New book recognizes contributions of Ridgefield’s Black residents: ‘They were pioneers’

Photo of Alyssa Seidman

RIDGEFIELD — Some of the town’s Black history is finally being told.

In “Uncle Ned’s Mountain,” a new self-published book by resident Jack Sanders, readers can uncover the previously unknown stories of the town’s Black citizens, some of whom were enslaved.

“This is an area that no historian of the town has spent any time on, and I don’t think maybe they were much driven to do so,” Sanders said. “The (town’s) Black population for most of its history (comprised) 1 to 2 percent of the people. That percentage made significant contributions to the community, especially in the 18th century.”

Sanders served as the editor of The Ridgefield Press for 45 years and has written countless articles and columns about the town’s history.

His website, ridgefieldhistory.com, contains a large collection of his writings on Ridgefield’s place names, its notable residents, and offers a detailed timeline spanning three centuries. He also maintains the “Old Ridgefield” Facebook group, which has more than 7,000 followers.

Sanders first became interested in the town’s Black history after discovering an unusual surname embossed on the Revolutionary War memorial on Main Street. Among the well-known, pioneering families of the town — the Bennetts and Keelers, the Hawleys and Olmsteads — were Lewis and Ebenezer Jacklin.

The Jacklins were two free Black men who lived and worked in Ridgefield during a time when most Black residents living in Connecticut were enslaved, Sanders said. During the 18th century, the family contributed to the community in many substantial ways, the book’s preface reads.

“They were quite respected citizens of the community,” Sanders said, noting that two of the Jacklin brothers owned sizable farms in town. “Robert Jr. settled 70 acres in northern Ridgebury, which is now part of Danbury. That’s quite an undertaking. It’s nothing but rocky woods, a terrible place to build a farm, but they did it.”

They were among the Ridgefielders who came from Norwalk and Milford to settle in the town.

“They were pioneers,” Sanders said.

In delving deeper into the Jacklins’ history, Sanders subsequently found records of Ridegfield’s enslaved people. The number was shocking, he said.

“So far I found 60 (but) there’s gotta be even more, because there are some that were probably never recorded or I haven’t found yet,” he added. “That’s a lot of enslaved people in a small New England town. This is the kind of thing that people ought to know about.”

The book’s title — “Uncle Ned’s Mountain” — is derived from the name of a spot on the Underground Railroad that operated in Ridgebury before the Civil War. Sanders first came across the story of Ned and Aunt Betsey Armstrong in 2020 while reading a 140-year-old newspaper article published in the New Haven Register.

The Armstrongs were an elderly Black couple that hid fugitive slaves in the caves on what became known as Ned’s Mountain, on the north end of town. Sanders’ research indicates that some people who found solace there volunteered to fight in the Union army during the Civil War.

This included two of the Armstrongs’ grandchildren — one of whom was among the last victims of the conflict — and a native Hawaiian who lived in Ridgefield during the 1850s.

“This young man went off to serve in the Union Navy then left to join the Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment,” Sanders said. “He fought in Petersburg, Richmond, all these ugly battles, and after the war he joined the Buffalo Soldiers, a Black outfit that patrolled the American west for the U.S. Army.

“He was a native of the kingdom of Hawaii,” Sanders continued. “What was he doing here (in Ridgefield)?”

Among other factoids, Sanders’ book points out the “astounding” percentage of Black people from Connecticut who volunteered to fight against slavery during the Civil War. More than 75 percent of those eligible volunteered to serve, he said.

“The contributions of the African-Americans in Ridgefield over the town’s first two centuries is something that’s just been totally ignored,” Sanders added. “Especially in times where people are concerned about race and equality, here are all these people … (who) felt strongly about the country and their race. They wanted to do something good.”

Copies of “Uncle Ned’s Mountain” will be available at Sanders’ in-person talk at the Ridgefield Library at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13. Copies will soon be available at the Ridgefield Historical Society and Books on the Common.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com