New Haven: Peter (1793)

On June 11, 1793, a man named Peter apparently did not pay a cent to the slaveholder who filed this manumission – at any rate, the document does not mention any compensation. Its wording is likewise a bit different from the others I’ve looked at:

Know all Men by these Presents, that I … do hereby emancipate & make free Peter my Negro Servant, whom I lately bought of …, & I do hereby declare the said Peter to be a free Person, & I do hereby from henceforward forever give up & quit to him the S[ai]d Peter all the right I have or may have to his Services, & wish that he may henceforth be considered in the Same Situation, as those, who are born free.


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 46, Pg. 19.

We see here the slaveholder’s specific renunciation of any future claims on Peter’s labor, with the interesting twist that he gave those rights to Peter’s labor to Peter himself. It is a strange kind of thinking to regard a person’s labor as a thing separate from the person, which can be returned to him. I can only think that it reflects the formal legal view of enslaved people as laboring things – which makes the document’s use of the term “free Person” all the more interesting.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s fairly common (especially in these later documents) for manumissions to state that the freed person won’t have any claim to support from the former slaveholder. We haven’t actually seen any of those yet, I think, but I’ll go into the legal details when we do. The part about Peter being “considered” the same as those “born free” may be an oddly-worded attempt at excluding the possibility of future claims for support. It is, I think, the fact that these documents were usually written up by people without expertise in the law that leads to so much revealing variation in the terms.

This document does not contain many clues to the direction of future research. I found three African-American men named Peter in the 1800 census: Peter (family of 4 – surnamed Johnson in the index, but that’s a mistake); Peter Porta (family of 2); and Peter Wilson (family of 7). I have no way of knowing which of these is the right man. He might even be none of them, if he chose to live in a white household as a free servant. The 1810 census is useless for this research, of course, since the New Haven marshal only put in first initials for everyone.

This is actually the outcome I expected for most of these manumitted people; the amount of information I’ve been able to dig up on the others I’ve looked at so far has surprised me. In this case there is quite a bit of information about the slaveholder, but that’s not who I’m writing about. Peter’s life as a free man (like his life as an enslaved man) will, it seems, have to remain a mystery to curious historians.

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New Haven: Phyllis and Sharper (1785/1793)

What should we think of slaveholders who freed enslaved people in their wills? On the one hand, I suppose it’s great that they did that. On the other hand, what kept them from doing the right thing while they were alive? Sometimes I think they had Judgment Day in mind, and hoped this gesture would help their case in the afterlife. But I also think that they’d lost track of the fact that all of their deeds would be measured, and that holding a person in slavery was a choice they made every day for years. I doubt that a last-minute change of heart had as much effect as they hoped.

And then there’s this guy. Apparently, Phyllis had made herself so useful and congenial that the slaveholder not only allowed her to marry a man named Sharper, but planned to free her in his will. But not only that, he went to the trouble of writing up a separate document confirming the intentions of his will:

Whereas I have, in my last Will, given to my Servant Gal Phyllis, her freedom at my death, all her wearing Clothes & bed Clothes, & all that she calls & owns for and as her own, & ten hard dollars, & also liberty to build a small house at the east end of my rope walk lot, with land round it for a garden spot, described in sd Will, to enjoy during her life & the life of her Husband Sharper, the longest liver, & have ordered my ex[ecutors] not to interrupt or hinder the Same, all which I hereby Confirm & establish …


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 45, Pg. 547.

Notice that like in many of these documents, he squeamishly substituted “servant” for “slave.” But he did write it up. And he not only gave Phyllis her freedom, but her belongings, cash money, and the right to live on a plot of his land for her life and/or that of her husband. This was far more generous than what most slaveholders did.

But he didn’t actually do it all while he was still alive.

This document was dated December 21, 1785. According to the land records, there were no witnesses to it, and – interestingly – it was not filed on the record until May 11, 1793. Without looking at the slaveholder’s probate record, it’s not clear why there was this delay; perhaps Phyllis produced it during the probate process and the judge ordered it recorded, perhaps Phyllis decided to record it herself, perhaps the executors – whom either Phyllis or the slaveholder obviously feared might not carry out his wishes – chose to record it.

I was astonished when a quick Google search turned up a 2012 paper on marriages at Trinity Episcopal between 1768 and 1800, based on Early Connecticut Marriages as Found on Ancient Church Records Prior to 1800, Vol. 7 (available on the Internet Archive), which specifically mentioned Sharper and Phillis … and also someone else. The entry from the book is as follows:



Frederic W. Bailey, Early Connecticut Marriages as Found on Ancient Church Records Prior to 1800, Vol. 7 (New Haven, CT: Bureau of American Ancestry, 1906), p. 23.

