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Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom

edited by James Brewer Stewart foreword by James O. Horton

Publication Year: 2010

This book originated in the summer of 2006, in the burial ground of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, of East Haddam, Connecticut, where a team of forensic scientists began excavating the graves of two emancipated slaves, Venture Smith (d. 1805) and his wife, Marget (d. 1809). Those requesting this remarkable investigation were the Smiths’ direct descendants, members of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh generations, who were determined to honor the bicentennial of their founding ancestor’s death by discovering everything possible about his life. Opening burial plots in the hope of recovering DNA for genealogical tracing proved a compelling first step. But what began as a scientific inquiry into African origins rapidly evolved into an unparalleled interdisciplinary collaboration between historians, literary analysts, geographers, genealogists, anthropologists, political philosophers, genomic biologists, and, perhaps most revealingly, a poet. Their common goal has been to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary African American and to assay its implications for the sprawling, troubled eighteenth-century world of racial exploitation over which he triumphed. This volume displays the rich results of that collaboration. A highly intelligent, deeply self-motivated and immensely energetic slave transported from Africa, Venture Smith transformed himself through unstinting labor into a respectable Connecticut citizen, a successful entrepreneur, and the liberator of other enslaved African Americans. As James O. Horton emphasizes in his foreword to this volume, “Venture Smith’s saga is a gift to all who seek to understand the complex racial beginnings of America. It helps to connect the broad American story with the stories of many Americans whose lives illustrate the national struggle to live out the national ideals.” In addition to Horton and volume editor James Brewer Stewart, contributors include Cameron Blevins, Vincent Carretta, Anna Mae Duane, Robert P. Forbes, Anne L. Hiskes, Paul Lovejoy, Marilyn Nelson, David Richardson, Chandler B. Saint, Linda Strausbaugh, Kevin Tulimieri, and John Wood Sweet.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. ix-xii

THE STORY of Venture Smith is an important part of American history. In many ways, it is an American story of the struggle for freedom. Yet Venture struggled against a powerful American institution, the institution of slavery. The capture and enslavement of this one African in eighteenth-century America before ...

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Editor’s Preface

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pp. xiii-xvii

THE INSPIRATION for this book took form in the summer of 2006, in the burial ground of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, of East Haddam, Connecticut, when a team of forensic scientists began excavating the graves of two emancipated slaves, Venture Smith (d. 1805) and his wife, Marget (d. 1809), known as Meg. ...

“How I Came By My Name”

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p. xix

A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, . . .

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pp. 1-32

Part I: History

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Chapter 1: The African Background of Venture Smith

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pp. 35-55

A NARRATIVE of the Life and Adventures of Venture . . . chronicles the story of a remarkable man, born in the interior of West Africa around 1727 and buried in the cemetery of the Congregational Church in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1805. Like many others, he was sent as a slave across the Atlantic, ...

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Chapter 2: Trust and Violence in Atlantic History: The Economic Worlds of Venture Smith

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pp. 56-82

VENTURE SMITH has been celebrated as an individual whose life provides a human face for the millions of enslaved Africans caught in the vortex of the Atlantic slave trade.1 Venture’s life was hardly representative, but examined closely through his own narrative it may be seen as representative of many aspects ...

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Chapter 3: Venture Smith and the Law of Slavery

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pp. 83-128

WHEN, as an aging man, Venture Smith recalled his life as a slave in colonial New York and Connecticut, he still bore the scars— both physical and emotional— of an incident that unfolded around 1759, when he was about thirty years old and had been in America some twenty years. ...

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Chapter 4: “Owned by Negro Venture”: Land and Liberty in the Life of Venture Smith

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pp. 129-160

IN 1798 an ailing Venture Smith reflected as an elderly man on his life’s achievements: “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal. . . . I am now possessed of more than one hundred acres of land, and three habitable dwelling houses.” 1 Smith’s careful listing of his property alongside the “privilege” of his freedom ...

Part II: Memory

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Chapter 5: Venture Smith, One of a Kind

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pp. 163-183

THE PUBLICATION of a collection of archeological, critical, and historical essays on Venture Smith’s Narrative acknowledges the place that the story of Smith’s life holds in the African American literary canon. Few would now dispute its current canonized status as a work considered worthy of study on its own literary merits.1 ...

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Chapter 6: Keeping His Word: Money, Love, and Privacy in the Narrative of Venture Smith

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pp. 184-204

IN 1844 Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote that he was shocked at how little he felt at the loss of his young son Waldo: “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,— no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, ...

Part III: Legacy

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Chapter 7: The Genomics Perspective on Venture Smith: Genetics, Ancestry, and the Meaning of Family

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pp. 207-230

IT SEEMS that hardly a week passes without some reminder that genomic analysis can reveal, often in dramatic fashion, otherwise unknown aspects of human history. Whether through television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet, we are constantly learning about the potential applications of genetic studies. ...

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Chapter 8: Venture Smith and Philosophical Theories of Human Rights

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pp. 231-251

WHO, if anyone, has the moral right to speak for Venture Smith in giving consent to exhume his grave for DNA? Does this right reside with the family group whose cultural and biological identities merge with Venture’s, or is this exhumation an affront in some way to Venture’s human dignity ...

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Chapter 9: Venture Smith’s Gravestone: Its Maker and His Message

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pp. 252-256

VENTURE SMITH died in 1805, at some time in his mid-seventies, and was honored with a large funeral at the East Haddam First Congregational Church. He was buried in the First Church Cemetery and his grave marked with a richly carved gravestone (fig. 9.1). At a glance, the large brownstone marker ...

“The Freedom Business”

Marilyn Nelson

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Documenting Venture Smith Project Time Line

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pp. 259-262

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 263-266


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pp. 267-279

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760482
E-ISBN-10: 1613760485
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497405
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497404

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700520
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom

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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Connecticut -- History -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 18th century.
  • Smith, Venture, 1729?-1805.
  • Smith, Venture, 1729?-1805 -- Influence.
  • Smith, Venture, 1729?-1805. Narrative of the life and adventures of Venture, a native of Africa.
  • Slaves -- Connecticut -- Biography.
  • Free African Americans -- Connecticut -- Biography.
  • Africans -- Connecticut -- Biography.
  • Slavery -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Connecticut -- Race relations -- History -- 18th century.
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