Moses and Oliver Mitchell: Portraits of Two Late 18th-Century African Americans in Windsor

Moses Mitchell’s house at 375 Palisado Avenue, as it looked in the early 20th century. This house is still standing today. WHS collections 1995.25.62, photo by Katherine Barker Drake.

Twenty-six years ago, Marcia Hinckley interviewed a number of white and African American residents, pored through primary and secondary documents, and wrote her master’s thesis, “We just went on with it,” The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut, 1790-1950. Local 19th-century historian Jabez Hayden, in his book Historical Sketches, had already written about Oliver and Moses Mitchell, both free when they appeared in Windsor at the end of the 18th century. Hinckley, using census and probate records, fleshed out a bit more of the story of these two interesting men. What follows are excerpts from her 1991 thesis. The full text is available in the WHS research library.

The first black household in the area of Windsor north of the Farmington River was probably that of Moses Mitchell, who bought his first recorded piece of property here in 1791 for 16 pounds. On the main road… from Windsor to Springfield, MA, this quarter acre was just north of the former palisado in the neighborhood of Ellsworths, Stoughtons, Mathers – old or up and coming white families. Moses built or bought a house in this neighborhood which is still standing [375 Palisado Ave]. Moses’s brother Oliver came from East Windsor in 1797, buying for 50 pounds a piece of property with “two dwelling houses” on the west bank of the Connecticut River near the Scantic Ferry….

[T]here was indeed a modest range among the blacks’ economic levels in the town of Windsor. [T]he Mitchell family illustrates the apparent upper end of the black economic and social scale. (One must remember that this level was still far below the potential level for a white Windsor resident….) That the Mitchell brothers each had sufficient property when they died to warrant the making of a probate inventory and especially that they both had the knowledge and foresight to have drawn up wills probably reflect the relatively high stature that the two had in the town.

Almost nothing is known about the Mitchells’ lives prior to their coming to Windsor. Hayden says that the brothers were “‘made free’ under the old charter before 1818,” but his information in this area is suspect. Assuming that they were slaves at one time, Moses was certainly free before 1791 when he bought property…, and Oliver’s participation in the Revolutionary War probably earned him his freedom.

[Oliver’s] inventory in his probate record from 1840 provides a glimpse of his life in Windsor. He died with a modest estate valued at $1,048.75. (For the sake of comparison… one can look at the estate of Dr. Elisha N. Sill, a respected white medical doctor and the town clerk, who lived several houses south of Moses Mitchell’s…. When Dr. Sill died in 1845, his estate was assessed at $1,658.36.) Undoubtedly, Oliver was proud of owning a silver watch (valued at $8), not a common item for white or black citizens. He had neither a copious amount of furniture nor a particularly valuable lot. He did, however, own six “black” (Windsor) chairs as well as six “old” chairs; he had a chest and drawers worth $0.75…, two looking glasses worth $0.42…, and a cookstove that was worth $8.

Oliver Mitchell and Moses Mitchell’s signatures, taken from their respective wills, courtesy of Ancestry.com.

His spectacles (and case) and his Bible indicate that he could read; his inkstand and his signature on his will suggest that he could write. Other items in his inventory suggest that he made his living in a variety of ways. He must have been a fisherman, since he had a fish pot, a skiff with oars and sails, and a corn “kanow”. His spyglass and his two peacoats… also indicate that he spent a lot of time on the Connecticut River…. He very likely made his own boats and perhaps boats to sell since he had planes, saws, boards, and old lead. Perhaps he also worked for one of the shipbuilding firms that existed in Windsor until about 1820….

Oliver married a white woman, Anne, but her family background is unknown. They had two daughters….[D]aughter Ann, married Job Holden, a stonecutter born in Rhode Island. Oliver Mitchell died in 1840 as he was rowing the eight miles home from Hartford, purportedly where he had gone to receive his Revolutionary War pension.

Moses’s estate, at $686.88, was not quite as valuable as Oliver’s, and he did not have stockpiles of materials… as had his brother. He must have been a farmer, since he owned 28 acres of land and had two tons of hay and 15 bushels of corn…. Moses’s tastes seem to be more refined than his brother’s. Whereas Oliver’s wardrobe stressed warmth, Moses’s suggested style. Moses had five vests, a cravat, two coats, and a great coat. He also enjoyed fine things in addition to fine clothes. In his inventory is a horse, a single harness, and a single wagon. Jabez Hayden wrote about that wagon:

The first one-horse wagon ever seen in Windsor was made here in 1815…by David Birge…[I]t was made for Moses Mitchel [sic], a worthy colored citizen, who lived on Center Street…Mr. Birge said that Mr. Mitchel was very proud of the one-horse wagon, and when he took it from the shop he went home by the way of East Granby to show it.

Perhaps he bought this wagon upon selling his Palisado Ave. property in 1815 to James Bennett for $1,000.

Moses had six Windsor chairs, a cherry table worth $1.50, and a desk worth $2. He did not have a cookstove however. The andirons, bellows, and [tin ovens] indicate that he used his fireplace…. Of the two brothers, Moses was probably the intellectual. His Bible, Testament, and 12 volumes of old books suggest he could read and that he probably read more than the Bible. His knowledge and skills were sufficient for him to be given power of attorney to sell his white neighbor’s land, the neighbor’s having moved to New Hampshire. While Moses was still living on Palisado Ave., he was a neighbor of Ethan Barker, the first minister of the Methodist Church in Windsor. Along with a small number of white men and women, Moses and his sister Mariam participated in the forming of the Methodist Church, which occurred before the 1818 disestablishment of the “Congregational” church in Connecticut.

Moses likely never married; there is no wife nor children designated in his will, which names a white man, Hiram Bennett, as his beneficiary with the condition that Hiram provide sufficient life-long care for Moses’s sister Mariam Bennett. [Unfortunately, but not uncommonly, there is no record of what happened to her after Moses’ 1836 will.]

Though there is really no indication of the Mitchell brothers’ relationship to other blacks, they apparently achieved at least a modest level of acceptance among a certain class of whites. Hayden remembers that the brothers (who undoubtedly were unable to vote) “fraternized with the democrats and I with the Whigs.” [According to census records,] Moses always had white people in his household, although one cannot tell whether there was any family relationship.

Note: Though Hinckley was able to trace Oliver’s family through to the 1920s, there are still a few leads about these men that she thinks would be interesting to explore.

2018-02-12T11:22:38+00:00