God bless my Greenwich ancestors, both enslaved and free, whose life stories I am honored to tell almost 250 years later. We call your names so you will be remembered by all.
I dedicate this blogpost to the following people: My cousin Andrea Hughes, who remains my main research partner and whose research skills were instrumental in my writing this blogpost; My grandfather, Richard W. Greene, Jr., who instilled in me a love of family history and pride; and to all my immediate and extended Green and Merritt family members who should feel proud that we descend from a group of people who survived slavery and went on to prosper. We are because they were. We come from strong New England stock indeed.
I would like to acknowledge the following people who have aided me in my research: Jeffrey Bingham Mead, whose all-important book, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut, presented me with the emancipation records of my 4th great-grandparents and who has been a great overall resource; Christopher Shields, Archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, and Sheri Jordan, Director of the Rye Historical Society, both of whom helped me locate critical documents related to my ancestors; Barbara Lowden, Assistant Registrar of Vital Statistics at Greenwich Town Hall, for helping me search for my ancestors’ vital records, and Jean Thomson, Archivist and Historian at Second Congregational Church in Greenwich, for identifying church records pertaining to my ancestors.
Our Family’s Slave Roots
My Green and Merritt family history begins with my 4th great-grandparents, Peg Merritt and Anthony Green (also referred here as Tone). They were members of the pioneering slave class that began the walk to freedom so to speak. Their emancipation journey was long, arduous, difficult, and precarious at best. What follows below is an account of my ancestors slow crawl out of slavery and their slow jog to freedom. The fact that my enslaved ancestors persevered and eventually prospered is a very American story that needs to be told. I am honored to be able to tell their story.
Unlike most African-Americans who face a real struggle in locating their ancestors before 1870 —the year that African-Americans were first listed as people by their name—I was blessed to have been able to find a paper trail for my Greenwich ancestors that goes back to the late 1700s. As you will see below, this paper trail includes bills of sale, a letter of indenture, emancipation records, land records, wills, census records, etc. Because my ancestors were enslaved in the North, they were emancipated earlier and this led to an accumulation of records concerning them. However, before Peg and Anthony’s story can be told, a short overview of slavery in Connecticut is needed.
Overview of Slavery in Connecticut
Slavery in Greenwich, CT
Jeffrey B. Mead’s book Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, CT is the only compilation of transcribed emancipation records that exists for Greenwich’s formerly enslaved people. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking book and excellent resource for descendants, like me, of Greenwich’s early black population. According to Mead, slave labor was never widespread in Greenwich. He mentions that in 1762, Greenwich had a population of 2,021 whites and 52 blacks and in 1774, Greenwich had 2,654 whites and 122 blacks. By the time of the 1790 census, Greenwich had a total population of 3,175, of which only 49 individuals owned 80 slaves. The two largest slave owners owned 7 and 8 slaves respectively. Most Greenwich slave owners only had 1-2 slaves.
Greenwich slaves lived with their owners for the most part. The Bush-Holly House in Greenwich provides an example of the type of living quarters slaves occupied in the slave owners home during slavery. Joseph McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project spent the night at the Bush-Holly House, with members of the organization Coming To The Table, and they describe their experiences here.
The Slave Owners of Our Family
The slave owners of my family were six that we know of —Daniel Lyon, Jr., Nathan Merritt, Sr., Nathan Merritt, Jr., Simeon Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, and John Green. From my research into these families, I learned that they were all part of the same geographically close, extended family. For example, Nathan Merritt, Sr. and the mother of John Green, Mary Merritt Green, were siblings. This would make Nathan Merritt Jr. and John Green first cousins. Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s wife was Phebe Merritt Lyon. Daniel Lyon, Jr., Simeon Lyon, and Benjamin Woolsey Lyon were all cousins and all 3 were descendants of Thomas Lyon of Greenwich, CT. John Green’s brother James’s children, Thomas Green, Nancy Green Husted, and Sarah Green Wilson, all maintained contact with the children and grandchildren of Peg and Anthony after their deaths. In fact, Sarah Green Wilson’s son, James Wilson, was the executor of 4 of my ancestors’ wills. From 1810-1870, the descendants of both slaves and slave owners are living with or near each other.
It is my belief, that because the extended white slave owner families lived in close proximity to each other, my ancestors were able to maintain a level of family cohesion that allowed them to survive slavery as a family in tact. When you look at census records from 1790-1820, you see that the Merritts, Husteds, Wilsons, Lyons, and Greens all living near each other. This meant that, in some cases, Peg and Anthony were able to see their children frequently. Since both slave owners and slaves attended the same churches, this also provided a venue for them to reconnect with their children. That being said, both Peg and Anthony had to wait 30 years, from the time of her emancipation, for all their family members to be free.
