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Farmington's Heritage


History of Farmington
Part 4


The Freedom Trail: Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad

Freedom Trail marker and lantern, 2 Mill Lane

Freedom Trail Maps

Slavery After the American Revolution

The new nation that Farmington patriots fought for in the Revolution was founded on the principle that "all men are created equal ... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But many of the republic's residents were slaves, as Barbara Donahue wrote in "Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut":

"In 1790, there were were almost four million people in the United States. Of these, about 750,000, or almost 20%, were black. Of these blacks, 60,000, or only 8%, were free. ... In Connecticut a little over half of the state's 5,500 blacks were free."

In the eighteenth century, there were free black townspeople living in Farmington and slaves. Among the free black residents was Israel Freeman, an entrepreneur who bought and sold land in town. He lived in a house on Main Street at the corner of Mountain Road. He started as a poor man who fished in the Farmington River for a living. He may have earned the money to start buying land while serving in the French and Indian War.

Frank Freeman, also a free black resident, was given the post of  town "hayward" in 1686. It was his job to make sure that all livestock was properly tied up or fenced in. He owned his own house and, it was said, a collection of books.

Other black residents in town worked as slaves until they could buy their freedom. Titus Lombardy, a slave owned by Joshua Youngs Sr. in 1790, was living "like a free man" in his own home by 1810. Six years later, his liberty was made official in an emancipation document:

"Therefore be it known to whom it may concern that I have and hereby do completely emancipate & set at liberty the said Titus, so that neither I or any claiming under me, shall hereafter have any right whatever to his services in virtue of his being my slave. Done at Farmington this 10th day of January A.D. 1816."

Britto, a slave owned by Thomas Hart Hooker, who lived at 66 Main Street, paid 60 pounds for his freedom in 1775.

66 Main Street. Built for Thomas Hart Hooker
and later owned by Samuel Deming.

A slave named Sampson was released from slavery by Exekiel Lewis of Farmington, "in consideration of the fidelity and good service, together with those sums of money and reasonable satisfaction that I have received ...."

Some slaves obtained their freedom when their owners died. In a will dated January 31, 1775, Abigail Deming of Farmington wrote that a slave named Prince would be "free from servitude" after serving her husband for two years after her death or until he reached age 23.

Other slaves were unable to gain their freedom. Joseph Munn, owned by William Nicholls of Waterbury, was promised freedom in return for three years of service in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He enlisted but was sold by his owner while he was in the army; the new owner refused to free him. Munn petitioned the state legislature, but he was turned down because he'd been dismissed from the army. The reason was that he'd broken an arm while on active duty. "Ironically, in fighting to guarantee his country's freedom, he guaranteed his own enslavement," Barbara Donahue wrote in "Speaking for Ourselves."

Another slave who fought in the Revolutionary War, Pharoah Hart of Farmington, was more successful in winning his freedom, but not without a disagreement over his army wages. Hart fought in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1777 and  Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1778. He agreed to give his owner, Selah Hart, a portion of his wages in return for his freedom, but Selah demanded and received all of them, Barbara Donahue wrote.

The Abolitionist Movement

Slavery was legal in the thirteen colonies before the Revolution, but antislavery sentiment grew after the war. The first article published in America that called for the abolition of the slave trade was written by Thomas Paine in 1775, and the first American abolition society was formed by Quakers in Philadelphia in 1775. The society ceased to meet during the war and the British occupation of Philadelphia and was reformed in 1784. Many more abolitionist societies were formed after the war, including A Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Hartford in 1791. Noah Webster of Hartford was a leading member, along with several Farmington residents: Thomas Seymour, Rufus Hawley, Aaron Austin, and the Rev. Allen Olcott.

As a result of the abolitionist movement, some states and regions began to pass legislation prohibiting slavery. The Northwest Territory abolished it in 1787 under the Northwest Ordinance, which stated: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

Northeastern states gradually adopted laws abolishing slavery or leading toward emancipation. In 1784, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill for the gradual emancipation of slaves -- all slaves born after March 1, 1784, would be free at age 25. In 1848, Connecticut became the last state in New England to abolish slavery -- but even then the law did not apply to slaves 64 years and older. In 1800, a census counted 951 slaves in Connecticut; in 1830, the number had fallen to 25.

