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.