July 2011 Archives

Slavery in Greenwich?

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When the Docent at the Bush-Holley House showed us where the servants (slaves) slept in the attic, I naively thought, "Slaves?  Greenwich?  No way!"  After all, Greenwich is in Connecticut, Connecticut is in the North, and the North fought against slavery in the Civil War.  In fact, there were several decorated regiments from town.  There were also rumors that one house on Railroad Avenue was part of the "Underground Railroad" - a system of houses meant to help slaves escape.  How could anyone own slaves in Greenwich?  I suppose it was an accepted practice at one time.  I also heard that some owners were benevolent, showing kindness, providing food and lodging.  Of course, there were others who were not so kind. 

"It must be resoundingly affirmed and declared that slavery in all its forms, justifications and manifestations was wrong.  It is to be condemned as cruel, tragic and immoral.  It demeaned both slave and Master and had a corrupting impact on those who supported it."

Jeffrey R. Mead, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in Greenwich; Gateway Press, 1995 (Page 1)

I decided to research this further.  While searching for "slavery" in the library catalog, I found a book titled "Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, CT" (Gateway, 1995) by Jeffrey B. Mead.  It's a recap of the slaves who were granted "manumission", or emancipation from slavery.  The 1790 U.S. Census listed 80 slaves living in Greenwich.  Some worked on the docks at Cos Cob Landing, some worked on the Bush Farm (which at one time covered 35 acres) and some were servants.  Of the 49 men owning slaves, David Bush was the largest owner of slaves, and the wealthiest in town.  When owners died, it was not uncommon for slaves to be bequeathed to relatives.  In some cases, slaves were given the last names of their Masters, and these appear in some records.

"The very idea of becoming a Land or Sea Pirate to capture Human Beings to sell into Slavery to American Slave Masters fills the mind with Horror."    Shubal Bush  c1850

Jeffrey R. Mead, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in Greenwich; Gateway Press, 1995 (Page 3)

Slavery was never widespread in town and only a minority of families had slaves.  David Bush even went so far as to "appraise" his slaves.  His most valuable slave, Jubeter, was appraised at $150, a considerable amount in those days.  A girl, Lucy, was valued at $2.   There were several wills which conveyed ownership of a slave to  relatives, and some which actually granted freedom to some.  Some slaves were sold to other people, and there are documents to this effect recorded by a "Register" Mead writes that some slaves were married.  This was with the consent of their Masters. Some owners granted Emancipation in such situations.  Others did not.  

If a slave was freed by his Master and was considered poor, the Master was legally responsible for the slave.  This responsibility was transmitted to heirs and estate administrators after the Master's death.  In extraordinary situations,  responsibility would go to the Selectmen if the Master could not meet his obligation.  In 1777, a law was enacted, which relieved slave masters from any responsibility for the welfare of emancipated slaves.

There is some uncertainty about the burial places of slaves, freedmen and freedwomen ( the title for emancipated slaves).  In November 1851, Robert Mead deeded 3-acres of Union Cemetery owned by the Second Congregational Church for burial of the poor, strangers and "people of color".  Candice Bush - the only emancipated slave with a headstone - had a tombstone erected at Union Cemetery for her mother and herself.  Unfortunately, there are several unmarked stones for other emancipated slaves in Union Cemetery.  Other possible burying plots include the Palmer family cemetery in northern Cos Cob and The Old Burying Ground in Byram.

In reality, slavery was abolished, not because of the outrage against servitude, but because of political and economic reasons.  That's not to say there weren't proponents for abolishment - like the Quakers.  They found it morally wrong. Then, the Assembly banned the import of Indian, Negro or Mulatto slaves in 1774.   The Revolutionary War also contributed to the gradual fall of slavery. After all, the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be "created equal", that men are endowed with unalienable rights such as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness". In a way, this made African-Americans indirect stakeholders in this conflict.  Slaves, in some cases, were offered freedom and money to serve in the Continental Army.  However, problems arose as slave owners required compensation for slaves, who were considered property.  Furthermore, white soldiers opposed arming blacks.    They were afraid of rebellion.  Still, others served.

Connecticut slowly and carefully moved toward abolition.  In 1776 a Quaker farmer - Robert Field - freed his slave "Cuff".  This is the earliest known emancipation in Greenwich.  In 1777, the General Assembly passed legislation that set forth a legal procedure to acquire a certificate to free a slave. It did not, however, call for abolition.  Another law (1784) broke the vicious cycle of slavery by making children born to slaves after March 1, 1784, free once they reached the age of 25.  "An Act to Prevent Slave Trade" (1788) forbid residents from engaging in the slave trade.  In June 1788 laws were passed making the trade of slaves unjust and directing citizens to end it.  By 1792 the Connecticut Legislature passed a law which forbade the transport of slaves out of the state to trade, and established a procedure by which an owner could emancipate a slave.  Most emancipations occurred between 1795 and 1816, well before the Civil War.  Unfortunately, some slaves didn't know what to do with their new found freedom.  Slavery was the only life they ever knew.  It was a great change for some.

