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/.

A Glimpse into Farmington’s Past: The Charlotte Cowles Letters

Author: Garrett Coady

Farmington, Connecticut had been a New England hub for evangelical abolition during the decade of 1835 and 1845. Farmington had established an anti-slavery society in 1836 that was initiated around abolitionist reform and evangelical revival. One of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society’s founding members had been Horace Cowles. Horace and his wife, Mary Anne Steele Smith Cowles had a large family. Among their ten children was their daughter Charlotte Cowles.

During the heart of the Farmington abolitionist movement, Charlotte Cowles had written her brother Samuel Cowles a large volume of letters that highlighted the unique and volatile Farmington environment between 1835 and 1845.  Charlotte’s letters expound upon past on goings in Farmington, Connecticut and often on the inner workings of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society.

Much of what Charlotte had written to her brother Samuel was about Farmington’s staunch evangelical abolitionist following, but Charlotte’s letters also help shape her personal persona. Charlotte comes across as an intelligent, caring, thought-provoking, and loyal abolitionist who saw the anti-slavery movement as a means to improving humanity through Christianity. The Charlotte Cowles Letters are treasure-troves of nineteenth century Farmington history. These letters are archived and available for public viewing at The Connecticut Historical Society. What follows is just a small snippet of the invaluable information that Charlotte Cowles scribed.

The Cowles family was one of Farmington’s prominent families of the nineteenth century. Charlotte may have been influenced by the temporal, benevolent and abolitionist work of her father Horace who was energetic throughout Connecticut as a member of multiple Christian reform programs.

From a young age Charlotte’s letters highlight her as an active member of the local abolitionist community in Farmington. Charlotte had written her brother Samuel often of her displeasure with anyone who did not believe abolition was for the betterment of humanity. Some of Charlotte’s earliest letters to her brother feature the daily proceedings of local anti-slavery meetings, like the selling of anti-slavery handkerchiefs to raise money for the movement in Farmington.
Outside of her activity within the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society, Charlotte may have been a teacher at Ms. Sarah Porter’s Farmington Female Seminary.  In a letter dated in February 1840, Charlotte had written Samuel detailing that she had received an application from Miss Sarah Porter to teach immediately at her school, which would have paid her $150 for the ten months of service. In the same letter Charlotte had written that she felt “Latin is sadly neglected in schools.” The statement was missing additional context, but it begs the question whether or not Charlotte was trained in the classical language. In her letters to Samuel, Charlotte comes across as an intuitive woman, so it seems reasonable to think that she may have known how to speak and read foreign languages.

Charlotte conquered with the sentiments of Mr. Phelps that “the architects and inhabitants of this town are in the form of abolitionists.” Charlotte stressed almost all people of nobility and high standing joined the anti-slavery movement. If Charlotte had viewed Farmington Anti-Slavery Society members as people of the highest order, presumably Charlotte would have regarded ones acceptance of colonization as the polar opposite. Charlotte had questioned this anti-slavery practice many times in her writings to Samuel and could not understand the allure.  Charlotte had attended an anti-slavery lecture with the agenda dealing with colonization, writing that, “when I returned from the lecture, I was able to see the absurdities of colonization more clearly and read it…with more clarity than ever before!”

One of Charlotte’s more fascinating letters was dated March 24, 1841, recounting the stay of the Amistad “Mendi” Africans in Farmington after their release from prison.  This letter not only presented Charlotte’s tolerance of the Mendi, but also showed her as a compassionate young woman. Charlotte stated that a young Mendi girl named Kan-ne had been staying with her family, Dr. Noah Porter housed Ta-ne, and the last Mendi child was at Timothy’s.  Charlotte was astounded by how smart Kan-ne had been, the “cheerful spirit” the little girl possessed, and was stunned with the writing skills of the Mendi.

In her letter’s, Charlotte features a substantial group of mindful and forthright abolitionists in Farmington, Connecticut during the decade of 1835 to 1845. Not all of Farmington saw abolition as a means to eradicating slavery, but a strong portion of town shared an anti-slavery mindset like Charlotte Cowles. The Charlotte Cowles Letters are a peak into an evangelical belief system, which felt the institution of slavery could be abolished peacefully through Christianizing the world. Charlotte had written her brother Samuel a great deal more than what has been presented here. A visit to the Connecticut Historical Society to read more of Charlotte’s riveting letters on Farmington’s local history is strongly recommended!

