Black Governor, American Patriot

By Pauline C. Merrick ©2022

Any study of the Black Governors in early Connecticut will turn up a mention of “Sam Hun’ton, slave to Governor Samuel Huntington.” But if you dig into that legend, you begin to realize that every historical reference to this man leads back to just one source: The History of Norwich, written and published in 1845 by Frances Manwaring Caulkins.[1] The book contains this paragraph:

“After the death of this person (Boston Trowtrow), Sam Hun’ton was annually elected to this mock dignity for a much greater number of years than his honorable namesake and master, Samuel Huntington, Esq., filled the gubernatorial chair. It was amusing to see this sham dignitary after his election, riding through the town on one of his master’s horses, adorned with plaited gear, his aids on each side, à la militaire, himself puffing and swelling with pomposity, sitting bolt upright, and moving with a slow, majestic pace, as if the universe was looking on. When he mounted or dismounted, his aids flew to his assistance, holding his bridle, putting his feet into the stirrup, and bowing to the ground before him. The Great Mogul, in a triumphal procession, never assumed an air of more perfect self-importance than the negro Governor at such a time.”

All subsequent published accounts of Sam Huntington rely on this one paragraph in The History of Norwich. Can that narrative be bolstered with historical documents?

African American history and genealogy often must depend on oral history or family narratives to assemble the stories of their rich history. Official records, kept by men who believed their Black neighbors to be somewhat less than human, can be incomplete or entirely missing. So as researchers, we must turn to diaries, newspapers, and other such sources to attempt to recreate an accurate picture of the early African-descended populations.

However, those narratives, diaries, news reports, etc. should be used with caution. It has been proven time and again that people’s memories can be faulty. Newspaper accounts can be exaggerated or sensationalized. Diary entries can be misinterpreted due to lack of understanding of historical context. And even accurate reporting of events can be slanted to the author’s point of view—for example the mocking reporting of the celebration of a newly elected Black Governor. Ideally, these unofficial histories can be backed up by vital records or other primary sources or a logical argument of proof. Can the story of Sam Huntington be supported by documentation or logic?

What was a Black Governor? This office was peculiar to Connecticut, although Massachusetts and New Hampshire also elected Black “Kings.” In a largely ceremonial gesture, the Black residents—both enslaved and free—held elections, usually in May, to elect their own leader. This was a local event rather than a statewide office. Election day was a holiday for the Black participants, but the office held no real power. Minor squabbles among the Black population could be settled by the governor and penalties and punishments assessed. There was, of course, no jurisdiction over White citizens.[2]

Let’s break down the “known facts” about Sam. First, the dates of his service as Black Governor.  Caulkins merely states that Sam was elected after the death of Boston Trowtrow. We do know that Boston Trowtrow died in 1772; he has a rather striking gravestone in the Old Norwich Cemetery. What we don’t know is whether a new Governor was appointed or elected immediately after Boston’s death. There are no records of elections of Black Governors, and the Norwich newspaper at the time did not carry any news concerning the event.[3] So we have no primary source as to the beginning of his reign. An end date of 1800 seems to first appear in print in a Connecticut Courant article from 1998. Katherine J. Harris in African American Connecticut adds the end year of 1800 to the Caulkins narrative, stating that the scene she describes took place in that year.[4] Caulkins does not actually state what year this “triumphal procession” took place, or even if she witnessed that scene.

To verify Caulkins’ narrative, let’s look at her life. Yes, a female author wrote a well-regarded history of the town of Norwich in 1845. Frances Manwaring Caulkins was born 26 April 1795 in New London.[5] Her father, Joshua Caulkins, died before her birth while on a trading voyage to St. Domingo.[6] St. Domingo, now the capital of the Dominican Republic, is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean and an active participant of the slave trading industry, dating to the earliest days of the settlement of North America.

In 1806, Frances began school in Norwichtown as a pupil of the Rev. Joshua L. Williams, opening her own school there in 1820. A memorial to her was published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register not long after her death in 1869, written by Henry P. Haven, her half-brother. In that sketch he relates that Frances was known as a child for spinning stories, not unfrequently from her own imagination.[7]

Caulkins obviously did not experience what she described first-hand; if indeed Sam Huntington ended his days as Governor in 1800, Frances would have been a mere five years of age. That colorful, noisy, and moving scene must have been related to her by an older person, perhaps her tutor. The description mocks the scene as overly grandiose, with scorn for the way Black actors mimicked their supposed “betters.”

