Chauncey Judd

Tobiah and Rachel

Captain Wooster's most important helps in the management of his farm and tavern were a colored man, named Tobiah, and his wife Rachel.

At that time slavery was recognized and protected by law in Connecticut. It was always of a comparatively mild type, being free from most of those oppressive features which in later years attached to the institution in our southern states. The marriage of slaves was legal; they might own property, and, if they could, learn to read and write; indeed, most people felt it to be their religious duty to see that their negroes were so far instructed as to be able to read the Bible. Though subject to chastisement for petty offenses, they were protected by law, and by that public sentiment which is more powerful than law, from the inhumanities to which the system nearly always gives rise. Indeed, the condition of a slave, except what pertained to his social status, differed from that of a free man chiefly in that his services were compulsory, and without compensation.

Few slaves were, or ever had been, held in Waterbury. The great proportion of the early settlers, says Bronson, were too poor to own that kind of property. Luxuries of all kinds were beyond their reach. They lived in the plainest manner, and did their own work. Owing to a lack of tools, machinery, roads, productive lands prepared for tillage, or, in other words, capital, the surplus products of labor were small. Comparatively, a man could do little more than maintain himself. Hence the necessity that all should work – young and old, male and female. If the addition of a negro to a family increased production, it also increased consumption, and, if a support in infancy and old age is taken into the account, almost in an equal ratio. Hence the inducement with the early planters in Waterbury to own slaves could not have been great, even could they have found the means to purchase them.

The few slaves that were held in this town seem to have belonged mostly to the clergymen. Rev. Messrs. Southmayd, Leavenworth, and Scovill, of Waterbury Center, and Rev. Mr. Trumbull, of Westbury, now Watertown, owned two each – generally a man and woman. One of these, named Dick, once owned by Mr. Scovill, died in 1835, at the age of ninety. Some half a dozen other persons are mentioned as holding this species of property. In Derby, Rev. Daniel Humphries had two slaves, named Cambridge and Kate, his wife. Dr. Mansfield had several, and many more were held by other men of the town. Indeed, Derby having been a seaport, enjoying, before the war, a considerable trade with the West Indies, had imported numerous slaves from those islands, so that there was comparatively a large colored population in the town.

In some cases the slaves were Indians. In the earlier periods of New England, the practice of reducing the aborigines to bondage prevailed quite extensively through all the colonies.

Nor were slaves procured from the colored races alone. Not a few emigrants from England and Ireland, who were too poor to pay their passage, were sold, with their own consent, on their arrival, for a limited time. In one of the newspapers at New Haven, under date of 1764, is an advertisement of a parcel of Irish servants, both men and women, to be sold cheap. Thieves, vagrants, and all single persons who live an idle and riotous life, might, by order of any court or a justice of the peace, be bound out to service for a term of years, or for life. Our fathers were inveterate foes to idleness, and the common saying about birds they applied to men, He that can work and won't work, must be made to work.

At the time of the Revolution, the essential wrongfulness of slavery, except for the punishment of offenders, began to be commonly acknowledged. The discussions that were had, as to the inalienable rights of all men, tended to set this matter in a clearer light than had ever been attained before. Very many persons voluntarily emancipated their slaves – some by direct gift, some by will, enjoining it upon their heirs to support comfortably such as should be unable to take care of themselves. Indeed, prior to 1777, such support was made compulsory by law on all who should free their slaves. The following anecdote, related in Dr. Stiles' History of Ancient Windsor, will show in what estimation this provision of the law was held by some, at least, of the colored people themselves;–

An aged and infirm Windsor slave, working in the fields with his master, was observed to be very moody and silent. At length he broke the silence by saying that such a neighbor had given his slave his freedom, and modestly suggested that, Massa ort to gib me my freedom.

The master quietly replied,–

Well, Tom, you may have your freedom.

May I, massa? When?

Now, was the reply.

What! now, massa – right away? exclaimed the surprised slave.

Yes, Tom; you may stick up your fork where you are, if you choose, and be free.

Tom stood looking upon the ground more moodily than ever, while his master went on with his work. After half an hour's consideration, Tom resumed his labor, remarking, with a knowing look,–

No, massa; you hab de meat, now you may pick de bone; me no go and take care old Tom myself.

In 1777, a law was passed authorizing the selectmen of the towns, upon application of any master, to grant liberty of emancipation, without such liability, whenever they were satisfied that it was likely to be consistent with his (the slave's) real advantage, and that it was probable he would be able to support himself, Under this provision, very many blacks were emancipated to become soldiers in the army, the selectmen gladly conferring the license, and assuming the risk of the future dependency, for the sake of thus completing the quota of the town, and saving the inhabitants from draft. The surnames of Freeman, Freedom, Liberty, etc., which abound in the lists of the soldiers, show to what extent this form of emancipation was practiced.

