Seeking freedom from slavery: settling Native American ancestry in colonial Connecticut

By Isabelle Laskaris

On October 4th 1743, Stephen Gardiner wrote to the Justice of the Peace in New London, Connecticut, to complain that four of his slaves and servants had deserted his service the night before. He described them as Cesar, a mulatto man servant, Ann, a Spanish Indian Squaw, Ann an Indian girl, and Phillis, an Indian girl. Only a few days later, a trial was held. The four runaways appeared in court to testify that Ann, the eldest, was a “Mohawk Squaw” and that Cesar, Ann, and Phillis were her children and therefore “ought not to be holden in service.”[1]

In early eighteenth-century Connecticut, court cases involving enslaved Native Americans often raised the issue of ancestry on the maternal side.[2] Native Americans had been enslaved in New England throughout the seventeenth century as captives of colonial wars. Although legislation was passed in 1678 to outlaw Indian slavery, colonists used a variety of means to continue to enslave Native Americans in the eighteenth century. This included selling Indians for debt or restitution, legally and illegally extending their term of indentured servitude and forcing apprenticeships on Indian children, thereby forming what Margaret Ellen Newell terms an “ad hoc form of slavery” based on “weak legal foundations.”[3] As a result, the ancestors of enslaved Native Americans were able to challenge their enslavement in court by arguing that their mother had been illegally enslaved.[4]

Ann’s case rested on the distinction between Gardiner’s interpretation of her heritage as a Spanish Indian, and her own claim that she was actually descended from the Mohawk tribe. The term ‘Spanish Indian,’ which Gardiner used to describe Ann, held special significance because it generally referred to a Native American enslaved in Spanish Florida. Along with Indian enslaved in the Carolinas, who were referred to as ‘Carolina Indians,’ Spanish Indians were often considered lawful slaves under the presumption that they had been enslaved in those regions and brought to New England.

We might also note that Gardiner referred to Ann and her children as “slaves and servants,” referring specifically to Cesar as a “mulatto man servant.” In colonial New England, the terms “servant” and “slave” were often used interchangeably.[5] Gardiner’s use of the term “servant” is evidence of this. If Ann was a Spanish Indian, as Gardiner claimed, and Cesar was her child, then – by law – this would make Cesar a lawful of slave of Gardiner because the status of children was determined by the status of the mother.[6] Why, then, did Gardiner use the term “man servant” to refer to Cesar? It is possible, although no evidence exists to confirm this, that Gardiner had agreed to free Cesar after a certain amount of time served. It is also entirely possible, however, that he had simply used the term because it was interchangeable with the term ‘slave.’

Several witnesses testified in support of Gardiner’s claim. Most of them were recollections from friends and neighbours who had met Ann over the years, many from Rhode Island. Elizabeth Rogers testified that she had met both Ann and her daughter while the younger Ann had stayed in their home to receive treatment for a sore. Rogers stated that Ann had told her she was a “Spanish Indian of the same Country with Indian John who was Mr. Livinstone’s Servant.” Another woman, Abigail Powers, testified that she had once considered purchasing Ann as a slave, and had been told at the time that she was a Spanish Indian.

Other testimony referred to Ann as a Carolina Indian. Abigail Almy swore in court that her former husband had bought Ann, a Carolina Indian, who they later sold to Stephen Gardiner. John Gardiner also testified that his father, William Gardiner, owned a Carolina Indian woman named Ann who he later told to his brother, Stephen Gardiner. These last two testimonies are interesting because while they do not support Gardiner’s claim that Ann was a Spanish Indian, their reference to her as a Carolina Indian would also place her in the category of being a lawful slave.

Two witnesses also appeared to support Ann’s claim. A fifty-seven-year-old man named Martin Kellogg testified that he had lived “some years in Canada among the Mohawks… in which time he got the knowledge of a Considerable part of the Mohawk Language.” After having had the opportunity to speak with Ann, he found that she “talks Mohawk and according to the best of his understanding [is] Hurone which nations is one of the free nations called Mohawk.” Kellogg further stated that Ann answered his questions “without shutting her lips which is peculiar to the mohawk tribes exempt of all other nation that he ever heard of.” A similar testimony was also given by his sister, Rebecca, who stated that she had lived twenty-four years among the Mohawks in Canada during which she “learnt the Mohawk tongue.” Like her brother, she swore under oath that she had also asked Ann many questions which Ann was able to answer in Mohawk without shutting her lips. Although little detail is given about the Kellogg’s in the trial documents, a little genealogical digging reveals that Martin and Rebecca had been captured by Indians in 1704 along with their father and siblings. Both later came to act as interpreters, which suggests that the court might have asked them to testify in Ann’s case.[7]

Despite the many witnesses who testified in Gardiner’s favour, the Kelloggs’ testimony must have been more convincing to the jury who found in favour of Ann and her children. By ‘testing’ Ann’s knowledge of the Mohawk language, this case indicates the significant role that Native American culture and an understanding of one’s own ancestry played in determining freedom for enslaved people in colonial New England. Although this case has not been examined in detail by scholars, one historian did question why Ann made her claim more than two decades after being enslaved by the Gardiners.[8] While we can never be certain of Ann’s motives, her actions do suggest that she must have, at some point, become aware that she had a case for freedom. How exactly this occurred is unclear, but the emergence of cases based on Native American slaves’ ancestry suggests this information was being steadily transmitted.

Cases such as this one effectively presented a challenge to the legally vague, ad hoc system of slavery that colonists had seized upon in the eighteenth century as a way of maintaining enslaved Indian labour. Not only was it imperative that Ann could prove her own culture through her understanding of the language, but white gatekeepers like Martin and Rebecca Kellogg also played a significant role by validating this to the court. By showing that she was a victim of this ad hoc Indian enslavement, Ann established freedom for herself and her three children.

 


Isabelle Laskaris is a PhD student in History at Monash University researching slave resistance in New England. Her research interests include slavery, slave resistance, emancipation and abolition.

Feature Image: W. Douglass, Map of Connecticut 1755 –  from Plan of the British Dominions of New England in North America

[1] Stephen Gardiner v Cesar & others, Nov. 1743, Connecticut State Archives, New London Native Americans Collection, 1698-1855, Box 1, Folder 44.

[2] Samuel Richards v Cesar, June 1739, Connecticut State Archives, New London Native Americans Collection, 1698-1855, Box 1, Folder 39; William Marsh v Elisha, 1750, Connecticut State Archives, Miscellaneous Papers 1635-1789, Volume II, Documents 64-73.

[3] Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 211.

[4] Ibid, 212; 236.

[5] Lorenzo J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 168.

[6] Christopher Tomlins, “Transplants and Timing: Passages in the Creation of an Anglo-American Law of Slavery,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law 10, no. 2 (2009): 406; Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 60.

[7] Barbara Jean Matthews, The Descendants of Governor Thomas Welles of Connecticut and His Wife Alice Tomes, Volume 1 (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1990), 558.

[8] James Stewart, Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 106.