Narragansett Planters

By Jane Hennedy, Site Manager for Historic New England at Casey Farm, and Hannah Francis, PhD candidate in history at Rice University

Commercial Agriculture in Colonial South County

The labor of enslaved people in New England and the West Indies made the Casey Farm we appreciate today, though we cannot yet document the physical presence of any enslaved person on the farmland. While we have no direct evidence that enslaved people worked at Casey Farm, we do know that several of the proprietors of this farm owned at least fifteen enslaved people at the other properties where they lived and that they profited from the slave trade. It was frequently the case in Southern Rhode Island that enslavers known as the Narragansett Planters employed their own enslaved people and “rented” others from their neighbors to help with seasonal agricultural labor—i.e., during spring ploughing and planting and during the fall harvest–not always leaving written records of these transactions.

Joseph Morey purchased the farm in 1702. His 1716 will and inventory on file in the Jamestown Town Hall documented four enslaved people: a “Negro man,” a “Negro boy,” a “Negro woman,” and an “Indian girl.” Morey’s inventory listed these people and their appraisals along with his sundries, furniture, and livestock. The unnamed “Negro man” was valued at £46 while the other three enslaved people were all appraised at £40. The following year, Mary Morey, Joseph’s widow, bequeathed four unnamed enslaved people referred to as “two Negro men” and “a Negro woman and her child” to their daughter Mary Morey Coggeshall. The subsequent generations of this family to own the farm would continue their dependence upon enslaved people despite their membership in the Society of Friends.

Mary Morey Coggeshall inherited the farm from her father with instructions to leave it to her son. Upon the death of her husband Daniel Coggeshall in 1717, Mary received two of the four Indigenous enslaved people he owned–Phillis, Peter, Betty and Jeffrey. According to this probate record from Portsmouth, Daniel Coggeshall gave his wife an Indigenous woman called Betty and “her sucking child,” Jeffrey. So, in the year 1717, she inherited a total of six enslaved people including four from her mother.

After Mary Morey Coggeshall’s death in 1724, her son Daniel Coggeshall became the owner of the farm. During this time period, the existing farmhouse was built for the family in the 1750s at the height of slave ownership in South County. When he died intestate in 1774 without an inventory to inform us of his slave ownership status the farm was divided between his heirs, which included his daughter Abigail Coggeshall Casey. She married Silas Casey whose last name the farm now carries. We know that Abigail Coggeshall Casey’s husband Silas Casey and their son Wanton not only enslaved people but also engaged in businesses that helped sustain Atlantic Slavery.

Silas Casey (1734-1814) was an enslaver of at least three people named Walter (aka Wat), Ezekiel, and Moses who may have worked at the North Kingstown farm or at his other property in what was then Warwick, Rhode Island (today’s East Greenwich). Bills of sale for Wat (dated 1765), Ezekiel (dated 1766), and Moses (dated 1766) were passed down through the Casey family and are now in the archives of Historic New England. Though representing the horrendous fact of the sales of human beings, these deeds convey some information about their lives. Both Ezekiel and Moses were sold to satisfy the debts of their former enslaver, Benjamin Sheffield of North Kingstown. These two enslaved men were sold a year apart; Ezekiel sold for £49 and Moses for £45. Walter came from the household of Benjamin Fry of East Greenwich, for a price of £55. All three were sold at public auctions in Newport to satisfy the debts of their former enslavers to Silas Casey, who was also the highest bidder.

Records of Silas Casey indicate that in 1768, Walter and Moses were put up as collateral for a loan of £100. Silas apparently did not default on the loan because in 1777, Walter and Moses were listed as members of Silas Casey’s household for a military census. Currently, the fates of Ezekiel and Moses after the 1770s remain hidden; however, Walter appears in Silas Casey’s shipping records into the 1780s. Casey’s records indicate that Walter provided labor on the Schooner Sexton (1779), the Sloop Polley (1780), the Brig Abigail (1782), and the Schooner Sally (1783). By 1790, when Silas had retired to live at the farm, no enslaved people or free people of color are listed in his household.

Despite not having clear evidence of enslaved people working at Casey Farm, the farm’s owners from Joseph Morey to Silas Casey lived in a culture that condoned and promoted slavery and benefited from an economy largely based on the kidnap and sale of human beings who were then forced to work without compensation. It is well documented that large plantations on Boston Neck and in Southern Rhode Island purchased enslaved people from nearby Newport to produce wool, mutton, cheese, and other products to clothe and feed enslaved people in the Caribbean who worked on sugar plantations.

By 1755 during the heyday of the plantation culture in Southern Rhode Island, called the Narragansett Country, the percentage of enslaved people was far higher than any other Northern colony. Scholar Christy Clark-Pujara of the University of Madison-Wisconsin sheds much light on the subject in her book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.

From the late 1760s to the 1780s, Silas Casey along with a group of investors participated in this provision trade to the West Indies. In 1769, Casey’s Sloop the Rhoda went to the West Indies with crops including corn, turnips, pork, and potatoes as well as goods. Fourteen years later in 1783, his Brig the Abigail went to Cape François in Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti) with provisions like menhaden fish and items such as tablecloths and candles for sale. Casey’s business provided food for populations of these islands as well as luxury goods for the wealthy members of society such as enslavers.

Silas Casey’s son, Wanton Casey, was apprenticed in Nantes, France, a known European center of the slave trade designated as “the city of slavers [slave ships].” Most likely, he participated in accounting for vessels that brought enslaved human beings across the Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean and North America. The correspondence exchanged between this father and son suggests that Wanton Casey went to France for several reasons. Perhaps, the most important catalyst for this trip was the need to recuperate from an unnamed illness. While in Nantes, he shipped goods such as Morlaix linen to Rhode Island. Wanton Casey also went to Nantes with the intention of improving his French language skills, which would be useful for his family’s West Indian trade business.

It appears that Wanton Casey learned French and succeed to his father’s business. In 1806, Wanton Casey along with a group of investors sent a Schooner called Dolphin to Guadeloupe with goods for sale. As with his father, this shipment included provisions such as pork and potatoes. The business records of both Silas and Wanton Casey demonstrate that they profited from the institution of slavery.

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“Economic Activities in the Days of of the Narragansett Planters.” Ernest Hamlin Baker

Casey Farm courtesy of Google 2024 ©

Silas Casey 1734-1814 (Courtesy of Historic New England)

This bill of sale for “One Negro Man, named Wat” (also known as Walter) was drawn up on October 26, 1765 after a public auction in Newport. This document and many others are made available through Historic New England’s Library and Archives.

"All northern colonists, New Englanders in particular, participated in the West Indian and Atlantic slave trades, but Rhode Islanders were the most deeply entrenched. Their domination of the North American trade in African slaves gave them increased access to slaves. Merchants and tradesmen in Newport and Providence put their slaves to work in their homes and shops and on their ships. Farmers in the Narragansett Country put thousands of enslaved men, women, and children to work producing foodstuffs and raising livestock for the West Indian trade. Local slave labor played a key role in the growth of commerce in Rhode Island; moreover, abundant plantations of the West Indies provided farmers and merchants with a near-perpetual market for their slave-produced goods."

- Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island by Christy Clark-Pujara