Nutmeg State Slaves: The Wait to be Free
On July 7th, 1790, my 4th great-grandmother Peg was sold to Nathan Merritt, Jr. by Daniel Lyon, Jr. She was 20 years old at the time. Because she was born around 1770, she was considered a slave for life until she was emancipated. She was sold for “the sum of fifty pounds of New York money” to Nathan Merritt, Jr. As a young slave, she was subject to the whims of her slave owner and this included being forced into non-consensual relations. While enslaved with Nathan Merritt, Jr., Peg gave birth to her first son, Charles Merritt, on May, 11, 1791 and gave him the Merritt surname. Through DNA testing of a Charles Merritt descended cousin, who has a 4th DNA cousin match that descends from the family of Nathan Merritt, we know that her son Charles was fathered by a Merritt male. Her second son Jack, whose birth record recorded him as Tack, was also born when she was in the Merritt household on February 14, 1793. He was most likely fathered by a Merritt as well. Sometime before 1795, Peg was sold again to Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. This would make him the 3rd slave owner she had by the time she was 25 years old. It would also meant that she was separated from her sons as they were still owned by her prior slave owner and were considered his property.
We know that Peg met Anthony sometime in the early 1790s. Because Nathan Merritt, Jr. and John Green, Anthony’s slave owner, were first cousins, there is the high probability that they met at a family gathering of the slave owners prior to her being sold to Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. While she was a slave of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, she gave birth to Anthony Green, Jr. on December 3rd, 1795 and to Plato Green on November 1st, 1798. From the mid 1790s onward, they were for all purposes a married couple.
As slaves, Peg and Anthony had no control over their own lives or those of their children. They could be separated at any time from each other. This was very evident on August 18, 1796 when her son Jack was sold at the age of three by Nathan Merritt, Jr. who still owned him. Jack was sold for “the sum of 15 pounds of New York money” to Simeon Lyon of Greenwich.
Going through Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s will in 1809, we see that Anthony, Jr. remained a slave in Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s household as he is mentioned as “his negro boy Tone”. His value in 1809 was $75 and it was stated that he had to serve 25 years. Plato isn’t mentioned in his will so he may have been sold to someone else after Peg was emancipated.
It should be noted that Peg’s older sons Charles, Jack, and Anthony, Jr. would have been gradually emancipated after serving a term of 25 years according to the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784. Her last 4 sons by Anthony—Plato, Allan (my 3rd great-grandfather), Henry and Solomon would have been required to only serve a 21 year term as the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1797 decreased the time that enslaved children had to serve by 4 years. This meant that Charles would be emancipated in 1816, Jack in 1818, Anthony, Jr. in 1820, Plato in 1819, Allen in 1825, Henry in 1829, and Solomon in 1831.
When Freedom Came: The Emancipation of Peg & Anthony Green
Peg was the first to be emancipated on April 12, 1800 by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. She was now 30 years old. As among the newly emancipated, she would have had to fend for herself. Given that she was in a solid relationship with Anthony and may have been living with him then, it’s easy to assume that he may have been able to provide for her and their three sons —Allen Henry, and Solomon—born after she was emancipated, but this was not the case. Though Peg and Anthony are first recorded in the 1810 census as living as Free blacks with a household of 5, they were still not able to provide adequately for their children. In 1812, their son Henry became a ward of the town and was bound out to Nathan Merritt, Sr. of New Castle, West Chester County, NY until the 2nd day of May 1829. This letter of indenture specifically states that “with the consent and advice of Jabaz Mead, Justice of the Peace in said county put place and bind out Henry, a Negro boy (son of Margaret) a poor child whose parents do not take care of nor provide for him and who has become chargeable to the town…” In return for Henry’s labor, Nathan Merritt, Sr. was to provide “meat, drink, washing, lodging, clothing, and physic (exercise) during said term.” This letter of indentured was signed on April 15, 1812. It should be noted that Nathan Merritt, Sr. was the father of Peg’s former slave owner as well as the uncle of John Green, Anthony’s slave owner at the time. Both Peg and Anthony may have appealed to him to take on their son Henry when they couldn’t provide for him. I would like to think that they leveraged personal ties to do so.
The life of the formerly enslaved person was not easy. It was a constant struggle to survive and provide adequately for oneself. We do know that Peg had to wait another 16 years for Anthony to be emancipated after she was. On April 15, 1816, three months after his slave owner John Green died, Anthony was emancipated by his widow Mary Green and her son-in-law/nephew Thomas Green. Its worth noting that at the time John Green died, Anthony was valued at $100.
