New Haven: Polly (1821)

In 1821, Polly convinced the woman who held her in slavery to file a formal manumission agreement on the land records of New Haven, Connecticut. Appalling though the use of the land records for this purpose now seems, it is also the case that municipal land records were extremely unlikely to be “lost” – they were, arguably, the best option for maintaining a truly permanent record. Short of ordering all the municipalities to start keeping a special-purpose record of manumissions, anyway. I can imagine the members of the legislature rolling their eyes at the idea that such a thing was necessary.

But to return to Polly: Why am I saying that she “convinced” the slaveholder to do this? That’s an extrapolation from the contents of the manumission record. The slaveholder – and presumably Polly – had recently moved to New Haven from “Natches,” which I believe must be Natchez, Mississippi. In October 1821, however, the slaveholder proposed to visit Natchez and bring Polly with her.

Clearly, Polly objected to this plan. Her specific reasons will probably never be known, but I can think of several possible ones, such as: She feared being sold and forced to remain in the South. She liked Connecticut better. She had established relationships with New Haven African-Americans (most of whom were free at this time). She wanted to be free. Or, as I truly expect, it was some combination of these.

What arguments did she use to convince this slaveholder to make this agreement? Perhaps a personal appeal was enough; it could have been that the two had known each other all their lives. Perhaps she threatened to run away. Perhaps her local friends added their appeals. Again, we can’t really know. But she convinced the slaveholder to make this contract with her:

[I] stipulate and agree with her that on her arrival at Natches whither I am now about to proceed with her she shall be emancipated and set free and on her arrival as aforesaid she is by these presents set free and emancipated provided nevertheless that unless she shall forthwith proceed with me to Nathes [sic] as aforesaid this stipulation shall be void.

New Haven Land Records, Vol. 69, Pg. 149, 10/10/1821.

New Haven Land Records, Vol. 69, Pg. 149, 10/10/1821.

Obviously this was a compromise. Perhaps the slaveholder believed that if she freed Polly in New Haven, the woman would refuse to go to Natchez at all (which seems like a rational belief, really). Freeing Polly in Natchez meant, I expect, that she would stick with the slaveholder in order to return to Connecticut after the visit.

I see two strong-willed women here, negotiating in a situation where one had great power over the other, but not enough of it (or enough will) to simply compel the enslaved person to stay with her. Alas, I have no idea what became of Polly – whether she did go back to New Haven as a free woman, or anything she did after this date. But in this document I see her getting part of what she wanted, and I hope that it was enough.

One thought on “New Haven: Polly (1821)

  1. Pingback: Slaveholder Roundup #1: New Haven | History Live!

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