Five Basic Manumissions: Sylva (1802, 52/97), Prince (1806, 52/425), Pomp (1807, 57/18), William Dean (1811, 57/237), and Hager (1809, 64/88)

So far I’ve focused on the more detailed and interesting manumissions that I’ve found in the New Haven records, but there are also quite few that only state the name and one or two details of the enslaved people being manumitted. Generally they all followed the basic form: slaveholder’s name, enslaved person’s name (usually without any surname), and formal declarations that the person to be manumitted was not too old or too young, was in good health, and really did want to be made free.

Two-thirds of those declarations existed because the government didn’t want the state’s towns to be stuck with supporting indigent formerly enslaved people (children, elderly, or sick). The third one is because under various statutes, slaveholders were treated as just as responsible for people they had once held in slavery as they were for their children, aged parents, and other relatives. In addition, in 1777 the law had been modified to allow a slaveholder to permanently escape this potential liability, if responsible local citizens certified that the freed person would do well enough on their own. 1 But note: requiring that an enslaved person declare a positive desire to be made free probably suggests a concern that such a legal bond should not be broken by only one side (as if it was a kind of contract), not a sentimental notion that most enslaved people would prefer enslavement to freedom.

Excerpt from Sylva’s manumission. New Haven Land Records, Vol. 52, Pg. 97.

Excerpt from Sylva’s manumission. New Haven Land Records, Vol. 52, Pg. 97.

Sylva was manumitted on November 15, 1802. As often happened, the document avoids using the term “slave,” substituting the phrase “Negro servant” and similar. The certificate estimated her age at twenty-five or twenty-six. According to the 1810 census, there were four heads of household in Connecticut named Sylvia, none of them white, and none in New Haven. It is doubtful that I’ll be able to find out any more about her.

Prince, manumitted on May 27, 1806, was more baldly referred to as a “Slave” in the document; the rest provided only the minimum information. In the 1810 census there were thirteen African-American heads of household named Prince, none of them in New Haven. He could actually be the Prince Cooper who appears in the New Haven land records in the 1830s, but at present I have no way to be sure.

Pomp, manumitted September 9, 1807, was also called “Negro Servant and Slave” and the documents provided only the minimum of information. In the 1810 census there were eight African-American heads of household in Connecticut named Pomp or Pompey, none of them in New Haven.

William Dean, manumitted May 23, 1811, was identified as a “Negro Slave,” and also “a negro servant … and her slave for life,” and once again, that’s it for details – except for the fact that he had apparently adopted the surname of the slaveholder. This should make it easier to find out more about him, if he kept that name, but I haven’t finished the 1820 census and there’s no guarantee that he stayed in Connecticut or managed to set up an independent household.

Hager, manumitted December 20, 1809, was variously referred to in the documents as a “a Negro” and “Slave” and also “my negro servant Hager, the person within described” (that last was in the declaration, and is a little unusual – in saying she was a person). She turned twenty-six years old in June 1809. Three heads of household named Hagar (and variations) turn up in the 1810 census, none of them white, and none of them in New Haven.

We can’t know, from these documents, whether these freed people had any personal property or money when they were made free. Did they have friends or relatives in New Haven? Were they from the city or from somewhere else? (Remember that Socoro was from Trinidad and Polly probably from Mississippi.) Perhaps they met with success in life – depending on how we define success. Does staying consistently employed as a servant in someone else’s household count as success? Should we define success as the ability to establish an independent household? Or are the only truly successful people the fabulously wealthy ones, and everyone else is a failure?


1 Edward Warren Capen, The Historical Development of the Poor Law of Connecticut, Columbia University Studies in History Economics and Public Law Vol. 22 (NY: Columbia University Press, 1905). What this bland term “responsible” means that if someone had the means to provide essential assistance to a relative (or former enslaved person) and refused to do so, the local authorities who wound up keeping the person fed, clothed, and sheltered could sue the relative to recover the expenses – and believe me, they did.

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