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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Is Nelle Free or Enslaved?

by Sarah Morin on 2021-06-22T08:56:00-04:00 in African Americans, Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Native Americans, Women's History | 0 Comments

Today we are going to examine the first case involving an individual with both Indigenous and African ancestry that we discovered in the New Haven County County Court Records. When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at

Samuel Tyler vs. Mathew McCure

As the protracted cases involving Devenshare Nero demonstrate, it was not uncommon for Connecticut colonists to take disputes regarding matters of enslavement to the courts. In 1745, Samuel Tyler of Wallingford sued Mathew McCure of Killingworth for fraud concerning the sale of an eight or nine year old girl called Nelle. When Tyler purchased Nelle, McCure claimed that she was “A Negro, and Slave for life and that he had good right to sell her for life.”

single page of paper with handwriting

Writ for Samuel Tyler vs. Mathew McCure

However, Tyler claimed he discovered that Nelle “was born of An Indian Squaw A Native of Long island” and that her mother was an “Indian Free Woman.” Therefore, Nelle could only be bound to servitude until age eighteen. (As mentioned in a recent post, slavery in New England followed the status of the mother.) In recompense, Tyler demanded damages of “the sum of One hundred + Sixty pounds money and to recover the same and [Court] Costs.”

As discussed in the previous post, Nelle was not the only multi-heritage individual to face this kind of ambiguity when it came to determining her status as slave, servant, or freewoman in colonial society. However, given that her mother was identified as an Indigenous freewoman, it seems likely that the Court would uphold Nelle’s liberty upon reaching the age of eighteen.

Indeed, the Court found the plaintiff’s declaration sufficient after consideration, and awarded Tyler the full amount of damages requested plus court costs at 7 pounds, 11 shillings, and 2 pence (County Court Records, New Haven County, 1739 to 1755, p. 275). So presumably, Nelle would be granted her freedom when she turned eighteen.

However, McCure was allowed an appeal to the New Haven County Superior Court, so Nelle’s legal status may have remained in limbo for awhile longer. When we reach the Superior Court records later in the project, we hope to uncover more information about Nelle and whether the New Haven Courts ultimately upheld her grant of freedom.

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

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