Sugar Cane Harvest

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

After Browne died in 1731, the plantation passed to his son Samuel and 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.

He was John Mumford, who came from another prominent Rhode Island slave-owning family. His father's farm, though not rated as a plantation by Fitts, sprawled over the Point Judith peninsula. Mumford apparently became an ancestor of the illustrious Bingham family that is one of the present day occupants of the land.

In an article he wrote for the Connecticut Historical Society in 1976, the late Alfred Bingham cited an old family letter that recounted how Mumford got the overseer's post. At dinner one night in Providence, Browne asked his father-in-law, "if he knew of a young man of character and energy whose services could be secured by him for some time, to enter upon the subjugation of a large tract of land he owned in Salem, Connecticut, build a house and bring the land under cultivation." Mumford jumped at the opportunity, the letter said, and "entered immediately upon his labor employing a numerous gang of blacks ..."

He speculated that outcast slaves, or Indians, built some of the stone hillside structures Sawyer and Perry are now examining. "It comes as a shock to learn how extensive was the use of black slaves in New England, yet the unsavory leadership of New England ship owners and merchants in the slave trade has long been recognized," a disillusioned Bingham wrote.

John Mumford arrived in Salem in 1759, according to Wordell, the town historian, who knew Alfred Bingham and has collaborated with Sawyer and Perry. Like them, he gleaned a lot of information about the plantation from an odd book titled "Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm."

Written in 1905 by Mary Perkins for Bingham's grandfather, "Chronicles" is a rambling and mostly rosy genealogy of the intermarried families who eventually came to own pieces of the plantation. Its few references to slavery are either mild or myopic. Describing a dinner in the "happy years" after the Revolution, Perkins wrote of "stores of ham and huge cheeses, casks of West Indian rum and brandy, and all sorts of West Indian preserves, and all the concoctions for which good housekeepers were famous in those days." At another gathering, Caesar and Pompey, "two old negro servants," provided the music.

But "Chronicles" contains one startling reference to the cauldron simmering beneath New England's supposedly benign slavery. In 1707 in Newport, John Mumford's father's first wife was impulsively murdered by a slave she ordered whipped. The panicked slave drowned himself, but he did not escape punishment. According to a court record, the Newport authorities ordered "that his head, legs and arms be cut from his body and hung up in some public place ... and his body burned to ashes, that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others from perpetrating a like barbarity."

John Mumford was not the only family member to move to Connecticut. A half-brother, Thomas, leased what is now the Bluff Point preserve in Groton from Gov. John Winthrop. Another older half-brother, Capt. George Mumford, leased Fisher's Island. At his death in 1756, George's estate listed 14 slaves as part of his property, including a woman named Morocco whom he'd inherited from his father. The names of the others were Great Fortune, Little Fortune, Isaac, Pompey, Will, Caesar, Toby, Barree, Sue, Patience, Hannah, Cate, and a child, Mint. (Fitts, the Rhode Island researcher, contends in his book, "Inventing New England's Slave Paradise," that slave owners used new, diminutive names as a psychological method of controlling their human property and that beatings were routine.)

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Life as a slave in Connecticut

The fact that the Mumfords owned so many slaves has led Sawyer and Perry to conclude that they probably supplied the labor for the Salem plantation. Though slave names like Pompey and Caesar were common, it is possible the Pompey and Caesar owned by Capt. George Mumford were the "old servants" who later played music on the plantation. Sawyer and Perry also are intrigued by the possibility that one of Connecticut's few famous slaves, Venture Smith, passed through the plantation. There's no question he was Mumford property, and it appears the Mumfords were at least part-time slave traders.

Smith is remembered because his account of his passage from son of an African prince to slave to citizen is one of the earliest, and therefore probably most credible, of the type of slave narrative that would multiply before the Civil War. Published in New London in 1798 when he was an old man, Smith's narrative states he was born with the name Broteer in 1729 and sold into slavery at age 6. He was among 260 captives loaded onto a Rhode Island ship where the mate was Thomas Mumford and the steward was Robertson Mumford. On board, Robertson bought Smith for 4 gallons of rum and some calico cloth, and changed his name to Venture to signify the child was his private investment.

Crossing the Atlantic, a quarter of the captives died of smallpox. Most of the survivors were sold in Barbados, but Smith was brought to Narragansett where he was left with his master's sister to await transfer to his home on Fisher's Island. Thus the Mumford link is solid, except for confusion over which family member actually owned the child slave.

According to a Mumford family tree in "Chronicles," Capt. George Mumford had a nephew named Thomas and a son named Robinson, but he died young. The one son who grew to adulthood was named James and in his narrative Smith identified James Mumford as his master's son. Smith said his worst period of enslavement occurred during his adolescence when James would countermand his father's orders. Once James started to attack Smith with a pitchfork for ignoring his instructions, and Smith warded him off by grabbing a pitchfork himself. Neither harmed the other, but as punishment Smith was hung for an hour on a gallows used to slaughter cattle.

His narrative contains several more accounts of beatings or threatened beatings by later masters. He was sold three times, but the overall tone of his narrative, set down by a white ghostwriter, is self-satisfied, even triumphant. The bonds of slavery were loose enough that by age 36 he earned enough money to buy his freedom and later that of his wife and children. He also bought several slaves himself, but soon freed them, and eventually acquired more than 100 acres in Haddam Neck. (The land he owned is now occupied by the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant. For the last several months, his descendants have been in federal court trying to stop the power plant owners from building a waste storage facility on the site until it can be excavated for archaeological remains. Sawyer has testified on their behalf.)

There's no indication in Smith's narrative that he ever stopped in Salem, but like many slaves he was often rented out and worked all over southeastern Connecticut. For a brief time he was "pawned" in Hartford.

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John Mumford's tenure as overseer of the Salem plantation lasted about 10 years until 1768, when he was succeeded by his son, John Mumford Jr. According to Wordell, Browne had a house built for his new overseer that is still standing. The plantation's days, however, were numbered.

William Browne was loyal to the British crown and at the beginning of the Revolutionary War he fled to England. His property in Salem, Mass., and Connecticut was soon confiscated. An initial inventory put the size of his holdings here at about 13,000 acres, but a later one reduced it to about 9,500 acres. The nine slaves he owned at the end were appraised individually. The names of the men were Great Prince, Little Prince and Luke. The rest were a woman named Prue and children named Cato, Phillis, Rose, Jimm and Caesar. Most were valued as worth between 200 and 450 pounds each. But Jimm, who was only 6 months old, and Caesar, who was a sickly 11-year-old, were valued at only 10 pounds.