The Venture Smith story makes its way to Fishers Island

by Jane Ahrens

Reprinted from The Day
Published May 09. 2010 | Updated May 09. 2010
By Judy Benson Day Staff Writer

Fishers IslandDuring his 15 years on Fishers Island, Venture Smith had no wealth, status or rights. He left no lasting mark of his presence there – unless, of course, something lies buried, waiting to be unearthed in a future archeological dig – and during his long life he made no contribution to its civic life.

Yet Thursday, this thinly populated summer playground focused its attention on this long-dead resident and the significance of Fishers Island in who he became.

“Fishers Island is a key place where Venture defined himself and began to redefine himself as an African American,” said Chandler Saint, president of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights in Torrington.

Saint was talking to about 40 people gathered at the community center for a panel discussion Thursday. It was one of a series of events that day in honor of Smith, who died in 1805 at age 77, having become a wealthy East Haddam farmer, trader and boatbuilder.

Born in Africa around 1728, Smith at age 10 or 11 was captured, taken to Colonial America and sold to Robinson Mumford as a “venture” to work alongside about a dozen other slaves on the family farm that spanned the entire 7-mile-long island that is five miles from New London Harbor. Like other New England farms of the day, it prospered by playing a part in the crazed sugar industry of the day, supplying food, wood and other goods to Caribbean plantations running on slave labor.

Over the past five years, the story of Smith’s life has been rediscovered and researched in depth by historians such as Saint and Robert Forbes, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Along the way, many who learn of it both in the United States and abroad have found themselves captivated by this giant of a man physically – 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds – and metaphorically. Now Fishers Island, too, has been swept into the company of places where his life is remembered and celebrated.

“We were rather horrified that he was a slave here,” said Sarah Gordon, a retired teacher and summer island resident who conceived and organized the day of events with Fishers Island School English teacher Ibby Sawyer. “But now Venture Smith is the hero du jour. It’s about time.”

Sawyer, of Mystic, led her ninth- and 11th-graders through creation of a play based on his life that they performed in the school gym Thursday for an audience of island residents and guests. A five-woman a cappella group from Hartford, Nzinga’s Daughters, roused the room with traditional African songs and African-American spirituals to accompany the play and cast Smith as one individual in the context of all those enslaved in this country.

“He was really extraordinary,” Sawyer said.

Venture takes a surname

Schools in the United Kingdom, South Africa and now Fishers Island have students read Smith’s autobiography, a rare first-person account of the experience of a slave in Colonial America. In it, readers are confronted with the cruelty and injustice of slavery, as well as the incredible figure of Smith, who, through force of character, hard work, intelligence and at least one fortunate relationship, managed to buy his way to freedom and prosperity for himself, his wife and children and other slaves.

After the Mumfords, namesake of Mumford Cove in Groton and one of the most prominent families in Colonial Connecticut, decided to sell Venture, then his wife and daughter, he ultimately ended up with Col. Oliver Smith Jr. of Stonington. Venture adopted his surname from Col. Smith.

Col. Smith agreed to let Venture buy his freedom by working in his spare time farming, chopping wood and repairing equipment, and then agreed to an equally rare transaction between a white man and a black in Colonial America: He sold Venture 26 acres on what is now part of the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area. Over the ensuing years, the two became equal partners in numerous business deals.

“Oliver Smith purchased Venture to help him develop Stonington Point, and it catapults his life,” Stephen Solley, a descendent of the Smith-Denison family that Oliver Smith was part of, said during the panel discussion. The family, Solley said, is beginning its own exploration of Venture Smith’s role in their ancestors’ lives, tapping historical resources at its Denison Homestead museum in Stonington and elsewhere.

“We’re looking at Venture Smith’s life from Oliver Smith’s point of view,” he said. “It’s a very exciting story, and we’re just getting started. Venture’s relationship with Oliver becomes, long-term, one of two businessmen.”

Last summer the site, along the probable remains of Smith’s first home, were found deep in the woods of Barn Island by Chester residents Marta Daniels and Nancy Byrne. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the area, is hoping to preserve the site and that of his Haddam Neck farm, now on utility company property.

