Kitchen of the Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee House, photo by Christina Vida
They worked in the kitchen from dawn to dusk cooking three meals a day. They washed and ironed clothes, sheets, and towels. They mended socks and spun yarn. They emptied chamber pots every morning after sleeping in basements and attics. And they were supposed to be invisible whenever guests came calling. Who are ‘they’?
They are the female slaves of Windsor’s Chaffee family.
For years we have known that Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, Jr. (1762-1821) and his wife Charlotte (1764-1812) owned Nancy Toney (1775-1857). We also knew that Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee (1731-1819) owned Betty Stevenson (b. 1791) and her mother, whose name is still unknown. While searching for Windsor records in a LexisNexis database in 2011, I discovered that Dr. Chaffee owned another slave – Sarah. Buried in a long-forgotten court record, we still know only pieces of Sarah’s story.
In 1795 Dr. Chaffee purchased Sarah from Jonathan Butler (1760-1830) of Hartford. Sarah worked in the Chaffee household alongside Betty Stevenson (aged 4 at the time) and possibly with Betty’s mother, who had been there in 1791. Nancy Toney lived next door, and the three enslaved women and young Betty might have shared the burdens of laundry and household chores. Sarah belonged to the Chaffee family for only six years – in 1801 Hezekiah Chaffee manumitted her. Sarah would have been in her thirties or early forties in 1801, and she could have continued to work as a domestic servant to earn a living.
Around the same time that Sarah gained her freedom, the Butler family released her illegitimate daughter, Fanny Libbet (b. 1785), from servitude. Sixteen-year-old Fanny came to Windsor, presumably where Sarah had stayed after being freed. Within six months of moving to Windsor, Fanny became “chargeable” to the Town of Windsor, meaning she could not financially support herself. We know little of Sarah or Fanny until the Town of Windsor sued the Town of Hartford in 1817 for the cost of supporting Fanny and her two illegitimate children (Sarah’s grandchildren). Because Fanny was born in Hartford, the Supreme Court of Errors found in favor of Windsor and required Hartford to pay Windsor for taking care of Fanny and her children.
But where was Sarah in 1817? Did she remain in Windsor? It is difficult to pinpoint if she was still in Windsor in 1810 as that year’s census merely listed fifty “other free persons” – usually the town’s people of color. Unfortunately, the 1810 census did not describe the age or sex of any non-white free people. Perhaps Sarah was one of the five “free colored” women over the age of forty-five in Windsor in 1820. Did she marry? Did she continue to work as a domestic servant?
Unless new documents or records come to light, we may never know what happened to Sarah after she left the Chaffee household. But she will not be forgotten again. Since re-discovering Sarah, we have included her in the interpretation of the Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee house, and we continue to strive to learn more about Windsor’s enslaved population who have been silenced by history.
By Christina Vida, Curator, 2011