By Elizabeth J. Normen
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2021-2022
Venture Smith’s narrative, published in New London in 1798, is among the earliest published autobiographies by a Black person in the United States. Connecticut Explored has adapted it for use in the middle-school classroom.
This excerpt from his narrative reveals the cruelty of slavery and his compelling storytelling, rich with details about the lives of enslaved men and women in colonial Connecticut. Around 1759, Venture (before he adopted the surname Smith as a free man) ran afoul of his second owner, Thomas Stanton II of Stonington. Venture had been reunited with his wife Meg just a few years before, when Stanton bought her from their mutual former enslaver, George Mumford. Their toddler daughter remained behind, enslaved to the Mumfords until adulthood.
At first the quarrel began between my wife and her mistress. I was then at work in the barn, and hearing a racket in the house, induced me to run there and see what had broken out. When I entered the house, I found my mistress in a violent passion with my wife, for what she informed me was a mere trifle; such a small affair that I forbear to put my mistress to the shame of having it known. I earnestly requested my wife to beg pardon of her mistress for the sake of peace, even if she had given no just occasion for offence. But whilst I was thus saying my mistress turned the blows which she was repeating on my wife to me. She took down her horse-whip, and while she was glutting her fury with it, I reached out my great black hand, raised it up and received the blows of the whip on it which were designed for my head. Then I immediately committed the whip to the devouring fire.
When my master returned from [Long Island], his wife told him of the affair, but for the present he seemed to take no notice of it, and mentioned not a word about it to me. Some days after his return, in the morning as I was putting on a log in the fire-place, not suspecting harm from any one, I received a most violent stroke on the crown of my head with a club two feet long and as large round as a chair-post. This blow very badly wounded my head, and the scar of it remains to this day. The first blow made me have my wits about me you may suppose, for as soon as he went to renew it, I snatched the club out of his hands and dragged him out of the door. He then sent for his brother to come and assist him, but I presently left my master, took the club he wounded me with, carried it to a neighboring Justice of the Peace, and complained of my master. He finally advised me to return to my master, and live contented with him till he abused me again, and then complain. I consented to do accordingly. But before I set out for my master’s, up he come and his brother Robert after me. The Justice improved this convenient opportunity to caution my master. He asked him for what he treated his slave thus hastily and unjustly, and told him what would be the consequence if he continued the same treatment towards me. After the Justice had ended his discourse with my master, he and his brother set out with me for home, one before and the other behind me.
When they had come to a bye place, they both dismounted their respective horses, and fell to beating me with great violence. I became enraged at this and immediately turned them both under me, laid one of them across the other, and stamped both with my feet what I would.
This occasioned my master’s brother to advise him to put me off. A short time after this I was taken by a constable and two men. They carried me to a blacksmith’s shop and had me hand-cuffed. When I returned home my mistress enquired much of her waiters, whether VENTURE was hand-cuffed. When she was informed that I was, she appeared to be very contented and was much transported with the news. In the midst of this content and joy, I presented myself before my mistress, shewed her my hand-cuffs, and gave her thanks for my gold rings. For this my master commanded a negro of his to fetch him a large ox chain. This my master locked on my legs with two padlocks. I continued to wear the chain peaceably for two or three days, when my master asked me with contemptuous hard names whether I had not better be freed from my chains and go to work. I answered him, No. Well then, said he, I will send you to the West-Indies or banish you, for I am resolved not to keep you. I answered him I crossed the waters to come here, and I am willing to cross them to return.
… Not long after Hempsted Miner purchased me of my master for fifty-six pounds lawful [money].
Smith earned the money to buy his own freedom in 1765 from his fourth owner, Oliver Smith, and then went on to buy his wife and children’s freedom. When he died in 1805, he was a successful land-owning farmer, trader, and fisherman in Haddam, Connecticut. But it was his freedom, he said, “which is a privilege that nothing else can equal.”
Elizabeth Normen is publisher of Connecticut Explored and co-author of Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut (2019) for grades 5 – 8.
“Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa,” Winter 2012/2013
Purchase a facsimile of Smith’s narrative from the East Haddam Historical Society for $10 at easthaddamhistory.org/museum-shop.html.
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