Descriptions of ordinary, everyday life for a Black person in 18th- and early-19th-century Connecticut are hard to come by. This is why it’s extraordinary that Windsor has George Turrer, who is remarkably well-represented in our archives. Once enslaved, George’s emancipation record survives to this day, and he appears in many other primary source records, from business ledgers to selectmen’s records to census records. This rare collection of documentary footprints allows us to envision the activities and experiences of a Black man who was well-integrated into his primarily white hometown in the immediate post-Revolutionary War period.

One thing that complicates the search for George is the number of different surnames he used (or were assigned to him, as there is no evidence that George ever learned to read or write). Variants evolved from Turrow to Turrer, Turrell, Terrill, and Terry. I used the surname Turrer in this article, as that is the one used most during his lifetime.

Blurry Beginnings

George Turrer was born around 1760, though we don’t know where.1 Through his 20s and early 30s, he was enslaved by Bildad Phelps and lived in what is now called the Hayden Station neighborhood.2 The Phelps home (seen here below), was located just north of the Palisado Ave. intersection on what is today Hayden Station Rd. But at the time the house was built in 1780, it was known as the highway to Springfield.

Bildad Phelps house

Bildad Phelps house on Hayden Station Rd., c1910. George Turrer lived here while he was enslaved by Bildad Phelps. | WHS collections 1995.25.46, photo by Katherine Barker Drake.

It was one of the largest houses in town and we can picture Bildad, a lawyer and a father of seven children by then, purchasing George to have a young man help around his new home while he spent lots of days away with business obligations. Perhaps George slept in a third-floor or attic room, which was a common arrangement in New England households, a room that he probably shared with another enslaved man.

It’s also possible that George was born to a mother already enslaved by Bildad, and thus would have grown up around the Phelps family for his whole life. Church records reveal that Bildad had at least two servant children (whose races are not marked) baptized at the North Parish of First Church of Windsor in 1771. The same record book also noted that Bildad’s household included two “negro children” who died between 1766 and 1776. These records suggest that Bildad had at least one enslaved Black woman in his house in the 1760s and 70s who could have been the mother of these children. This is also when George would have been a child.

Church record showing deaths of

“Deaths…recollected from April 30 1766 to Jan 1st 1776…2 Negro children of Bildad Phelps.” First Church of Windsor, North Parish record book. | WHS collections

As a member of the North Parish, Bildad Phelps would have brought any people he enslaved to church services. They would have sat separate from the family, alongside any other enslaved or free people of color who also attended the same church, which included all those who lived north of the Farmington River up through today’s Windsor Locks. For a few decades, starting in the late-18th century, that area was home to the largest concentration of Black residents in town.

George would have been sitting in pews next to Tom and Smut, George’s close neighbors who were enslaved by Levi and Margaret Hayden; Sarah, Jack Japhet Pell, and Nancy Toney, who were all enslaved by Chaffee family members; Mark and his mother, enslaved by Return Strong; Ti, enslaved by Jonathan Ellsworth; Jeptha, a violinist who escaped slavery from Elizabeth Ellsworth in 1791; Caesar, who was possibly a free Black man who died in 1776; free brothers Moses and Oliver Mitchell; and several others whose names we don’t know.

Whatever the circumstances of George’s youth, as an adult, he ended up living in one of those rare New England homes with more than one enslaved person there at one time. The 1790 census assigns two “slaves” to the household of Bildad Phelps. These two are likely George Turrer and Julius, both of whom would apply for emancipation ten years later.

George was around a decade older than Julius, but both would have been strong men who worked on Bildad Phelps’ vast land holdings and managed his livestock. George later became a butcher, so we can imagine him spending most of his days outside with animals and doing other hard labor like chopping wood.

Ambiguous Status

Well before the momentous legal event of his emancipation in 1800, George seems to have had some level of freedom. “George Turro of Windsor” has his own account in the business ledger of father and son Abiel and Origen Griswold back in 1793, showing that he was already using a surname and obtaining credit with local businessmen. Items and services George acquired from the Griswolds include loads of wood, tobacco, cider, wheat, and most intriguingly, a “justice writ” and “judgement by default.” Abiel Griswold was a justice of the peace, but unfortunately, we have been unable to find out what these legal services referred to.

