Sugar Cane Harvest

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

The slaves asked the General Assembly to prevent them from being sold to raise money for the war effort. "Your memorialists," as they called themselves in their formal petition, "though they have Flat Noses, Crooked Shins and other Queerness of Make Peculiar to Affricans are yet of the Human Race, free born in our own country, taken from thence by man-stealers, & sold in this Country as Cattle in the Market ..." Their petition was rejected, but according to "Chronicles" they were eventually freed. How they fared is not known. A certain Prince Brown, perhaps Great Prince, later became a landowner. The sickly Caesar probably stayed with John Mumford as a servant.

Mumford himself did not lose his home. His daughter, Elizabeth, had married into New London's Shaw family, whose wealth came from the West Indies trade. The Shaws bought a portion of the confiscated plantation, and Mumford lived there with his daughter for the rest of his life. William Browne, according to his entry in the "Dictionary of American Biography," got himself appointed governor of Bermuda, where he served well for several years before returning to England.

He never attempted to resume residency in Salem, Mass., and the Browne family mansion, kept ready by caretakers for a homecoming that never happened, became something of a haunted house. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a son of Salem, told the story that curious children as time passed began to sneak into the vacant mansion, known as Browne's Folly.

"There was one closet in the house which everybody was afraid to enter, it being supposed that an evil spirit - perhaps a domestic demon of the Browne family - was confined in it. One day three or four score years ago, some school boys happened to be playing in the deserted chambers, and took it into their heads to develop the secrets of the mysterious closet. With great difficulty and tremor, they succeeded in forcing the door. As it flew open, there was a vision of people in garments of antique magnificence - gentlemen in curled wigs, and tarnished gold lace, and ladies in brocades and quaint head-dresses, rushing tumultuously forth, and tumbling on the floor. The urchins took to their heels in huge dismay, but crept back after a while and discovered that the apparition was composed of a mighty pile of family portraits."

Hawthorne, who liked ghost stories, claimed this was a true tale, told to him by one of the boys many years later. Embellished or not, it suggests a lost and hidden wealth that came, history tells us, from the West Indies trade. One wonders how literal Hawthorne meant to be in identifying the demon in the closet as "domestic." What kind of spirit might have haunted the Brownes more: a shameful black sheep or a vengeful black slave?

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Digging for new clues

One bright blue cloudless day a couple of weeks into their summer dig, Jerry Sawyer and his students took a lunch break in a shaded driveway off Witch Meadow Road in Salem, Conn. They were several miles from the stone cairns where their archaeology had started. They'd spent the morning across the road on one of the big farms the Brownes rented or sold. In the afternoon, they planned to go up to Colchester where they'd begin looking for the remnants of a hamlet slaves might have occupied and the foundation of a house that belonged to a free black carpenter, Daniel Galusha, who built the Brownes' first plantation house.

"We're expanding way beyond the Browne plantation," Sawyer said, sitting on the tailgate of his small pickup truck. "What we're finding is there were a whole bunch of big farms, some of a thousand acres or more, all of which had captives."

He said that by next year he hopes to have written his doctoral thesis on what he's found so far, but that he expects to keep coming back to Salem as long as the present day property owners to whom he is grateful let him keep digging into the past.

"As far as the work here goes, this is my life's work," Sawyer said. "I'm trying to show the extent of the landscape in the 18th century of enslavement ... It's a larger, more populated landscape than most people imagine."