A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Most people do not think of New England as a "massive landscape of slavery," but that's what archaeologist Gerald Sawyer sees when he looks at documentary and archaeological evidence from the site of an eighteenth-century plantation in southeastern Connecticut. The 30-square-mile plantation, called New Salem by its owner, Colonel Samuel Browne of Salem, Mass., operated from 1718 until about 1780.
A team led by Sawyer, an instructor at Central Connecticut State University and a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, has found evidence of African burial customs on the plantation, including cairns surrounding a Christian burial ground and in groupings on a hillside below it, some of which resemble those used to mark burials in Ghana and Jamaica. The burial ground contains nine poorly carved headstones engraved with now indecipherable initials. Pieces of quartz were placed next to many of the headstones, a known African-American ritual practice.
"The family who owns it today owned it then and the oral history in the family is that it is a slave burial ground," says Sawyer, who has discovered a document that says the "slaves are buried on the hillside."
Archaeologists on the site have found the initials "PH" inscribed on one of the graves, surrounded by two hearts carved on either side of the initials. "Those hearts, if proven, may be the Sankofa, a symbol used by many Africans to mean 'look to the past we know the future,'" Sawyer says. This headstone might be that of Pomp Henry, a slave owned by William Browne, Samuel's grandson and the last of the plantation owners. "Pomp Henry was not one of those nine, for instance, but the coincidence of the initials is a little too strong to ignore."
New Salem was one of many New England plantations that were part of the so-called triangle trade, in which rum was shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were brought to the West Indies and exchanged for molasses, which was shipped back to Rhode Island to produce more rum. Some ten percent of slaves brought to the New World ended up in the North. "Our written history suggests that there was no such thing as slavery in the North," says Sawyer. "But our Connecticut site was not working in isolation--enslavement there could not work without a global colonial political system behind it."
Sixty families of Africans were brought by Samuel Browne in 1729 to clear the plantation land and in 1759 another "gang of blacks" was brought onto the plantation. Sawyer believes that many of the New Salem slaves may have been freed in the interim. "There is such a surplus of slaves that you bring them in when you need them and toss them out when you don't," Sawyer says, adding that a 1717 Connecticut law that made it illegal to let captives loose indicates that this must have been a problem.
Sawyer thinks that freed and escaped slaves lived on the periphery of the New Salem plantation, in an area where a mill was located, and intermarried with Native Americans and poorer whites. He has found remnants of hillside rock structures on the edge of the plantation that resemble dwellings of African-Jamaicans. "The oral history in this town is that this is where slaves lived," Sawyer says.