Article 3: English Settlement and the Slave Trade
The horror of the transatlantic slave trade is unfathomable in its depravity, impact and magnitude. An estimated 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forcibly removed from the shores of western Africa, with an estimated 10.7 million reaching the Americas to face the brutality of enslavement there.
The waters off the coast of Fairfield County share tidal currents with the Middle Passage that bore the deaths of nearly 2 million people at sea from disease, the abuse of the enslavers, and, for some, rebellion and suicide to resist the fate of enslavement. And the lands of Fairfield County (and Christ Church Easton) bear witness to the English settlers and the enslaved alike who worked them, in part, to fuel the slave trade.
Slavery had begun in the lands of Connecticut in the 17th century with the exportation of Native Americans captured and enslaved by the English and the importation of enslaved Africans to and from the West Indies, yet in the 18th century, related industries of the slave trade emerged as the central driver of colonial economies.
The rural, yet growing community of North Fairfield (Weston/Easton) was no exception. As colonial settlers moved inland at increasing rates to occupy the lands between the Aspetuck and Sasqua (Mill) rivers, English trading, industry, farming, and worship expanded, and, with all of these, enslavement. Christ Church’s story, therefore, continues among the peoples of Africa, enslaved and imported to the West Indies and Fairfield County, and their enslavers and profiteers who constituted our earliest churchgoers, clergy, and founders. (Reeve et al. 2009; Eltis and Richardson 2010).
Those nearly 3.5 million enslaved African peoples brought to the West Indies in the 18th century worked sugar plantations under hellish conditions, driven by their enslavers to meet the rising global demand for sugar. The increasingly singular use of the land in the West Indies as sugar plantations increased demand for crops and livestock from abroad.
Onions and slaughtered meats were desired to feed the enslaved, livestock to aid in the endeavors, and timber to house the enslavers and the enslaved alike. Connecticut rose to the occasion. An extensive examination of customs house records in Connecticut confirms what the Governor of Connecticut Jonathan Trumbull assessed in 1774, “The Principal Trade of this colony is to the West India Islands.” In just the five years between 1768 and 1772, Connecticut shipped,
- 482, 922 bunches of onions
- 44, 546 pounds of butter
- 122, 596 pounds of cheese
- 21, 709 horses, 27, 003 sheep
- 20,513 barrels of slaughtered beef and pork
- 5,821,199 wooden shingles, s
- some assortment of potatoes, oats, corn, pine timber, oak timber and hoops and other wood products,
- and 1,194, 950 bricks
to the West Indies (Kimball 2009, 71, 96-108;Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Estimates).
Initially in the Long Lot lands of North Fairfield, colonial farmers and the enslaved who supported them raised sheep and grew grains and other crops for subsistence farming. However, following the construction of the Burr Upright Highway in 1765, farmers, animal husbands, and merchants could more easily reach the coastal ports of Fairfield, Southport, and Black Rock, which meant that they were able to take larger part in the West Indies trade through their cash crops.
Sawmills and grist mills to process lumber and grains were built, lands cleared, stone walls built (in large part through the labor of enslaved persons), crops harvested, and animals raised in increasing numbers in the second half of the 18th century to fuel the sugar plantations of the West Indies (Prince 2011; Nelson 2020; Reeve et al. 2009).
The Coley family members, prominent in our parish and town histories alike, were among those in the 18th century who, in developing the local economy, fueled the global slave economy. Jonathan and Samuel Coley had both worshipped at and helped reestablish the Episcopal Church in North Fairfield, our predecessor, after the Revolutionary War. Their nephew, David Coley, and his son Ebenezer built and operated gristmills, fulling mills and carding machines.
Central to the operation of these industries were enslaved people themselves. Ebenezer enslaved at least six people, including Caty, Ismael, Jack, Nancy, Pomp, and Simon. A distant nephew of the pair, Eliphalet Coley would, in the 19th century raise what is known still today in Weston as the “Onion Barn.”
It would center prominently as a town bulletin board of sorts and as the locale that stored the thousands of onions that would be shipped from the coastal ports via New York City to the West Indies to feed the enslaved there. By the middle of the 19th century, Fairfield County farmers were producing over 40,000 bushels of onions a year to be brought through Black Rock and Mill River ports to the West Indies. (Kimball 2009, 110-111; Prince 2011; Jacobus 1930; Cruson 2007; Farnham 1979).
In Fairfield county, like New England writ large, the slave trade played a role in all aspects of colonial economic life. At Black Rock, traders brought the aforementioned livestock, onions, wood, cured meat, and flour to be traded in Barbados, St. Kitt’s and St. Thomas’ for West Indian sugar, molasses and salt.
