and Smith, however, claimed they were British subjects and refused to plead guilty or not guilty, because they rejected the United States legislative system. In an attempt to get them to plead guilty, their sentence at New-gate was “sentenced until pleads indictment.” They were imprisoned at New-gate, without bail until they recognized the Superior Court as law and pled guilty or non-guilty. The policy on Loyalists in America was another issue of independence for the Patriots. The Act for Punishment of High Crimes in 1781 was an attempt for Patriots to control Loyalists in America and judge them with their laws. Hathaway and Smith did not recognize the United States’ laws and therefore refused to identify as guilty or not guilty.

In only three weeks, Hathaway and Smith made their escape with twenty other Loyalist prisoners. The other men who participated in the escape were imprisoned for illicit trade, being a Tory, joining the enemy, or attempt to join the enemy; all crimes recognized in the February 1781 Act for Punishment of High Crimes. Their escape was the largest in New-gate history, and their joint effort to escape, demonstrated their resolve to join together in a common cause. Hathaway and Smith did not recognize the United States law, so escaping from New-gate Prison was not only about escaping the poor conditions of the prison. It was about fighting against their repression and unjust imprisonment.

Suggested Reading:

Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalist in Revolutionary America 1760-1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1965.

Connecticut Journal

Crary, Catherine S. The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973.

Phelps, Richard H.  Newgate of Connecticut: A History of the Prison, its Insurrections, Massacres, & C. Imprisonment of the Tories, In the Revolution. Hartford: Elihu Geer, 1844.

State of Connecticut. Primary Sources Archives, Hartford, CT.

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History 1750-1804. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

The First Official Pistol-maker of the United States during the Revolutionary Era

Author: Allen Kozloski

The American Revolution and war with England resulted in the need for firearms. Individual artisans rushed to meet this demand. The colonial assembly passed legislation that reflected this demand: “A bounty of 5 shillings will be paid for each stand of arms ‘with a good lock’ made in the colony.” –Connecticut General Assembly 1775. (North, 1916, 174).

One artisan, Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut, responded to this opportunity, seeing it as his patriotic obligation. In 1781, sixteen-year-old Simeon, soldiering a rifle, marched from Berlin to Old Saybrook hoping to enlist in the Continental Army. Upon his arrival, he discovered peace negotiations were underway and was not mustered into the ranks of the Continentals (North, 1913, 25). Although he did not serve as a soldier, Simeon North would make it his life’s mission to arm the military of the United States in case it came under threat in a future armed conflict.

North was born to an affluent family, a descendent of one of the original five founders of Berlin, whose wealth came from the production of farm equipment. Using his family’s money, Simeon purchased a sawmill and convert it to manufacture pistols. On March 9, 1799, Simeon secured his first government contract to produce 500 pistols within a year. This order secured North’s place as the first official pistol maker of the United States. Since the North family had no previous experience in gunsmiting, he used the 1777 Charleville Flintlock Pistol as a model for his guns. While Simeon was not a revolutionary inventor of a new type of gun, his importance lies in the shift from the handicraft era of manufacturing to large-scale production. The production of 500 pistols within a year is a monumental task to be undertaken by any skilled artisan, much less a newcomer to the industry.

In the handicraft era of manufacturing, firearms were produced in smaller quantities by blacksmiths, while contracts were sealed by handshakes and the personal assurance to fulfill a quota. This business model will guide North during the transitional era of manufacturing. By compartmentalizing jobs, employees such as fillers, fitters, and woodworkers will each be assigned to construct individual parts of the pistol. Through repetition, early models of North’s pistols achieved a high degree of precision and were a reliable sidearm for military forces.

By 1813, the demand created by another war, surpassed North’s means of production forcing him to build a larger factory in Middletown, Connecticut with a greater waterpower supply that the Berlin factory had from Spruce Brook. When the factory was constructed in 1816, North began work on a contract for 20,000 pistols marking a key shift in handicraft to industrialized mass production.

Figure 1: Personal Collection of Allen Kozloski

Around 1816, he invented the mode of milling iron and turning gun barrels. The milling machine was believed to be first utilized in the Middletown factory. While the milling machine revolutionized firearm production and was insurmountably valuable in the field of precision and interchangeability, North would not initially receive credit for this invention. This is due to two reasons: the first being the first rifle to achieve true intangibility is the 1848 Halls rifle of Harpers Ferry, while the second is the fact Simeon North never filed a patent for one of his firearms or the milling machine used in production.

North’s contributions were overlooked until recent works, such as From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States by David Hounshell recognized North’s importance to the field of manufacturing as a pivotal figure influencing the introduction and advancement of machining tools and the concept of interchangeable parts.

In a letter to the war department North states. “Sir, I believe it is the duty of every American citizen to unite and assist the government at this time in repelling the unjustifiable, tyrannical and imperial orders and decrees heaped upon us by the war powers of Europe, and you may depend that nothing shall be waiting on my part to support the rights of the Union: every branch of this business shall be crowded to the greatest extremities.”(Jeska, 1993,5 ).