 

Charlotte Cowles: Writing Herself into History

Author: Regan Miner

Charlotte Cowles (1821-1866) lived in Farmington, Connecticut during an extremely polarizing time. During the 1830s, Farmington was grappling with the divisive issue of abolitionism; many people in town were either indifferent to or opposed to changes to the current gradual emancipation legislation. There was a significant minority of influential and wealthy citizens who favored abolitionism. Many abolitionists in Farmington were members of the same social and familial networks. Numerous members of Charlotte’s extended family were abolitionists, such as her cousin-in-law, Austin F. Williams, her uncle Timothy Cowles, her cousin Chauncey Cowles and her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, who opened an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford. Charlotte was a staunch abolitionist and the modern day researcher can delve into her thoughts thanks to the numerous letters she wrote to her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, currently housed at the Connecticut Historical Society. Charlotte’s letters reveal a strong willed woman who discussed everyday life in Farmington, abolitionist activities and her true feelings on slavery.

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Samuel and Charlotte’s parents were Horace and Mary Anne Cowles; of 10 children, only Samuel, Charlotte and another sister, Mary Ann, survived to adulthood. Their father, Horace Cowles, was a merchant active in the temperance and abolitionist movements. Charlotte and Samuel Cowles’ 94 letter correspondence, 91 letters from Charlotte and 3 letters from Samuel, spans from 1833 to 1841, and a single letter was penned in 1846. Charlotte’s letters are historically significant, because it is very rare to have a women’s first person perspective on a significant issue such as abolition. In addition, Charlotte wrote these letters between the ages of 13 and 25, which shows her intelligence and maturity about controversial issues at such a young age. Many of Charlotte’s letters detail the activities of various members of the Cowles family and she provides amusing updates about her life, such as her dinner plans and she described an episode where she went “sleighing.” Furthermore, Charlotte discussed births, marriages and deaths of family members and bemoaned the unpleasant winter weather. She constantly asked her brother when he would visit and if he could pick up certain items for her in Hartford. Charlotte’s charming prose and detailed descriptions offer a remarkable glance into everyday life in Farmington in the 1830s.

Charlotte’s letters give unique insight into the lives of the Amistad Africans, while they stayed in Farmington for roughly nine months before they returned to Africa. She described the Mendi as “beautiful” and “elegant” and even admitted that she was embarrassed by her lavish praise of one of the Mendi named Banyeh. Charlotte befriended many of the Mendi and listened to stories of their “adventure” from Africa to Farmington. The Mendi helped Charlotte understand the true horrors of slavery; she stated, “we read and we talk about these things [slavery], but as long as we do not see the victims, we know nothing of them.” The Cowles’ family housed one of the Mendi girls, Ka-me or Kagne, and she seemed  “very contented, so far as we can judge from her happy looks and cheerful words.” Charlotte goes into detail about the Mendi’s appearance, impressive work ethic and their adaptation of white culture; “they looked very neat and orderly, and behaved as if they had been to church all their lives.

Charlotte Cowles' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles referenced many nationally known abolitionists such as Alvan Stewart, John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and a “Mr. Burt” who lectured about abolitionism in Farmington. Charlotte’s depth of knowledge about scholarly literature and abolitionist newspapers was quite impressive as was her command of different political ideologies and politicians. For example, Charlotte discussed a speech given by past Governor of Liberia, Rev. John Pinney, who advocated for colonization, or the transportation of African Americans back to Africa, which was a concept Charlotte thoroughly refuted. In addition, she highlighted the fierce anti-abolition sentiment in town who held their own anti-abolition meetings in protest; “it was a high day for the rioters…who came in throngs.”  In her letters, Charlotte described activities of Farmington’s abolitionists such as attending anti-slavery lectures, writing the constitution for the Anti-Slavery Society and hiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.  Charlotte told her brother about a fugitive slave hiding in their family home; “I think the man who is with us now, (we call him Thomas) is the noblest specimen of the ‘Southerners’ I have ever seen. We are all very much attached to him indeed.”  Charlotte revealed her intimate feelings of slavery in her letters; “I hardly know when slavery seems most accursed; when we see a man reduced by it almost to a brute, — or when we think that there among its victims such men as Thomas, who are still noble, dignified and unsubdued, notwithstanding all they have suffered.”  Charlotte’s views on slavery reflects the opinions of a national group of individuals who endeavored to end slavery in the United States.

Charlotte Cowles’ letters are a fascinating insight into an abolitionist’s mind and daily life in Farmington during the 1830s. Her letters are an incredible repository of information about Farmington’s abolitionist activity and her first hand observations of the Mendi are instrumental for understanding the ramifications the Amistad had on the abolitionist movement. Thanks to the Connecticut Historical Society, Charlotte’s delightful prose and historic points of view will be preserved for future generations of scholars.

For further reading:

“List of Sites.” Connecticut Freedom Trail. 2016. http://ctfreedomtrail.org/trail/amistad.

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing,1982.

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles to Samuel S. Cowles. Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sources:

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Selah Hart: Saint and Sinner

The Hart Quarter of Farmington.

The Hart Quarter of Farmington.