From Southport, wood shingles and onions were delivered en masse. In return for the onions, cured meat, and timber milled and farmed in Fairfield county, some 1,488,032 pounds of brown sugar, 450, 936 bushels of salt, and 612,609 gallons of molasses were unloaded in the docks of New Haven and transported throughout the colony including to Fairfield County. The sugar, molasses, and cotton imported from the West Indies promoted the development of still further industries in Connecticut like rum distillation, shipbuilding, and textile mills (and eventually the innovation of the cotton gin that would, in turn, underpin chattel slavery in the South).
Connecticut emerged as the largest distiller in the Americas. By 1810, Connecticut had numerous carding mills and between 13 and 18 yards of cloth per person were being produced in Fairfield County alone. In the South, the large-scale farming of rice and tobacco (and later cotton) grew markets in Europe and in New England, while also increasing domestic slave trading. All of the above created a rapacious demand for enslaved labor and trading of persons from Africa and with African descent.(Farrow 2014; Reeve et al. 2009; Ulrich 1998; Yale Gilder Lehrman Center 2021; Kimball 2009; Fairfield Historical Society 2008).
Shipping for the slave trade was not the work of a few but thousands. From 1768-1772, 444 ships were cleared from New Haven for the West Indies. Of the 1,870 vessels that left New London, 792 sailed to the West Indies with the next largest number 405 sailing to New York (one of the largest ports involved in trading of enslaved persons). Ships involved in the slave trade were built in Bridgeport and operated through the Fairfield customs house (like the 56 foot sloop, “George” and the 21 foot sloop “Fox”). Between 1715 and 1765, nearly 40 ships were built in Connecticut alone for the trade (Connecticut Ship Database, Kimball 2009, 85, 110-111).
Many Fairfield county families, the families of our church’s founders and leaders among them, made their wealth from funding, captaining, and manning the ships of the slave trade. The Hubbles, for example, took part. Ebenezer Hubble, and his children Sarah and Abijah, were among those who petitioned for the initial founding of our church, the Protestant Episcopal Parish at North Fairfield in 1762. Their nephew and cousin, Amos Hubble Sr., transported flax on the Sally in 1780 in exchange for merchandise needed by the local inhabitants. His son, Captain Amos Hubble Jr. carried on the tradition, and as a sailor in the West Indies died a premature death in Cuba.
“Ned,” enslaved by Amos Jr., was likely ‘rented’ to the captain Abel Wakelee of the ship Julius Caesar because Ned tragically died on board, when in 1799 the ship sank in its return trip from the West Indies to Stratford /Bridgeport. The Dimons, too, participated. Captain Moses Dimon, for example, was one of the wealthiest members of the county by the 1700s and an enslaver who made much of his wealth in the trade. His brother, William Dimon, owned the ship “Providence.” To be discussed in more depth in Article 5, Moses’ grandson Benoni would help to re-found the Episcopal church in North Fairfield after the revolution and would serve as a Vestry (board) member (Reeve et al. 2009; Connecticut Ship Database; Dimond 1891; Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves; Jacobus 1930).
Connecticut residents also profiteered directly. Though Rhode Island and the ports of Boston and New York are better known for their role in the direct import and subsequent inland trading of enslaved people from the West Indies and Africa, the importation of enslaved people to and from New London and Sierra Leone and subsequent trading along the Connecticut River by Connecticut captains and enslavers has also been documented.
The record from Fairfield County is scantier, but its web of tangled economic and personal relationships is suggestive. John Read, aforementioned in Article 2 as the would-be Congregationalist minister who turned lawyer and acquired much of the lands of the Aspetuck Valley and northward, for example, would raise a son who married into a wealthy family involved in slave breeding, the horrific and rape-based practice of enslaving women to produce children in order to sell them as slaves.
More typical was small-scale trading of enslaved persons. Article 4 will reveal the extent to which our early church and its members took part. As one enslaver would testify at the eve of the American revolution, “To the sugar cane everything is sacrificed.” (1775 as quoted in Kimball 2009; Kimball 2009; Reeve et al. 2009; Farrow 2014).
“To the sugar cane everything is sacrificed.”1775
A word on citations: Our historical investigation draws widely from over 50 secondary and primary sources (see here for a full bibliography). We are especially indebted to Stuart Reeve, David Silverglade, and Kathleen von Jena’s 2009 Historical Archeological Assessment and the Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves in Fairfield, Connecticut.