James and Jupiter Mars’s graves: Center Cemetery, Norfolk, Litchfield County, CT

I teach at an independent school in the sleepy Connecticut town of Salisbury (pop 3,598 in 2018). I have been living here for 24 years. My lens has been largely focused on world history – particularly China – so beyond the normal US survey idea of slavery, this is a topic that I knew relatively little about. Until really recently, I was always of a mind that slavery happened “down there.” Since I’ve been engaged in the work, I’ve been amazed at how steeped Connecticut generally, and the Upper Housatonic River Valley region specifically, is in this history.

To start, I need to tip my cap to Anne Farrow and the Hartford Courant team for opening my eyes. Complicity is a must read and should be a mandatory US History textbook for New England students. Her The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory is also an amazing book.

When I began to research in my own backyard, I quickly discovered that there has been some great local work done on this front, but there is not a lot of it. An early “discovery” was that an enslaved boy from the neighboring town of Canaan escaped and was hidden for months in the basements of townsfolk in bordering Norfolk before he was recaptured and sold again to a man in Salisbury. I know this, because the young man, James Mars, wrote a book about it after he earned his freedom: Life of James Mars: A Slave Bought and Sold in Connecticut. Though I fancy myself a historian and have lived in town for 24 years, I never knew this! James’s father, Jupiter, was even a Revolutionary War Veteran. My daughter and I visited their graves, and we were pleased to see that Jupiter’s properly memorialized his service. Imagine how many other stories like James’s and Jupiter’s that are just waiting to be told.  

This fall, my students and I are going to start searching together in a new project based course called Searching for Slavery in Northwest Connecticut designed to engage us in local public history to learn about how our community benefited from the work of enslaved people. More importantly, we will learn the names of the enslaved and research and tell their stories. Ultimately, we will honor their lives by placing a Witness Stone in a place where they have lived, worked, or worshiped. Finally, my students will use this space on the Atlantic Black Box to share our discoveries.

4 thoughts on “Searching for Slavery in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut

  1. This is an incredible project that you are embarking on in identifying otherwise unknown and forgotten souls who lived and died as slaves in the NW corner of our state. By engaging the students in this work, you are impacting the youth who will carry this necessary work into the future. I wish you much success!

    1. Katherine, you have quite an American story to tell yourself about your ancestors! Please make a post telling is about your family’s work in the creation of America!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. James Mars’ story gives a unique view of how many tried to prolong the terms of enslavement through moving enslaved persons out of state and then through extending the terms provided under state law associated with gradual emancipation. We have the privilege reading of James Mars’ own words which shows us how he had to continually fight for his freedom!

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