Author: Christopher Menapace

In 1777, Selah Hart was sitting in prison, captured by British forces in battle, while at the same time his slave Pharaoh was attacking General Howe’s British forces in Germantown, Pennsylvania. These two men were fighting for America’s freedom, yet only one of them was free.  Born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1732 to Nathaniel Hart and Abigail Hooker, Selah Hart was raised in a wealthy and prominent family.  The Harts were influential members of their community, so much so that early maps of Farmington show the southwestern end of town being labeled as the “Hart Quarter.”  Their family was one of the first settlers in 1635 purchasing land from the Tunxis Indians, and Steven Hart, who was the grandfather of Selah, was selected as the town’s first deacon.  In his own time, Selah became a leader of Farmington and was commonly referred to in later texts as a “Patron Saint of Connecticut.”  Selah even has a monument to him located in Farmington describing him as an officer of the Revolution.  That is what most information about Selah Hart will say, that he was a godly man who fought for freedom and liberty in the Revolution, and while his deeds in that fight cannot be denied, that is not all Selah Hart should be known for.  Despite fighting for the freedom of the colonies, Selah Hart kept freedom from others through slavery, and did not free his slaves until provided with economic compensation.

Tombstone to Selah Hart, no longer extant.

Tombstone to Selah Hart, no longer extant.

At the time of the Revolution, Selah Hart owned at least two slaves, they were named Jack and Pharoah Hart.  Yet the information on these two slave men is almost non-existent, especially when it comes to their early lives. It is unclear how Selah Hart obtained these two slaves, although it is possible that he purchased them, because his father’s Will has no mention of “slaves” or “servants” in the inventory.  Slave ownership was more common in Farmington than most people would think, and the Hart family was no different.  Members of Selah’s family like his Uncle John, Thomas, or on his mother’s side, Samuel Hooker, owned slaves.  Many elites in Farmington owned slaves at some point even during the time of the Revolution when these same people fought for freedom and liberty, just like Selah Hart.

Promotion of Selah Hart to Brigadier-General

Promotion of Selah Hart to Brigadier-General

Not only was Selah an elite citizen of Farmington, during his life, Selah was a magistrate, a constable, a deacon, a brigadier-general, a treasurer, and many other useful positions in town.  He owned a large farm that was quite profitable, using the labor of his two slaves to yield plentiful crops.  Selah continued to contribute to the wealth his family had created over the generations in Farmington, but it was the Revolution that propelled Selah into sainthood within the town.  Selah’s military career began before the Revolution, entering as ensign in 1762, he quickly shot up the ranks to lieutenant in 1763, and captain in 1764.  It was then in 1776 when Selah joined the Revolution’s cause, being appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and shortly after to the rank of Colonel of the Fifteenth Regiment Militia of Connecticut.  His forces were sent to defend New York, and it was during a skirmish that Selah was cut off and captured by British forces on August 27th, 1776.  Selah was later freed in an officer’s exchange and in 1779 was appointed Brigadier-General of the Sixth Brigade of Militia for Connecticut.  After the war, Selah was sent as a delegate to the State Convention for the adoption of the Constitution in 1788, and continued to be an influential citizen in Connecticut.

Monument to Selah Hart in Farmington.

Monument to Selah Hart in Farmington.

During this time, Selah’s slave Pharoah was also fighting in the Revolution and was involved in the battles of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1777, and Monmouth, New Jersey in 1778.  Selah was to grant Pharoah his freedom for three years’ service in the Continental Army, while Selah received a portion of Pharoah’s wages as compensation for the economic hardship that freeing Pharoah would cause Selah.  When Pharoah’s term was up, Selah demanded not just a portion of his wages, but the entirety of them.  Even though it put Pharoah in considerable economic hardship to do this, having put his life on the line for the freedom of others; a freedom he had never experiences, Pharoah had no choice but to give up all his wages to Selah.  The source of Selah’s insistence on obtaining the entirety of Pharoah’s wages most likely was because Selah’s imprisonment had put him into debt, for he did not receive his army wages while imprisoned by the British, on top of that, his slave Pharoah was no longer working the fields and making him money.

For a man claiming that he held these truths to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” why then did he keep these freedoms from Jack and Pharoah? Both eventually became free, and it is said that Jack did not have to pay for his freedom, but this was not the case for Pharoah.  Selah Hart believed in freedom and liberty for all men, and risked his life in pursuit of that goal, but that goal took a back seat to his own economic benefit.  Selah was one of many slave-owners in Farmington during the Revolution, and not all of these people freed their slaves, some fought tooth and nail to keep them.  It was not the purpose of this writing to decry Selah Hart as a monster, but merely to put him into context of the era he lived in, to provide a second side to Selah, for he was both a hero of the Revolution, and a slave-owner.

Recommended for further reading:

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Farmington: Phoenix Pub, 1982.

Camp, David N. History of New Britain with Sketches of Farmington and Berlin, Connecticut. New Britain, CT: Thomas & Company, 1889.

Gay, Julius. Farmington Papers. Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard co, 1929.