Sugar Cane Harvest

An illustration of a sugar cane harvest in the Indies. (WETHERSFIELD HISTORICAL SOCIETY / June 3, 2014)

The most disturbing evidence of Connecticut's long and profitable complicity in slavery lies hidden in plain sight in the town of Salem, in the fields and woods around an ice cream bar near Routes 11 and 82.

There, archaeologists from Central Connecticut State University are painstakingly uncovering the remnants of a plantation worked by as many as 60 slaves in the years before the American Revolution.

What they have found after three summers of exploration will never become a Sturbridge Village of Colonial slavery. Their discoveries are too humble for that. They've identified foundations of sawmills that slaves may have operated, huge root cellars they may have dug, rude stone shelters they may have lived in after being cast off, and stone cairns marking where they probably were buried. To the untrained eye, the burial cairns appear merely to be odd arrangements of rock and the slave hovels, animal sties built into a hillside. Still the plantation remnants that had been slowly sinking back into the earth, ugly companions to Connecticut's treasured stone walls, tell a story of global dimensions.

"One of the things we do as archaeologists is look beyond the little bit of a hole we are digging and relate to everything around us," Jerry Sawyer, the Salem site director told a field school class before the start of last summer's work. "We initially looked at very tiny things, a burial ground, a few stone piles, which later became something enormous. [Now] we've begun to paint a much broader picture. We've come up with what looks like a 13,000-acre plantation and associated archaeology [extending] across surrounding towns and this state and the whole goddamn world ..."

Sawyer's excitement begins with the fact that slavery in Connecticut, if recognized at all, was generally thought to be limited to household servants or farmhands and, unlike slavery in the South, a benevolent family affair. Yet the Salem plantation, previously no more than a footnote in history books, is stunning in scale.

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 and 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 and, according to one old authoritative account, may have imported 60 slave families to clear the land.

Even if the number was only 60 individual slaves, it was huge for the time. For perspective on the Salem plantation, Sawyer refers to new research done by anthropologist Robert Fitts in southern Rhode Island, an area better known for having had slave plantations. Combing Colonial records, Fitts found that most Rhode Island plantations had fewer than a dozen slaves, numbers similar to those in Virginia's famed Tidewater region, and that only three had as many as 19 slaves.

Fitts also documented only one Rhode Island plantation of more than 4,000 acres. Thus in sheer size alone, never mind its slave population, the Browne plantation in Salem ranks as the second largest in southern New England. Counting the tenant farms that Sawyer believes also may have depended on slave labor, Browne's holdings, covering about half of present-day Salem, dwarfed even the average Southern plantation.

Nor were the Brownes without company in Connecticut. There was a plantation, or very large farm of 3,000 acres, in Pomfret with two dozen 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 and 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 and 27 Negroes, in that order. The document did at least take care to 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 [sic], Sharper and Little Pero."

Unlike Malbone, very little is known about Elijah Mason, a Lebanon farmer and slave master. According to the first 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. Mason may have been a descendant of Capt. John Mason, who in 1637 was dispatched from Windsor to lead the attack on the Pequot Indian fort in Mystic that ended in a massacre and later the enslavement of some of the survivors. Soon afterward, Mason moved to Norwich, (where descendants of the nearly exterminated Pequot would 350 years later build the Foxwoods casino). The Browne plantation proper covered the southeast quadrant of Salem, but his other holdings stretched miles north to what used to be called Mason's Pond, now Gardner Lake.

Any Colonial comparison is only as good as the records that survive and the research that has been done. Until now, Connecticut's plantations have been either unknown or ignored. Sawyer, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, was enlisted to work on the Salem site by a former teacher, Central Connecticut State University professor Warren Perry, who in turn learned of them from an amateur Colchester historian, Abraham Abdul-Haqq.

Perry's ongoing work on the well-known African Burial Ground Project in New York City has helped expose the fiction that the North was unacquainted with slavery. Barring new discoveries, the Browne plantation, along with Malbone's and apparently Elijah Mason's, give Connecticut the dubious distinction of having hosted three of the largest slave enterprises in 18th century New England.

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Slave markets

The nature of that enterprise is what allows Sawyer to extend his excitement about the Salem plantation to, as he said, "the whole goddamn world." In all likelihood, they engaged in the same kind of early agribusiness as the plantations in nearby Rhode Island. They grew grain, made cheese, raised livestock and cut wood with one main market in mind: the Caribbean island colonies where sugar cane was a crop of such value that it was cultivated to the exclusion of food and slaves were the main source of labor.

Why should this now sound so revelatory and so shameful? The Triangle Trade of molasses, rum and slaves between New England, the West Indies and Africa has long been a staple of U.S. history curriculums. Yet somehow in popular perception, slavery has been cut out of the trade triangle and transferred forward to the Civil War, where it became a moral problem confined to the South. Just as Connecticut was thought not to have "had slavery" because it did not have many slaves or Southern-style plantations, it was thought not to profit from slavery as much as the South did.

The truth, however, which ought to have been plain, is that Connecticut derived a great part, maybe the greatest part, of its early surplus wealth from slavery. 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.

So far Sawyer, his partner Perry, who is the principal investigator for the project, and their student assistants have been more occupied mapping the dimensions of the Salem plantation than digging for the documents that will fill out the story of what went on there. Sawyer is confident they'll find much in Colonial archives, particularly in Salem, Mass., the base of the Brownes' mercantile empire.