Article 4: Enslavement in the Lands and Church
Enslavement in Connecticut ran wide and deep. In fact, by the time of the Revolution, an estimated 5,000* mostly African and African American and Indigenous peoples were enslaved in Connecticut (Hinks n.d.). Enslaved laborers built walls, farmed the fields, worked the mills, tended the animals, transported the goods, and manned the ships that fueled the colonial spirit and enterprise that, as outlined in Article 3, both drove and benefited from the larger slave trade.
In Connecticut, enslavement wasn’t merely a practice of the elite but rather operated widely. A survey of Connecticut estates found that in 1700, one in 10 “inventories” included enslaved person(s), but by the Revolution one in four did, with one half of all the ministers, lawyers and public officials enslaving other people. The priests and leaders of Christ Church’s founding body were no exception. (Harper 2003; Main 1983)
The Protestant Episcopal Parish was successfully formed in North Fairfield in 1762 following a gradual loosening of the Congregational hold and the colonial petitioning, though as a country parish in a Puritan dominant society, its survival was not assured. The land for the Episcopal church, located between what is now Old Redding and S. Wells Hill roads, was granted by Joseph Bradley, seemingly peeved that the Congregational Church had chosen another parcel for their new location, to the organizing Anglican bunch.
Joseph Bradley’s wealth and generosity was at least in part enabled by his enslaving. He enslaved Peg, Simon, Dinah, and Dinah’s son Nimrod, all of whom possibly helped clear the land for the original Episcopal Church (The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves in Fairfield, Connecticut; Reeve et al. 2009).
All of the land used by Christ Church and its predecessors was owned by enslavers initially. After its founding in 1762, our church reconstituted twice, first as the Episcopal Society of North Fairfield (1784)/Weston (1787) and then as Christ Church (1845ff). Four separate church buildings were utilized on three different parcels of land.
The Episcopal Church at North Fairfield and then Episcopal Society of Weston would maintain its home on the aforementioned Bradley lands until the middle of the 19th century when the building collapsed and the church split alongside the town into Weston’s Immanuel Episcopal Church and Easton’s Christ’s Church. The second church in Easton was erected in 1873 at 348 Westport Road. (used today as a home) on part of the former Samuel Staples’ lands.
Samuel Staples was known for feeding the enslaved the worst of his crops and to deal directly in the trading of individuals. After the congregation outgrew the location, in the middle of the 20th century, Christ Church occupied the Baptist Church at 29 Church Road, still extant as a nondenominational congregation, before renting and ultimately purchasing the lands at 59 Church Road.
Both sites were originally part of the Long Lot #12, split between brothers Ezekiel and Thomas Sanford in the early 18th century. Ezekiel enslaved at least two people, Pegg and her husband Plimmoth. Thomas’ portion passed onto his son Ebenezer, who was involved with the Baptist Society’s founding in the late 18th century. Ebenezer’s grandson Josiah owned at least one slave named Enoch (Cruson 2007; Reeve et al. 2009; Jacobin 1930; The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves; Christ Church Easton 2002; Nelson 2020, Google Map Image Capture).
At its first location, the church began without a firm leader at its helm and instead employed lay readers and itinerant gospel preachers from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Lay reader Philo Shelton (who after the Revolution would be ordained) and Anglican priests Rev. John Sayre, Rev. Richard Caner, and Rev. John Beach all presided.
Among that group, three of the four, Philo Shelton, Rev. John Sayre, and Rev. John Beach were enslavers. Rev. John Beach enslaved Clement, who self-liberated with intent to remove to Boston. This seemingly enraged the supposed Christian clergyman, and the Rev. John Beach posted ads almost daily describing Clement as “Negro Man..about a middling stature, very black, has a remarkable twilt in his gait.”
Though we don’t know his ultimate fate, the frequency of the ads suggests that, for at least two weeks, Clement succeeded in self-liberation. By 1774, there were 315 Africans or African Americans mostly enslaved, in Fairfield County lands and 319 in Stratford (Reeve et al. 2009; The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves; U.S. Census 1790; Hickox 1995; Sturges).
Some have insisted upon the humane nature of northern enslavement vis-a-vis the plantation system of the South, Caribbean and Brazil, but while numerically the difference is significant both the exacting complicity in the Slave Trade itself and the draconian efforts in Connecticut to regulate and punish Black bodies suggests a difference in magnitude, not severity.
Connecticut’s so-called Black Codes of the 18th century curtailed all aspects of Black life, whether free or enslaved, and instilled white terror into the legal code. For example, for simply speaking “actionable words” against a white person, any “black, Indian or mulatto” slave would be whipped with 40 lashes. A Black person of any status would be given 30 lashes for merely threatening to strike a white person based upon what was cited as frequent clashes between the enslaved Black community and their white enslavers, further evidence of the resistance of enslaved people documented below.
Free Blacks could not hold office or go into business and had to carry passes between towns. A curfew was in place. Abuse in Connecticut was both banal and brutal and designed to promote white control in all aspects of colonial life (Harper 2003; Ofgang 2019).
With gut-piercing irony, the spark to the colonial independence movement lay not in emancipatory impulse, but rather colonial attachment to the slave trade. As the wealth of white colonials increased, so, too, did their demand for manufactured goods. Colonists in Connecticut imported clothing, metal ware, tea, and other goods from England, but as their imports exceeded their exports and debt amassed, colonists traded with the Dutch, French West Indies, too, running surpluses.
The controversy over the colonial trading practices that circumvented English trade boards led Parliament to pass the now infamous Sugar Act (otherwise known as Plantation or Revenue Act), an attempt to enforce the regulations of the West Indies trade and collect duty on molasses. This act decried by colonists in New England sparked colonial resistances in Boston and events throughout the colonies that would ultimately lead to the second Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence.
Since the molasses tax was actually decreased in the Sugar Act, it was the effort to curtail West Indies trading, not the tax, that most enraged the colonists. Almost everyone, it seemed, had a hand in the slave trade (Kimball 2009; cf 1619 Project).
Inadvertently highlighting the central role that enslavement played in the national story (and our local one), John Adams would write later, “General Washington…always asserted and proved that Virginians loved molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.”
Yet, blush and repent, we should. Molasses and its ties to enslavement, indeed, were essential ingredients in American independence. And, after the Revolution, enslavement would continue to drive the economies of the nascent nation and our forebears in the Episcopal Church in North Fairfield (Weston). Article 5 will discuss the perpetuation of enslavement and promotion of racial inequality in North Fairfield (Weston) after independence. (Adams 1856; Kimball 2009).
*Correction: As cited elsewhere, our original article stated that Connecticut enslaved the most people in New England at 6,464. Because Connecticut’s census in 1774 included both indigenous and African and African American people, as well as free and enslaved individuals, historians estimate the more accurate number as that included herein. There isn’t sufficient data to make a regional cross comparison. Thanks to Bruce Nelson with the Easton Historical Society for his note of correction.
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.