The history books are mostly silent about two free black men named Frank who lived in colonial Farmington. Christopher Bickford’s town history, Farmington in Connecticut, omits them entirely. Barbara Donahue’s book, Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut is one of the few books to mention the men. There are no records documenting the dates of the births of either Frank, but there are probate records that provide glimpses into their lives. In the probate records from 1698 and 1725, we can learn something of who they were.
Throughout colonial America, there were legions of Africans, enslaved and free, thousands of whom lived and perished in Connecticut. Regrettably, their personal narratives, family genealogies, achievements, and countless relevant contributions to our nation have been essentially erased from history, disregarded, or completely repudiated. This, despite the salient fact that their contributions and unpaid labor helped establish and develop our national and global economic future. Generally, the impact of Africans living in early America has always been discussed primarily through the lens of those who were enslavers, the white male colonists and their descendants who wrote history from their own perspective. Most people of African descendent could not tell their own stories, but sometimes the documents help us to do so.
Little is known about the first Frank, known as Frank Freeman, except for one extraordinary detail: the town elected him as the town hayward in 1686. A hayward was a person liable for preserving land from roaming animals. According to the Farmington Historical Society, “He was responsible for seeing that all livestock in town was fenced or tied up, that one man’s pig didn’t get loose to ruin another man’s corn crop.” This office was extremely important because he was entrusted to protect the lives and property of others. When he died in March, 1698, John Hart helped his widow, called his “Relict,” become the administratrix of her husband’s estate. Her name appears to be written as “Mardland,” sometimes transcribed “Maryland.” Perhaps it was pronounced like “Madeline.” She was instructed to pay off his debts and was then allowed to keep the remainder for herself.
The second Frank, who could have been the son of the first, was also free. Frank’s last name was omitted and Negro was added to identify him. A free person of color’s surname was seldom acknowledged even if he had one.
As indicated by probate records assembled between his death in 1725 and 1727, when the estate was closed out, Frank’s estate contained little information about him besides the personal items that he owned. From that evidence one can make inferences. Among the items listed were two coccyx coats (probably a fancy waistcoats with tails), as well as shirts, silk neckties, a fancy hat, and a wallet. It is highly plausible that Frank Freeman was a carriage driver. This may explain why he owned such fancy clothing. Owning a wallet usually meant that one made a living and had the ability to count money. Frank did own a Bible and spectacles (reading glasses), which means that he probably was literate in a time when persons of color were usually discouraged from learning how to read or write. Also, owning a Bible meant that he was a Christian man.
In the accounts of administration, Frank left a small estate to a widow whose name is not listed. In the surviving documents, no other heirs were indicated. Included in the account was income from debts owed to him by unknown people which would have increased the amount left for his widow. Yet, his estate was virtually diminished by claims from individuals and the court. The question as to whether or not these charges were valid is unknown. However, it appears that the amount of debt for administration fees was large. He was charged three times for court fees. Also, the majority of the claims by people were paid without any explanation. This allowed for his widow to receive an extremely small amount from his estate. Consequently, Frank’s widow would have been unable to challenge the courts or any individual, because Frank was a black man living in a racist society. Usually in the estates of black people, the poor, or Native Americans, colonial administrators depleted the estate by charging administrative costs so that eventually little to nothing was left.
There is no documentation as to how either Frank became a free man in colonial America. Was Frank Freeman one of the countless Africans stolen from his home to be taken to a strange and volatile place, or did he arrive via some other place that already had an enslaved population? Did he arrive in a state of servitude? Was he manumitted by a former owner? Did he make enough money to buy his own freedom? Was Frank a Free Negro related to Frank Freeman? These are some of the questions one would ponder when discussing a free person of color living in early America.
Sources and Further Reading:
Donahue, Barbara, et. al., Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut.Farmington, CT: Farmington Historical Society, 1998.
Manwaring, Charles William. A Digest of the Early Connecticut Probate Records, Hartford County, Connecticut, vol. 1: 1635-1699, 554; vol. 2: 1700-1728, 508-509.
Normen, Elizabeth, et al., African American Connecticut Explored. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.