Connecticut Mr. Hooker & his people travelling through the wilderness. 1636
Slaves were mentioned in Hartford from 1639 & in New Haven from 1644. As in the rest of New England, they were few until about 1700. Connecticut citizens did not participate directly in the African American slave trade in the late 17C (at least that's what the colonial governor assured the British Committee for Trade & Foreign Plantations). But the governor's report in 1680 implied that Massachusetts merchants were bringing in 3 or 4 black slaves a year from Barbados.
Even in the early 1700s, direct slave imports to Connecticut were considered too few to be worth the trouble of taxing. The governor reported only 110 white & black servants in Connecticut in 1709. In 1730, the colony had a black population of 700, out of a total enumeration of 38,000.
However, in 1718, a wealthy Salem, Mass., merchant, Col. Samuel Browne, began amassing so much land in what was then Lyme, that the area soon was reorganized as New Salem Parish. He rented out large tracts, but retained about 4,000 acres for himself that passed to his son & then his grandson. It was an investment that at some point became a bona-fide plantation. The Brownes, who never lived there, hired overseers to run it &, according to one old authoritative account, may have imported 60 slave families to clear the land. Generous donors to Harvard College, the Brownes reputedly were the richest family in a town that rivaled Boston in wealth. It may be no coincidence then that Salem, Mass., also is where New England's slave trade may have started. In 1638, the Salem ship Desire sailed to the West Indies loaded with captured Pequot Indians. It sold them as slaves and returned with a "cargo of salt, cotton, tobacco and Negros."
The Brownes were not without company in Connecticut. There was a plantation, or very large farm of 3,000 acres, in Pomfret with 24 slaves. Its owner, Godfrey Malbone, the son of a Newport, R.I., merchant who trafficked in slaves, was once thought to be the largest slave owner in Connecticut history. The evidence comes from the deed by which the elder Malbone transferred ownership of the Pomfret estate to Godfrey & his brother in 1764. The inventory of living creatures listed 80 cows, 45 oxen, 30 steers, 59 young cattle, six horses, 600 sheep, 180 goats, 150 hogs, & 27 Negroes, in that order. The document did identify most of the slaves by the names their owners gave them. "Prince, Harry, Pero, Dick, Tom, Adam and Christopher, all Negro men, and Dinah, Venus, Rose, Miriam, Jenny and [a second] Rose, all Negro women..." Their children were "Primus, Christopher, Sias, Sharper and Little Pero."
Orders Browne wrote in 1727 to the captain of one of his ships are proof of his interest in the West Indies trade. "You may touch at Barbados, St. Christopher's, or Antegoa or Jamaica, and if any good markets at any of those places, then you may dispose of my cargos," Browne wrote. "If the markets are low at ye English islands, then you may go and trade at Guardelope, Cape Francois or any of the French islands." Browne's instructions ran on in more detail and closed with a personal postscript, "Bring some oranges and limes."
After Browne died in 1731, the plantation passed to his son Samuel & then after his premature death to his grandson William Browne. His is a case study in powerful connections. A contemporary described his family as "the most respectable that has ever lived in the town of Salem ... possessing great riches." William Browne himself was surrounded by governors. His mother was a Winthrop, he attended Harvard with Jonathan Trumbull, a future governor (as well as John Adams, a future president), and married the daughter of Joseph Wanton, a future governor of Rhode Island. It was Wanton, whose family reputedly made a fortune in the slave trade, who found a new overseer for Browne when he needed one.
Little is known about Elijah Mason, a Lebanon farmer & slave master. According to the 1st federal census done in 1790, Mason owned 28 slaves. That number is extraordinary because slavery waned rapidly after Connecticut passed a gradual emancipation act in 1784, freeing children born to slaves after that date once they reached adulthood.
Connecticut House by Rebecca Couch (Mrs James C. Denison) 1788-1863
The largest increase came in the period 1749-1774. By the latter year, New London County had become the greatest slaveholding section of New England, with almost 2x as many slaves as the most populous slave county in Massachusetts. New London was both an industrial center & the site of large slave-worked farms; with 2,036 slaves, it accounted for almost 1/3 of all the African Americans in Connecticut. New London town itself, with 522 African Americans & a white population of 5,366, led the state in number of slaves & percentage of black inhabitants.
Connecticut's slave population peaked at about 5,000 in 1774, but shipping records indicate its farms were feeding West Indies slaves by the tens of thousands. For a time after the Revolution, Connecticut's trade with the West Indies was double Boston's. As late as 1807, Middletown, thanks to the West Indies trade, was by one measure the busiest port between Cape Cod and New York.
