The Farmington Slavery Research Project began in November 2012 with a meeting with author and journalist Anne Farrow, who encouraged the Stanley-Whitman House to undertake a project to document and record the captive people who had resided in town. Many of us had been aware of the paucity of information about slavery prior to the state’s first census in 1790, when Farmington was recorded as having six slaves among its people. We had the fine work of the Farmington Black History Project of the late 1990’s undertaken by the Farmington Historical Society. That project produced a considerable volume of research and an exhibit and catalog about Blacks in Farmington. What was lacking was fully articulated picture of what slavery looked like and what it meant to the town, as well as complete documentation of the captive people who resided in the town since its earliest days.
The goals of the Farmington Slavery Research Project, which began in early 2013, were to document captive people – record them as they were discovered in primary source materials such as probate inventories, wills, account books and other records. We made a good start. Several undergraduate and graduate students joined the project in summer 2013, along with two volunteer researchers of considerable skill. Volunteers began to examine the probate inventories in the town clerks’ vault, beginning with the earliest in 1769 (those preceding 1769 are in the state archives). And on researcher discovered a possible listing of captive people buried in ancient Memento Mori cemetery, a true treasure. She began cross-referencing these individuals with existing cemetery documentation.
After a year or so of work, here is what we have compiled: a list of over 90 documented captive people who lived in town between 1697 and 1820, as well as a list of close to 100 people who may have been slaves at some point in their lives. There is an organized file system of research documents and photos of primary documents for each of these individuals. We have a long way to go to complete this phase of the project, but the discovery of so many individuals and the frequency with which we find them gives us fresh enthusiasm and compels us to continue the work.
Our research challenges revolve around people’s mobility, the wide geographic area that made up Farmington, and the paucity and inconsistency of records related to captive people. People of the 17th-19th centuries owned land all over Connecticut and the northeast, so tracking them and their property – meaning slaves – can demand a very wide geographic search. Concurrent with that challenge is the fact that, until the early 19th century, Farmington was a town of 250 square miles, taking in the seven towns and cities that now surround us. Gideon Dunham of Farmington, for example, owned a “negro boy” valued at 60 lbs. He is nowhere in our local records, but he may have lived in the Southington section of town – which means that we have to access Southington’s historical archives to find out more about this boy and what happened to him.
Finally, as property, slaves left no records of their own. They are most frequently documented in probate inventories or wills after their owners’ deaths, recorded with brief epithets such as “negro wench” or “molotto,” leaving scant clues with which to learn more about them.