Book Review: Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich
by Jeffrey B. Mead
Gateway/Mad. $16. 58 Pages.
Greenwich Time: January 18, 1995, Page A 11.
Reviewer: John Linsenmeyer.
Jeffrey B. Mead, a 12th generation member of one of this town's founding families, has documented one of histories curious by-ways. It is not generally known that the "peculiar institution" of human slavery was also practiced right here in Connecticut. Largely from records in Greenwich Town Hall, Mead has documented how this peculiar institution, which never really "took" in the egalitarian soil of Connecticut, was finally up rooted.
The first census of the independent United States was taken in 1790. The population of Greenwich at that time was a fairly substantial 3,175. Of this number, 80 were slaves held by 49 of our townspeople including (disgracefully enough) two clergyman, the Rev. Isaac Lewis and the Rev. William Seward, who owned one slave each. The roster of slave-owners is like a 1790 "who's who" of Greenwich, including members of the Bush, Husted, Knapp, Lyon, Mead (10 Meads owned slaves -Jared and Amos had four each!), Merritt and Peck families.
The leading slave-owner was David Bush, who was also Greenwich's richest businessman. He lived in what is now called the Bush-Holley House (now open to the public and headquarters of the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich). It is assumed that "these slaves worked as household servants, farm hands and on the docks at the Cos Cob Landing located just across the street. In those days this was the commercial center of the town where boats docked and businessmen, farmers and others gathered. The Bush farm in Cos Cob covered an area of 35 acres."
David Bush died on May 8, 1797, and the probate record of his estate list 10 slaves and their appraised cash values, $624 in all, ranging from $150 and $125 for the men Jubeter (sic) and Cull down to the shockingly modest $7 and $2 for the girls Patience and Lucy.
Connecticut was hardly hospitable to slavery. A 1774 statute banned the importation of any slave into Connecticut. Three years later, the Assembly passed a specific statute to encourage emancipation but at the same time prevent sharp practice. By law, the owner of a slave was responsible for the upkeep and care of an elderly or sick slave. Accordingly, the statute required that the town selectmen give their opinion that emancipation "is likely to be consistent with the real advantage of such servant or slaves and that it is probable that the servant or slave will be able to support his or her own person," in which the case the former owner "shall be forever discharged from any charge or cost which may be occasioned by maintaining or supporting the servant or slave made free."
In 1784 the legislature provided that all children of slaves born after March 1 "would not be held in servitude after attaining the age of 25 years." By the time of the 1840 federal census there were only 17 slaves left in Connecticut and in 1848 Connecticut simply abolished slavery.
The greater part of Mead's book consists of the actual emancipation records from 1776 to 1838. Greenwich was certainly not flighty in local politics in those days; Town Clerk Jabez Fitch recorded the emancipation of Catherine on April 2, 1779 and many certificates later recorded the emancipation of Joe by Jared Mead on August 22, 1808. Jabez also served as Justice of the Peace and issued a number of certificates that the slave "is a proper person to be emancipated" in that capacity. Jabez was evidently succeeded by Hezekiah Tracy as town clerk through at least 1816, by John Jay Tracy in 1825 and by Samuel Close for the very last certificate in 1838.
So ended a disgraceful episode in our social evolution. I think that anyone who cares about the history of Greenwich would enjoy Mead's book. There were people who lived, worked, farmed, wheeled and sealed right in this town. Their names survive not only in streets and place names but in their descendants who still live and work on this.
John Linsenmeyer is a senior litigation partner in the international law firm of Morgan Lewis and Beaukiss he lives in Riverside.