The History Of Slavery In Vermont, Across New England

Feb 20, 2020

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jeffrey Brace was a Vermont farmer, husband and father, a Revolutionary War veteran, and near the end of his life, a memoirist. Prior to all that, however, Brace --  who was born Boyrereau Brinch in West Africa -- was kidnapped by slave traders and sold, first in Barbados to a New England ship captain and later to a family in Connecticut.

Brace lived toward the end of when slavery existed in New England according to Jared Ross Hardesty, associate professor of history at Western Washington University and author of Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England.

“It existed from pretty much the moment that English settlers arrived in the region, so the 1620s and 30s, up through the early 19th century,” he said. “Although there are still enslaved people in the region up through the end of the Civil War, and so slavery is only actually ended in places like Connecticut, for example, in 1865 with the 13th Amendment.” 

Hardesty said in the 17th century, most enslaved people in New England were abducted from what’s known today as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That changed over time, he added, with more people captured from the area south of the Saharan Desert by the early 18th century.

A number of enslaved people of African descent in New England were also born in places like Barbados, Antigua and Surinam, Hardesty said.

He said English colonists enslaved indigenous people, too:

“Outside of the Puritans enslaving the local indigenous population in the early 17th century, there’s also a fairly robust trade in enslaved people, enslaved Indians from the Carolinas being sold to New England in the early 18th century.”

Religious roots?

The idea of slavery, Hardesty said, was justified by the way the Puritans engaged with religion.

“Depending on how you read the Bible, it can be radically anti-slavery -- so the book of Exodus, for example, is a slave rebellion. But on the other hand, if you read Leviticus, for example, there’s also sorts of laws for governing the treatment of enslaved people,” he said. “In the Bible, it condones slavery in a lot of ways.”

Plus, when the Puritans fled to New England on account of religious persecution in England, Hardesty said they brought certain “cultural baggage” with them.

“One of the ideas they bring with them … is that one way to make a colony successful is to ensure you have a constant supply of labor, and enslaved Africans can actually provide that labor,” he said.

Hardesty pointed out how much of New England was built by slave labor. Take Boston for example:

“Working on roads, bridges, buildings, digging wells, digging ditches, digging aquaducts -- all of that sort of work was done by enslaved people,” he said. “Enslaved people were certainly victims, but they were also central to building, through exploitation, building the place we live in now.”

In Vermont

While Vermont was the first state in the nation to abolish the enslavement of any person over the age of 21 in its 1777 Constitution, Hardesty said there are documents showing abolition was not a clean or complete process.

“There was a very strong tradition of anti-slavery,” he said. “Yet when you look at legislation from the Vermont Legislature in the 1780’s and in the 1790’s after statehood, there’s a number of laws that are passed that are banning slave trading, that are banning the selling of enslaved people out of Vermont, and what this suggests is this practice is still going on.”

Hardesty added the 1810 Vermont census does enumerate slaves.

“There were slaveholders in Vermont even after the Constitution,” he said. “That’s a fairly common thing across the region.”

Slaveholding was more common in urban areas — at one point a quarter of Boston families owned slaves — and in productive rural areas like the Connecticut River Valley, but Hardesty said Vermont farm families often had one or two slaves to supplement their labor needs.

The Brace family

Following five years of military service during the Revolutionary War, Jeffrey Brace was a free man when he moved to Poultney, Vermont in 1784.

According to Poultney’s Historical Society, he worked to save up the money to buy some land, married Susannah Dublin, a widow and African woman, and eventually moved his family and farm up to present-day Franklin County, Vermont, first in Sheldon and then in Georgia.

Towards the end of his life, when Brace had lost his eyesight, he dictated his life experiences to anti-slavery lawyer Benjamin Prentiss and published the memoir The Blind African Slave.

Rhonda Brace of Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Courtesy, Rhonda Brace

Nearly two centuries later, State University of New York at Buffalo American studies professor Kari Winter found the book buried in the University of Vermont’s special collections, edited and republished it. And that’s how Rhonda Brace found out about her great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

“It was back in 2004 or ‘05, a colleague of one of my uncles provided him with a newspaper article from the Rutland Herald,” she said, adding the article was about The Blind African Slave.

While Jeffrey Brace’s life in Vermont wasn’t always happy — Susannah Dublin's two older children were forced into indentured servitude, and neighbors harassed the family — Rhonda Brace said she was proud to learn her ancestor enlisted in the Revolutionary War to be free.

“In 1783, he received the badge of honor and received his manumission,” she said.

Rhonda also said after a lifetime of telling people she was African American, learning about Jeffrey Brace finally allowed her to connect herself back to Africa.

“To be able to connect myself back to Africa — to go back further than Vermont — was really a profound finding for me,” she said. 

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, February 20, 2020; rebroadcast at 7:00 p.m.