So, this says that Sharper, an enslaved man, married a white woman in June 1782. Now, that’s not impossible (Connecticut law did not make it illegal), but honestly I’d want to have a second look at the record to see if the transcriber got it right. It certainly would have been a huge scandal.

Then, as you see, it says that Sharper Rogers, a free man, married Phillis, an enslaved woman, in January 1784. Were they the same Sharper? It’s an unusual name, so perhaps they were, but perhaps not. But at least from this, we know that Phyllis and Sharper had been married for almost two years when the slaveholder wrote up the document about the eventual freedom of Phyllis.

A single Sharper appears in the 1790 census:


Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Connecticut (1908), p.103.

So presumably this is Sharper and Phyllis. I haven’t failed to notice that so far, it’s only the marriage record that gives him a surname, so it’s an open question whether it really was his surname. The 1800 census returned a Sharper Mix (in a family of 4) in Wallingford, which is in the same county as New Haven:


U.S. Census, 1800, via Heritage Quest Online.

I know there were Mixes in New Haven as well, but I’m not at all convinced he’s the right guy. He appears in Wallingford again in 1810, in a family of 3, and after that there’s nothing in the county.

So that’s the end of the line on this quick research. I believe, based on the filing of the one document on the land records, that somewhere near the waterfront in New Haven, there was once a small house near the rope walk in which Phyllis and Sharper were able to make a life for themselves, together, as free people – despite the earlier, day-by-day moral failings of the former slaveholder.

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New Haven: Ceaser, Rose, and Cato (1777)

On May 31, 1777, the administrators of the estate of a New Haven slaveholder received, in consideration for two enslaved people, sixty pounds (the British pound was still the currency of the rebellious colonies). As in the manumission discussed just prior to this one, however, the “buyer” was problematic:

for the Consideration of Sixty pounds Lawfull money rec[eive]d of Ceaser a Negro man we have Sold and by these presents do hereby convey to Sd Ceaser Rose a Negro woman and Cato her Son


New Haven Land Records, Vol.39, Pg. 502.

To be clear, this says that the estate’s executors were convinced by the payment of a large sum of money to “transfer” the “ownership” of an African-American woman and her child to an African-American man – presumably the child’s father. Why does the document make no mention of this? Probably because the child’s enslaved status was a result of his mother’s enslaved status, which was the important thing as far the slaveholders were concerned.

Again, this is a bit early for reliable additional data on this family, especially since they are denied a surname. But we do, astonishingly, have two vital records entries for them:


Connecticut Society of the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, Vital Records of New Haven, 1649-1850 (1917), p. 398.

Although this seems to indicate that Prise and Cato were born free before their mother’s manumission in 1777, I think the record was actually made in the 1780s, in an effort to ensure that the children were identified as being free people. This was a wise strategy, because it was not impossible for some white person to claim that a free African-American was really an enslaved person. Yes: African-Americans’ freedom was frequently contingent upon never coming to the attention of a white liar.

Why Prise was not included in the manumission is not known to me as of yet. Moving forward in time, the 1790 census did contain an entry for a three-person nonwhite family headed by a Ceaser (see below), when Prise would have been 20 and Cato 15. Of course, the couple could have had more children by then, and the older ones had moved out; the simple family size of 3 is not very informative. This could even be another family entirely.


Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Connecticut (1908), p. 105.

White people, by the way, were grouped into females, males 16 and over, and males under 16 (and slaves, like “all other free persons,” were all lumped together). Collecting data about non-white people, aside from their total numbers, was not a priority.

In the 1800 census there were three non-white men named Cato: Cato Edwards (family of 4 in total), Cato Saunciy (family of 3), and Cato Thomas (family of 4). If the families had been white, they would have been divided into male and female, each with five age groupings, but they were still just “all other free persons” (and also the last category, “slaves”). So although we know that the Cato we are interested in would have been about 25, we have no way to identify which of these men was him.

So here we stop; the 1810 census marshal for New Haven recorded, very unhelpfully, only the first initial of the people there; in the 1820 and 1830 censuses there was nobody named Cato in New Haven, even if they had age groupings for non-white people (which they didn’t); and the 1840 census, which did include age groups, still had no one named Cato.

And that’s enough with the lost ends. I found out a lot more about this family than I ever expected to – thanks for sticking with me this far!