In 1784, the year after the war, an act went into effect, declaring that no negro or mulatto child, born in Connecticut subsequent to March 1 of that year, should be held in servitude after he or she had attained the age of twenty-five years. Other laws, from time to time, still further restricted the institution, and ameliorated the condition of those held under it, and in 1848 it was abolished altogether.

Among the negroes that had been brought to Derby from the West Indies was a man named Pero, belonging to Deacon Riggs, who lived on the road, called from him Riggs Street, leading from Derby to Gunntown and Waterbury. Pero was supposed to be a native African; indeed, be used to boast that he was of royal blood.

My fader, said he was king in his own country. He had plenty of wives, and heap of soldiers. My mammy she lived in a house in de bush; she had nice mat and calabash, and was one great lady. But one day, when my fader and his men was huntin', white man come and burnt all de houses. Den dey took my mammy and her two boys, – one younger dan me, – and drove us away to de ship. It was a bad time we had on de water. My poor little brother died, and dey trow him in de sea. Mammy cry and go crazy when dey takes him away from her, and when we got to Jamaica, she die too. I's a picka-ninny den, – little feller, – and I feel very bad to lose my mammy. But de new tings I see made me forgit, in little while. Dey sends me 'way to de sugar plantation, where I fared very well. Massa was kind to me, and I had little to do but lie in de sun, and suck de sugar-cane.

But this lazy life of indulgence did not last long, and he was soon made to feel what slavery is. I know not how he came to be sold, but he had scarcely arrived at manhood before he found himself removed to Connecticut, under the comparatively mild ownership and authority of the good Puritan Deacon Riggs. In due time, by consent of his master, he took to himself, as a wife, Hagar, a slave of Rev. Dr. Mansfield. By her he had two sons, Tobiah and Laban, – both noted persons in their day, – and perhaps other children.

Tobiah had been purchased by Captain Wooster, and was, at this time, his man of all work. He was about thirty years old, of a mahogany rather than sable complexion, and his face scarred by small-pox. He was tall and muscular, lithe of limb and fleet of foot, bearing the palm – of which he was not a little proud – for running, leaping, and wrestling among all the men of that region. He wore in winter an immense fur cap, made of the skin of a wildcat, which he had caught in a trap in the woods, the short tail banging behind his head, and the grinning teeth fastened in front as if about to spring upon its prey. His brother Laban is remembered. also, as having worn a somewhat similar cap, made of the skin of a loon, – a large aquatic bird, sometimes caught in this latitude, – which had been dressed with its feathers on, and was so shaped as to resemble the living bird brooding upon his head. Of these caps the brothers were proud, both as trophies of their skill in hunting and as specimens of their taste in the fine arts. A coarse flannel frock, often mended with parti-colored patches and bound about his waist with a rope's end, constituted Tobiah's outer garment, which, if not as gay as Joseph's coat of many colors, answered at least as good a purpose for wear, without subjecting him to the inconvenience, which the too fondly loved son experienced, of being made the object of envy from those less fortunate in their earthly possessions.

Captain Wooster was a great hunter, the extensive mountainous region bordering upon the Naugatuck Valley, and stretching off to Great Hill and the Housatonic, furnishing a large variety of game. Wolves, bears, wildcats, deer, and many smaller animals had once abounded there. Indeed, he had enclosed a tract of some hundred acres of land, running up on to the hill west of his house as a deer park, within which be claimed the exclusive right to keep and hunt the animals. It is said that on one side of the enclosure the boundary, for some distance, was a natural precipice, from which the deer, when pursued by hunters in the adjacent regions, would leap into the fold, where they would be safe. The place, we believe, is still called The Park.

Tobiah's venatorial instincts of course found much to gratify them in this district, and few men caught more foxes, and coons, and rabbits, and squirrels than he. Equally congenial to him, likewise, were the duties connected with the tavern, the care of horses, waiting upon guests, and the like. He loved to hear the news, to pick up the small gossip and stories in circulation, and after his chores were done, to mingle in the sports of the youngsters, – the leaping, and running, and practical jokes, – in which he rarely came out second best. His imperturbable good humor, his strength, and skill, and wit, made him a general favorite, not only in the neighborhood, but among travelers and others who sought the hospitalities of the inn.

But Tobiah, like many another man more renowned than be, found his destiny and the crown of his happiness in the smiles of a woman. Rachel, Mrs. Wooster's kitchen drudge, was the daughter of Peter Hull, an aged negro, who had long been in the service of the Woosters. Peter's wife was dead, and be had become decrepit with years and toil. He lived in a small hut under the hill, a short distance from the captain's, which was reached by a lane crossing the brook, in the rear of the tavern. Here Rachel, with filial affection, cared for his comfort, nursed his rheumatism, and did what she could to cheer his lonely days.

Rachel was as frolicsome as a kitten, and delighted in playing off her pranks upon Tobiah. Indeed, it might be said that it was by these she won his heart. She would hide his cap or mittens when he was going out; she would put chestnut burs into his bed; she would throw her dish-cloth in his face, if he came near her in the kitchen, or spill the salt in his cup of cider, or drop an icicle down his neck, or snatch the chair from behind him as he was about sitting down. When he attempted to catch her for retaliation, she would evade his grasp with the suppleness of an eel, while her rippling laugh and merry crow of exultation completed his discomfiture.

