By Cole Vashel
The first African slaves came to the United States in 1619, and the first to New England arrived in 1638 (Watrous 289). From here, slavery thrived in the United States for generations. For more than two hundred years slaves would be beaten, sold, overworked, killed. They would be dehumanized. Their lives wouldn’t be their own. Their lives would be determined by their masters. What they did, who they met, where they went, and what they said was all micromanaged. They couldn’t do anything about it. But among this darkness, some light illuminated the enslaved people of New England. In the mid-eighteenth century, a slave named Pompey would live under his masters. The oldest in a large family of slaves, Pompey would live to the old age of eighty-nine and would be one of the final slaves in Guilford at his death in 1819. Throughout his long life, Pompey faced many hardships, but he still proudly showed his agency as a human being and helped pave the way for his descendants to live their life in freedom.
Pompey’s Early Life
Slaves first arrived in New England in 1638, coming to North America along with the other goods being imported to the New World (Watrous 289). Slavery had become an economic necessity for slave owners by the time Pompey entered the world. Born in 1729/30, Pompey was the first child of the slaves Montros and Phillis (“Connecticut Vital” 325). The two met in 1728 when they were sold to David Naughty of Guilford. Pompey would have eight younger siblings throughout his life. Three of Pompey’s siblings died early on, one, the second born named Ceazer, died only three days after he was born (“Connecticut Vital” 325). Pompey’s first owner was David Naughty. In Naughty’s will, he declared that his slaves had been good servants and that he wished for the family to be freed and provided with a house upon his wife, Ruth’s death (Probate Court). Unfortunately, that would not be so. David Naughty’s wife, Ruth Naughty, stated in her will that, despite her husband’s wishes, the slave children would be sent to other owners upon her death. This included Pompey, who would be sold to Ebenezer Dod upon Ruth Naughty’s death in 1772 (Probate Court). It is clear from this that slaves like Pompey were treated as property and had no control over their future.
Pompey’s Later Life
While it is unknown how long Pompey was the property of Ebenezer Dod, we can assume that he was with him until Dod’s death. In the late eighteenth century, Pompey was inherited by his fourth and final owner, Benjamin Chittenden. According to Louise Watrous, the author of the book Madison, “Benjamin Chittenden was never unkind to Pompey, he had an exacting nature, and being a hard taskmaker, even with himself, naturally he expected as much of others” (Watrous 291). While it is unknown how Ebenezer Dod treated Pompey, it seems that Pompey had some kind owners. David Naughty, who attempted to free Pompey, and his wife who, although she failed to emancipate Pompey, did free Montros and Phillis, who did leave Pompey money and other goods in her will. And according to Watrous, Ben Chittenden allowed Pompey certain freedoms that other slaves did not have. Watrous’ accounts read, “One day when Pompey became exasperated with the demands of his master, he made the following remark: ‘[Master] Ben, ah [sure] won’ be sorry when ah see [you] goin’ [over] Clapboad Hill on [four] men’s shouldah’s’”(Watrous 292). Going over Clapboard Hill on four men’s shoulder’s means going to the cemetery in a coffin, so Pompey is saying that he won’t be sorry when Ben is dead. Watrous doesn’t mention any retaliation, so we can assume that Pompey wasn’t punished for something that should merit a punishment for most slaves. This shows that Chittenden and Pompey may have had a relatively good relationship throughout their time together. This is also an example of Pompey showing his human agency. When he was being overworked, he didn’t back down and obey his owner. He voiced his opinion as a human being should.
Pompey lived with Chittenden until his death in 1819 (Burgis). Despite his first owner’s wish for him to be freed, Pompey did not die a free man. Pompey’s life was a sober reminder of the oppression these slaves lived under, but the struggles of Pompey paved the way for their descendants to live their lives in freedom. A great nephew of Pompey, Elymas Rogers, used his freedom to help others. He was part of the American Colonization Society, and as a member, tried to return free African-Americans to their homeland of Africa (Wilson). Another relative, Bertram Wilson, was a member of the 332nd fighter group during World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black group of fighter pilots. He did his part fighting for the freedom of his country and the world, scoring four aerial victories over the German Luftwaffe (Kearns). These people represent the legacy of Pompey and all the slaves who suffered so that their descendants can live their lives however they choose.
Pompey led a life under the oppression of slavery, but he still lived it in a unique way. Although he is gone, his relatives are still here on Earth to continue his legacy. Slaves like himself were dehumanized throughout their lives under their owners, but Pompey lived unafraid of them, proudly portraying his agency as a human being.