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New Haven: Pompey Panchard and Leah (1778)

On March 23, 1778, a slaveholder of New Haven declared on record that:

I … for the consideration of Twenty six shillings lawfull money rec[eive]d to my full satisfaction of Pompey of sd Newhaven a free Negro man late Slave of … the sd Pompey sometimes called Pompey Panchard, have sold, and do by these presents do sell make over & deliver, unto him the sd Pompey, a Negro Woman Slave, called Leah aged about Fifty years at and until the Ensealing hereof to me belonging and being sound and well so far as I know – To have and hold the sd Negro Woman Leah, unto him the sd Pompey, his heirs Ex[ecutors] and assigns for and during her natural life –


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 37, Pg. 496 (03/23/1778)

The way the document assumes Leah will remain enslaved is disturbing, isn’t it? Pompey Panchard and Leah were not historically prominent enough for me to have found anything else about them, but there are other mentions in various sources of people purchasing spouses or other relatives and it’s always put as buying them “out of slavery.” But in 1778 Connecticut, at least, the standard forms apparently just didn’t encompass that idea – though they did encompass the idea that a free African-American could enslave another African-American.

As I said, disturbing.

I looked for Pompey Panchard, and also just Pompey, in Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Connecticut and found nothing. Nor was there a Leah. If Leah was his spouse and they were about the same age, either of them would have been around seventy years old by 1790. It’s quite likely that they had passed away by then, or were living in another household, or had moved away. Records of this period are not as detailed or accessible as those of later periods.

At any rate, I definitely prefer to think of Pompey diligently saving up money until he could pay off the man holding his wife, Leah, and get her out of slavery. How many years did it take, if they were fifty years old? I shudder to think.

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New Haven: Gad (1777)

On May 28, 1777, a man named Gad agreed to serve in the Revolutionary War in exchange for his freedom. The entry in the land record book simply says,

This may Certify that Gad my Negro Servant just purchased … I do discharge from my Service and shall have no demands on him myself, nor his heirs Exr nor assigns but shall be free to all intents and purposes in case I can be free from him on condition he shall serve in the Continental Army during the War


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 36, Pg. 419

One of the witnesses noted that he understood that Gad had enlisted that same day with Captain Prentice’s company.

What we learn from this document is that the slaveholder almost certainly purchased Gad in order to have him serve as a substitute in the army, though this document doesn’t actually say that. Presumably, he consulted Gad in advance about the idea – it would hardly do him any good to spend the money and then find that the enslaved man refused to join the army, even in exchange for freedom.

After diligent searching through Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783, I determined that Captain Prentice was probably part of Connecticut’s Sixth Regiment. And there, on page 214, was this entry:


Connecticut. Adjutant-General’s Office, and Henry Phelps Johnson. Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783. Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1889.

So he did join, and he served almost two years. According to my cursory research (thank you, Wikipedia), the Sixth Regiment traveled to Peekskill, New York in May, and stayed at West Point over the winter of 1777-1778. They worked on fortifications, including one called the “Meigs Redoubt,” probably named after their colonel.

The next summer, the Sixth joined Washington’s main army in White Plains, New York. Then their brigade spent the winter of 1778-1779 at Redding, Connecticut, where Major General Israel Putnam (of Connecticut) took command of the troops there. In early 1779, they camped across the Hudson from West Point.

And there, on March 16, Gad Stone deserted. He missed, I can’t help but note, the Connecticut troops’ attempt to respond to Tryon’s raid (they missed him) and their successful storming of the British fort at New York’s Stony Point in July.

But why did Gad desert? I don’t know. As can be seen from the book snippet, he was far from the only Revolutionary War soldier to desert. Reasons for desertion were surely as many as the men involved – dislike of military life, conflict with officers, the need to help family back home, or whatever.

I would have to dig a lot deeper to find any more details about his service. It seems unlikely that I could learn anything about his life after the military – if he had any sense, he would have carefully avoided the slaveholder he was substituting for and changed his name.

But even so, he was a free man, living under whatever name he chose, wherever he chose.

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New Haven: Amasa and Silva (1772)

Amasa, “a negro” about nineteen years old, was freed on September 21, 1772, as was Silva, a “negro girl” about seventeen years old. These manumissions, by the same slaveholder (a widowed woman), took place under a different legal situation than the later ones that I’ve looked at. Because of this, the language in each emphasizes that the slaveholder is renouncing any claim to the freed person’s labor, as in the one for Amasa:

I do make him a free man to all intents & purposes, so yt from the day of the Date hereof what ever he ye sd Amasa Shall by honest Labour & industry or in any Lawfull way gain or acquire Shall be his own property and at his Sole dispose and free from any Demand or Claim either in his person or Estate by me or my heirs …

New Haven Land Records, Vol. 33, Pg. 387, 09/21/1772

New Haven Land Records, Vol. 33, Pg. 387, 09/21/1772

The absence here of a stipulation that the freed person will have no claim on the former slaveholder for future support is interesting – I’m not sure yet whether that is an exception or a reflection of the legal environment. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t read too much into the emphasis on “honest Labour” and “Lawfull way.” I think that reflects a concern to not inadvertently claim other people’s property, or ill-gotten gains that would properly belong to the state. Legal documents can be very oddly precise in some ways.