George Turrer’s account in Abiel and Origen Griswold’s business ledger.

George Turrer’s account in Abiel and Origen Griswold’s business ledger. “Justice writ” is the second item on the list, executed in 1794. | WHS collections 2001.10.2

It was not uncommon for enslaved men to earn their own money. Such jobs often took place outside what we might consider regular working hours and enabled some men to buy their own freedom or the freedom of their family members. The purchase of things like wood and legal services imply an independent living situation, so it’s not entirely clear whether George was still enslaved at this point.

A Windsor selectmen’s record book shows that “George Turrow” was being paid by the town for various jobs as early as 1795, including for working on the “grate bridge” (the Palisado Ave. bridge over the Farmington River), “keeping [housing] Mille Hazzard,” and “taking care of Debrah Squaw.” In this era, the town paid many individuals to care for the poor in various ways, either by housing, clothing, or feeding them, or occasionally by taking them out of town.

It is notable that the names of both the people George took care of suggest that they were women of color (Hazzard is not an uncommon name for an enslaved man). Indeed, other Black and white Windsor residents also cared for people marked as Black, Indigenous, or mixed race, but the Black residents don’t appear to have cared for anyone not marked with a race, which presumably means they were white.

Perhaps George was already considered – in practice, if not by law – to be a free person by this time. If he was housing a “pauper,” that implied that he was living in his own house. Otherwise, his enslaver would more likely have been listed as the “keeper” and the payee for the service. George didn’t own his own property in the 1790s, but it’s possible that he was renting or leasing a house.

Emancipation

What is clear in is that Bildad Phelps’s adult children did not officially emancipate George until 1800. (Bildad was still alive at the time, but he was considered too infirmed to make his own legal decisions.) George requested emancipation (a step in the legal process) on December 19, 1800, and on December 24, the family consented. These actions were recorded in the Windsor land deed books. Because enslaved people were seen as property, freeing them was a property transaction.

George emancipation record excerpt

George’s emancipation request, 1800. Highlighted sections read: “Bildad Phelps Emancipation of George…George an African slave for life…requesting a certificate for the ground of the emancipation…George is now in the 34th year of his age, that he is of a healthy firm constitution and likely to remain in health; signifyed his desire to be made free.” Town of Windsor Land Deed book 23, p.281 | courtesy of the Windsor Town Clerk’s office.

Muddying the waters a bit is that it wasn’t until 1807 that Bildad’s son-in-law Ebenezer Fitch Bissell formally declared George to be free. Each of these emancipation steps are written one after the other in the deed book. First is the request in 1800, then the consent in 1800, and finally the declaration in 1807.

Also in 1807 is a deed showing that the Phelps heirs arranged to give him some land. They sold him land for £10, which maybe George didn’t have, so one of the heirs, Cyrus Phelps, loaned him the money in the form of another land deed. That deed said that if George repaid Cyrus the £10 plus applicable interest, then Cyrus would give up his right to the land, and George would own it outright.

One possibility as to why the declaration of freedom didn’t occur until seven years after the request is that the Phelps heirs worried that the land sales wouldn’t be valid because George might have still been legally considered enslaved. While they agreed to emancipate him, there was no statement that he was, in fact, emancipated. Perhaps to remedy this, they wrote down such a statement, but not until a month after selling him the land.3

George's account with Levi Hayden

George’s account with Levi Hayden, showing he procured spelling books and paper and paid for summer school, 1805-1808. | WHS collections 1976.20.2.

Raising a Family

The reason for buying property in 1807 might have had to do with George Turrer’s growing family. George and his wife Lucy had at least one school-age child by 1806, with one born as early as 1799. “George Turrer” has credit accounts with a neighbor, Levi Hayden, the school tax collector for their district, wherein he was obtaining spelling books and paper in 1806 and paying “school rates” in 1808. Though Turrer could not read or write himself (he signed his land deeds with an X), it was obviously important to him that his children have an education.

