Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Artifact: Venture's Nails Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Lucianne Lavin and Marc Banks

(Courtesy Lucianne Lavin and Marc Banks)

A handmade nail used for boat construction

Late eighteenth century

Excavated from Venture Smith Archaeological Complex, Haddam Neck, Connecticut


5 1/4 inches in length

A group of nails excavated from the site of a homestead in the Connecticut Valley has helped tell the inspiring story of an African man's resolve in the racist world of eighteenth-century New England. They belonged to Venture Smith, formerly Broteer Furro, the eldest son of a West African prince who was abducted as a child and sold into slavery.

We know much about Venture's life from his autobiography, which he dictated to a white schoolteacher in 1798. For more than 27 years he was sold or pawned to various Connecticut men. In 1765 he finally earned enough money to buy his freedom; 10 years later he bought the freedom of his wife, Meg, and their three children. He also purchased 10 acres of land in Haddam Neck, Connecticut, and by 1798 Venture owned more than 100 acres and three houses.

But could frugality and a strong work ethic have been enough to lift him from his status as a slave to a prosperous landowner? Enter the nail at left. Archaeologists have excavated over a dozen handmade nails from what was once a warehouse on the Venture Smith homestead. Bill Peterson, a curator at the nearby Mystic Seaport Museum, identified them as clinch nails, used in small boat construction. These finds support a passing reference in Venture's autobiography that he was involved in maritime shipping. They also indicate that he built his fortune through activities such as fishing and coastal trade, and by repairing and possibly building the vessels for these businesses on his property. A simple set of nails serves both as archaeological confirmation of a vague textual reference, and as a symbol for Venture's successful enterprises, which provided the cash to free himself and his family from the bonds of slavery.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America