But there’s more – at least about Amasa (I haven’t had time to try to figure out what became of Silva). On September 23, 1772, the ex-slaveholder gave him, free and clear, ten acres of land (which she noted used to belong to her late husband). I mean literally “gave.” The consideration noted in the deed was

the respect and Regard that I have toward Amasa my Late negro Servant whom I have Lately Set free as by a writing under my hand appears


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 33, Pg. 397, 09/23/1772

I’m rarely surprised when looking at land deeds these days, but that floored me. Consideration of this intangible sort usually appears in transactions between close relatives – parents and children, most often, or siblings, will cite “love and affection” or similar formulation as fictive compensation. “Respect and regard” hits the same notes in a different key, I think, specifically the key of “not setting off the panic alarms of my racist culture.” It makes me think that Amasa lived in this slaveholder’s household from childhood, and she came to have strong parental feelings towards him. But it’s also a very interesting choice of words, suggesting that she also had a high opinion of his character and competence.

And ten acres! I’ve seen occasional gifts of land to former enslaved people, but they’re usually an acre or two at most. I desperately want to find out what Amasa made of this gift and his freedom, but haven’t had time to look. It’s especially difficult since I suspect he took a surname; I found this deed only because it was indexed under “negro” with several of the manumissions. Connecticut deeds rarely mention the race of the parties, so unless you’re looking for a specific name or (in earlier years) under terms like “negro” or “slave,” it’s hard to find these transactions.

If and when I do find out more, I’ll update, of course.

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New Haven: Socoro (1815)

Socoro was about 44 years old in 1815, when she was brought to Connecticut from Trinidad. The woman who held her in slavery had inherited her from her (the slaveholder’s) mother, and had traveled to New Haven (it appears) to marry a local businessman. Socoro arrived in August and by October had successfully made arrangements to leave again – or at least to be liberated.

Specifically, she had “manifested a wish to be made free and emancipated from her master and mistress and their service and to return to said Island of Trinidad.” And on October 5 they signed the manumission document just quoted (and excerpted below).


New Haven Land Records, Vol. 64, Pg. 97, 10/05/1815.

Why did the slaveholders agree to this? Given that the woman was a newlywed, it seems possible that Socoro had been a major part of her upbringing, perhaps even her nursemaid; there may have been some affection in the relationship, despite the inherent inequality of the two. The husband was part of a New Haven family that had been prominent during the Revolutionary War, and may have been just as happy to not be involved in slaveholding. There’s no direct evidence for either possibility, of course, but we can still speculate.

Why did Socoro want to leave? Well, it would take an effort to find a place more different from Trinidad than Connecticut. No doubt all her friends and family were in Trinidad. She may have been entirely miserable in this foreign place. Still, I’ve wondered whether it was her actual birthplace or not, and tried to think it through. If she was 44 in 1815, then she was born in about 1771, well before the island was taken from the Spanish by the British in 1797. Her name actually means “help” or “relief” in Spanish, suggesting that she was one of the more than 10,000 enslaved people on the island in 1797. But was she born there? For about a decade before 1797, a lot of migration of slaveholders brought people from French islands in the Caribbean; and it is always possible that she was actually born in Africa. Even more enslaved people were brought in after the British takeover. On the other hand, there’s her apparently-Spanish name suggesting origins during the Spanish period there – and the Spanish surname of the slaveholders she formerly lived with. It actually seems possible that she didn’t even speak English very well.

But regardless of what her birthplace actually was, she wanted to go back to Trinidad, and she wanted to go back free, it must be noted. The slaveholding woman’s family still lived in Trinidad, and Socoro could have been sent back to them as a slave; but no, she wanted freedom, and was indeed emancipated.

How she planned to find the money to take ship back home, I don’t know. Nor do I know whether she actually did go – it is possible that the “going home” part was more wish than solid intent, and mentioned largely to convince the New Haven authorities that she was not going to wind up on the town’s pauper rolls. But I prefer to imagine her sailing back, freedom papers and perhaps a bit of money in hand, and joining the community of thousands of free people of color that already existed on the island.

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