North’s letter shows both his devotion to arming the military and the sacrifice of personal gain over the new nation’s collective security. By not filling a patent, he would aid other manufacturers to meet the firearm demands of the military.

While North was late to fulfill several of the deadlines of the enormous arms contracts, the apologetic tone of his assurance that he is taking all possible measures to hasten production proved invaluable in securing future contracts from the military. North success is also due to the demand for firearms and the limited manufacturers capable of fulfilling large orders. Simeon North’s success as an early pioneer of interchangeability of parts and his precise large-scale production is the result of the necessity of the United States to arm itself to resist European powers during the revolutionary period.

Recommended for further reading:

Gordon, Robert B. “Simeon North, John Hall, and Mechanized Manufacturing.” Technology and Culture 30, no. 1 (1989): 179-88. doi:10.2307/3105469.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. No. 4. JHU Press, 1985.

North, Catherine. History of Berlin Connecticut. New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1916.

Simeon North, Robert Jeska. Early Simeon North Pistol correspondence with comments by Robert Jeska. Plainwell MI. 1993.

S.N.D. North, LL.D. and Ralph H. North. Simeon North, First Official Pistol Maker of the United States: a Memoir. Concord: The Rumford Press, 1913.

“Newgate: Connecticut’s First State Prison”

Author: Jessica Dabkowski

In 1773, Connecticut’s General Assembly chose the copper mines in Simsbury to be the state’s first prison, renaming it Newgate Prison. During the Revolutionary Era, Newgate Prison housed not only political prisoners criminals, such as loyalists. The goal was to create a prison where escape was impossible. However, the overseers soon found out that Newgate was far from inescapable.

At the time, corporal punishments were common for those convicted of crimes. Punishments could include branding with a hot iron, cropping of ears, or whipping. With views on corporal punishment starting to shift, Connecticut started to look for different ways to punish criminals. The isolation at the copper mines in Simsbury seemed like a perfect alternative.

John Hinson, sentenced to ten years for burglary, became Newgate’s first prisoner on December 22, 1773. Eighteen days later, he escaped. It is believed that a woman assisted his escape by dropping a rope down the sixty-seven foot eastern shaft. The first prison keeper, Captain John Viets, set a ten dollar reward for the return of John Hinson (Connecticut Courant, January 10, 1774). The advertisement was unsuccessful.   

This apparent security breach did not stop Connecticut from sending more prisoners to Newgate. The first half of 1774 saw five new prisoners at Newgate, John Roberts, William Johnson Crawford, and Zephaniah Ramsdale, David Humphrey, and James Williams. Crawford and Humphrey attempted escape by moving rocks in an abandoned ore shaft. Unfortunately, the rocks caved in and they were allegedly buried alive. This did not stop Viets from issuing a reward, in case they had somehow escaped (Connecticut Courant, April 12, 1774). Ramsdale, Williams, and Roberts later made successful escape attempts.

Newgate also housed Tories during the American Revolution. Even though Newgate had a number of escapes, it was thought to be secure. In fact, General Washington even sent prisoners to Newgate, believing it to be impossible for them to escape. Unfortunately, the treatment of Tories at Newgate was inhumane. Some historians believe that the poor treatment of Tories at Newgate led to the mistreatment of Patriots on prison ships by the British.

In 1776, a fire destroyed a blockhouse at Newgate. It was designed to help prisoners escape, however, none managed to do so. Due to the problematic situation of housing a large number of Tories at the prison, the Governor and Council of Safety sent a committee to Newgate. After an investigation the committee requested stationing a guard, after learning of the unease felt by the people. This request was later granted with two men, more if necessary, who watched the prison every night to prevent escape attempts.

Newgate saw one of its largest escapes in 1781. Earlier that year, it was reported that the General Assembly declared that those who acknowledged allegiance to the King of Great Britain during the course of the war would be imprisoned at Newgate (Connecticut Courant, March 20, 1781). On May 18, 1781, twenty-one prisoners managed to kill one of the guards and wound several others while they successfully escaped Newgate. Many of the twenty-one men were Tories. Not long after, sixteen of the twenty-one prisoners were recaptured and sent back to Newgate (Connecticut Courant, May 29, 1781).

Newgate had another fire in 1782, which allowed many prisoners to escape. Although most were recaptured in the surrounding area. However, after the fire Newgate was not repaired until 1790. After which, Newgate continued to operate as a prison until 1827. Even with all of the successful escape attempts, Newgate retained a reputation as the strongest prison in the newly formed United States.

 In 1968 the State of Connecticut purchased Newgate to serve as a museum and tourist attraction. Currently closed for restoration. Newgate has only opened for the public four times this year.

Newgate Prison and Copper Mines

Recommended Readings

Domonell, William G. Newgate: From Copper Mine to State Prison. Simsbury, The Simsbury Historical Society, Inc, 1998.

Phelps, Noah A. History of Simsbury, Granby, and Canton: From 1642-1845. Hartford: Press of Case, Tiffany, and Burnham, 1845.

Phelps, Richard Harvey. Newgate of Connecticut: A History of the Prison, Its Insurrections, Massacres, &c., Imprisonment of the Tories, in the Revolution. Press of E. Geer, 1844.