First Generation Freedom: From Slaves to Landowners
After Peg and Anthony were emancipated, they slowly began to build a future for themselves and their children. It was through their sheer hardwork and determination that they were able to improve their lives. As Free blacks, they probably hired themselves out as domestic servants and/or farmhands and saved money in the process. It was quite common for Greenwich slave owners to have both slaves and Free blacks working for them. What we do know is that on April 17, 1820, Anthony bought into a $5,000 land deal with some prominent men from Greenwich, CT and Rye, NY. These men were Thomas Green, Zopher Mead, Isaac Mead, Jabez Mead, William Robbins, Carr Robbins of Greenwich, CT and Samuel Pine, Samuel Lyon, and Elisha Belcher of Rye, NY.
There are so many questions that need to be asked about this land deal. It should be mentioned that Thomas Green was the nephew/son-in-law of John Green, Anthony’s former slave owner. Is it possible that Anthony continued to work for the Green family after emancipation? Is it possible that Thomas Green let him in on the land deal? Jabez Mead was also the Justice of the Peace who signed off on Henry’s letter of indenture. Did Jabez Mead know Anthony and Peg before this land deal? Did Samuel Lyon know Anthony and Peg from Benjamin Woolsey Lyon? In his 1840 will, Benjamin Green, a nephew of John Green, states that he is leaving land to his wife. He just happens to mention that some of his land borders the land of Mary Green and Anthony Green. Was Anthony’s property, next to Mary’s, purchased as part of the land deal? Mary and Anthony were around the same age and definitely knew each other their entire lives. Did Thomas and Mary help Anthony out? Anything is quite possible since Greenwich is a small town and there were few blacks at the time. Anthony and Peg may have been well-known to the larger white Greenwich community.
As an aside, Jabez Mead, one of the men listed in the $5K land deal, is Jeffrey B. Mead’s 3rd great-grandfather. How wonderful it is to know that not only has Jeffrey been an asset to my research, but that his ancestor may have been instrumental in helping my 4th-great-grandfather accumulate wealth in the form of property.
By the mid-1820s, Peg and Anthony would see that most of their children were free. With Allen reaching the emancipation age of 21 in 1825, that meant that only Henry and Solomon were left to be freed. At some point before 1830, Peg must have passed away. We do not have an official death date for her. We don’t see her listed on the 1830 census. Peg and Anthony were around the same age in the 1820 census, but there is no woman in her age category with him in the 1830 census. When she died is anyone’s guess.
‘We do believe, however, that the most likely place for her and Anthony to be buried was in Byram Cemetry. This cemetery was built by the Lyon’s family for their descendants and included a Colored Cemetery for their slaves and Free blacks. It would make perfect sense for Peg and Anthony to have been buried there as they were both affiliated with the Lyon family. There is no way to verify this though as no records were kept of the black burials and no tombstones exist. Of course, this is just another way that our ancestors have been erased from the historical record.
Though Peg may have died before Anthony, both of them did get to see some of the next generation born free from the shackles of slavery. The Greens and Merritts were definitely fruitful and multiplied. Charles Merritt and his wife Catherine’s family included Abraham, Samuel, Jarvis, Ann, and Isaac. Jack Husted and his wife Helen had Nancy, Jane Ann, Sarah, and Lucinda. Anthony, Jr. and his wife Abigail expanded their family with Sylvia, Mary, Susan, Caroline, Anthony, III, and Henry. My third great-grandparents, Allen and Mary, went all out with Sarah, Thomas, Rebecca, Samuel, James, John, Charles, George, Darius, Anna, and Benjamin. Henry and his wife Tempy had Warren, William, George, Adelaide Louisa, Harriet, Frances, Susan, David, and Randolph. Solomon and his wife Lucinda only has a daughter, Ellen. We have no record for children for Plato.
It was Anthony who lived to see all his children emancipated. Without a doubt, he accepted both Charles and Jack — Peg’s oldest sons — as his own along with the five sons they had together. According to the 1830 census, his sons, Charles, Anthony, Henry, and Jack, all were living independently and working as laborers.
Anthony passed away sometime in 1836. We found a probate record mentioning that James Wilson was appointed the executor of his estate. His estate was only worth $198. Given that the value of his estate was low, it is safe to assume that he may have distributed his property to his sons before he died.
Second Generation Freedom: From Landowners to Freedom Fighters and More
Allen left behind $1,985.07 worth of property. $1,600 was in real estate and the rest was in personal property. He clearly left valuable items behind that would be of use to his children. Cows, fowl, vegetable gardens, apples, hay, rye etc. could all be used for sustenance. Items like a horse, a wagon, farming tools, lots of furniture, a stove, grinding stones, looking glasses (mirrors), etc. would have been extremely valuable as well. When Anthony, Sr. died in 1836, his estate was valued at $198. 42 years later when Allen died, his estate was worth 10 times as much as his father’s. This should be considered progress by any manner, especially one generation out of slavery. They were making a way seemingly out of no way.
