Detail from Dr. Primus Manumit’s 1782 probate record showing medical tools and books in his estate inventory | Courtesy of

The service of a doctor requires skill, understanding, patience, and knowledge. To become one after being torn from your family and forced into servitude for a man you know nothing of, in an era when this is an ordinary practice, makes the already arduous feat exceptional. In the late 18th century, after years of enslavement Dr. Primus Manumit became Windsor’s first Black doctor. Moreover, through his talent and hard work, he became well respected among even the most distinguished members of his community.

Enslaved in Windsor

Documentation on Dr. Manumit’s life is severely limited, and any rare accounts begin only during his adult life. Enslaved by prominent Windsor physician Dr. Alexander Wolcott, Primus traveled alongside Dr. Wolcott on medical drives in and around surrounding towns. He nursed the sick, served as an “escort and body-guard in his [Wolcott’s] visits… to numerous patients, and as an assistant in the preparation of medicines,” according to Windsor historian Henry Stiles.

Dr. Primus Manumit's estate intventory

Dr. Alexander Wolcott’s house on the north end of Broad St., as it looked at the turn of the 20th century. Primus would have lived here while he was enslaved. | WHS collections 1995.25.19, photo by Katherine Barker Drake, gift of Bruce MacClintic.

Primus resided at the Wolcott house on the north end of Broad Street in the center of town, where he was given full access to their extensive library containing both English and Latin books. A keen mind and curious soul, he took full advantage of these opportunities, and learned to read and write in English as well as Latin. Stiles quotes a historic source that suggests that at some point it simply “occurred” to Dr. Wolcott that Primus should be freed after years of faithful assistance. However, records suggest that he served in the French and Indian War and/or the Revolutionary War, and thereby earned his own release from bondage.

Emancipation and Life in East Windsor

As a freed man, Primus selected the surname Manumit (Latin for manumission, or release from slavery), a choice that represents the importance liberty undoubtedly held for him. With this newfound freedom, he moved across the Connecticut River to East Windsor (in what is now South Windsor), and by 1778 he had rented a small parcel (three rods by two rods, or 49.5 by 33 feet), which included a two-story Federal-style house on Old Main Street from Benjamin Cook. The details of the lease included that he maintain the house and fences, pay taxes on it, and give Cook three bushels of wheat per year for his stay. This house was located in the East Windsor Hill area, now a historic district. At the time he lived there, Dr. Manumit’s elite neighbors included renowned merchants Capt. Ebenezer Grant, Aaron Bissell, and John Watson.

Capitalizing upon his experience and recognition as an assistant to Dr. Wolcott, Dr. Manumit began practicing medicine on both sides of the Connecticut River. In the late 1700s, his job as a surgeon entailed extracting teeth and performing limited surgery (as opposed to physicians who in that era mainly healed illnesses through herbs and medications). Interestingly, while his estate inventory lists medical equipment like “toothe instruments,” “surgeon’s instruments,” and a “chamberlains midwifery” along with shop furniture and medicine, no mention is made of an actual shop.

Transcript of a receipt for supplies that Dr. Manumit provided during the Revolutionary War. Reprinted in The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Vol. I, by Henry R. Stiles

His prescriptions were written in English but also contained various Latin terms, a reference to his past with Dr. Wolcott, who history recalls, was somewhat upset with Dr. Manumit’s success. As Jabez Hayden, another Windsor historian, records, when Dr. Manumit passed him in his sulky, Dr. Wolcott exclaimed in disgust, “and the [n-word] doctor has got a sulky too!” (Sulkys were one-horse, two-wheeled buggies preferred by doctors because it only allowed room for one person during a time when it was customary to pick up those they passed on foot).

What He Left Behind

On April 20, 1782, Dr. Manumit passed away with an estate valued around 128 pounds, placing him in the upper class of the black community and modestly wealthy among his white counterparts. However, by borrowing small amounts from numerous people, he had also accumulated a debt of 135 pounds. This relatively large amount may be attributed to many high-profile investments such as a dwelling house assessed to be around £40, a barn (£15), and horse (£8). Indeed, he owed the largest portion of his debt to Benjamin Cook, from whom he was leasing his land.

A further look into Dr. Manumit’s inventory indicates that he strongly valued his appearance and intellect. His clothing collection included three vests, four coats, a great coat, 12 hats, silver shoe buckles, and a silver watch – uncommon for any man regardless of race. He also owned a bookshelf with four Latin books and numerous religious pieces such as Whitefield’s Sermons, a psalm book, and scripture history. These items comport with white Windsor historians’ descriptions of his manner and appearance as “well informed,” “fine-looking,” and “quite gentlemanly.”

In the end, with such limited documentary resources on Dr. Primus Manumit, it is difficult to get a complete understanding of his life. There are many missing details that would be interesting to explore, such as when and how he ended up enslaved by Dr. Wolcott, his early life, and possible military service. Dr. Manumit was an extraordinary man with countless accomplishments and we can only hope to learn even more about him.


By Iniya Raja, volunteer and South Windsor High School student, 2021