Local history celebrated at Venture Smith Day

By Merja H. Lehtinen - ReminderNews
East Haddam - posted Mon., Sep. 16, 2013
Dr. Karl P. Stofko has conducted original research on the life and times of Venture Smith. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.
Dr. Karl P. Stofko has conducted original research on the life and times of Venture Smith. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.

The observation of the 17th annual Venture Smith Day brought people to the gravesites of Smith and his wife Meg in the First Church of Christ cemetery on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 14. The prominence and placement of the carefully engraved and stylized brownstone grave markers speak to their important roles in local history.

"Venture Smith is a critical name in American studies and history known to scholars globally," said author and historian Marta Daniels. She explained that Venture Smith was a Revolutionary War-era American figure who born the son of an African king, suffered the life of a slave for two decades, but died a landed freedman after 40 years of freedom and prosperity.

Daniels was among three locals who embarked on their own adventure to prove Smith not only owned land in the well-established East Haddam site, but also in Stonington, Conn. There, amidst a swampy and rock-filled terrain on Barn Island now owned by the State of Connecticut, Daniels, hydrologist Nancy Byrne, and East Haddam dentist and municipal historian Dr. Karl P. Stofko were able to track down the irregular shaped 26-acre lot that belonged to Smith in the 1770s. As with many historical land plots, the shapes were not rectangular, and often went from boulder to boulder, some of which were marked with initials of the adjacent landowners. In this case, the amateur sleuths were able to locate the Smith land due to clearly marked initials of adjacent property owners whose descriptive deeds matched the locations of the boulders with initials. "It only took Dr. Stofko three days to trace through the deeds what professionals had not been able to establish over decades," said Daniels.

It was also this team who brought the original wooden chest of Venture Smith to the attention of Winterthur, "America's preeminent museum of Revolutionary era artifacts and antiques," said Daniels, for documentation purposes. The long-valued piece was willed to the East Haddam Historical Society by the family who preserved the white pine trunk intact for more than 150 years after Venture Smith died.

As with many who were sold into slavery, the 11-year-old boy Broteer, later known as Venture Smith, was sold in the aftermath of tribal war among Africans to the English-dominated Transatlantic Slave Trade Route. Around 1739, the boy sold for "four gallons of rum and a bolt of Calico" to a slave trader named Mumford, who brought him to Fisher's Island. Through various sales of his person, Venture, who eventually adopted the last name Smith, after his last owner, was the "property" of the Stanton family of Stonington, the Edwardses of Hartford, and lastly to Oliver Smith of Stonington.  An "industrious" individual, as documented by his white contemporaries, Venture Smith was able to work to buy his own freedom and that of his wife and children when he was only in his 30s in the late 1760s. A few years later, in 1770, he bought land and held property of value, including boats, sails, barges, a forge, and farming equipment for several businesses. When the United States of America became a nation in 1776, Venture Smith was already a freed man of property. By the time of his death in 1805, Smith owned more than 120 acres of land, several boats, livestock and at least two houses with a barn. Most importantly, he was the narrator of a seminal work of the Revolutionary War era, “The Narrated Life of Venture Smith,” one of few authenticated autobiographies from the critical time in American and African history.  

The life and times of Venture Smith is a critical aspect of American history, slavery and colonial New England history, noted Stofko.


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