John Speed’s A Map of New England and New York, published in 1657, used Dutch cartographic information to locate indigenous people. Land on the east side of the lower Connecticut River, shown as Mohegan territory, would be named Lyme in 1667.
Slavery in Historic Lyme
When Lyme became a “plantation,” or settlement, separate from Saybrook in 1665, the newly established town on the east bank of the Connecticut River covered 80 square miles of upland, forest, and salt meadow. Historic Lyme’s four ecclesiastical parishes later became the independent towns of Lyme and Old Lyme, and parts of East Lyme and Salem. Ministers, merchants, and farmers on today’s Lyme Street and throughout the Lyme region held African Americans and Native Americans in bondage.
The settler colonists who built early homesteads on former tribal land near the mouth of the “Great River” laid out a cart road along a path used for centuries by indigenous people. That “highway” led along the east bank of today's Lieutenant River, connecting the hillside meetinghouse, the Connecticut River ferry, and the
corn mill near today's Mill Lane.
A map drawn in 1768 by Rev. Ezra Stiles, later the president of Yale College, locates the meetinghouses on opposite sides of the Connecticut River and also the ferry crossing.
In 1768, Rev. Stiles also drew a map showing the approximate boundaries of Lyme's parishes
A map of Barbados published in 1657 shows two slaves fleeing from a mounted pursuer. Between 1666 and 1672 some 2,000 enslaved Africans a year arrived in Barbados to expand the production of English sugar plantations. Lyme property owners shipped horses, barrel staves, and agricultural products to Barbados in exchange for sugar and rum. [David Eltis, The Total Product of Barbados, 1664-1701]
For more than a century, enslaved workers cleared and cultivated land, provisioned and serviced households, and produced surplus goods for export along the road later known as Lyme Street. The majority of persons held in bondage in Lyme were African-descended, some were Native American, and others were of mixed race, classified then as “mulatto” and considered “black.” Although English volunteers from Lyme, including the town's first minister, fought in King Philip’s War in 1675, none is known to have received captured indigenous Americans as compensation. Native people who labored in servitude lived primarily in the town’s east parish near the Nehantic reserve on Black Point. A smaller number were enslaved or indentured in the west parish, today’s Old Lyme.
Living Enslaved in Lyme
John Warner Barber, West View of Lyme, Connecticut, ca. 1836..
Throughout the Lyme region enslaved farm workers plowed and harvested, cut salt hay and timber, fenced roadways, quarried granite, raised and slaughtered livestock, sheared sheep, tanned hides, hauled agricultural products to river landings, and occasionally served as deckhands on local vessels engaged in coastal trade. Enslaved domestic workers provided food and firewood, cleaned sculleries and hearths, washed clothes and bedding. They cured meat and salted fish, spun flax and wove fabric, and cared for the sick, the elderly, and the young. Their involuntary labor contributed essentially to the economic development of the town and to the prosperity, social prominence, and political influence of those who kept them enslaved.
Those held in bondage, starting with two captive Africans enslaved before 1670 on Richard Ely’s estate along the Connecticut River, could at any moment be sold or given away. They were housed, clothed, and fed, but they worked without choice, without pay, and without control of their movements or their destinies. They mingled, married, raised families, acquired education, received medical care, and worshipped only with the consent of an owner. A law passed in 1708 imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black person in the Connecticut colony who disturbed the peace or attempted to strike a white person.
Some who lived in servitude on Lyme Street married and had children; others remained alone. Some died young, some were baptized, some ran away, some went to sea, some were emancipated. A few found work after being freed and became self-supporting. Two received bequests from a former owner. Others drifted, turned to drink, or became “paupers” dependent on town relief. None left diaries, letters, or written traces of their lives in Lyme.
Enslaved persons in Connecticut were held in bondage for life until 1784 when a gradual emancipation act ruled that those born after March of that year would be freed at age 25. The last slave in Lyme was “set at liberty” in 1820, and Connecticut abolished slavery in 1848.
William Noyes house
John McCurdy house
Samuel Mather Jr. house
Slaveholders in Lyme
The prospect of available land in early Lyme attracted new inhabitants with varied backgrounds, connections, skills, and experience. Land speculators, shipping agents, mariners, artisans, and ministers all saw opportunities for financial benefit in the growing settlement at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Inhabitants cleared land for dwelling houses and for family farms and orchards while building roads, bridges, wharves, dams, and livestock pounds. They also established gristmills, sawmills, fulling mills, shipyards, and fisheries. Such ventures required heavy labor to fell trees, saw boards, haul timber, quarry rock, pull plows, herd stock, harvest salt hay, barrel shad, and load vessels.