Starting in the early 1860s, we see that our Green and Merritt ancestors started to leave Greenwich for other parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Westchester County, NY, New York City, and New Jersey. They left to pursue work elsewhere as farming opportunities dried up in Greenwich. For example, my 2nd great-grandfather George E. Green originally moved to Yorktown Heights, Westchester County before moving to New York City to work in the hotel industry. After serving in the US Navy during the Civil War, he ended up in Newark, NJ. Henry’s daughter Adelaida Louisa moved to New York City’s Harlem and married Charles Glasby, who fought for the 20th Infantry from New York, Company K, United States Colored Troops. Allen’s daughter Sarah moved to New Canaan, CT after marrying Marcus Smith whose paternal line goes back to Ned Smith who was born in 1774 in New Canaan. Charles Merritt’s grandson Norton L. Merritt ended up in Port Chester, NY in the 1880s and finally resided in Waterbury, CT by 1900.
That being said, we did have many ancestors who did stay behind in Greenwich. Some even left a mark there. We clearly see this in 1882 when 28 members of the Greenwich black community banded together and founded Little Bethel AME Zion Church. Of the 28 original members, there were Charles Green, Catherine Merritt, Casella Merritt, Frank Merritt, and Mandeville Merritt — all ancestors of ours. Let the church say amen!
The Untold Story: What Our DNA Tells Us about Peg and Anthony
1) Growing up, we had always heard that the Green-Merritt line was mulatto and that this line also had Native American roots. After having over 10 relatives tested on this line, we can say for certain that our oral history is correct. All of us have tri-racial ancestry with anywhere from 0.6% – 4% Native American admixture. This should not come as any surprise since we have colonial roots in Northeast and the first slaves in the Northeast, including Connecticut, were people of African and Native American descent. This is certainly seen in our ethnic composition. As seen below, our cousin LC has Native American admixture of 4%, African admixture of 52%, European admixture of 39%, 4% West Asia admixture, and 1% South Asia/East Asia admixture. As an FYI, Native Americans were not identified as such in the 1790-1840 census records. This could be seen as one way to erase Native Americans from the historical records.
2) Looking at all of our DNA cousins matches, it becomes quite clear that we all have Euro DNA cousins who descend from the founding families of Greenwich, CT and Rye, NY. These families include the Lyon, Merritt, Mead, Green, Purdy, Sherwood, Lockwood, Husted, Knapp, and Peck families among others. Why do we share a connection to Euro DNA cousins with these surnames? Well, because we must have have some ancestors in common. This would also make sense since all my family’s white slave owners were all interrelated themselves. We all know that consensual and nonconsensual relations occured during slavery and after. This is something that some people don’t want to acknowledge. However, history can’t be denied as DNA has the power to uncover hidden truths.
Below shows a Lyon DNA cousin who is sharing 7.8 cMs with my cousin Andrea. He is a direct descendant of John Lyon who was born in Greenwich in 1706. John Lyon’s father was Thomas Lyon.
3) There is a high possibility that both Peg and Anthony were mulatto. The case for Peg being mulatto stems from the fact that quite a few of us have Euro DNA cousins who are directly related to a number of Lyons who descend from Thomas Lyon, including her first slave owner Daniel Lyon. I should add here that my 3rd great-grandfather Allen did name his son Benjamin Woolsey Green after Peg’s last slaveowner. The question begs to be asked why? Did he name him after a possible relative?
With Anthony, the evidence seems to be more circumstantial. It is very clear that Anthony had a special relationship with the extended Green family that seems highly preferential. That he was given the freedom to live with Peg before his emancipation, was included in a substantial land deal, owned property directly near a number of members of the Green family, had children and grandchildren living with the descendants of his former slave owners for up to almost 60 years later, and had children who received money when these slaveowners died, makes me wonder as to why? Was this just a simple case of rewarding a man who used to be their slave and may have worked for them after he was emancipated? Or, was there also a genetic component involved in this special relationship where Anthony, Sr. and his family were being looked after by their former slave owners and their descendants on some level? Was Anthony fathered by a white Green? Of course, this would not be the first time that a white slave owner took care of their black biological children. With DNA becoming more common and being used to break down genealogy brick walls, I hope we one day have more definitive answers to these questions.
And Now You Know….
29th Infantry Connecticut Colored Troops:
Black and Free:The Free Negro in America, 1830, A Commentary on Carter Woodson’s “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, Ed. By Alan Abrams, Sylvania, OH: Doubting Thomas Oublishing, LLC, 2001.
Please see the companion blog post How NOT to do Genealogy Research: The Case of John Sherman Merritt