By 1812, states that had abolished slavery or taken steps toward emancipation included Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Ohio. Slave states included Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana.

The Underground Railroad

Beginning in the late 1700s, many slaves sought freedom by fleeing north to "free" states and Canada. Independent groups of abolitionist sympathizers together formed a network of secret routes and safe houses. To maintain secrecy, they adopted a code based on the railroad. The stops along the way were called "stations" and "depots," the safe houses were run by "stationmasters," and guides were known as "conductors." The runaway slaves, called "passengers," traveled by night and rested at the stations along the "underground," or secret, "railroad" in the day. The stationmasters used signals on the Underground Railroad, including lanterns, overturned cups and tilted signs.

Farmington was an important stop along the Underground Railroad. In fact, the town came to be called the "Grand Central Station" of the "railroad" because of its abolitionist activities. Local abolitionists including Horace Cowles, Elijah Lewis, John Treadwell Norton, Samuel and Catherine Deming, and Austin Williams helped shelter fugitive slaves and transport them through town to freedom.

Freedom Trail marker, Farmington

A map of local sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, established by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1995, shows houses where fugitive slaves were hidden. Farmington abolitionists provided at least eight safe houses on the Underground Railroad.

Horace Cowles, a successful merchant and state legislator who lived at 27 Main Street, was a "stationmaster." He sheltered runaway "passengers" in a closet near the stairs on the second floor.

27 Main Street, Horace and Mary Anne Cowles'  house

Horace's son, Samuel Smith Cowles, took up the work of his father as a stationmaster and published The Charter Oak, an abolitionist newspaper. 

Elijah Lewis, a quartermaster in the Revolutionary War and later a prosperous farmer, hid slaves in a "hidey-hole" in his house at 1 Mountain Spring Road. The hole is in the basement chimney; a large stone can still be removed to reveal the space.

Elijah Lewis house, 1 Mountain Spring Road

Lewis would provide food and shelter for the fugitive slaves and then help guide them as they started back on their way north. He would hide "passengers" in hay wagons that he led along the mountain ridge to the north toward Simsbury.

Avon Mountain, which provided a route north to Simsbury

One escaped slave who stayed at Lewis' house was George Anderson of Virginia. Anderson settled in the area and married a woman from Connecticut named Charlotte. One day in Farmington, Barbara Donahue wrote in "Speaking for Ourselves," he saw the neighbor of his former master in Virginia. Anderson fled and wasn't seen in town again.

Helping Lewis were other town residents such as Austin Williams and a black man named Henry Davis who worked for Williams.

John Hooker, a leading abolitionist, attorney and Supreme Court judge who was born at 50 High Street in Farmington, wrote about a "Henry" who may be Henry Davis:

"After he had been in Farmington for several months a fugitive slave from his old home ... came along, and told him how, after his (Henry's) escape the year before, his master had charged his old mother with aiding him to escape, and had given her a terrible flogging on her bare body ... he determined to go back .... He went back, saw and comforted his old mother, and got up a company of eight slaves, who started north under his guidance. They had all sorts of perils and escapes on the way ...."1

50 High Street, John Hooker house, built for Edward Hooker

John Hooker used his skills as a lawyer to help win freedom for a respected black Hartford minister, James Pennington, who had secretly escaped slavery in Maryland via the Underground Railroad in 1827. Pennington, whose slave name was Jim Pembroke, wanted to buy his freedom legally, and Hooker helped negotiate it in 1851. Pennington was also a friend of the Rev. Noah Porter, minister of the First Church of Christ in Farmington, and the two occasionally exchanged pulpits.

First Church of Christ, Farmington

Pennington became a prominent educator, author and abolitionist. "Abolition was a bi-racial movement, with blacks heavily involved in the struggle," Barbara Donahue wrote in "Speaking for Ourselves."

