People Who Worked the Land

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

The first people who made their living from the land and waterways were the Narragansett and Niantic. Archaeological evidence and tribal knowledge tell us there were villages of people cultivating, hunting, and gathering in the place they called Namcook, or “the place of the fish,” for up to twenty thousand years ago. The land now called Casey Farm was part of the sad history of disease, unfair dealings, war, oppression, and enslavement inflicted on these peoples by colonists of white European descent that displaced them from their lands.

From what we know about colonists’ farms in the region which were founded in the first decades of the eighteenth century, a variety of crops were grown relying on the labor of enslaved Indigenous and African people. Professor Christy Clark-Pujara in her book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island described what is also evident in the archives for Casey Farm.

Professor Clark-Pujara points out that enslaved people “lived and labored in Rhode Island from the birth of the colony, in 1636, until slavery was abolished in 1842.” The number of enslaved people in Rhode Island slowly diminished from the 1780s through its official end in the state in 1842 due to runaways, manumissions, and a gradual emancipation law. In practice, slaveholding only ended in Rhode Island because it was no longer a profitable economic model after overseas trade was disrupted during the American Revolution. Despite laws prohibiting the importation of slaves, Rhode Islanders increased their participation in the Atlantic slave trade to Southern and Caribbean ports until the Civil War.

We know far too little about the lives of enslaved people, farmhands, and tenant farmers whose lives were not often deemed worthy of recording and even whose burial places were not marked adequately. There are some rough fieldstones in the Casey family cemetery on the property that could possibly represent the final resting places for people of color, or for the Coggeshalls, and some very fine gravestone markers that tell another story of enslavement. There are three sets of slate headstones and footstones signed by William Stevens of Newport. In business since 1705, the John Stevens Shop used the labor of enslaved people who were apprenticed as stone carvers. One of these African-descended people was Pompe Stevens, bonded to William Stevens. Pompe signed his own work on stones for his family members in God’s Little Acre in Newport which are the inspiration for the design of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion. He was also documented as having carved elements of stones for William’s work in other cemeteries. Could it be that Pompe had a hand in carving stones that can still be seen at Casey Farm today? We are still researching these questions.

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Engraved print depicting Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, meeting with the Narragansett Indians by James Charles Armytage - Wikimedia Commons

"Located along the southeastern coast of Rhode Island, the Narragansett Country—also known as South County—was first cleared and farmed by Native Americans. The region’s rich soil, moderate temperatures, and easy access to Newport trade made it an ideal place for large-scale commercial agriculture and grazing. There was no staple crop. Instead farmers bred horses, cattle, and sheep, manufactured dairy products (primarily cheese), and cultivated small amounts of Indian corn, rye, hemp, flax, and tobacco. Slave labor was essential to the economy in the Narragansett, as slaves produced nearly all the exported goods."

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

This headstone stands in the Silas Casey Cemetery on the grounds of Casey Farm. It memorializes Mary Coggeshall and was signed by William Stevens in 1747. William’s enslaved apprentice, Pompe Stevens, may have had a hand in carving this and two other gravestones at the farm.

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