By Booker T. DeVaughn
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2017
I first became familiar with Bristow while serving on a committee at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford in 1987. Since then I have retired as a community-college president and devoted time to researching this fascinating man. Although Bristow wrote no first-hand account of his experiences, there are documents (unusual for an enslaved man such as Bristow) marking events in his life: a headstone, a listing among “negroes and slaves” in First Church records, his manumission certificate, property records, and will, and citations in West Harford histories. These documents help us piece together some aspects of his life and shed light on the realities of slavery in colonial New England.
When I first visited the Old Center Burying Ground in West Hartford and saw Bristow’s weather-beaten headstone, I felt a pulling, a spiritual connection to this man. I resolved to do something to either restore or replace the existing headstone.
Its inscription verifies that he was torn from his family in Africa and subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. An African known only to us as Bristow (a.k.a. Bristo, Bristol, or Bristoll) lived mostly in the West Division of Hartford, now West Hartford. His headstone placement in the extreme northwest corner of the cemetery was consistent with the practice of burying persons of African descent in segregated parts of a cemetery. Main Street’s development over the years has given his headstone more visibility. His listing in the records of First Church among “negroes and servants” verifies his church membership; no notation of his being married appears there.
Bristow’s certificate of manumission at the Connecticut Historical Society confirms that he bought his freedom for 60 pounds from Thomas Hart Hooker in May 1775, as Hooker, who had joined the Connecticut Second Regiment, was about to leave for the defense of Boston during the American Revolutionary War. Contrary to a persistent myth noted in 1976 by historian Nelson Burr, Hooker did not give Bristow his freedom.
According to oral tradition (for which I’ve found no documentation), Bristow was an agricultural expert who was paid for his knowledge. It seems likely that Hooker allowed him to earn money working outside the Hooker farm, a practice afforded some slaves during that time.
Property records show that in 1788 Bristow purchased three acres of land and a gristmill in Bristol. His will, now held at the Connecticut State Library, shows that he bequeathed his entire estate to Hooker’s children. Why he left his estate to the children is a question to ponder.
Between 2001 and 2005 local citizens’ awareness of Bristow increased substantially. Under my leadership, the West Hartford African American Social and Cultural Organization commissioned a replica headstone, and his burial site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. Bristow was the subject of an exhibition at the Noah Webster House and of several newspaper articles. In 2005 the West Hartford Board of Education named its new school Bristow Middle School, which is believed to be the only American public school named for a former slave in a predominantly white community.
Booker T. DeVaughn, Ed.D. is president emeritus of Three Rivers Community College. He is a former board member of the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society.
Sarah Whitman Hooker House
1237 New Britain Avenue, West Hartford
Old Center Burying Ground, 30 North Main Street, West Hartford
Summer 2017 Issue