Published narratives by formerly enslaved people who escaped to Connecticut in the 19th century reveal the harsh and violent system of slavery in the South.
- Jeffrey Brace was enslaved in the South, escaped to Connecticut, and published his life story in Vermont in 1810.
- William Grimes, Reverend James Pennington, and Rev. G. W. Offley were enslaved in the South, escaped to the North, and published their life stories in Connecticut between 1825 and 1870.
But Connecticut has its own harsh story of slavery. Slavery was abolished in Connecticut in 1848. We can learn a great deal about slavery in Connecticut in the colonial period from Venture Smith.
Women’s experience of slavery is important, too. Nancy Toney of Windsor may have been the last person enslaved in Connecticut. She did not leave a first person narrative.
James Mars was born into slavery in Connecticut in 1790. Because he was born after Connecticut adopted the Gradual Emancipation act in 1784, he became free when he reached the age of 25. Mars published his life story in 1868, just after the Civil War.
Mars wrote about the difference between slavery and indentured servitude in Connecticut.
I soon found that I was to live or stay with the man until I was twenty-five. I found that white boys who were bound out, were bound until they were twenty-one. I thought that rather strange, for those boys told me they were to have one hundred dollars when their time was out. They would say to me sometimes, ‘You have to work four years longer than we do, and get nothing when you have done, and we get one hundred dollars, a Bible, and two suits of clothes.’
Mars wrote about voting rights for Black men in Connecticut in the 19th century:
. . Although born and raised in Connecticut, yes, and lived in Connecticut more than three-fourths of my life it has been my privilege to vote at five Presidential elections. Twice it was my privilege and pleasure to help elect the lamented and murdered Lincoln, and if my life is spared I intend to be where I can show that I have the principles of a man, and act like a man, and vote like a man, but not in my native State; I cannot do it there, I must remove to the old Bay State for the right to be a man. Connecticut, I love thy name, but not thy restrictions. I think the time is not far distant when the colored man will have his rights in Connecticut.
Black men got the right to vote with the passage of the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Connecticut did not amend its state constitution accordingly until 1876.
Mars wrote about his childhood in slavery in Connecticut, including his father’s determination not to let his family be sold into Southern slavery. His father, he tells us, fought in the Revolutionary War but did not earn his freedom as some enslaved men in Connecticut did.
My father was born in the State of New York… He had, I think, three different masters in that State, … and he was Gen. Van Rensaeller’s slave in the time of the Revolution, and was a soldier in that war; … and then was owned in Connecticut, in Salisbury, and then by the minister in North Canaan [Connecticut].
My mother was born in old Virginia…; I do not remember the name of the town. The minister of North Canaan, whose name was Thompson, went to Virginia for a wife, or she came to him… and she brought her slaves with her, and my mother was one of them. I think there were two of my mother’s brothers also. The Rev. Mr. Thompson, as he was then called, bought my father, and he was married to my mother by him. Mr. Thompson ministered to the people of Canaan in holy things; his slaves worked his farm. …
I was born March 3d, 1790.
Rev. Thompson’s wife did not like living in Connecticut and they moved to the south. They left Mars’s father and mother to work the North Canaan farm. But when Mars was about eight years old, Rev. Thompson came back to Connecticut.
He had come to sell his farm and to take us all South. My father said he would not go alive; the minister told him he must go; my father said he never would. Well, the man that had formerly ministered to the people in holy things, sold the farm, and stock, and tools, and effects, with a few exceptions. He kept a pair of horses and harness, a wagon, a bed, and a few such articles. The harness and wagon he kept to take us to the South with. …
My father, although a slave without education, was intensely watching the movements of the teacher of the people, but kept all that he saw to himself, yet he was steadily planning his escape. The set day had now within about thirty-six hours come. [Rev. Thompson] had had no thought but all was well; those fine chattels were his, and would fetch him in a southern market, at a moderate estimate, two thousand dollars… .
