'Above-ground' railroad in Ashleyville took in Connecticut runaways

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Black History Month afford opportunity to consider an inglorious aspect of our region’s history: slavery.

Until recently, we didn’t have much information to ponder. Most of us thought plantation slavery was an institution of the South, only to learn, through the efforts of Warren Perry, associate professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, of a graveyard, stone foundations and other evidence of an African slave enclave in New Salem, part of a plantation.

Other fresh research tells us more about the Northwest Corner experience. There were slave holders here and in adjacent New York and Massachusetts, certainly, though few in number. Most of them were paternalistic. They had one or two domestic or farm slaves.

Researcher Jonathan Olly has located advertisements in the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer from 1779 offering a $20 reward for Sharon farmer Reuben Hopkins’ runaway "Negro Wench named ZIL, about 13 years old, small of her age, pretends she is free."

Philonus Beardsley in 1807 advertised for a runaway boy, Elid: "Whoever will return said boy to his master at Kent, Ore-hill, shall be entitled to twelve and a half cents reward and no charges."

The order in which each state abolished slavery is instructive of how small the black populations are here today.

Massachusetts wrote its constitution in 1779 and clearly stated: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property, in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

Those noble words were not penned with emancipation in mind. It took a savvy woman in Ashleyville (today Ashley Falls, Mass.) to interpret them and trigger change. A native of Claverack, N.Y., the woman known only as Bett was enslaved along with her sister Lizzie in the Col. John and Annetje Ashley household, which today is maintained as a house museum by The Trustees of Reservations.

Struck by her mistress in a fit of rage, Bett traipsed across town to ask lawyer Theodore Sedgwick to plead her cause in court. She had overheard discussion of the new constititution by Ashley, Sedgwick and others in the colonel’s parlor, and wondered why it didn’t apply to her.

Women were not recognized in court. Sedgwick paired her case with that of Brom, a male slave in the Gen. John Sedgwick house just up the street—the general being the colonel’s son—and the case was heard at the Inferior Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington in August 1781.

Ashley, a justice in that court, resigned his appointment to avoid conflict of interest. Judge William Whiting presided. The jury, reported foreman Jonathan Holcom, found for the plaintiffs and assessed a modest fine. Bett and Brom were free. Both found employment with Sedgwick, who resettled in Stockbridge. Bett became Elizabeth Freeman, raised a family and eventually purchased her own small home.

Slavery ends in Massachusetts

Historians have pondered whether Ashley was, in fact, sympathetic to the case and was a little disappointed at the outcome. A paternalistic slaveholder, he had two women (Bett and her sister) and three men (Zack, who had earlier brought an unheard suit against the Ashleys as well, John, an older man, and Harry). Zack left the Ashleys until after Mrs. Ashley’s death, further suggesting the woman’s ill-temper. John stayed on as Ashley’s manservant. Harry, who probably worked outdoors, also stayed with the colonel. Ashley hired a white woman, Jane Steele, through an apparent indenture arrangement, to keep house and cook.

Ashley had several rural businesses, including a blumery forge, grist mill and country store. A dozen ledgers that survive in the family from the late 1790s through early 1810s reveal some interesting things going on.

With the success of Bett, and the near-simultaneous case of Quok Walker in the eastern part of the commonwealth, slavery was finished. There was no instant manumission, however. News traveled slowly. Owners hated to give up free labor.

Gen. Ashley found a way around the ruling; he went to New York state, purchased an enslaved black woman, converted her status to indentured servant, and brought her back to Ashley Falls.

Most of the freed blacks had no place to go. When shooed out the door, blacks were handed no coins to help them become independent. They had minimal skills.

Deed records show only one Negro, Jupiter Rogers, purchased land in Sheffield before 1800. Most who left their white owners’ employ apparently squatted on nearby land in a benevolent arrangement; benevolent, as the property owners looked the other way when it came to land ownership, and the blacks continued to labor the fields for the whites. Several of these freed agrarian blacks apparently settled on Berkshire School Road in Sheffield, in a section uncharitably known as New Guinea for years. For decades there were remnants of this settlement and others in Sheffield, Great Barrington and Stockbridge.

Slower change in Connecticut

Meanwhile, Connecticut squires were in no hurry to change laws regarding slavery, nor was New York. The Nutmeg State introduced gradual emancipation in 1784 (allowing slaves born after that year to become free at the age of 25) but it did not finally abolish slavery until 1848. By then, there were six slaves remaining in the entire state.

The Empire State followed a similarly lethargic path with a 1799 "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery," ultimately ending slavery in 1841.

The above-ground railroad

Something interesting was going on in Ashleyville while Connecticut and New York dawdled. Blacks may not have been educated, but they were smart and had good ears. They began to run away. Many channeled from North Canaan or Salisbury into Ashleyville.

No one ever wrote of it directly. There’s little hard evidence. But the Ashley account books certainly suggest an early "above-ground" railroad. New names appeared in Ashley’s ledgers. Some, such as Cesar Negro and Adam Negro and Henry and Luther Brown, were around a while. Others, such as William, Isaac, Belijah, Heary and Ebenezer, disappeared within a few months. (Transactions were barter; there was no cash economy.)

In a 1798 day book, Jim Negro came into the store to purchase brandy, immediately followed by Mary Negro and Banajah Negro to do the same. They were obviously on a toot. They were a bad risk. But the storekeeper was agreeable that day. They never reappared in the ledger.

It seems very likely these individuals were Connecticut or New York runaways who had stopped temporarily with others of their color to catch their breaths before traveling elsewhere to settle in freedom. It’s a pattern familiar to many ethnic groups then and since.

Bounty hunters sought the runaways. No story of the hardships endured by a runaway is more dramatic than that of North Canaan-born James Mars, who fled an unsympathetic indenture holder by way of Norfolk, hid out and barely escaped capture before he eventually settled in Pittsfield, Mass. In freedom, he proudly voted in five presidential elections.

Never great in number—by 1800 there were 6,281 people of African descent in Connecticut, 83 percent of them free and virtually all living in urban areas—blacks in the Northwest Corner who hadn’t run away before, found no agricultural opportunity here when freedom finally came.

Thus the dearth of black communities or even hints of them here today.


An excellent source of information about the African-American experience here is Jonathan Olley’s chapters in "African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley" (2006), edited by David Levinson. Bernard Drew contributed to that book and also wrote "If They Close the Door on You, Go in the Window: Origins of the African American Community in Sheffield, Great Barrington & Stockbridge" (2004).

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