Interns explore Wilton’s history of slavery
Wilton’s often unrecognized relationship with slavery — from the arrival of the parish’s first slaves in the the mid-1700s to the freeing of the last slave in 1840 — was the focus of a research paper written by five Wilton Historical Society interns this spring.
During their five-week internship, Wilton High School seniors Meaghan Downey, Eve Mandel, Nina Mellin, Kyle Nash and Ian Sanders used a number of sources to research Wilton’s history of slavery, including — but not limited to — the Wilton Library History Room and town historian Bob Russell’s book Wilton, Connecticut: Three Generations of People, Places and Progress.
With the information they gathered the interns wrote an eight-page document titled Slavery in Wilton, A Hidden Legacy, which they presented to a group of eight people at the historical society on June 16, and plan to send to history magazine Connecticut Explored.
Each intern focused on a different area of research — Ian looked at individual slaves and Meaghan focused on their day-to-day lives, while Eve focused on the timeline of slavery in Connecticut, Kyle researched the abolitionist movement, and Nina focused on preservation.
Slaves and owners
The interns found that more than 50 people were enslaved in Wilton over the course of a century. Some of those mentioned in the interns’ document include Haggar Tonquin, Cato Green, Black Betty and Onesmus Brown.
“Though certainly treated better than their counterparts in the South,” Ian said, Wilton slaves were “unpaid and unappreciated” and faced “difficult lives and a profound lack of recognition.”
In the North, according to Meaghan, daily work of a female slave commonly consisted of domestic chores, while male slaves did more manual labor.
Slaves in Wilton were “often left in charge of running a household or a farm, while the white slave masters went about their own personal duties,” said Meaghan. This was known as “family slavery,” she said, and was “less brutal” than the plantation slavery practiced in the southern states.
The interns found records indicating that Wilton slaves were baptized as members of the Wilton Congregational Church — “the center of government and socialization at the time.”
Eve, who researched the timeline of slavery in Connecticut between the 1600s and 1800s, said Connecticut’s early settlers first tried to enslave Native Americans in the 1600s, but found them too difficult to control. Until the 18th Century, Eve said, there were “very few” black slaves in Connecticut.
Slavery picked up around the Revolutionary War era, said Eve, and “on the eve of the Revolution, there were 6,464 slaves in Connecticut" — “more than the other New England colonies.”
“For a farming town,” Eve said, “Wilton had a fair amount of slaves.”
There were around 10 slave-owning Wilton families at the time, said Eve, which was not a lot compared to the town of Fairfield, where one-seventh of households owned slaves.
Most slave-owning Wilton families were wealthy and some of the town’s most famous and prominent families — the Comstocks, Lamberts, Keelers and Middlebrooks — owned slaves.
The practice of keeping slaves became more popular after the Revolution, according to the interns.
“Even as the rest of the North became the center of the abolitionist movement, Fairfield County and Wilton remained surprisingly reluctant to provide acceptance to the African-Americans within the town,” the interns wrote.
The abolitionist movement came to the area in 1838, said Kyle, with the arrival of Baptist clergyman and Anti-Slavery Society organizer the Rev. Nathaniel Colver. That November, Colver came to give a speech at the Baptist Society Church of Georgetown and aimed to establish an anti-slavery group in Fairfield County.
His sermons were well-received by some people, said Kyle, and he was invited to stay several days longer to deliver more speeches. In the early morning hours of the day he was to give his fourth speech, Kyle said, “pro-slavery radicals snuck into the church and blew it up with gunpowder.”
Colver left and later referred to Fairfield County as the “Georgia of Connecticut,” but the first abolitionist society in Wilton continued to hold meetings. In December 1838, however, the windows of the society’s meeting house were blown out with gunpowder, said Kyle, which “halted abolitionist efforts for a while.” Because they were “never actively searched for,” Kyle said, the people who blew up the meeting houses were never caught.
The interns also looked into Wilton’s connection to the Underground Railroad and found two families that hosted stops for slaves escaping the South — the Chichesters and Wakemans.
The house at 36 Seeley Road, known as The Ovals, was owned by abolitionist William Wakeman in the years before the Civil War. He acted as both a conductor and station master — helping transport escaped slaves between destinations and also sheltering them in his home.
Ian said The Ovals had an underground tunnel entrance that is believed to have since collapsed and is no longer passable. Today, the privately owned home is the only place in Fairfield County recognized as an Underground Railroad site by the state of Connecticut.
Before the state outlawed slavery in 1848, Connecticut passed the Gradual Abolition Act of 1784, which granted freedom to the children of slaves born after March 1, 1784, once they reached the age of 25.
The act was modified in 1797 so that children of slaves born after Aug. 1, 1797, would be freed after their 21st birthdays. However, the interns said, there were stipulations — “they [had to] be in good physical health and under the age of 46, so that the state would not have to provide for many disabled or elderly former slaves.”
In 1810, there were 16 slaves in Wilton, according to the interns’ findings, and only seven slaves by 1820.
Connecticut’s slave population peaked around the turn of the 19th Century and began to “decrease significantly” after that, according to the interns. The interns found that by 1820, there were only seven slaves remaining in the town of Wilton — many of whom were “either under 21 or very old,” said Kyle.
Nina said although Wilton’s “brief period of slavery” is preserved in “a number of different ways,” it’s “not preserved enough to present a complete and adequate picture.”
One remnant of slavery left in Wilton, she said, is a deed from the sale of a slave hanging in the front foyer of the Wilton Historical Society. The unnamed slave was sold by Joseph Monrow, of Norwalk, to David Lambert for 42 pounds and 10 shillings.
Ambler Farm also provides ways for people to learn about Wilton’s history of slavery, said Nina. Each year, Cider Mill fifth graders get a glimpse of what it was like to be a slave through the farm’s Underground Railroad program. Ambler has also hosted Underground Railroad programs for adults.
“Interesting” was one word all five interns used to describe their experience researching Wilton’s history of slavery.
Eve and Nina said they were surprised by how much they didn’t know, and Meaghan said she didn’t expect to find as much information as she and her peers did. Kyle said he was surprised by two things — “how much slavery there was in Wilton that he didn’t know about” and “the violent reaction to abolitionism.” Ian said one thing he took away from the experience was a realization of how important it is to preserve this part of Wilton’s history.
“Everyone in town should know that Wilton did participate in this dark time in history,” he said, and “remember the black men and women who helped make Wilton the town that it is.”