That's a new one: Voluntary Slave

+9 votes

This is mostly an FYI, something curious I came across, but I"m not done, so there's a couple things I could use help on.

I've been working on slavery in CT. I'm really just working on Fairfield County, and starting with the US Census. So far, mostly working on the slave owners first. I noticed an 87-year-old man, Onesimus Comstock, listed on the 1850 Census as "voluntary slave." I next found mention in a Comstock compilation (the one by Cyrus Comstock.) That gave me enough info to match with the various owners through 7 consecutive Censuses.

I've now got him through 3 owners, and every US Census from 1790 to 1850. Onesimus has a FindAGrave memorial, complete with a picture of his stone. The text there quotes something I've never heard of, called the 1773 Visitation Journal, which reports that two old maid sisters, Sarah & Phebe Comstock, purchased him from Jonathan Husted of Brookhaven, Long Island on the 9th of August 1773. (Both of their parents died in 1766.)

Husted was born in New Canaan, CT. He was a loyalist who left this area of Connecticut, a hotbed of American revolutionary fervor. It also gives a birth date, and posits that Husted's female slave, Candace, was Onesimus's mother.

I have two candidates for Onesimus's birth owner, which I'm looking into now. It's pulling me away from working off the US Census for Connecticut. I wouldn't mind help sorting it out. But mostly it's an FYI, since I'd never imagined "voluntary slave." Here's the two candidates I'm starting to look into.

  1. Jonathan Husted (c. 1720-)
  2. Jonathan Husted (1747-1835)
Tracking slaves is a challenge. I feel a small rush of triumph whenever I find enough information about one to create a profile.
WikiTree profile: Onesimus Comstock
in The Tree House by Anonymous Winter G2G6 Mach 7 (70.8k points)
edited by Anonymous Winter

Wikipedia has an interesting article on Voluntary slavery. I didn't know it happened in the U.S. I learn something new every day here at Wikitree. Thank you Elizabeth

I knew from Irish history, that a person could end up a slave if you had overwhelming debts and sold yourself into slavery, Cumal or Mug, Slaves

This one was a little different. Onesimus was born a slave. He apparently refused to be freed when the offer was made. He was elderly by then. Slavery was completely done in Connecticut in 1848, but was phasing out even before that. Some people, rather cruelly, turned elderly slaves out on the street as the "peculiar institution" was phasing out. Also unusual: Onesimus has a gravestone.
Some of the church records where slaves are listed as being married have slaves identified as slaves and occasionally their owners are listed as having given permission for the marriage. The records of this sort I saw were in Windham county, so I'm not sure how widespread the practice was of identifying individuals as slaves.

1 Answer

+4 votes
I was watching an episode of "Do you know who you are?" and in a family tree, we saw that one African American man was the owner of his parents and some other family members.  It was explained that in the south, if you acquired your freedom, you were required to leave the state within 30 days.  So in order to keep the families together they would become the slaves of another family member.
by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)

I love those shows. We got a TiVo-like service a couple years back, and I have a lot recorded. Sometimes I'll run them end to end for background while cooking &c. Skip Gates PBS show "Finding Your Roots" gives attention to the problems that descendants of slave have in tracing their own family history. I think he helped inspire me to take this effort on. Onesimus apparently did not have any children, so he won't help. But I do like to think that maybe this larger effort could help someone some day.

Plus, as I continue to explore this area, I find it interesting how the slaves are completely eliminated from compilations like Orcutt & Jacobus (for the area I'm working on) and most of the various one-name compilations published a century or more back. Connecticut was, I've learned, the New England colony/state with the most slaves. I'm finding that the typical slave owner of Fairfield County falls mostly in the following categories:

  1. Doctors
  2. Military officers
  3. Clery (who were diligent about baptized their slaves)
  4. Graduates of Yale College
  5. Widows, & occasional others who inherited their slaves
The Comstock sisters purchased Onesimus, making his story unusual from the start. He also has a tombstone, which is also unusual. I've found a couple slave owners amongst my own ancestors. Before I'm done I could well find more. Others could make similar discoveries from this work, and I tend to think getting to the unvarnished truth is a socially useful endeavor.
I find myself wondering, too, about those coastal ship captains in the Indies trade and their crews. I've come across a dozen or more men who died in the West Indies, and even one who was born there. Someplace like Mystic seaport up by New London might be useful for that kind of research. Maybe in time, I'll look there. (If I live long enough!) For now, I've still got plenty of censuses & church records & so on first.

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