By Dennis Culliton
Until six months ago, we didn’t have much to go on if we wanted to tell the story of Dinah. We had a Bill of Sale written in 1792 where Guilford’s selectmen purchased Dinah from Elias Cadwell for 12 pounds lawful money for a term of four years when she would be freed. We also had a reference shared by Tracy Tomaselli, from the North Guilford Congregational that a Peter and Dinah, “both free negroes” were married in 1799 at the North Guilford Congregational Church. Those two references sat in separate parts of the ‘cloud’ and separate parts of my mind until we committed to doing this adult workshop to remember. Through continued research and the analysis of documents for and during this week’s workshop, we are able to at least tell part of the story of the last fifty-one years of Dinah’s life!
Dinah was an enslaved girl, a free Black, a wife, a widow, a landowner, and a person of color who lived her life fully, but with what appears to be mostly with anonymity according to the extant records. When we look over all of the research that we have gathered and analyzed about Dinah, otherwise known as Dinah Gardner, what is most surprising is our inability to find her name in any records for most of her life. When telling untold stories, we realize that sometimes, those stories remain untold because of the hard history they represent, but also because slaves, and servants, and women were not given the same status as white men in the colonial and early American records and therefore seem absent.
We use the five themes of slavery developed as part of the Witness Stones Project to understand the lives of enslaved persons locally. We will see the dehumanization and treatment of Dinah through her ownership by Elias Cadwell, the paternalism of the selectmen by not freeing her for four years, the economics of slavery by how she was priced and how she was sold, and her agency by the life she lived in freedom with her husband Peter/Peter Gardner.
We first discover Dinah in an intriguing document that where the Board of Selectmen of Guilford, listed as, Joseph Weld, Samuel Lee, Solomon Stone, Samuel Johnson, Jr., purchased from Elias Cadwell of Guilford (and this house at 65 Water Street), “a certain Negro Girl named Dinah” for “twelve pounds lawful money” for “the term of four years fully to be complete and ended; after which time said Girl shall become free…”. This document is dated the 17th of August 1792.
Even for those of us familiar with slavery, slavery in the North, and slavery in Guilford, this evidence that the governing body of the municipality of Guilford, the town fathers, purchased an enslaved woman to be owned by the town for four years is shocking. It shows both the prevalence and commonality of the institution of slavery, even after the laws in 1784 and 1792 that began the gradual emancipation of the enslaved in Connecticut had been enacted. This document caused us to ask so many questions:
- Who is Dinah?
- Who is Elias Cadwell?
- Why would the town buy Dinah for less than what she should have been worth?
- Why did the town promise to free Dinah in four years?
- What would the town do with her during those four years?
- Where would she live and who would pay her room and board?
- Why didn’t the town just free her completely?
- Can we find evidence of Dinah before and after her sale to the town of Guilford?
- When and where was she born?
- Did she stay in Guilford after her freedom?
- Did she marry?
- Did she have children?
- What else can we know about her?
Dinah’s history is that of an enslaved African-American who was probably born in Connecticut because of the laws restricting the importation of slaves to Connecticut in 1774. Using the name of the slave-holder who held her captive, we believe we can first see evidence of her in the first U.S Census in 1790 as a number one in the far-right column of the census sheet. She is not named, but the fact that she is sold by this same Elias Cadwell in 1792 points to the enumerated person and Dinah is the same person. Her description stating that she was a “negro girl” and the range of her age given in the 1820 and 1830 census leads us to believe that she was between fifteen and twenty years old in 1792.
On a parallel history. We see a Jared Scranton in North Guilford held one enslaved person as identified in the 1790 U.S. Census there. In 1793, Jared Scranton manumits or emancipates “a certain Negro man named Peter, a slave for life”. These histories combine when in 1799 in the North Guilford Congregational Church records list the marriage of Dinah and Peter, “free negroes of Guilford”.
In 1800, and in the same neighborhood of Jared Scranton (North Guilford), we find a Peter listed as a free non-white person along with another person enumerated, but not named. It appears Peter and Dinah, after their marriage, are living independent of whites who often kept both slaves and freed Blacks within their households. It took this researcher about a year to tie the Peter who was freed to the Peter who was married to Dinah, to the Peter who shows up apparently married in the 1800 census and living independently from a white household. And although Peterlisted without a last iname in not found in the 1810 census, we do find a a free non-white person, Peter Gardner, in that census living in the same neighborhood with another free non-white person living in his household. So we have been able to make the leap from two persons who are completely unnamed in the 1790 census, to two named persons who are married, to two censuses that show Peter/Peter Gardner and an unnamed person in his household who we presume is Dinah.
