A Brief Bio of Peter Tusco, a “Spanish Indian” of Southington

AUTHOR: Katherine Hermes

Peter Tusco died in Southington, Connecticut in 1767 and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. His origins are not known, but in the probate records, he is identified as a Spanish Indian. He was probably an indigenous person from someplace in the Spanish territories, such as Florida. New England colonists considered Spanish Indians lawful captives under the presumption that they had been enslaved under the laws of New Spain. The desire for captive labor motivated colonial wars against the Westos in 1680, the Yaddos in 1704, and the Yamasees in 1715. These conflicts, supplemented by continuous British slaving raids on Native missions in Spanish Florida, fueled an increasing trade in indigenous peoples in Charleston. From South Carolina, captives known as Carolina and Spanish “Indians” were taken to New England. Rev. William Burnham (1684-1750) of Kensington purchased Tusco in 1738 from Lt. Richard Boardman of Newington. After Burnham’s daughter, Hannah (1708–1772), married Rev. Jeremiah Curtiss (1706-1795) of Southington, Burnham gave Tusco to her and her husband. At his death, Rev. Burnham still owned a Spanish-Indian woman named Maria and a “Mulatto Boy James.” He gave Maria the “Liberty” after his death to live with any of his children she chose and mandated they care for her. He stipulated his daughter Abigail or his son William could purchase James for his appraised value, or he could be sold and the proceeds distributed.

After receiving him from Rev. Burnham, the Curtisses manumitted Peter Tusco. He then acquired thirteen acres of land in Southington. His inventory included hats, coats, vests, and a silk handkerchief, as well as a groom’s vest. It is possible Tusco made his living as a groom or a coachman. He was literate and able to sign his own name. Yet he seems never to have married or had children of his own. Tusco left a will leaving his estate to Mary Curtiss, or to Jeremiah and Hannah Curtiss if Mary predeceased them. He made Rev. Curtiss his executor. Like another formerly enslaved person, Samuel Gibson, a grocer who purchased his freedom, lived a successful life in a Hartford, and left his estate to the child of his former master, Tusco’s decision to leave his belongings to his former master’s family seems hard to understand.

Tusco Inventory

According to Kate Ekama who studied manumissions, colonial records show that manumission did not end the master-slave relationship in many cases. For example, the formerly enslaved often continued to be indebted to their masters. That does not seems to have been the case with Tusco, whose debts seem to have been limited to those of his final illness. More complicated ties sometimes bound the manumitted to their former masters, including feelings of loyalty, affection, guilt, and fear. Having experienced natal alienation when they were taken from their homelands, enslaved people not born in Connecticut could not inherit from their own ancestors, and unless they were manumitted they were unable to bequeath their estates to their descendants. Spanish Indians may also have had more difficulty than other enslaved people forming families of their own. Their language was different from that of the other servants and enslaved people.

Tusco’s community in Southington included other enslaved and free people of color. According to the church records of Southington, Bette, a woman of African descent, was baptized in 1738. A man named Cato was baptized in 1757. The church showed several people of Native and African descent in Southington and Berlin in the 1730s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Yet the number of Spanish Indians appear to have been few.

Tusco’s tombstone listed his date of death and said, “A Spanish Indian and a Free Man.” The stone has disappeared from the cemetery. These photos, courtesy of the Nelsonian Institute, show the original tombstone in 1990 and its absence in 2020.

(c) Nelsonian Institute 1990
Gravestone of Peter Tusco

©Nelsonian Institute, 1990, 2020. Photos may not be reproduced without permission.

While there are few details of his life, we see a man who managed to acquire property both real and personal. His belongings were not worth much, but they reveal a man who tried to dress well. Perhaps he liked to look sharp. He had the tools of a laborer. He wore a pair of spectacles that he kept in a case when he didn’t need them, and he undoubtedly used them to read his Bible and his copy of Matthew Henry’s treatise A Method For Prayer (referred to in the inventory as “Henry Upon Prayer”). Tusco surely struggled. His entire estate totaled a mere 86 pounds; the average day-laborer earned between 15 and 25 pounds a year. (S. Innes, Labor in a New Land, 2013, p. 81) The median estate size in Massachusetts was 261 pounds and the mean was 310 to 377 pounds in Connecticut. He learned to read and write English, which was no small feat but was probably facilitated by living in the house of a minister. Had the Curtisses not manumitted him, Tusco would probably have died in obscurity. He would not have appeared in Curtiss’ inventory, because he died before Curtiss. He would never have owned land or appeared in vital records. We know little of what his life in slavery was like. His life in freedom is only marginally documented. One wonders if he lingered over these words in the work of Matthew Henry, “Let those that are called, being servants, be the Lord’s freemen, and those that are called, being free, be Christ’s servants. 1 Corinthians 7:22.”

Further Reading

Cameron, Diane. “Circumstances of Their Lives: Enslaved and Free Women of Color Wethersfield, Connecticut, 1648-1832.” Connecticut History Review 44, no. 2 (2005): 248-261.

Ekama, Kate. “Precarious Freedom: Manumission in Eighteenth-Century Colombo,” Journal of Social History, Volume 54, Issue 1, Fall 2020, Pages 88–108, https://doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shaa008

Fisher, Linford D. “A “Spanish Indian Squaw” in New England: Indian Ann’s Journey from Slavery to Freedom.” In Hearing Enslaved Voices, pp. 81-97. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Moore, Richard Price III. Native Americans in Colonial New England and the Modern World-System. Rutgers Univ. Dissertation, 2011.

Stiles, Henry R. Families of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut. Westminister, MD: Heritage Books, 2006.

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