John Treadwell Norton, a prosperous businessman and "gentleman farmer" who had the Georgian-style mansion at 11 Mountain Spring Road built for him, may also have been a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Norton, an internationally known abolitionist, was one of the founders of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society in 1836.

11 Mountain Spring Road, John Treadwell Norton house

Samuel Deming, a wealthy farmer, merchant, and legislator who lived at 66 Main Street, formerly the home of Thomas Hart Hooker, was also a founding member of the local Anti-Slavery Society and a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Deming's wife, Catherine, was one of many Farmington women who helped raised money and distribute petitions for the abolitionist cause.

Austin F. Williams, who lived at 127 Main Street, was another member of the Anti-Slavery Society who participated in the Underground Railroad. Williams, Deming and Norton were leading supporters of the Mendi Africans who stayed in Farmington in 1941 after winning their freedom in the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Williams bought land at the corner of Main Street and Hatters Lane for a dormitory for the Mendi. 

127 Main Street, Austin Williams house

Abolition was not always a popular cause in Farmington. In "Farmington and the Underground Railroad,"2 "E. H. J." wrote: "There were about thirty abolitionists in town and each had to suffer more or less for the faith that was in him. Jeers, rotten eggs -- sometimes threats or worse. These were the days when helping one's fellow man was an actual hard fact, costing real self sacrifice."

By 1835, John Hooker wrote in Reminiscences of a Long Life, "it was a few fanatics" in town against abolition "and all society on the other." He wrote that a riot broke out when townspeople first met to form the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. "A stone as large as one's fist was thrown through the window behind the speaker, and, just missing his head, went across the hall, striking the wall on the other side, but fortunately hitting no one. It might have killed someone whom it had chanced to hit. ... I saw this myself."

In the midst of the debate over abolition, the Underground Railroad continued to provide a route to freedom. It's estimated that at least 30,000 slaves escaped to Canada via the "railroad." It was so successful that the federal government passed the Fugitive Slaves Law in 1850, which sought to enforce the return of runaway slaves. The law was met with defiance by abolitionists and helped strengthen public opinion against slavery.

Noah Porter preached in an antislavery sermon on July 13, 1856:

"The operation of Slavery in this country has given us painful cause of questioning its compatibility with civil liberty, wherever it exists. The fundamental principle of civil liberty, as it is laid down in the Declaration of our Independence, is this—'that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' ... It is plain as day-light, that where the spirit of Slavery is, there is not liberty. Slavery creates a necessity of infringing on civil liberty. ... Hence the struggle, in its ultimate bearing, is a struggle for the freedom of the nation: for Freedom not only as opposed to Slavery, but also as opposed to despotism; civil freedom—freedom of speech—freedom of action—the enjoyment of our inalienable rights under the protection of just and equal laws."

First Church of Christ, Farmington

Slavery was finally abolished in the United States with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865:

Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

When the amendment was proposed by Congress in January 1865, slavery remained legal in only two states: Kentucky and Delaware. There were still about 40,000 slaves in Kentucky at the time, and a few hundred in Delaware. In other states, slavery had been abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and by state legislation.

Emancipation Proclamation,
National Archives,

In the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, Abraham Lincoln stated: 

"And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."


Back to History of Farmington, Part 1

Back to History of Farmington, Part 2

Back to History of Farmington, Part 3


1. Barbara Donahue and Farmington Historical Society Research Team, "Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut," 1998.
2. E. H. J., "Farmington and the Underground Railway," The Village of Beautiful Homes, 1906


History of Farmington, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, and photos (except where noted),
by Brooke E. Martin. Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008

Most of the material in Part 4 on local black residents in the 18th century was obtained
"Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut,"
by Barbara Donahue and the Farmington Historical Society Research Team.
Copies of the book, which was published in 1998, are available
from the Farmington Historical Society and at the Farmington Public Library.

Other sources for the history are listed here.

The Farmington Historical Society, P.O. Box 1645, Farmington, CT 06034

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