Lost in Plain Sight

Recently I attended a biannual meeting of The Association for the Study of Connecticut History where I heard Marta Daniels speak about her co-discovery of the first tract of land owned by Venture Smith. Smith, if you’ve never heard of him, was an 18th-century African slave who, through sheer acumen and industry, died in 1805 a free and wealthy Connecticut landowner. His autobiography is the only existing testimony in which the narrator describes his childhood in Africa, his subsequent capture and servitude in America, and his life as a free man. He’s becoming something of a folk hero here in Connecticut, as he should be.

Daniels, an antiquarian, described how she and hydrographer Nancy Byrne pinpointed Smith’s original land in Stonington. The general area of the tract was known but previous researchers had made several critical errors in interpreting Smith’s deed, leading to the wrong piece of land being attributed to him. What stumped historians was that the deed clearly noted the parcel’s four corners were marked by rocks with certain initials carved into them — but no one could find the rocks. By returning to the original deed and using GIS, Daniels and Byrne were able to correctly identify the shape and location of the parcel. The women then plunged into the muggy, mosquito-choked forest to test their theory, and sure enough, located the markers. The revealed parcel further demonstrates Smith’s business sense. As a rocky hillside, the 26 acres were probably perceived as junk land by whites, but for Smith, who made his money lumbering and trading, they were a trove, thickly wooded and providing access to the Sound. He sold the land four years later at a profit.

Daniels gave a longer version of the same presentation on C-SPAN.