Sharon African American History Compilation: 1748-1865
Compiled by Jonathan Olly, March 1, 2006.
African-Americans were among the first to settle in Sharon, predominantly as slaves. Peter Pratt, Sharon’s discredited first minister, mortgaged his slave Pegg to two men from Dutchess County, New York on May 25, 1748 to settle debts. In Hartford’s Connecticut Courant newspaper on November 10, 1766, one Simeon Smith of Sharon advertised a farm for sale, adding at the bottom, “A likely Negro Man, well skill’d in Farming, and the Pot-Ash Business, to be sold by said Smith.” The anonymous man demonstrates that slaves were valuable skilled workers, in this case in the manufacture of soap, glass, and other products from wood ashes. Treated as a piece of property to be bought and sold, many slaves escaped. Two examples from Sharon are known:
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TWENTY DOLLARS REWARD.
Run away from the subscriber in October last, a Negro Wench named ZIL, about 15 years old, small of her age, pretends she is free, the last she has been heard of she was going to Lenox.
Whoever will return her to her master shall receive the above reward; or if any person will send word or inform her master so that he can get her again, shall be well rewarded for their trouble.
Sharon, January 25, 1779
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FIVE DOLLAR REWARD
Ran away from the subscriber, living in Sharon, about the 20th of June last, a NEGRO MAN, named DARBY, about five feet six inches high, 25 years of age, speaks broken; had on when he went away, a tow cloth shirt and trowsers only; he formerly belonged to Canterbury, and is supposed to have gone that way; and as he had an inclination to enter into the service, it is likely he will attempt to enlist.
Whoever will take up said Negro and secure him in any goal in the United States, so that the owner may have him again, shall be entitled to the above reward, and necessary charges paid by
Sharon (State of Connecticut) July 16, 1782
Reuben Hopkins waited four months before advertising the escape of Zil. Interestingly, Hopkins mentions that she is probably going to Lenox. She demonstrates that slaves as well as free blacks moved over the porous borders separating the northeastern colonies. While her reasons for heading to Lenox are unknown, Massachusetts would outlaw slavery within a decade, starting a long tradition of flights northward to freedom. Also, Hopkins’ reward of twenty dollars was unusually large in comparison to the five-dollar rewards military companies offered for deserters at the time.
In part because of the difficulty of retaining sufficient numbers of white recruits, military ranks opened to blacks in 1777 and remained so through the end of the war. Joining a military company would have provided a means of escape as well as financial or patriotic reward for Darby. Whether he eventually enlisted is unknown. The only identified black Revolutionary War soldier from Sharon is a man known only as Negor, who served from 1777 to 1779.
Methodist ministers Harry Hosier and Freeborn Garretson preached in Sharon on June 20, 1790. One source records that they preached under a tree to about one thousand people – nearly half of the town’s population. A town history written in 1877 recalls that Hosier, either on June 20 or at a later date, was arrested and charged with a “crime against the peace and good order of society…. The crowd assembled to witness the proceedings was so great that the court was held in the Congregational Church on the public green.” Eventually the trial ended with Hosier found not guilty. Interestingly, the Congregational minister at the time, and probably the man who presided over Hosier’s trial was Cotton Mather Smith, a descendent of the famous Puritan minister.
By the 1800 census slavery had ended in Sharon, and a free black population of thirty-nine grew to ninety-one in 1820 and 135 by 1860. Town records of the 1850s and ’60s record many marriages and births of African-American residents. At least fourteen different white lawyers, town clerks, ministers, and justices of the peace performed marriages for blacks in town, hinting at positive relations between the black minority and white majority. The records often listed the occupations of each spouse and included laborer, housekeeper, farmer, soldier, stonecutter, sailor, and basket maker. There was also at least one family with one spouse listed as “white” and the other “colored,” though it’s impossible to clarify often arbitrary definitions of race.
During the Civil War sixteen African-American men from Sharon enlisted in the Twenty-Ninth, Thirty-first, and Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiments – the latter being ostensibly an all white unit. The soldier in the Fourteenth, William Bush, may have been either light-skinned enough to pass as white or simply no one cared about his skin color. Tragically, eleven of the sixteen men were killed or wounded.
In a sign of respect for the fallen soldiers of Sharon, black and white, the town erected a soldiers’ monument in 1885. Included on the north, west, and east faces are names of four of the seven blacks that died: William H. Gaul, Charles Treadway, and William and Henry Bush. The stone memorial continues to perpetuate the “noble deeds and sacrifices” of Sharon’s citizens. The graves of the Bush brothers are together with their parents in nearby Hillside Cemetery.
Charles F. Sedgwick, General History of the Town of Sharon (Armenia, N. Y.: 1898), 44.
The Connecticut Courant and the Weekly Advertiser, Monday, November 10, 1766, No. 98, p.1.
The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, Tuesday, March 2, 1779, No. 736, p.1.
The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, Tuesday, July 16, 1782, No. 912, p.1.
David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775-1783 (Chester, CT.: 1973), 60.
Abel Stevens, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: 1864-1867), electronic edition: http://www.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/0201-0300/stevens/0219-247.htm.
Charles F. Sedgwick, General History of the Town of Sharon, Litchfield County, Connecticut (Armenia, N.Y.: 1898), 87.
History of Litchfield County, Connecticut, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia, PA: 1881), 584. Sedgwick, 198;
Lawrence Van Alstyne, Burying Grounds of Sharon, Connecticut, Amenia and North East New York: Being an abstract of Inscriptions from Thirty Places of Burial in the Above Named Towns. (Amenia, N.Y.: 1903), 14