A Digital Journey Through Local History

The Story of Rhoda

Hi folks, sorry for the hiatus, I was working like crazy getting ready for the presentation I gave at the Plainville Historic Center a few weekends ago. Now I’m preparing for a talk about Italians in Cheshire that I’ll give at the Cheshire Historical Society on April 20 and another about World War One and my WWI project that i’ll give on April 25 at the Sharon Historical Society. Needless to say I am feeling a bit swamped! Thankfully I love what I do so it isn’t as stressful as it might sound, it’s the car troubles, the leaky roof, the never-ending grocery shopping (a result of teenage boys!) that gum up the work.

Christine Pittsley and Gail WilliamsSo the talk I gave in Plainville was one of the most humbling talks I have ever given. The talk came about after years of seeing the amazing Gail Williams at meetings and events all over the state. Gail runs the Queen Ann Nzinga Center (named after a 15th century African queen) in New Britain, a center that does some amazing work in empowering youth, as well as supporting Nzinga’s Daughters, a musical group that plays music from the African diaspora. Gail, and her large extended family, are also descendants of some of Cheshire’s African-American community.

The presentation I gave was about Rhoda, a free Native American girl born in Milford about 1740, who was later sold into slavery in Cheshire to Joseph Hall. She had four children, Lilly, Hampton, George and Peter with Dick Bristol, an African American man who served during the Revolutionary War to gain his freedom. The family, and Rhoda’s status at birth was the cause of a petition made to the General Assembly in 1790 that surely rocked little Cheshire.

Letter from Elnathan Beech to Elizur Goodrich or Simeon Baldwin,
MSS 55, Baldwin Family Papers, Series I, Box 4 Folder 72, Simeon Baldwin Correspondence Nov-Dec 1791, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

This case pitted Cheshire’s leading men against each other, stirred debate over the role of slavery and ignited tensions with the town of Wethersfield with the kidnapping of Lilly. On December 7, 1791 five men armed with clubs and led by Roger Riley, entered the home of Dick and Rhoda and “forcibly carried off” Lilly to parts unknown. After several months and lots of letter writing, William Law, Dr. Elnathan Beach and some others in Cheshire figured out where Lilly was and sent three African-American men armed with long knives & staves to the home of John Robbins Jr. in Wethersfield (now Rocky Hill) to retrieve Lilly and her brother George. On April 9, 1792, Philip, a free man from Cheshire, Joseph Prin was a “servant” of John Webb of Wallingford and Jack, living in Southington, was a “servant” of Moses Rice of Wallingford.

How was it that this never made the papers? The folks in Wethersfield tried to have everyone involved charged with violating “An act for preventing & punishing riots & rioters“. This law stated that three or more persons assembling to do an unlawful act could be fined £10, imprisoned for up to 6 months, or whipped up to 40 stripes. A Grand Jury was convened in Wethersfield and they issued a writ to John Merriman of Wallingford to arrest Philip, Joseph & Jack for unlawfully assembling, using force and violence and causing terror to the good people of Wethersfield.

Stephen Mix Mitchell of Wethersfield, who was the presiding judge for Hartford county, signed off on the writ. Today lawyers would cry foul as Mitchell was also a member of the Council of Assistants (i.e. a state senator of which there were 12) and one of the three committee members appointed to examine Jonathan Hall’s General Assembly petition. Talk about a conflict of interest. The case doesn’t seem to have been heard in court, though a hearing may have occurred at the house of Col. John Chester of Wethersfield.

The General Assembly eventually, three years after the petition was brought, found that Rhoda had indeed been born free, making her children free as well. The General Assembly laid out a long list of who was owed what and by whom to satisfy the now null and void warranties that had accompanied each sale. The only people who were not refunded their purchase price were David Hotchkiss, who had purchased Rhoda from Joel Ives as he had “absconded to parts unknown.” This meant Dick Bristol was also not reimbursed, go figure! The petitioners were able to recover some monies from the estate of Stephen Judd, but no claim was made on the estate of Adam Hurd, who is the man responsible for the whole affair. It was Hurd after all, who sold Rhoda into slavery.

This fact may have been unknown to the General Assembly. By the time the case was heard in 1790, the original players were all dead – Joseph Hall had died in 1787, Stephen Judd in 1777, his wife Mary Wheeler in 1749 and Adam Hurd in 1757. There is no mention of the sale of Rhoda to Mary Wheeler save a date, so it is possible the General Assembly never saw the document I found a few weeks before this presentation. I was digging around in our manuscripts card catalog – (remember those? We still have a bunch of manuscript material that has not been electronically cataloged yet!) and my eye happened upon the name “Mary Wheeler” as I flicked through some cards. I gasped as I saw the rest of the entry – it was a bill of sale between Adam Hurd of Woodbury and Mary Wheeler of Woodbury for a girl name Rhode. I flipped! It was a stray in the collection of the Atwood Family Papers. It had been found while cleaning the library and was put into the Atwood Papers because they were a Woodbury family.

I pulled the collection and almost cried when I saw it. The original bill of sale dated March 7, 1747 with the remnants of the seal still there. This was the document that changed Rhoda’s life. This was the document that caused her to spend the next forty-three years as a slave and to see her children sold away from her. This was the document that made her a slave.

Bill of Sale, Rhode, 1748
RG 000, Classified Archives, 920 AT95, Atwood Family Papers, State Archives, Connecticut State Library.

To all People to whom these presents shall come Greeting
Know ye, that I Adam Hurd of Woodbury in the County
of Fairfield & Colony of Connecticut in New England for the
Consideration of one hundred pounds Money old Tenor in
hand Recd of Mary Wheeler of sd Woodbury Have made
over & Conveyed unto her the sd Mary Wheeler & to her
Heirs & Assigns for Ever, all my Right, Use & Interest
in & to an Indian Molatto Girl Named Rhode to sd Mary
Wheeler her Heirs Executors & Administrators the sd
Girl Named Rhode as her & their own proper Estate
for Ever, without any manner of Condition Provided
only she & they providing & procuring such things for her
comfortable subsistence as shall be judged Convenient
for any one in such a Relation, In witness whereof
I have set here to set my Hand & seal this 7th Day of
March AD 1748                     Adam Hurd
Signed Sealed & DD
in our P[re]sence
Joseph Minor
Eleazr Hinman

This is a small piece of Rhoda’s amazing story. She and Dick remained in Cheshire, living amongst the people who had enslaved her and fought to keep her enslaved. Rhoda died in 1799 and was buried, in what is now an unmarked grave, in the African Burying Place in Hillside Cemetery. Hampton, who died in 1813 is buried there with her and Peter, who took the last name of Bellamy is buried in Southington. He was one of the original settlers at the Birches, an African American settlement in Southington near the Plainville line. It was here that a number of families from Cheshire, like the Naaman’s, settled. Peter Naaman, the progenitor and contemporary of Rhoda and Dick, also lays buried in an unmarked grave in Hillside Cemetery along with a number of his children and at least one of his wives. As I mentioned earlier, this was the most humbling presentation I have ever given, because as I looked out at my audience, I saw the faces of Rhoda, Dick, and Peter Naaman reflected back at me. I was speaking to their direct descendants. This wasn’t just a story to them, it was their family history.

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