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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Slavery in New England

by Sarah Morin on 2021-04-19T08:39:00-04:00 in African Americans, Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Native Americans | 0 Comments

Although many people are familiar with the institution of slavery in the American South, what is not as well known is that slavery existed in New England, and it was practiced in Connecticut until shortly before the American Civil War.

New England colonists acquired enslaved African peoples during trade with Africa and the West Indies and subjugated Indigenous peoples in chattel slavery early on, with reference to the institution appearing as early as the Connecticut Code of Laws of 1646. Unlike the colonies in the Chesapeake area and the West Indies, New England’s climate was not favorable for growing large-scale cash crops, so slavery in the region “was often simply household labor in a household economy” and therefore “largely invisible, because enslaved people there did not do different work than their English counterparts” (Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, pp. 35, 133, 118).

Although slavery may have been “invisible” in New England and life expectancies were higher than in the West Indies, it was in many ways just as brutal as chattel slavery practiced elsewhere. Unlike English primogeniture laws, which designated the eldest son as heir, slavery followed the status of the mother, and her children were as free or enslaved as she was, even if their father was a free person. Families could be separated at any time for any reason, and marriage was subject to the permission of one’s enslaver.

Even more cruelly, if an enslaved person was granted their freedom after their enslaver’s death, a family member could still contest the estate and become the new enslaver. Allegra Di Bonaventura writes poignantly about this unjust tribulation inflicted on the Jackson family from New London in her book, For Adam’s Sake. Several cases relating to this matter can be found in the New London Court Records (see the finding aid for the New London County Court African Americans and people of color collection). These records were processed thanks to a previous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

As various cases in the New Haven County Court records demonstrate, enslaved people were included in wills and probate records along with property and household goods, which prolonged this inhumane institution for generations—the “settling of their estates and the assessing of their property worked slavery into the legal regimes of the New England colonies more thoroughly than did any deliberative discussion of the institution” (Warren, New England Bound, p. 129).

Per David Menschel, author of Abolition Without Deliverance: The Law of Connecticut Slavery 1784-1848, slavery in New England persisted for longer than many people realize. Connecticut did not immediately emancipate the enslaved after the American Revolution. Instead, the State adopted a policy of gradual abolition in 1784, which decreed that all children of enslaved people who were born after March 1 of that year were to be freed when they reached the age of twenty-five (in 1797, this was reduced to age twenty-one). Unfortunately, enslaved individuals born prior to that date were not granted freedom. However, the last enslaved persons weren’t fully freed until 1848—only a little over a decade before the American Civil War.

For more information on Connecticut laws regarding African and Indigenous servitude and slavery, see “An Act concerning Indian, Mulatto, and Negro Servants and Slaves.” (Please be advised that this document contains archaic terminology for ancestral, racial, ethnic, and gender identity that may be offensive or harmful.)

Beginning with our next blog post, we will feature a series of New Haven County County Court cases involving enslaved Africans and African-descended individuals who were involved in court cases, either involuntarily or voluntarily. The first case we will examine is of an African-descended man named Devenshare Nero, who found himself at the center of a dispute between two enslavers in Connecticut.

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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