So although Dinah’s name disappears from the records since 1799, she is not only missing because of her race, she is missing because of her status as not the head of the household (which was presumed to be male if there was an adult male present.) We find that Peter is listed as a “Free Colored Persons – Male – 45 and over” and the person we presume to be Dinah as a “Free Colored Persons – Females – and over”. We also find a “Colored” female in the household who is between “14 thru 24” years of age. Since this person does not show up in the previous census or later censuses (nor is she listed in Peter and Dinah’s probate records), we believe that she was not part of Dinah and Peter’s immediate family. Sadly, the next time we see Dinah’s name is in 1828 when Dinah Gardner is named as the widow of Peter Gardner.
In those probate records, we see that Peter Gardner held property valued at $238.54 within which his house and two acres of land were valued at $200 combined. Reading through his probate inventory after his death, it appears the surname Gardner was an occupational surname because he did not own much of his own farming equipment nor did he own livestock. He had a house, two acres, and household goods. Through tradition and/or kindness, Dinah Gardner was given a “Widow’s Dower” which allowed her to keep the house as well as a small plot of property. But since Peter Gardner owed more money than his estate was valued, his creditors did not receive payment for their just debts. Through these probate records, we find the first time in twenty-nine years Dinah’s name is written in any official record or any record we can find extant.
Dinah Gardner reappears again in 1830 when she is listed in the U.S. census as a free person of color of at least fifty-five years of age and less than one hundred years. This is the first time Dinah is listed as the head of a household. The next time Dinah Gardner’s name is presented is when she sells her property including her house and one and a half acres of land in 1833 for $125 to Edward and Samuel Loper (both who were part of the probate process as assessor and debtor). It is not clear why Dinah Gardner would have wanted to sell the house and property where she was living, but it may have had to do with accumulated debts.
Records of Dinah Gardner’s death in 1842 give us many details, but it appears that Dinah disappears from the 1840 census two years prior. The only listing of a woman of color older than sixty-five and not otherwise identified in Guilford would be in the household of Nathaniel Griffing who lived in the Borough of Guilford (Fair and Broad Streets). It is not clear that the person enumerated is Dinah, but Nathaniel Griffing does not have any women of color in either the 1830 or 1850 censuses so there is a chance that that is where Dinah lived prior to her death.
In Dinah’s probate inventory taken after her death, she is listed as only having only $16.98 in property with her silk dress at $3 and her bedstead at $2 being her most valuable items. Through the listing of the rest of the items in the inventory, she had the tools necessary to cook for whichever household she lived in. Although it does not seem like a lot, the fact that she and her husband were able to live freely, and mostly in their own household from 1800 to 1833 shows their hard work and agency. As the population of African Americans fell from sixty-four in 1800 to thirty-two in 1840, Peter and Dinah Gardner made a life for themselves and continued to contribute to our community.
To answer some of the other questions, we have to speculate based on knowledge of early American society in New England.
Who is Elias Cadwell?
Elias Cadwell was probably a trader in the West Indies trade. The fact that he had accumulated enough wealth to build this home which was previously located on the southwest corner of the intersection of Boston and Whitfield Streets shows a sign of affluence that was not uncommon during that period. And if he were a trader, we can speculate that there were good times and bad times financially.
Why would the town want to buy Dinah (at a discounted price)?
The town may have bought Dinah from Elias Cadwell for two reasons:
- Elias may have owed back taxes or other debts so that the town may have bought her as they would a house that was foreclosed on today. The discounted price minus the past debts would equal Dinah’s full value financially.
- The town may have wanted to free Dinah. (Librarian Tracy Tomaselli recently shared a document that tells a similar story in New Haven a decade or two later.)
Why did the town promise to free Dinah in four years?
- The town may have wanted to free her all along.
- They might have assigned her to the Almshouse also known as the poor house.
- Residents of the Almshouse were expected to work if they were able.
- The proceeds from that work would go to their support or to the town treasury.
- It may have been estimated that the time it would take Dinah to pay back the twelve pounds that it cost to purchase her would be four years.
There is much of Dinah Gardner’s story that remains untold. We hope that through further research we can better tell her story and Peter Gardner’s story in the future. We would like to thank everyone who is here today and all of the participants in the workshop analyzed the documents who asked the questions and that helped us tell the story of Dinah as a person whose story needed to be told.