Governor Samuel Huntington, signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776 and 1778–1781. He was President of that Congress for his last two years of service. He returned to Congress in 1783 and served many years as Chief Justice of the Connecticut Superior Court. He was elected Governor of the state in 1786 and served until his death in 1796. It is odd to compare the span of service of a Black Governor or to doubt Governor Huntington’s dedication to service to the state and country.

The Gov. Samuel Huntington House is a historic house at 34 East Town Street in Norwich, Connecticut, built in 1783.

Was Samuel Huntington an enslaver? That has not yet been determined from the available records. He left no manumission records, and his surviving letters mention no personal matters such as his servants. There is only one clue in available records, and that one is ambiguous. In the 1790 U.S. census, Samuel Huntington of New London County is shown to have one enslaved person in his household.[8] The household consists of two white males over the age of sixteen (Samuel and his adopted nephew, Samuel Jr.) and four females (Samuel’s wife Martha Devotion, his adopted niece Frances and two unknown.) Also, there are two “other free persons” in the household. So, who owned the enslaved person? It is not possible to draw a conclusion from this data.

Did Sam Huntington exist, or was he a figment of Frances Caulkins’ imagination, fueled by the stories of her tutors?

A Black man named Sam Huntington did indeed live in Norwich in that era, and Caulkins may have known him. Sam Huntington is enumerated in the 1810 census with a household consisting of three “other free persons.” A “negro Sam” is enumerated in Norwich in the 1790 and 1800 census records, living near the residence of the Governor Samuel Huntington. The approximate location of his home can be correlated with a recreation of the town in a 1795 map, which shows a row of shops across the street and just west of the Huntington mansion.

Was Sam enslaved by Governor Samuel Huntington? Almost certainly not. The only Black man named Sam associated with the Huntington family was enslaved not by Samuel but by his cousin, Jabez Huntington. Jabez, far more powerful and wealthy than Samuel, was Sam’s enslaver. The homes of Jabez and Samuel were mere yards apart. Jabez manumitted Sam in 1781 along with another man named Guy.[9] Joshua Huntington also allowed “Bena” his freedom at the same time. Caulkins mentions the Guy and Bena records in her volume yet fails to mention the entry for Samuel. Is it possible that the Jabez/Samuelentry caused her to be confused or did she simply choose to ignore it?

Jabez Huntington, friend of Governor Jonathan Trumbull and cousin of Samuel Huntington, was appointed Major General in charge of the Connecticut Militia at the start of the Revolutionary War. He was instrumental in procuring supplies for the army. Jabez, a lifelong resident of Norwich, made his fortune in shipping and trade with the West Indies. Jedediah is the most famous of his many sons, having participated in several noted battles of the war and being promoted to Major General. At the start of hostilities, Jedediah was Colonel of the Norwich militia, and moved his force to the Boston area in response to the British occupation of that city. Jedediah wrote home from camp in Roxbury, November of 1775, “Sam will come home at the expiration of his term the 6th of December; no negroes are to be enlisted.”[10] And in May of 1776, “I cannot improve Sam so as to get anything for his service. I should think as he has commenced as a Sailor it will be best to continue him so…”[11]

Sam “Negro” is listed in the roll of Col. Jedediah Huntington’s 8th regiment, 1st company, enlisted 10 July 1775 and discharged 12 Dec of that year.[12] He seems to have been a well-known and trusted member of the Huntington household, trusted to accompany Jedediah to Roxbury. No enslaved individuals were allowed to re-enlist when the army was consolidated under the command of George Washington. Sam returned to Norwich.

Jedediah’s brother Joshua holds his own place in Revolutionary War history. In 1776, he was requested to build a frigate for the fledgling navy. The construction was done just south of Norwich, and many local men—Black, White, and Native—made up the workforce. Records building indicate that Samuel Huntington worked in the site’s blacksmith shop from early May of 1778 through the end of November. Working Monday through Saturday, Sam put in an average of five and a half days each week. After the blacksmith work was finished, he appears on several returns of “riggers” working on the final details of the ship.[13]

The frigate was launched in late 1778 as the Confederacy. A list of the vessel’s officers and crew in 1779 includes a seaman named Samuel Huntington.[14] Is this the same Sam? There are other Black individuals noted among the crew, and no member of the rich and powerful Huntington family is likely to be counted among lowly seamen. He was not a member of the crew the following year when the Confederacy was seized by the British and her sailors jailed. The May 1776 letter from Jedediah Huntington to Jabez mentions that Sam had “commenced as a sailor.” Sam quite possibly served as a crewman before the hostilities commenced in one of the Huntington vessels that made frequent trading trips to the West Indies.

