Were there ever slaves in Ridgefield?

Were there ever slaves in Ridgefield?

Yes, but apparently relatively few.

The first official mention of slaves here occurred Feb. 13, 1740, when David Scott sold Vivus Dauchy “a certain Negro woman named Dinah and a Negro boy named Peter to be servants or slaves during the period of their natural lives.” The price was 200 pounds.

In 1730, Connecticut’s 38,000 people included about 700 slaves. By 1770, it had more than 6,400 slaves, the largest population of any New England state. Half of all the ministers, lawyers, and public officials owned slaves, and a third of all the doctors, says Connecticut historian Jackson Turner Main.

There was no official count until 1790, the first federal census, which found only five slaves in Ridgefield among the 1,947 residents. That was apparently a relatively small number; Newtown, for instance, had 55 slaves among its 2,764 residents. The low number may have reflected the town’s economy more than an anti-slavery philosophy; Ridgefield was nearly bankrupt in the late 18th Century.

By the 1770s Connecticut was beginning gradually to eliminate slavery. In 1774, a law stopped the importation of slaves. In 1784, a “gradual emancipation” law decreed  black and mulatto children born after March 1 that year would become free at age 25. In 1797 the age was reduced to 21.

Many slaves were already being freed by their owners, but the process wasn’t necessarily simple.

On Nov. 21, 1777, Ridgefield selectmen met with Cyphax to examine the 20-year-old slave of the Rev. Jonathan Ingersoll. Mr. Ingersoll wanted to free Cyphax, and under colony law, the selectmen had to make sure he wouldn’t be a burden on the community. Records reported the selectmen “do judge him an able-bodied man and as likely to get a living as men in common in his condition are, and do therefore approve of his being liberated or set free, according to an act of the Assembly.” Three days later, Mr. Ingersoll freed Cyphax.

In January 1782, Matthew Keeler freed his slave, Dick, citing his long and faithful service. However, he added a proviso, apparently required by law: “If at any time the above said Negro slave Dick should become dissolute and idle in spending his time and earnings, and thereby likely in case of any misfortune to become a charge to me or my heirs, then it shall be lawfull for me or my heirs to again take said Negro slave into my or their service during his natural life.”

In the 18th Century, blacks were assumed to be slaves. However, there were free blacks, and governments even made a point of noting this. On Nov. 14, 1789, Ridgefield received a notice from the town of Bedford, N.Y., that Peg Wilson, a former slave, was freed “from a state of slavery by the last will and testament of Isaac Miller” and “is desired to pass and repass unmolested.”

The 1800 census counted 951 Connecticut slaves; by 1830, the number had fallen to 25. Connecticut finally abolished slavery in 1848.

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