That Inestimable Blessing, Freedom

In May 1779, two slaves named Prime and Prince dictated, or at least cowrote, a petition for emancipation, which was submitted to the Connecticut Assembly.

Your Honours who are nobly contending, in the Cause of Liberty, whose Conduct excites the Admiration, and Reverence, of all the great Empires of the World, will not resent our thus freely animadverting, on this detestable Practice; altho our Skins are different in Colour, from those who we serve, yet Reason & Revelation join to declare, that we are the Creatures of that God who made of one Blood, and Kindred, all the Nations of the Earth; we perceive by our own Reflection, that we are endowed, with the same Faculties, with our Masters, and there is nothing, that leads us to a Belief, or Suspicion, that we are any more obliged to serve them, than they us, and the more we Consider of this Matter, the more we are Convinced, of our Right (by the Law’s of Nature and by the whole Tenor, of the Christian Religion, so far as we have been taught) to be free.

The petition is as heartbreaking as it is poetic, and is worth reading in its entirety. Both the Lower and the Upper Houses rejected the petition; however, the following year, laws were passed freeing slaves younger than 7 (or born in the state after the law’s passage) when they reached 25, and prohibiting the sale of Connecticut slaves outside the state.

The petition was transcribed by Jonathan Sturges, a justice and judge of probate who was very active in Fairfield’s defense and management during the Revolution; later he was a member of the state delegation to the ratification of the Constitution and a member of the first U.S. Congress. And while there is suspicion about the true authorship of the petition, as historian Vincent Rosivach has pointed out, the language echoes that of other slave petitions of the period, such that the 1779 document is not likely the product of Sturges’s quill alone.

What’s more interesting is the petitioner Prime was owned by Samuel Sturges, Jonathan’s younger brother. This is a strange scenario, in which victory would have resulted in diminishing the estate of the proponent’s close family. Perhaps emancipation was never a goal of Jonathan’s and the action was simply a ploy to demonstrate the impossibility of abolition, to cool the tempers of disgruntled slaves before they boiled over — to obscure the obvious contradiction between freedom from king and parliament and bondage to Yankee fat cats. Hey, we tried. It didn’t happen. Now get back to work.

Or maybe that’s too cynical. I’ve read the Rosivach article, and if I recall correctly, his characterization of Samuel Sturges as “undistinguished” is verbatim. This is some minor ignorance on his part (in his defense, Rosivach probably referenced Donald Jacobus’s History and Genealogy of the Families of Old Fairfield, which lists only the public offices and military honors held by an individual, not the private accomplishments). Actually, Samuel Sturges was a prosperous businessman who co-owned “a suitable store for receiving goods & provisions” with Samuel Smedley along Black Rock Harbor. Smedley himself manumitted two slaves — York, and his son Boston (who may or may not have fallen under the 1780 freedom-at-25 law) — and left each of them money in his will. These actions, along with Jonathan’s penmanship and Samuel Sturges’s seeming acquiescence in Prime’s role, suggest some of Fairfield’s elite shared the sentiments expressed in the two men’s poignant request for liberty.

Rebel Fort

Historian and Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer cover artist Bill Lee is very excited about his latest project:

[Lee] has been certain that a fort once stood in Black Rock Harbor in front of what is now known as St. Mary’s by the Sea in Bridgeport, based on maps created in 1779 by the British who were planning their invasion. …

Lee’s theory about the fort took a big leap forward recently when his friend, aviator and photographer Morgan Kaolian, snapped some aerial shots of the point at dead-low tide.

There, in the photographs, is the outline of what appears to be the same fort depicted in a map by for a Lt. Lawru of the British Army on July 7, 1779. Labeled “Rebel Fort” on the map, the shape of the fort mirrors that which appears in Kaolian’s photographs.

Nothing raises Bill’s dander more than dismissal of the fort, something both he and Kaolian have apparently encountered — although it’s never been clear to me if critics are denying the existence of the fort or merely bickering about its precise location. Certainly there was a Revolutionary era battery at St. Mary’s. The Public Records are full of orders sending men and munitions to the fortification “at Battery Point in Fairfield” (The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, vol. 2, 199), and Andrew Eliot, reverend of the Congregational church and an eyewitness to the July 1779 burning of the town, wrote that the eastward progress of the British along the shore was halted “by the cannon which played from Grover’s Hill” (Eliot’s letter is reprinted in Hurd, D. Hamilton, ed. History of Fairfield County, Connecticut, 283-284). Eliot also added:

Our fort yet stands. The enemy sent a row-galley to silence it, and there was constant firing between them all night. One or two attempts were made to take it by parties of troops, but it was most bravely and obstinately defended by Lieut. Isaac Jarvis, of this town, who had but twenty-three men besides himself.

This is why only a handful of houses survived in downtown Fairfield but Black Rock Harbor was untouched. The fort must have been placed close to the mouth of the Ash Creek — allowing the defenders to fire west across the creek at the marching troops — while still positioned to prevent the enemy from entering the harbor. The site of Bill’s ruin fulfills both requirements.

