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.

The 1776 Election of Hartford’s Black Governor

Author: Chris Menapace

Monument to Black Governors located in the Ancient Burying Grounds in Hartford.

From 1749 to 1855, Black communities around Connecticut elected leaders, named “Black Governors.” Little information is available on the men who held the title of Black Governor, but there is evidence of at least 27 individuals from 11 different towns, including Farmington.  This position of leadership among free and enslaved black people was not unique to Connecticut.  Black Governors, sometimes referred to as Black Kings, were elected in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire; yet Connecticut had the longest and most robust tradition lasting 106 years.  How the position began is still a mystery; the office modeled white politics, but the election itself was a merger of both European and African traditions with grand parades and celebrations.  On election nights, food and drinks would be provided for all those in attendance and the community would celebrate, often times well into the night.  As Black Governor a black man had the power to dole out punishments, act as a mediator between white and black communities, and appoint lieutenant governors and deputies to carry out these duties.

Although there is no evidence of how and why the tradition of Black Governors was created, whites attempted to use the position to control the black population.  By having black individuals carry out the punishments on their own communities, whites hoped to diminish the appeal of resistance to the slave institution.  A similar method was used by southern plantation owners when they employed slaves as overseers, known as drivers. Most Black Governors elected in the eighteenth-century were enslaved by prominent men such as John Anderson’s owner, Philip Skene, who was a wealthy British officer.  Although the institution of the Black Governors was used by whites as a method of controlling the black population, the black community was able to use the tradition to organize and give a voice for black people in Connecticut especially during the 1776 election of John Anderson.

Artist depiction of Black Governor’s Election Day parade..

On May 8th, 1776, white men in Connecticut elected Jonathan Trumbull as governor, and soon after, black men recognized John Anderson as their governor.  The installation of John Anderson became a controversial subject for two reasons, one of which was the fact that no election had been held.  A passage from the journal  of Major French, a prominent Connecticut man, dated May 11, showed that Cuff had resigned as governor and appointed John Anderson, therefore subverting the election process.  This discovery upset the black population because the office of the Black Governor commanded respect in the community.  Black people had been denied a right to vote for their representatives in the state and colony of Connecticut, and now, in 1776, they had been denied the opportunity to select their own community leader.  The white population of Connecticut had attempted to use the Black Governor tradition to control the black population, but in 1776 the choice of the governor had caused considerable turmoil.  Whites around the colonies had always been fearful of black revolts, especially during the Revolutionary War.  The British government had used the threat of arming the enslave population in the colonies to keep control of the colonists.  Once the Revolutionary War began, the British acted upon this threat, freeing and arming thousands of enslaved people throughout the colonies.  With the controversy of the election for Black Governor, whites in Connecticut became afraid of violence from the angered communities.  Yet the subversion of the election was only the first layer to this controversy.

When John Anderson took over the Black Governorship, there were concerns among both the white and black populations because John Anderson’s owner, Philip Skene, had previously been imprisoned for suspicion of being a Tory.  The people of Hartford were alarmed, thinking that Skene had designs to use John Anderson’s position as the Black Governor to bring the black population of the state to the British cause.  The white governor and council of the colony appointed a committee to investigate the matter.  Through their enquiry they determined that Skene had attempted to bribe people to elect John Anderson, but there were a number of blacks who refused to vote for a Tory as governor; they assumed that if John Anderson’s owner was a Tory that he would be one as well.  Since the black population would not vote for John Anderson, Cuff decided to appoint him.  Skene was able to convince the committee that he did this for sport and had no malevolent intentions.  Fear of the power of black communities and the Black Governor had created fear among the whites in Connecticut, and had launched an intensive investigation from the government.  The Black Governors were used to oppress the black population, but the tradition had evolved into a more complex system that gave black communities symbolic power that whites did not take for granted.

Map of Main Street in Hartford showing African American presence during the American Revolution

Further Reading.

Greene, Lorenzo J. The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Harris, Katherine. “In Remembrance of Their Kings of Guinea: The Black Governors and the Negro Election, 1749 to 1800.” In African American Connecticut Explored, edited by Elizabeth J. Normen, 35-44. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.

Piascik, Andy. “Connecticut’s Black Governors.” Connecticut History.org, accessed October 3, 2017. https://connecticuthistory.org/connecticuts-black-governors/.