At last he could stand it no longer. He vowed he'd be even with dat gal; so one day he asked her to be his wife.

Yes, she cried, if you can catch me, and springing through the open door, darted up the lane leading to her father's.

Tobiah was as nimble as she, and set forth after her at his utmost speed. But Rachel had a minute's start of him, and notwithstanding his longer stride, she reached the cabin, and shut and fastened the door behind her, before he could overtake her. The echo of her laugh might have been heard half a mile as she appeared at one of the windows, and cried out to him,–

Oh, Toby! don't yer wish yer could? Got ter run faster'n dat ter catch dis yer nigger! Thought 'twas an elemphant coming up de lane; oh, massy,! and she went off again in a giggle which seemed to threaten suffocation, and woke old Peter, who was lying on a tattered bed in his bed-room.

Ho, chile! he cried; what's de matter wid ye? S'pects yer in mischief now. Who's dat yer a talkin' to!

Rachel did not mind the inquiry, but continued her frolic with her lover. He tried to open the door, but finding it fastened, he appeared at the window where she had defied him, and begged to be admitted to the house. She refused, and called him all sorts of nicknames, then raised the window an inch or two, and as he put his hand underneath, suddenly brought it down again to pinch his fingers. At last, wearied with her fun, and perhaps with some tender relentings at the vexation she was causing Tobiah, who in her heart she really liked, she coyly unfastened the door, and opened it a little way, taking care, however, to brace herself behind it. But this was of little avail to stay the impetuous Tobiah, who, with one strong push, burst open the door, and caught her securely in his arms.

It was a great day at the tavern when Tobiah and Rachel were married. Peter, who had given his consent with tears running down his happy old face, had had a suit of new clothes given him by his master in honor of the occasion. It had been proposed to the bridegroom that the ceremony should be performed by Captain Wooster himself, who was a magistrate, and would do it for a less sum than Parson Mansfield, if he came up from Derby for that purpose. But Tobiah would not listen to this. He was able to pay, he said, and he was going to be married just like white folks. For slaves, as I have stated, were allowed to have property, and Tobiah, in the course of years, had laid up quite a little sum of his own. So one Saturday he borrowed the captain's mare, and rode down to the Landing to engage the clergyman for that interesting service.

Wants yer to come up to Cap'n Wooster's next Monday night, Massa parson, he said; gwine to be a wedding dar.

A wedding, Toby?

Yes, massa; and here's de publis'ment and de barns; Yo'll read 'em in de church to-morrow?

Oh, yes; I'll publish the banns; but who is it, Toby?

Me, parson, and Rachel. Wants yer ter come shuah. Bring yer book wid yer, and marry us just as you do white folks. What d'ye ax, Massa Mansfield, for marryin'?

Well, Tobiah, white folks usually give me about six shillings, said the doctor, highly amused, – sometimes more, – and if you are going to be married just as they are, it will be right that you pay the same fee – won't it?

Yes, massa, dat's right; you come and marry us just like white folks, and I'll gib you just de same pay.

The "barns" were published according to law, and on the appointed evening, the good parson presented himself in Captain Wooster's kitchen for the performance of his official duty. Her mistress had given Rachel a white dress which had belonged to Miss Ruth, and if there was any lack of diamonds, it was fully compensated by the sparkle of the laughing black eyes, which could not be sober even in a time of so much importance as this. Tobiah was gorgeous in crimson small-clothes and white stockings, while his woolly head, powdered after the fashion of the times, towered a foot above the red and yellow handkerchief which did duty as a turban by his side.

The ceremonies were completed, the festivities of the occasion were over, the clergyman was about to depart. Tobiah had apparently forgotten the promise which he made, when the latter jocosely reminded him of it.

Come, Tobiah; you remember the bargain: I was to marry you like white folks, and you was to pay me like white folks

Yis, massa, sartin. But you habn't dun it.

Haven't done it, you rogue? What do you mean?

I means, sar, just what I says. Yer no sing de psalm, and yer no kiss de bride!

Amid the loud laugh which followed this speech, the minister, somewhat disconcerted, replied,–

But, Tobiah, that's no part of the ceremony. You are married just the same whether the bride is kissed or not.

Don't know about dat, sar; yer don't think it's 'nuff when yer hab purty white gals to marry. Yer said yer'd marry Rachel and me just de same way.

Argument was unavailing; the joke was too good to be spoiled, and the continued merriment of the company convinced Dr. Mansfield that he had better leave the matter as it was, unless he was prepared to meet fully Tobiah's expectations. So be said,–

Well, we won't dispute about it, Tobiah; you are welcome to my services.

Stands by de bargain, sar, replied the latter, with unshaken gravity.