Smaller landowners relied on their own labor and that of their sons to provision their families and produce some surplus goods for export. The purchase of slaves allowed larger landowners to increase production and spare themselves and their sons from heavy labor. One of Rev. Moses Noyes’s sons became a doctor; the other served as Lyme’s town clerk and justice of the peace. One of Judge William Noyes’s sons became a doctor, another a minister, and two served as justices of the peace. Richard Lord’s son became a New London County judge, and Judge John Griswold’s son became a lawyer, and later the governor of Connecticut.
Deed of sale, Joseph Peck Jr. to Benjamin Reed, 1729
Enslaved persons were costly, but after an initial investment, owners provided only housing, food, clothing, and occasionally medical care. Available deeds of sale show that Richard Lord Sr. bought Temperance for 60 pounds, Renold Marvin bought Ceser for 80 pounds, and Rev. George Griswold bought Cornelia for 80 pounds. The initial investment brought benefit not only with the immediate availability of labor but because enslaved women could birth children who became the enslaver’s property. Enslaved workers and their children could then be sold, providing a direct source of revenue for Lyme property owners. Richard Lord Jr. sold Oxford, Temperance, and Joel for 180 pounds; Joseph Peck Jr. sold Jane at age three for 25 pounds; and Elijah Ely sold Prince, age 11 or 12, for 32 pounds.
Slaves could also be distributed to family members, sparing them the purchase price. Richard Lord Sr., Rev. Moses Noyes, and Thomas Griswold all gave their sons and daughters enslaved workers. Judge John Griswold likely gave the child Cato to his son-in-law Rev. Jonathan Parsons, Samuel Mather Jr. passed Jack Howard as a youth to his son James Mather, and Judge William Noyes provided the boy Harry to his son Rev. Matthew Noyes in North Branford.
Retaining involuntary laborers posed challenges. Some tried to escape servitude, prompting owners to advertise for their return. On today’s Lyme Street alone, Caesar escaped from John McCurdy, Samuel Waukeet ran away from Dr. John Noyes, Pomp ran away from Joseph Noyes, and Anthony ran away from John McCurdy’s widow Ann McCurdy. Because supporting slaves, especially as they aged and became unproductive and infirm, could impose unwanted costs, John McCurdy allowed Humphrey to purchase his freedom, and Samuel Ely gave Peter “liberty to hire himself out to any Body” toward the purchase of his freedom. Marshfield Parsons released Basil to board with Cato, himself formerly enslaved.
James Martin, Portrait of Judge William Noyes, c. 1798. Florence Griswold Museum
The former parsonage of Rev. Jonathan Parsons, much altered when his son, Marshfield Parsons, added a rear ell for the coaching in call Parsons Tavern. Shown here after construction of a new Meetinghouse in the adjoining field in 1817.
The economic gain from retaining slaves could nonetheless outweigh the difficulties. Enslaved workers allowed the cultivation of large tracts of land and the production of surplus goods, which could be shipped to sugar plantations in the West Indies in exchange for sugar and rum. Local merchant John McCurdy became one of the wealthiest persons in Connecticut, and Samuel Mather Jr., called Lyme’s “merchant prince,” amassed a valuable estate that included the town’s most elegant home, substantial landholdings, coastal trading ships, wharves, and warehouses stocked with lumber, housewares, fabrics, luxury clothing, and rum.
How slaveholders treated those they enslaved in Lyme and what living conditions they provided have not been documented. What local slaves ate, what they wore, and how many hours a day they worked is not known. Only one enslaved person is known to have been literate. Local records occasionally note charges for medical treatment, like a visit by Dr. John Noyes to treat Basil in Marshfield Parsons’s household, for which the bill remained unpaid.
Unless a law was broken, the disciplining of those held in bondage remained an owner’s responsibility, and punishments were documented only when serious injury occurred. County Court records show multiple incidents of enslaved persons being badly mistreated in nearby New London, but no evidence of physical abuse or whipping in Lyme has been found.