There’s been a great deal of development in that area, so it’s possible this particular ruin is not the fort. But I’m with Bill: now the burden of proof is on the skeptics.

Unfortunately, [Conservation Director Thomas Steinke] said, there’s been so much coastal erosion at the point by St. Mary’s by the Sea that it is unlikely that any other evidence such as cannonballs can be found. “That would have been washed away,” he said.

What an uninformed opinion. Cannonballs — even relatively small six-pound shot — don’t wash away; they sink and bury. Even if no shot is found, other artifacts and features can date the ruin. A simple Phase I investigation by the state archaeologist’s office or a CRM company would go a long way toward answering whether the rocks are a naturally occurring phenomenon, an old jetty, some other man-made structure — or the historic salvation of Black Rock Harbor.

Bob’s Your Uncle

The gravestone of Samuel Smedley is back in place:

In order to repair the historic headstone, it was removed from the Old Burying Ground and brought to Jim Bria for restoration at his Artista studio. Three rods were inserted into the gravestone, which was then epoxyed into a granite base for stability.

When the weather gets warmer, Melanie Marks, a historic researcher and professional genealogist, said the committee will clean the gravestone with a biodegradeable solution.

The solution will scour the lichen from the stone without brushing, which could further erode the inscription. While still difficult to read, the light on the upright stone makes the inscription ten times easier to discern than before. I’m hopeful the solution will increase the legibility even more.

All that remains is to pay for the modest cost of the restoration. Interested in making a donation? See the contact instructions at the bottom of the article.

A Sea Read for Your E-Reader

Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer is now available for Kindle. Other electronic formats, including Nook, should follow shortly.

Here’s the book description:

At age 23, Samuel Smedley became captain of the Connecticut state ship Defence during the American Revolution. He captured more than a dozen prizes, survived smallpox and shipwreck, saw his home burned to the ground by the British, and was twice caught and imprisoned by the enemy. And while he commanded two crews of “gentleman volunteers” — privateers — Smedley learned his profession onboard the ship Defence. But was there really a difference between the state navy and the privateers? With Smedley at the helm, what began “for the Defence of the sea-coasts” of Connecticut soon transformed into something else.

Why not celebrate Presidents Day with a little Rev War history delivered to your Kindle super-duper quick? Only $10!

Update: Now available for Nook.

 

“This Guy Was Living an Action Movie”

The local Minuteman has a nice write-up of my book by way of the restoration of Smedley’s gravestone:

The value of the captured cargo was then shared with the government and therein lay the rub. While the Continental Congress shared its spoils 50/50 with the crew of a ship, Connecticut kept to a two-thirds/one third division, which meant that Smedley had trouble getting crew, Kuhl said. With his ship thus undermanned, it was more vulnerable and hit a shoal off New London.

As for that gravestone, Lee told those gathered in Judge Caruso’s chambers on January 12, that he expects repairs will cost about $525 and that there was a prospect of some small donations already, but he wouldn’t mind if more were forthcoming.

Huzzah to reporter Meg Learson Grosso for highlighting the issue of prize division. It’s one of the most important points I hope readers take away from Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer.

Meanwhile, the judge signed off on the restoration. I’ve been skeptical of it being completed in time for a June 13 dedication ceremony, but now that wheels are moving I’m optimistic we can hit the deadline.

One misunderstanding I had: the inscription will not be recarved. Apparently the stone is too weathered and brittle. Disappointing news since the text is shallow and indistinct, although both expert Melanie Marks and D.A.R. rep Betty Oderwald told me the inscription is in good shape for its age, so maybe it will be easier to read once the stone is cleaned and the lichen brushed off.

Meg and I also made a short video in the cemetery on a cold windy day. Pop your Dramamine and have a look-see:

Smedley’s Stone Update

This week Bill Lee appeared before the Board of Selectmen to seek permission to repair Samuel Smedley’s gravestone:

Lee said he was inspired by a photo in Kuhl’s book to restore Smedley’s grave site. The original grave marker in the historic Beach Road cemetery was broken in half, and cannot be repaired. Lee has already set up a trust for donations to replace the marker.

To do so, Lee first needs permission from the Board of Selectmen and the Representative Town Meeting to make changes to the town-owned cemetery. The selectmen approved his request Wednesday, and the RTM will vote on the petition later this month. If they sign off on the plan, Lee will go to a public hearing in probate court for permission to redo the grave site.

The Daily Fairfield article contains two big mistakes. First, the gravestone will be reused, not replaced. The statement that the original “cannot be repaired” is false; the gravestone is going to be refurbished and reinscribed.

Secondly, we will not be appearing before the RTM because none of the money to repair the gravestone will come from the town. The majority of funds will source from private donations. Any public money for the project — probably minimal — will come from the state and/or federal government due to Smedley’s status as a war veteran.

The next step is the public hearing at 3pm on Wednesday, January 11 Thursday, January 12 at the Judge of Probate’s office in Sullivan Hall, where we will formally request the judge to allow the stone to be removed to the refinisher’s workshop. Bill and I will both be there so stop by if you have any questions.