On an overcast day last July, two history buffs with copies of colonial-era deeds, digital mapping skills and a bad case of "the Venture Smith bug" set out into thick, swampy forest deep in the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington, hoping to add one more piece to the rediscovery of the life story of an amazing African-American.
Hiking through steep, rocky land traversed by dozens of old stone walls but no trails, Chester residents Marta Daniels, a writer and antique shop owner, and Nancy Byrne, a hydrographer and owner of a hydrological surveying business, located the rocks at the edge of the property described in the deed and a stone foundation believed to be the remains of Venture Smith's small home. Just as the deeds described, on two of those rocks they found carved the letters "S" and "P," probably for the neighboring Stanton and Palmer family lands, and on another, "ID," for the abutting property owner John Denison. The letters "I" and "J" were often used interchangeably in colonial script.
"When we found the carved 'S.' we thought, 'Oh my God, that's it," said Daniels. "We walked on and kept following the deed directions, and scraped a rock and found the ID."
Enslaved in Africa in 1739 at age 10 and brought to New England, Smith lived and farmed at this site after accomplishing the rare feat of buying his own freedom in 1765 and then these 26 acres five years later. The two women's discovery, setting aright local lore that had misplaced his farm, marks an important step in establishing Smith as a figure of international significance to commemorate the story of the thousands of Africans captured from their homelands and shackled on ships for voyages through what came to be called the Middle Passage to lives of slavery in the New World.
"Wherever he was is worth preserving," Daniels said. "This site represents a tangible expression of an important historical figure. The Atlantic slave trade took away a person's identity, and when he could buy land, he was buying his identity back. We owe it to ourselves to hold this man up. He gives us all great inspiration."
Daniels and Byrne presented their findings Friday at a two-day conference on Venture Smith sponsored by the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights in Torrington, which has been involved in intensive research on Smith for the past several years. The conference, which included Northeastern University African-American Studies and history Professor Robert Hall playing the part of Smith in period costume as well as a discussion among descendants of Smith and the families that once owned him, took place at the state Department of Environmental Protection headquarters in Hartford.
The DEP, as the owner of Barn Island, has a keen interest in helping preserve the Venture Smith site as well as the 130-acre farm at the mouth of the Salmon River in Haddam Neck. There, Smith died a wealthy man in 1805 after having told his life story in what is now considered one of the most important written works by an African-American.
The Haddam Neck property is within the buffer of land surrounding the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant and is still owned by the utility, said Edith Pestana, administrator of the environmental justice program at the DEP. The New London County Historical Society owns one of the original copies of Smith's narrative, first published in New London in 1798, and sells reprints at its headquarters at the Shaw Mansion on Bank Street.
"It's one of less than a dozen firsthand accounts (from enslaved Africans), and the only narrative that clearly documents his life in Africa, his passage and his life going forward," said Chandler Saint, president of the Beecher society.
Saint said Smith's life is the best documented of all the Africans taken through the Middle Passage because his narrative describes tangible sites on both sides of the Atlantic that anchor his story in real places that can be preserved, studied and visited. These include the slave castles in what is now Ghana on the west coast of Africa, the port in Barbados where the Rhode Island slave ship the Charming Susanna first brought him, and the large Fishers Island farm once owned by Robert Mumford, who bought Smith as a boy for four gallons of rum and a bolt of calico, took away his given name of Broteer and replaced it with "Venture" to connote the commercial potential he saw in the youth. On the farm, which grew foodstuffs shipped to Barbados for the slaves who worked the sugar plantations, the 6-foot, 2-inch Smith worked for two decades before being sold several more times and eventually ending up as the slave of Oliver Smith in Stonington, from whom he bought his freedom. Ultimately, the two Smiths became partners in various trading and commercial projects.
"Venture and Oliver Smith went through a process of transforming themselves from owned and owner to equals in commerce," Saint said. "These two people seemed to have had the capacity to set slavery aside."
An application is pending with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to designate the Venture Smith sites as world heritage sites, Saint said. In addition, there are plans to begin archaeological work at the Barn Island foundation this summer, and hopes of doing archeological work at the Haddam Neck farm, where Smith also had a dry dock for boat repairs and shipbuilding.
Saint and others researching the Smith story say the more they dig, the more interesting the story becomes. Although there's still more research to be done, he wants the Venture Smith story to become widely known among the public and used in schools to teach about slavery and one man's remarkable ability to overcome it. Thus far there have been four books written about his life and a BBC documentary. On a newly produced CD, Hall reads Smith's autobiography.
"After four years of intense sleuthing, we're at the point now where we're set to bring it into the public sphere and educational arenas," Saint said. "There's no way we'll be able to save these sites without public support."
The Barn Island site represents a crucial turning point in Smith's life and his role in colonial society. Despite laws in 1700s Connecticut forbidding any black — whether enslaved or free — from owning property, Smith was able to buy his freedom then his first piece of land by earning money cutting wood, staying up late at night to repair broken equipment, growing food for sale and hiring himself out during time off from his duties as the slave of Oliver Smith. In his autobiography, there are even passages that seem to indicate that he was able to work and harvest from the Barn Island land he ultimately bought while he was still enslaved, or after he was free but still earning the money for the land.
Along with academics and historians, also attending the conference was Steve Solley, a descendent of the Denison family. The Denisons are related to Oliver Smith's family, he said, and are coming to realize their connection to Venture Smith. At a family reunion this summer, Solley said, Saint was invited to speak about Venture Smith. The Denison ancestors, prominent in Stonington in the 1700s, "had to know who Venture was" and probably had business dealings with him, said Solley.
Smith is one of only a few freed slaves in colonial Connecticut known to have owned property, Saint said. As he continued to amass wealth from trading, farming and lumbering, Smith purchased the freedom of his wife, Meg, their four children and several other blacks.
"It took me five years to buy my freedom," said Hall, playing the part of Smith during the conference. "Eighty-five pounds it cost me. It took me nine years to purchase the freedom of my whole family."
Smith is buried in a prominent place in the cemetery of the First Church of East Haddam, Saint noted, and chose the epitaph for his gravestone to identify himself and define his life in his own terms. It reads:
"Sacred to the memory of Venture Smith, an African though son of a king, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave, but by his industry he acquired money to purchase his freedom, who died Sept. 19, 1805 in ye 77th year of his age."