Mars describes their escape to a hiding place in the next town of Norfolk, Connecticut. They left in the dark of night and hid in a house nearby. Mars writes:
There was a man by the name of Phelps that had a house that was not occupied; it was out of the way and out of sight. After breakfast, we went to the house; it was well located; it needed some cleaning, …. We all went to work and got it cleaned, and the next day went into it … Days and weeks passed on, and we began to feel quite happy, hoping that the parson had gone South, as we heard nothing from him.
But Rev. Thompson had stayed in the area and the Mars family had to escape again. They hid in the woods and were sometimes sheltered by people willing to help them. But Mars did not escape slavery. Instead, he was sold to a Mr. Munger. Mars recalled,
The parson was not gone south yet, for he could not well give up his prey. He then proposed to sell [me and my brother Joseph] until [we] were twenty-five, to somebody here that my parents would select, for that was as long as the law of Connecticut could hold slaves, and he would give the other members of the family their freedom. …
Finally a man by the name of Bingham was found; it was a man that my father was once a slave to; he would take my brother,–then a man by the name of Munger would buy me if they could agree. Mr. Bingham lived in Salisbury, Mr. Munger lived in Norfolk; the two men lived about fifteen miles apart, both in Connecticut. The trade was made, and we two boys were sold for one hundred pounds a head, lawful money,–yes, sold by a man, a minister of the gospel in Connecticut, the land of steady habits.
The bargain was made on the 12th of September, 1798. Then I was informed that I was sold to Mr. Munger, and must go and live with him. The man I did not know, but the thought of being sold, not knowing whether I was ever to see my parents, or brother, or sister again, was more than I could endure; …. And now sixty-five years have passed away since that time; those feelings are fresh in my memory. But on my way to my new home I saw my father; I will not attempt to describe my feelings when he told me he had taken rooms in the same neighborhood, and should be near me. That made the rough way smooth.
Mr. Munger was not a healthy man. Mars had to do all of the work. He tells of his experience in more detail but in summary, he later said of his time with Munger,
I went to school the most of the first winter; after that my schooling was slim. The other thing was, he was fond of using the lash.
Mars gained his freedom around 1815. He married and had a family. He wrote:
I have said I had two children born in Norfolk, and six in Hartford. One died in infancy. I lived in Hartford about sixteen years. I took a very prominent part in the organization of the Talcott Street Church. I moved from Hartford to Pittsfield, Mass. When I had been there three years and a half, my wife died in November; the May following I lost a son sixteen years of age. My oldest son enlisted in the U. S. Navy when he was eighteen, and has followed the sea ever since. I had another that went to sea, that I have not heard from for eight years. My oldest daughter went to Africa, to Cape Palmas; she went out a teacher, and has been there five years. I have a son who, when the [Civil War] broke out, when the first gun was fired on [Fort] Sumter, wanted to enlist, and did enlist in the navy… and served his time, and has an honorable discharge. Another, and the last one, enlisted in the artillery and went to New Orleans, but never, no, never came back, nor will he ever come again. I have a daughter in Massachusetts, of a frail constitution. She has a family to care for. …
I am now in my seventy-ninth year of age, I cannot labor but little, and finding the public have a desire to know something of what slavery was in the State of Connecticut,… I have stated the facts, many are willing to purchase the book to satisfy themselves as to slavery in Connecticut. Some told me that they did not know that slavery was ever allowed in Connecticut, and some affirm that it never did exist in the State. What I have written of my own history, seems to satisfy the minds of those that read it, that the so called, favored state, the land of good morals and steady habits, was ever a slave state, and that slaves were driven through the streets tied or fastened together for market. This seems to surprise some that I meet, but it was true. I have it from reliable authority. Yes, this was done in Connecticut.
Not all Black people were enslaved in Connecticut, even in the colonial period. If you study slavery, you must also study freedom.
Phillip and Ruth Moore were free Black landowners in Hartford in the late 1600s.
Isaac Glasko was a blacksmith in eastern Connecticut in the early 19th century. The village of Glasgo in Griswold, Connecticut is named after him.
James Mars, Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut. Written by Himself (Hartford: Case, Lockwood, 1868), available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/mars/menu.html
Wm. Frank Mitchell, “James Mars,” CT Explored, Vol 2, #3