The Service of Africans from Connecticut in the American Revolution

Author: Kenneth Neal

The American Revolutionary War era is consistently at the forefront of the consciousness of Americans, whether in touting the contributions of the founding fathers, or boldly asserting rights promised by the Constitution. The present day development of American Revolutionary War consciousness has been shaped by a selective use of the historical written record from the American Revolution that has devoted considerable attention to the subjects of the ‘Founding Fathers’ and ‘Rights’.  A recent collaboration of a number of scholars in African American Connecticut Explored provides a local Connecticut focus that expands upon the work of  Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, and David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers 1775 – 1783, and confronts the Consensus consciousness of the American Revolution that neglects the contributions of Africans in the Revolution. African American Connecticut Explored also stands in contrast to the first Connecticut-centered histories that devoted specific attention to the experiences and contributions of Africans in during the Revolutionary War era. In  an age of increased digital access, what is available on the internet often determines popular historical consciousness and not research-based efforts intended to correct the historic record. And, if access influences popular historic consciousness, it is necessary to provide context to historic records with the use of the same medium. The study here will focus on digitized records of Africans serving in the Revolutionary War from Connecticut that have obscured the historic record.

Two digitized works available through the Internet Archive that have misrepresented the service of Africans from Connecticut in the American Revolutionary War are The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut by William Chauncey Fowler, and History of Slavery in Connecticut by Bernard C. Steiner. In a paper read before the New Haven Colony Historical Society Fowler noted the “imitative” nature of the “Negro” race that prompted their service in the military during the Revolutionary war along the side of whites, and further along in an anecdote about the service of Africans asserted their willingness to be made a fool of. He praised their skills as musicians. Steiner provides evidence of the service of Africans in the American Revolution in a misleading chapter entitled, “Slaves in the Revolution” and relies solely on a quotation from J.H Trumbull that suggests all Africans that served were slaves and impugns the evidence of service by implying they were motivated by personal gain in applications for pensions. The representations provided by Fowler and Steiner that disregard the service of Africans in the American Revolution are disputed by William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.

William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, established the historiographical framework in which Fowler and Steiner later considered the actions of Africans in the American Revolution. Yet, Nell’s work cites numerous accounts of courageous and patriotic Africans from Connecticut that served in the American Revolution. Specifically, Nell cites a primary account of two veterans of the Battle of Groton Heights. The veterans provide reference of the bravery of two Africans, Lambert (Sambo) Latham, and Jordan Freeman.

Latham is recognized with avenging the death of Col. Ledyard who was killed after surrendering to the British. The Continental Army soldiers that died at the Battle of Groton Heights including Latham, and Freeman were recognized and memorialized for their patriotic service in 1825 with the dedication of a monument at the battle site. The monument itself lists the names of all those who died
at the battle, along with an inscription that states in part, “In Memory of the Brave Patriots.” The evidenced cited by Nell, and the inscription on the Battle of Groton Heights Monument severely undermines the arguments later presented by Fowler, and Steiner and still each digitized account is cited as documentation of the service of Africans from Connecticut in the Revolutionary War.

Historians and public historians widely acknowledge the impact historical interpretation can have on the public consciousness of a historical event and also recognize their role in providing context to better understand those events. Furthermore historians have also considered and observed the wide influence of digitized history but have yet to consider their ethical role in the mediation of digitized archived material, specifically for Fowler’s The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut and Steiner’s History of Slavery in Connecticut. The works of Fowler and Steiner have provided a false foundation to the historiographical record of the service of Africans from Connecticut in the Revolutionary War and has had an impact on our present day consciousness. The initial exclusion of Lena Ferguson, an African American woman from Plainville, Connecticut, from admission as a member into the Daughters of the American Revolution, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the memory of those who fought in the Revolutionary War, is a worrisome reminder of the impact of a public consciousness that disregards African contributions in the American Revolution.

Hometowns of African Americans Who Served in in Revolutionary War

Recommended for further reading:

Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Greene, Lorenzo J. The Negro in Colonial New England 1620 – 1776. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.  

Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F Wallcut, 1855. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/nell/nell.html

Normen, Elizabeth J. African American Connecticut Explored. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

White, David O. Connecticut’s Black Soldiers. Chester, CT: Pequot Press, 1973.

Other sources:

Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. The Stone Records of Groton,. Norwich, Conn., 1903. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t0dv1pt11.

Fowler, William Chauncey. The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut. Charleston, S.C., 1901. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1ng4tc24. 

“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/25095630.

Steiner, Bernard Christian. History of Slavery in Connecticut; Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins press, 1893. http://archive.org/details/histslaveryconn00steirich.

Photographs

(Dave Pelland, Fort Griswold Battle Monument, 2011, Groton) http://ctmonuments.net/2011/06/fort-griswold-and-battle-monument-groton/.

(Dave Pelland, Fort Griswold Battle Monument – Plaque, 2011, Groton) http://ctmonuments.net/2011/06/fort-griswold-and-battle-monument-groton/.