Where was Sam born? Possibly right in Norwich, perhaps even in the Huntington home. Boston Trowtrow, enslaved by Jabez Huntington, had been baptized by the Reverend Benjamin Lord, himself an enslaver. Church records note the baptism of Boston’s children—a son named Jason, baptized 24 March 1745, and an unnamed child baptized 1 March 1747.[15] That unnamed child would be the approximate age of Sam. After the death of Boston, it would be logical that his son might take his place as Black Governor.

It is also possible that he was purchased by the Huntington family. On 16 May 1765, Jedediah wrote to his father: “Joseph Williams’ two negros fall into your hands…the negro boy is at our house and the girl with Williams.”[16] This boy may have been of an age to be Sam.

Complete tax records of Norwich during the years just prior to and after the Revolution may have revealed more of Sam’s history. Unfortunately, the records held by the Connecticut State Library are not complete. Records exist for 1741 and 1742, 1752, 1753 and 1754, they then jump to 1794, the year that Governor Samuel Huntington died. In 1754, Jabez Huntington was taxed for six “heads” – which may include adult men who he enslaved.

A Black man named simply “Samuel” died in Norwich on 28 December 1811 at the age of sixty.[17] As there are no other African Americans named Sam who are noted among the residents of Norwich at the time, this is almost certainly Sam Huntington. An age of sixty in 1811 would have put him in his mid-twenties—the prime of life—during his service in the Revolution.

This is the real story of Sam Huntington, enslaved and later freed by Jabez Huntington, trusted soldier in the War for Independence, adventurer to foreign ports and subject to the capture of British prizes, steady head of a Norwich household, and, just perhaps, Black Governor.


[1] Frances Manwaring Caulkins, The History of Norwich, From its Settlement in 1660 to January 1845, Thomas Robinson, pub, Norwich, CT, 1845, p 185. Online Google Books.

[2] For more information on Black Governors, see https://museumofcthistory.org/connecticuts-black-governors/.

[3] The Norwich Packet newspaper is available to search online at Genealogybank from November of 1773 to February of 1802.

[4] Elizabeth J. Normen, ed, African American Connecticut Explored, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2013, p 41.

[5] Reuben H. Walworth, LL. D., Hyde Genealogy, Albany; J. Musell, 1864. Vol I, page 1011. Online at Ancestry.com, accessed September 2021.

[6] Ibid, Walworth

[7] Henry P. Haven, The Register, New England Historical and Genealogical Society, Boston, MA. v23 pg402, 1870.

[8] U.S. census, 1790, New London county, CT. Series M637, roll 1, page 190, image 110. The town names in this county are not identified; however the correct Samuel Huntington can be determined by comparing the names of the neighbors in the census to a map of the homes of Norwich in 1795, created by the Norwich Historical Society.

[9] Town of Norwich Land Records, book 26 page 272. The manumission was not recorded until 1787, after the death of Jabez.

[10] Huntington Papers, Correspondence of the Brothers Joshua and Jedediah Huntington During the Period of the American Revolution, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT, 1923, p 251.

[11] Ibid, Huntington, p 284.

[12] Record of Service of Connecticut Men, War of the Revolution, Hartford, CT, 1889, p 89.

[13] The Frigate Confederacy Papers, 1776-1786, archival materials, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Collection 222, folders 17 & 18.

[14] Record of Service of Connecticut Men, War of the Revolution, Hartford, CT, 1889, p 601.

[15] Ancestry.com, Church Record Abstracts, volume 084, Norwich, page 395, referencing vol 2 page 121 & 126. Boston is noted as being a servant to Daniel Tracy, but he was not included in the inventory of Tracy taken in 1771. There were many business dealings and marriages between the Tracy and Huntington families; it is quite likely that Boston was passed between them also. Jabez Huntington mentions the death of Boston in one letter to his son Jedediah.

[16] Ibid, Huntington, p 205.

[17] Ancestry.com, Church Record Abstracts, volume 084, Norwich, page 395, referencing vol 8 page 69. FHL film #007903279, Records of baptisms and communicants, church disciplinary actions, accounts of the church and the society, and record of deaths in Norwich First Society (1807-1826, image 488 of 504.

One thought on “The Real Sam Huntington

  1. Thoroughly researched, this article does real service in understanding black lives in Norwich, and Connecticut. This points out the difficulties in accepting statements by 19th century historians at face value.

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