Mead makes a very interesting observation.  There were no independent anti-slavery groups that promoted abolition.  Rather, the Protestant Revival of the 19th Century led to the Second Great Awakening - a social upheaval in moral values, which targeted alcoholism and slavery.  Churches such as the Second Congregational Church, Stanwich Church and North Greenwich Congregational Church joined forces to push for human and social reform.  The seeds of the Temperance Movement were planted.  Interestingly, Reverend Lyman Beecher Stowe - father of Harriet Beecher Stowe ( who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin") - came to Greenwich to speak against alcoholism and slavery.

By 1850, Greenwich was far ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of abolition.  The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which required the refturn of runaway slaves, antagonized Abolitionists, who started providing safe shelter and established the Underground Railroad. 

Amazingly, by the Civil War in the 1860s, both white and black soldiers from Greenwich fought side by side - and died - to end slavery.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grant Radulavsky - who gave a presentation on the Civil War Regiments from Greenwich - has an exhibit at the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob.  It's titled "Vocies of the Civil War" and  it explores the differences in opinion on the Civil War within the Greenwich community.  Some never before exhibited maps are being shown as well as a 26-minute DVD on the 10th Connecticut Regiment, a highly decorated Union Army group.

The "Life in a Union Camp" exhibit gives families an opportunity to experience how young soldiers lived day-to-day in a typical Union camp.  Ideal for families.

And don't forget the Greenwich Community Artists exhibit.  there are some great landscapes for your viewing.

The Civil war exhibits run through July 31, while the artist exhibit runs through August 24.

Call 203-869-6899 for more details (times, fees,etc.)



Greenwich's "White House"

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Passengers on the summer ferry to Island Beach and /or Great Captain's Island may be curious about the white structure on Steamboat Road adjacent to the Indian Harbor Yacht Club.  The rear of this structure appears to be an odd patchwork of additions that have been built  over time.  Today there are a series of fire escapes which connect each section.  Somewhat out of character, satellite dishes cover the roof.  In a way, it seems very out-of-place compared to the office complexes and condos along what used to be called "South Greenwich Avenue".  The peninsula itself was known as Rocky Neck Point.  As the name "Steamboat" implies, steamboats used to moor along the road, and take farm products to markets in New York.  This area of Greenwich became a very busy part of town as boats carried people and goods in and out of town.

This being the case, Jared Mead built a tavern in 1838 over several root cellars.  He hoped to attract summer visitors from the city.  The clientele was very wealthy.  At the time, there were woods and cultivated fields on three sides, and access to the water on the other side.  Mead named it "The White House".  It was a quiet location, which made it an ideal vacation spot.  Unfortunately, The White House proved to be unsuccessful.  Ironically, Mead was unable to get the very food supplies that were grown in Greenwich and shipped to New York!    Vegetables had to be purchased from the local sloops.  This made it difficult to obtain fresh supplies for meals.  He was able to obtain meat from local farms on occasion, but had to fill in with seafood.  The customers were very demanding, and would only put up with this for so long.  They preferred red meat.  After years of struggling, Jared Mead sold out to Mrs. Fannie Runyon and Mrs. Mary Dennis.  They only owned the property one year, until Mrs. Dennis sold out to Thomas Funston and Funston sold it toThaddeus Silleck, who renamed it the "Silleck House".  At this time around 1850, it was the oldest hotel on either side of the Sound between New York and Stonington.   Once the railroad came through Greenwich around 1850, the  Silleck House began to flourish.

People paid $2.50 per week rent until it was reluctantly raised to $3.50.  There were many well-known guests including editor Horace Greeley ("Go West, Young Man"), Professor King from Columbia University, Charles Whitney (Curator of the Whitney Museum) and William "Boss" Tweed , who was credited with the start of the summer migration  to Greenwich.  Eventually, a trolley line was built down Steamboat Road which stopped the the Silleck House.  People would use it to travel back and forth to the train station on Railroad Avenue.  Vacationers for many years returned to the Silleck House for summer stays. 

There appear to have been some periods of time when the Silleck House was  inactive. During one of these periods, it was used by the town to house the poor.  Even back in early times, residents tried to take care of their poor.  In 1906, right before World War I, the business went bankrupt.  The tavern was bought by a Mrs. Hirsch, who turned the hotel into apartments. She named it "The Sundial Apartments". Business picked up again until the Great Depression.  When the business faltered again, Putnam Trust took over the business until Marshall Allten bought the property and expanded the building.  Not long after, a small cottage located at the back of 700 Steamboat Road was jacked up and moved by rollers and placed between the apartments and the Yacht Club. 

Rhoda Jenkins - who as a young girl boarded with her family there - provided a great deal of information on Silleck House.  She said a restaurant, kitchen and laundry were located on the first floor.  There were two fireplaces and a large panoramic window, which looked out of the west side of the building onto Greenwich Harbor.  The house was built over two potato cellars.  Community parties were also held to generate revenue.  Ms. Jenkins enjoyed viewing motorboat races in Greenwich Harbor and viewing the 1925 eclipse from the roof of the House.  She also noted a man from Conyers Farm used to sell frogs' legs to the restaurant, which were considered delicacies. 

Incidentally, in 1889 sixty member of the future Indian Harbor Yacht Club used the Silleck House as their headquarters and the early group was called "The Silleck House Navy".


In the 1920s, the house was fitted for steam heat, and this made it possible for the boarding house to be open year round.

Today, the Silleck House is known as the "Sun Dial Apartments". 


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This page is an archive of entries from July 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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