Actually, the Turrers were not the only Black children to attend school, which they did alongside their white neighbors. Another of Levi Hayden’s school “subscriptions” account books lists the names of Black families with children going to school, including the Warren, Frank, Hendrick, and Ross families. While not a large percentage of the overall Windsor population, these Black children would have made up a fair portion of the students attending Hayden Station’s integrated school in the early-19th century.

A Lasting Legacy

We are lucky to have the reminiscences of someone who knew George Turrer personally. Historian and Turrer neighbor Jabez H. Hayden (1811-1902) wrote a lengthy passage about George in his Windsor history book, Historical Sketches, published in 1901.4 Hayden’s recollections, excerpted here, provide vivid details that would never have been documented in record books:

In my boyhood days there was living at Hayden’s in Windsor an old negro named George Turrer, who had been a slave in the family of Lawyer [Bildad] Phelps.[…]He had a commendable degree of self-respect and conducted himself accordingly. He was by profession a butcher, and living at a time when everybody raised their own pork, he did a fair business in this line. He also raised corn “on shares” and worked for the neighbors by the day in summer and chopped wood by the cord in winter. […]

When I was about a dozen years old, my father sent an older brother and myself with the team to plow out George Turrer’s field of corn which he had planted before he was taken sick. The next day his white neighbors gave “a spell” and hoed and put in order his field of corn and he had a crop to gather the next autumn.

Of course, Hayden’s language and undertones also shed light on a general mindset that he probably shared with other white people of this era. Marcia Hinckley analyzes the full passage in her masters’ thesis, We just went on with it: The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut 1790-1950:

George may have had to earn his reputation by hard work and proper demeanor, but he nevertheless did have the respect of his neighbors, and they gave him the same neighborly and kind treatment that they gave to their white neighbors. But a close reading of this passage also reveals some reservations the whites had about accepting blacks as equals, an attitude that may have developed over the course of the century. The fact that George’s self-respect and conduct seemed to Hayden worthy of comment implies that whites may not have expected such self-confidence and demeanor to be typical of [Black people].

1855 and 1884 maps showing Terry family property

Left: 1855 map of Hayden Station, showing the property of George’s daughter Sally Little on Palisado Ave. Right: The same property still in the Turrer/Terry family in 1884.

Despite what the white Hayden Station residents thought, it did not stop the Turrer family from maintaining their foundation in the neighborhood. At least a few of George’s children stayed and raised their own families there. His daughter Sally, who married William Little in 1817, lived on Palisado Avenue, about a mile away from where she grew up. His granddaughter Sophronia Terry continued to live in the same house after Sally died, until her own death in 1920. In all that time, the Terry family remained members of First Church, even after a much closer one, Archer Memorial AME Zion Church, was built in Hayden Station, possibly on the same land that George Turrer lived on after his emancipation.

Sophronia’s death over 100 years ago marked the end of the line for George Turrer’s descendants in Windsor. But his story is one that deserves to live on. There are many resources yet to investigate, and we hope to expand on this and other untold Black stories in the future.

By Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist


Footnotes

  1. A family record book chronicling deaths in Windsor stated that on August 23, 1834, “George Teror” died at age 80. His emancipation application from 1800 states that he was then in his 34th year. None of the records indicates where he was born. Splitting the difference would give you an approximate 1760 birth year.
  2. In George’s lifetime, it would have been known as simply Haydens or Haydentown, for the myriad Hayden families who lived there. Only after a railroad stop was built there in the 1850s did the neighborhood change to Hayden Station.
  3. Marcia Hinckley, in her thesis “We just went on with it.” The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut, 1790-1950, thoroughly analyzes the circumstances surrounding this 1807 land transaction, as well as the general sentiment of George’s white neighbors regarding him and his family. I encourage everyone to read this, and I won’t retread the same ground in this article.
  4. Jabez H. Hayden is also the grandson of the aforementioned Levi and Margaret Hayden, enslavers of Tom and Smut, who he also mentions in his book, Historical Sketches.