Bernard Bailyn wrote that by 1770 New Englanders generally had achieved the highest standard of living the world had ever seen. Fortunes made in the West Indian trade would seed the industrial & financial fortunes to follow. "How was it that this unpromising, barely fertile region, incapable of producing a staple crop for European markets, became an economic success by the eve of the Revolution?" Bailyn asked. "The most important underlying fact in this whole story, the key dynamic force, unlikely as it may seem, was slavery. New England was not a slave society. On the eve of the Revolution, blacks constituted less than 4 percent of the population in Massachusetts & Connecticut, & many of them were free. But it was slavery, nevertheless, that made the commercial economy of 18th-century New England possible & drove it forward. ... The dynamic element in the region's economy was the profits from the Atlantic trade, & they rested almost entirely, directly or indirectly, on the flow of New England's products to the slave plantations & the sugar & tobacco industries they serviced." Bailyn wrote that the slave plantations must be seen as "the great powerhouse" of the entire Atlantic economy. "Only a few of New England's merchants actually engaged in the slave trade, but all of them profited by it, lived off it,"
Connecticut slavery lacked the "paternalism" that characterized Southern slavery, so that even from the early days, the colony had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when the African Americans got too old or worn-out to work. Their descendants later would treat factory hands that way, but masters who cast off old slaves made for a burden on the towns, so that by 1702 Connecticut passed a law making masters or their executors or heirs liable for freed African Americans, should their ex-slaves become indigent. This evidently was not enough, & in 1711, the law was revised to make it incumbent on masters to support their former slaves.
Discrimination against free African Americans was more severe in Connecticut than in other New England colonies. Their lives were strongly proscribed, even before they became numerous. In 1690, the colony forbade African Americans & Indians to be on the streets after 9 p.m. It also forbid black "servants" to wander beyond the limits of the towns or places, where they belonged without a ticket or pass from their masters or the authorities. A law of 1708, citing frequent fights between slaves & whites, imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black who disturbed the peace or who attempted to strike a white person. Even speech was subject to control. By a 1730 law, & black, Indian, or mulatto slave "who uttered or published, about any white person, words which would be actionable if uttered by a free white was, upon conviction before any one assistant or justice of the peace, to be whipped with forty lashes."
As early as 1717, citizens of New London in a town meeting voted their objection to free African Americans living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free African Americans or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void, & a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen.
Like the black codes of the South & Midwest in the 19C, enforcement was uneven, & the real value of the law seemed to be in harassment; discouragement of further settlement; & as a constant reminder to free African Americans in Connecticut, that their existence was precarious & dependent on white toleration.
As in other Northern communities that would later object to the Fugitive Slave Act, authorities in Connecticut had been diligent in prosecuting runaways when slavery was part of their state's economy. Ferrymen were forbidden to take runaways across rivers under a fine of 5 shillings. The authorities would make an arrest on the slightest pretext, & keep the black person in jail while advertisements were run in the newspapers, seeking an owner. They had the power to arrest suspects without warrants in such cases, & even if the seized African Americans could prove they were free, but traveling without a pass, they still had to pay court costs.
"Connecticut's lawmakers were extremely cautious about moving against slavery. Negroes were more numerous in the state than in the rest of New England combined, & racial anxieties were correspondingly more acute." The more African Americans lived in a Northern state, the more reluctantly that state approached the topic of emancipation.
Emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779, & 1780. Connecticut lawmakers did, however, in 1774 pass a law to halt the importation of slaves ("whereas the increase of slaves in this Colony is injurious to the poor & inconvenient ....").
In 1784, the abolition forces in the state tried a new tactic & presented a bill for gradual emancipation as part of a general statute codifying, in great detail, race relations. Almost as an afterthought, it provided that black & mulatto children born after March 1 would become free at age 25. The strategy worked, & the bill passed without opposition. An act of 1797 reduced that age to 21, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship;though obviously slavery was not voluntary, & slaves did not receive money, clothes & professional standing at the end of their servitude.
As in other Northern states, gradual emancipation freed no slaves at once. It simply set up slavery for a long-term natural death. Connecticut finally abolished slavery entirely in 1848. The 1800 census counted 951 Connecticut slaves; the number diminished thereafter to 25 in 1830, but then inexplicably rose to 54 in the 1840 census. After that, slaves were no longer counted in censuses for the northern states.
Connecticut disenfranchised African Americans in 1818, but that was a mere formality. As in many other places in the North, there is no evidence that African Americans ever dared attempt to vote in Connecticut, in colonial times or after the Revolution.
1. Jackson Turner Main, Society & Economy in Colonial Connecticut, Princeton University Press, 1983, p.177.
2. ibid., table 5.1, etc.
3. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.74-75.
3. ibid., p.138.
5. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, pp.169-70.
Research for this article was taken from the work of David L. Parsons of the Yale - New Haven Teachers' Institute & Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the founder & maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary. He is the author of 4 books on Pennsylvania history.