Wilton’s civil rights history: Slavery

WILTON — This is the first part in a series on the history of civil rights in Wilton. This installment discusses slavery in Wilton. Upcoming installments will discuss women’s voting rights, the turbulent 1960s and current Black Lives Matter/police protests.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, ultimately brought about an end to slavery in the United States. But that battle was not just Northern abolitionists versus Southern slave owners.

“That narrative is far too oversimplified as the history of slavery in Wilton exemplifies,” said Nick Foster, associate curator of the Wilton Historical Society, in a video on the society’s website.

He said Connecticut’s role in slavery was much larger than people realize. “As recent events have made clear, the impact of slavery across this country is still being felt today,” Foster said.

Information gleaned from the Wilton Historical Society and Robert Russell’s book, “Wilton, Connecticut: Three Generations of People, Places and Progress,” sheds light on Wilton’s turbulent experience with slavery.

Within five years of the establishment of the first English colony in Connecticut in 1633, enslaved Native Americans, in the aftermath of the Pequot War, were sent to the Caribbean in exchange for enslaved Africans. This trade would remain in common practice over much of the 17th century.

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Connecticut had the largest population of enslaved people in New England, with more than 5,000 in 1774. At that time, Norwalk, which included Wilton, counted 136 enslaved people.

The first slaves arrived in Wilton in 1734 and many were owned by the town’s wealthiest and most prominent families — the Comstocks, Lamberts, Keelers and Middlebrooks. Later, other slave owners included the Marvins, St. Johns and Beldens. The first federal census in 1790 showed 12 slaves in Wilton, with 16 by 1810.

Enslaved women were generally tasked with chores like cooking and cleaning, while men worked the farms. Among the documented known slaves were Haggar Tonquin, Cato Green, Phebe, Black Betty and Onesmus Brown.

Attitudes split

By the end of the 1700s, attitudes about slavery in the North began to split. Religious groups like the Quakers, Methodists and Baptists viewed slavery as immoral and protested for its abolition.

Others believed the rights of property owners should be the utmost concern and slavery should continue as it had for over a century.

The older, more established religious denominations, Congregational and Episcopalian, were more conservative and reluctant to change. In addition, many of their members were merchants with ties to the southern cotton trade, who were willing to aid in humanitarian reforms but frowned on the radical ideas of abolition.

In an attempt to appease both sides, Connecticut passed The Gradual Abolition Act in 1784, which stated that any enslaved person born after March 1, 1784 would achieve their freedom once they turned 25.

While this was the state’s first step toward abolition, it did nothing to provide for the parents still held in bondage.

Abolition, far from civil

In Wilton, the fight to end slavery was far from civil for the first half of the 19th century.

Riots broke out in November 1838, when the Rev. Nathaniel Colver, an organizer for the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society, was invited to preach at the Baptist Church in Georgetown. Colver’s goal was to organize the Georgetown Anti-Slavery Society.

Colver’s initial lecture at the church on Nov. 26 was met by a hostile crowd outside who threw rocks at the church and broke windows. Colver spoke for several more days, but around 2 a.m. on Nov. 29, the Baptist Church was blown up by the explosion of a keg of gunpowder that had been placed under the church’s pulpit. The pulpit was demolished, windows were blown out, and the front of the building was displaced several feet.

The “Norwalk Gazette” newspaper attempted to cast blame on both sides, saying, “We deprecate the violence of the rights of free speech. Although we denounce in the severest terms the exasperating conduct of the abolitionists, we would do our utmost to bring the violators of free speech to condign punishment.”

Months later, Colver called Fairfield County, “the Georgia of Connecticut, the dark part of the state, full of intemperance and the spirit of slavery.”

But his message reached other like-minded people and the Georgetown Anti-Slavery Society was born. Initial officers were William Wakeman and Eli Bronson of Wilton. Members included Benjamin Gilbert and Sturges Bennett, partners of Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing, and Edwin Birchard and William Morgan of Wilton.

The explosion crime at the church remained unsolved, but in December 1838, the church was rebuilt sufficiently to host the first meeting of the Fairfield County of Anti-Slavery Society. Nine towns were represented, and officers included Levi Wakeman, 22, son of William Wakeman.

Later that month, an anti-slavery meeting was held on Pimpewaug Road in Wilton at the home of David and Aaron Chichester, sons of the late Dr. Abraham Chichester.

While the meeting was in progress, torpedoes made of sacks of gunpowder were placed under the windows and exploded by a slow fuse. Windows were blown out and glass fragments were sent flying into the faces of the audience.

Underground Railroad

People in Wilton were clearly divided on the issue of slavery, with protesters willing to resort to violence and destruction.

As anti-slavery sentiments built, the Wakeman and Chichester families in Wilton became associated with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret abolitionists and safe houses. They arranged to transport and shelter escaped slaves into free states and Canada.

William Wakeman, a founding member of Georgetown Anti-Slavery Society, was Wilton’s foremost abolitionist.

Wakeman lived in Wilton from 1826 to 1847 and his home at 36 Seeley Road became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

As both a station keeper and a conductor, Wakeman constructed a tunnel under his house as a hiding place for runaway slaves. This was risky for his family, because at that time northern states were required to return escaped slaves to the South and heavy fines were issued for anyone who assisted escapees.

Wakeman was in touch by mail with other underground operators who sent him coded letters announcing the arrival of passengers. Wakeman would transport slaves to distant places in the state such as Plymouth and Middletown, sometimes using a hay wagon and traveling by night.

Freed slaves

Although the Civil War ended in 1865, and the 13th Amendment was passed that year abolishing slavery, Wilton and Connecticut ended their ties with slavery sooner.

Under the 1784 emancipation law, the first slaves were freed in Connecticut in 1809, and other Connecticut slaves were released voluntarily by their owners in the next few years.

In 1810, Samuel Middlebrook filed papers with the Wilton town clerk to emancipate his slave Phebe. Matthew Marvin, IV did the same for his slave Betty.

The last enslaved person in Wilton was 60-year-old Haggar Tonquin, who was owned by the Belden family.

By 1840, there were 17 slaves remaining in the entire state, none in Wilton. In 1848, the state freed all remaining slaves.

Recognizing the past

Wilton’s history of slavery is not forgotten and up until recently was recounted each year at Ambler Farm, which is owned by the town of Wilton and operated by the Friends of Ambler Farm.

A 90-minute simulation program was taught by teachers and Ambler Farm staff to fifth graders.

During the program, students were asked to imagine how it would be for young West African children living in a small village, as slave ships came to shore and the men aboard kidnapped entire families. The families were then brought by ship under horrendous conditions to America and sold on an auction block to work on a plantation.

Students learned what daily life was like for a slave, their work and responsibilities, and their punishments for misbehaving. They also learned about the Underground Railroad and safe houses and what life was like for a runaway slave.

The Wilton Historical Society also acknowledges Wilton’s slave history. Last year, to commemorate Black History Month, the society held an exhibition of slavery artifacts, called Tools of a Shameful Trade.

Objects on display included a heavy neck collar, shackles, plantation whip, and an 1835 broadside advertising a runaway slave.

The exhibition also featured a 1757 bill of sale, confirming the sale of a slave named Jack to David Lambert of Wilton for 42 pounds and 10 shillings.

While slavery may have ended in 1865, racial prejudices ensued. The historical society has a Wilton dog register from 1898, in which a member of the Comstock family listed the name of her dog as a racial slur.