Nicholas Bellantoni, Connecticut state archaeologist, said during the panel discussion that he hopes to do archaeological work at the Haddam Neck and Barn Island sites, as well as at the Fishers Island property near where the Mumford farmhouse once stood.

Now a baseball field and open meadow uphill from West Harbor, the property would be suitable for use of a relatively new archaeological tool, ground-penetrating radar, Bellantoni said. It can detect old foundations, for example, without having to excavate.

Such a project, he said, would be an exciting way to add to what is know about Smith, a “fantastic and amazing individual.” All three areas, he noted, have a unique asset, archaeologically speaking: all are in open areas where relatively little development has taken place over the years.

“Venture Smith was a remarkable man, and his story deserves to be known by all who value freedom,” said Pierce Rafferty, director of the Henry L. Ferguson Museum, cosponsor of the day’s events and interpreter of the island’s human and natural history. “It’s a story of hope and achievement.”

Forbes, the UConn historian, said he’s come to believe through his research and reading of the autobiography that a young Venture learned the skills, ways and language of commerce in Colonial American while on Fishers Island, making his future success possible.

“Fishers Island was the place he developed the language he uses,” he said. “The Mumfords had many connections. They were very engaged and plugged-in people, and he watched everything they did, and learned from them.”

An important story for African Americans

Among those who took the ferry to the island for the program Thursday was Donna Jones, staff assistant to Sen. Christopher Dodd, and her daughter, Daria Jones of Meriden. Jones said Dodd has been supportive of research and education about the Venture Smith story since Saint and Forbes began their work. She also has a personal connection. She grew up in Middletown knowing the extended Warmsley family who, she learned to her surprise a few years ago, are Smith’s descendents.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, I know these people,'” she said, recalling looking over a list of people invited to a ceremony at his gravesite in East Haddam a few years ago. “I remember when I was little, the Warmsley family would go somewhere for the day to celebrate some dead relative. It’s an awesome story.”

Karl Stofko, municipal historian for East Haddam, said that a few years ago he eagerly contacted the Warmsleys to tell them about their amazing ancestor.

“They all looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we knew that,'” he recalled. “Every single descendent had heard the Venture story, and it’s going to continue for generations.”

But for most of the rest of the world, the story is new. Daria Jones, riding the ferry back to New London at the end of the day, said she’s eager to hear more. When she got home, she planned to do a Google search, and hopes the research will continue. Filling in as many of the gaps in Venture Smith’s story is important for her as an African American, she said, and for the power of his story to inspire across racial, geographic and cultural boundaries.

“They just need to keep developing it,” she said. “I’d like to hear more details about his family. What happened to his wife? Was she native American? I wish we had more stories like this.”

Venture Smith’s early years:
Early 1739: At age 10 or 11, Broteer Furro, who later became known as Venture Smith, is captured and held in a slave castle in what is now Ghana.

Later in 1739: The Rhode Island ship Charming Susanna, filled with enslaved Africans including Broteer, sails for Barbados. Ship steward Robinson Mumford purchases Broteer and takes him to live temporarily with his sister in Newport to learn English and colonial customs.

1740: Now with a new name, Venture is taken to the Mumford farm on Fishers Island.

1754: Venture marries Meg. The first of their four children, Hannah, is born.

Later in 1754: Venture is sold to Thomas Stanton of Stonington.

1759: Venture is hired out to Daniel Edwards of Hartford.

1761: Venture is sold to Oliver Smith Jr. of Stonington.

1765: Venture buys his freedom.

1770: Venture buys 26 acres in Stonington from Oliver Smith.

1773: Venture purchases Meg’s freedom.

Source: The Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, www.Beecher

As usual, Judy Benson has done an excellent job covering the complex, on-going Venture Smith story in our local area, and its many faceted details. It is hard to capture and accurately relate the long, detailed history of this inspiring figure in American history, but Ms. Benson keeps rising successfully to the challenge. Hats off to her abilities and many thanks to the New London Day for its continuing coverage of this inspiring historical figure. It was a pleasure to learn about the Fishers Island connection from Benson’s story and to discover the enthusiasm of young people there to connect with an important part of the past in that place. It is indeed relevant to the present. Keep the coverage coming!

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