by Christina Vida
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. WINTER 2012/13
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Nancy Toney of Windsor may have the distinction of being Connecticut’s last slave. She was born into slavery in Connecticut in 1774. She lived through the American Revolution and the War of 1812, saw a railroad transform her town, and witnessed the legal end of slavery in Connecticut in 1848. She died December 19, 1857 in Windsor, six years before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and eight years before slavery was outlawed in the United States. A surviving portrait and headstone flesh out the story told by vital records, census data, and a will. But what did not survive are Nancy Toney’s impressions of her dramatically changed world or her years of servitude.
Nancy’s mother, Nanny, belonged to Rev. Andrew Eliot (1743 – 1805), minister of the First Church Congregational in Fairfield. Her father, Toney, belonged to Jeremiah Sherwood in nearby Green Farms. Church records show that their daughter Anna—later known as Nancy—was baptized on November 27, 1774 in Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. By 1785 Nancy was owned by Hezekiah Bradley (1735 – 1818), another wealthy resident of Greenfield Hill. In September of that year, Bradley’s daughter Charlotte (1764 – 1812) married Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, Jr. (1762 – 1821) of Windsor. Bradley gave Nancy to his daughter as a wedding present to serve as the Chaffees’ household servant. Thus, by the age of 11, we know that Nancy was separated from her mother and father, relocated a long distance away from her family, and forced to tend to the needs of a prosperous Windsor family.
Within six years, the Chaffees had completed their two-story home beside Palisado Green and had welcomed the births of their three children. In her late teens and early 20s, Nancy would have been running the kitchen, doing the laundry, and helping Charlotte raise young Abigail, Hezekiah, and Samuel. During this time, Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, Sr. (1731 – 1819) lived next door in a three-story brick mansion and owned three enslaved women. In 1791, the elder Chaffee owned an unnamed “Negro Woman,” who gave birth to a daughter, Betty Stevenson. Four years later, Dr. Chaffee, Sr. purchased a 25-year-old woman, Sarah, from Jonathan Butler (1760 – 1830) of Hartford. Based on their proximity, Nancy, Sarah, Betty’s mother, and young Betty might have shared the workload of the two homes and could have had some autonomy in their connecting backyards. But by 1810, Chaffee, Sr. had manumitted Sarah, Betty, and her mother. Nancy Toney was the only slave in Windsor listed in the 1810 and 1820 federal censuses. We can only speculate why the younger Chaffee did not follow his father’s lead and free Nancy.
Abigail Sherwood Chaffee Loomis (1787 – 1867) inherited Nancy from Dr. Chaffee, Jr. after his death in 1821. His will, dated 1818, specifically bequeathed “to my Daughter Abigail S. Loomis, wife of Col. James Loomis…my negro slave Nance.” In 1822, James and Abigail Loomis constructed an impressive brick house along the Broad Street Green in Windsor. Nancy was once again uprooted to a new home and once again provided an invaluable pair of hands in a bustling home, this one with children ages 15, 13, 11, 9, and 7. A sixth child would follow in 1825. In the 1830 federal census, Nancy is surprisingly listed as a “free colored female.” Before she turned 46, the Loomises could have freed Nancy by certifying to the town that she was in good health and could care for herself. No extant Windsor records prove Nancy’s freedom as it is categorized in the federal census; therefore it is possible that the Loomis family began labeling Nancy as a free person without actually granting her freedom. Why the Loomises would do this is still uncertain.
What is certain is that Nancy remained in the Loomis home. The 1850 U.S. Census, the first to name residents other than the head of household, listed Nancy, a 72-year-old free black woman, residing with James and Abigail Loomis.
Seven years later, on December 19, 1857, Nancy died. Windsor’s death record lists her as an 82-year-old, single, colored female who was born at Greenfield Hill and died of consumption. The death record mysteriously names her as “Nancy Joyce”—possibly referring to a middle name—but the Loomis family erected a marble headstone emblazoned with the name “Nancy Toney.” Osbert Burr Loomis (1813 – 1886), a son of James and Abigail, painted a portrait of Nancy after her death. He portrayed her in work clothes, spinning yarn, seated in front of a hearth, where she would have spent countless hours cooking, with a wash pail, broom, and work baskets surrounding her. While we know more about Nancy Toney than about many other Connecticut enslaved persons, the existence of the painting, the headstone, and the few surviving records are only a partial documentation of Nancy’s lifetime of enslavement in the Bradley, Chaffee, and Loomis families. Her years of service to families other than her own are worthy of remembrance, and you can continue to honor Nancy Toney by visiting her gravestone in Palisado Cemetery, a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
Read more stories about the African American experience in Connecticut on our TOPICS page.