Freedom Trail has deep roots in Farmington
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
By Noelle Blake
Special to Today Magazine
The town of Farmington is known for its strong ties to the foundations of Connecticut history. Rich with artifacts and important historical sites, Farmington serves as the home for the remnants of early life in the Farmington Valley. With this in mind, it is easy to understand Farmington’s strong connection with one of the state’s most famous legacies: the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
Connecticut’s General Assembly officially established the Connecticut Freedom Trail in 1995.
According to ConnecticutHistory.org, the trail was established to recognize the struggle of African-Americans and other people of color “for freedom and social equality in Connecticut” and to identify sites statewide “that bear witness to milestones in that quest.”
The trail has more than 130 sites in 50-plus towns, and new sites are added regularly. Each site honors a significant aspect of African-American history, either due to a large minority population historically in that town or the gravesite of a person of color. The administration of the trail is shared by the State Historic Preservation Office, the Department of Economic and Community Development, and the New Haven-based Amistad Committee Inc.
Farmington is responsible for 13 sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, outmatched only by Hartford (18) and New Haven (20). On the trail’s website, the Farmington Historical Society is listed as its own site, further solidifying the importance of the town’s history within the history of Connecticut as a whole.
Many of the locations and people in Farmington are known for their contributions to abolitionist efforts, including their assistance to the Mende Africans who stayed in town during their episode related to the slave ship Amistad. Farmington residents helped these men win their freedom. Austin F. Williams was one such resident.
A leading abolitionist in town, Williams had the carriage house on his property constructed as the primary home for the Mende Africans during their stay in Farmington. Later, he built his own home and converted the first structure to a carriage house, which soon became associated with the Underground Railroad.
Many of the locations and people in Farmington are known for their contributions to abolitionist efforts
A trapdoor in the carriage house led to a basement where fugitive slaves could easily be concealed. One fugitive, Henry Davis, is known to have visited the Williams family after his escape from slavery in Virginia, and later lived on the property as a farm manager for 70 years.
After the Civil War, Austin Williams headed a local branch of the Freedmen's Bureau, which sought jobs for emancipated former slaves. The property is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Elijah Lewis was another prominent Farmington citizen and abolitionist. Lewis sheltered fugitive slaves in a space at the base of his chimney in his 18th-century home. A large stone in the chimney can still be removed to reveal a hiding place big enough to hold a grown man. The Elijah Lewis House is a site on the trail, but the home itself is private property.
One of the most significant locations among the Farmington sites on the Freedom Trail is the Samuel Deming House. Deming arranged and supervised the stay of the Mende Africans in Farmington. A legislator, merchant and farmer, he was an outspoken abolitionist. His wife, Catherine Deming, was among many Farmington women who raised money and signed petitions to help the abolitionist cause. Their home was also an Underground Railroad station for many years.
Farmington was located in the middle of the most modern transportation system of the times — the New Haven-Northampton Canal.
Many of these slaves aimed to reach Canada or upstate New York, and Farmington was at the crossroads. Farmington’s contributions to the abolitionist movement in the 19th century resulted in the freedom of hundreds of slaves. The historical sites in town today are meant to commemorate these African-Americans and remind us of Farmington’s significant role in their long journey to freedom.