Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Freeing Captive History Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Tom Gidwitz

The hunt for evidence of slavery in the North

[image] Warren Perry peers through a magnifying glass at a bird carved in stone that was discovered near the privy at John Selby's house. Most likely of Native American origin, it may indicate that ritual practices took place in the area. (Richard Bowditch) [LARGER IMAGE]

If you needed something shady in Stratford, Connecticut, in the late eighteenth century, John Selby was your man. A master seaman, rogue, and scrounger, he lived by his wits and his cutlass near the city's thriving wharves. But in September of that year U.S. Customs arrested him for smuggling and hit him with an enormous fine. He had been on the Housatonic River in the dead of night, shifting contraband--hogsheads of rum and, perhaps, people--between two ships owned by a rich slave-trading neighbor.

In Selby's neighborhood, almost every home had at least one slave. That wasn't unusual; more than 3 percent of Connecticut's population, nearly 6,500 people, was enslaved. In fact, slavery was rather common in the Northeast through the early nineteenth century, for it was one arm of the infamous Triangle Trade, in which Northern rum and guns were exchanged for captives on the African coast, who were traded in the Caribbean for molasses, which was shipped north to be turned into rum.

In time, Selby fled to the Caribbean to try his luck as a pirate. And like him, over the years Northern slavery did a disappearing act. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the accepted version of American history held that slavery above the Mason-Dixon line had been almost nonexistent.

But that version of history is under siege. In recent years archaeologists have been uncovering more and more evidence of slavery in the North, such as dwellings, graves, and shackles at the sites of plantations where dozens of slaves toiled on thousands of acres. In Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, archival records and excavations have shown that slavery was an economic boon to small farmers, merchants, and landed gentry, who profited from slave labor and supplies sold to slave plantations in the South and in the West Indies.

At the head of the charge is a team from Central Connecticut State University led by Warren Perry, who has made the school a center for the study of slavery in the Northeast. Perry and his colleagues have found records of the practice in more than a hundred Connecticut towns, revealed long-lost Northern plantations, and helped uncover African ritual symbols concealed in historic homes.

Where the historical and the archaeological records don't match, Perry says, "are 'points of contestation.' In normal language: Folks are lying. I want to know who's lying and why. The truth is in the ground."

Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America