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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Tossing Lines: Making sense of Col. Ledyard, hero and slaveholder

    Colonel William Ledyard may have freed his slave, Jordan Freeman, now honored with a stone memorial on Fort Griswold, but that didn’t mean Ledyard was a fan of emancipation, for he would continue to enslave others.

    The common Ledyard-Freeman story claims that friendship drove the emancipation of Freeman by the benevolent Colonel, but lying just under the surface of their relationship was the reality of human bondage in New England.

    Col. Ledyard was a West Indies merchant, and though I’ve found no evidence he dealt in slaves, his wealth was earned off the backs of slaves. Connecticut merchants shipped food, material, livestock and horses to the sugar plantations worked by thousands of slaves, and brought home the sugar, molasses, and rum that fed the New England economy, part of the worldwide market that perpetuated slavery.

    Ledyard never knew a life without slaves. Connecticut legally acknowledged slavery in 1650, almost a century before Ledyard was born in 1738, and slavery would remain legal until 84 years after his death in battle on Fort Griswold in 1781. William Ledyard grew up with family slaves, and his 1782 probate record, filed by his wife after his death, listed a “Negro wench” as property, no doubt a household servant.

    Ledyard’s widow, Anne, also remained a slaveowner after William’s death. The first U.S. census for New London County in 1790 lists Anne as owning two slaves, a female named Daph, and a male called Mingo.

    Ledyard was a19-year-old, up and coming merchant when Samuel Gould of New London made a slave voyage to Africa in 1757 to join other men from Connecticut who regularly bought black men, women, and children in Africa to bring back to New London.

    By about 1774, when William was 36 years old, there were about 5,100 slaves in New London County, making it the greatest slaveholding section of New England. It seemed everybody had a slave or two, both wealthy and middle-income families. Many of the names we see on street signs today were slaveowners: Shaw, Hempstead, Ledyard, Mumford and Avery, and many others.

    Slave labor was a vital part of many Connecticut businesses and households. Enslaved people manned ships, worked in shipyards, warehouses, and shops. They built barrels and barns, constructed roads, and shoed horses. They ironically harvested crops destined for the West Indies that would feed their brother slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations. Female slaves in Connecticut homes cared for children, cooked, cleaned, milked cows, and made clothes and medicines.

    In reality, close relationships between masters and slaves rarely existed. White Americans considered Africans less than human, and slaves never forgot or forgave that they or their ancestors had been kidnapped, torn unwillingly from their homeland, from their children, parents and siblings, and transported to a hostile society far away, into a lifetime of forced service to others.

    Some acclimated, while some did not. It’s important to understand that “acclimation,” does not infer acceptance, as it might appear in cases like Jordan Freeman’s. Acclimation was merely a survival strategy. The traumatic stress of extended captivity can trigger unnatural behaviors, like a bond between captive and captor. Freeman was no doubt a conflicted man after America had decimated his family, culture and heritage, and stole his freedom for years.

    Freeman died defending Fort Griswold, perhaps out of loyalty to Colonel Ledyard in gratitude for his emancipation years before, or for any number of other personal reasons. The emotional damage of human bondage makes Jordan Freeman’s real story too psychologically complex to be reduced to a simplistic, heartwarming American folktale as in “Jordan Freeman Was My Friend,” by Richard White.

    After Freeman’s emancipation, William and Anne Ledyard continued to own slaves, yet, in their moral defense, it must be recognized that this was their world, their way of life, the culture of their time, unsavory as it may be in hindsight.

    When Anne died in 1790 at age 46, her Last Will & Testament freed her female slave Daph, but not her male slave Mingo. He was likely passed on to a relative, possibly by his own choice.

    Not every slave was prepared for freedom.

    Compassionate as they may have been in freeing two slaves, William and Anne Ledyard remained slaveowners until their deaths, ignoring the era’s moral dilemma, the paradox of Americans fighting for their inalienable right to freedom as they themselves enslaved other human beings.

    John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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