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An enslaved man told his story. His descendants are determined to keep Venture Smith's story alive

Unforgotten is a cross-platform series and podcast chronicling Connecticut's ties to slavery. Learn more.

It’s the late 1730s. A young boy, son of a West African prince, watches as an invading army kills his father.

He’s captured and marched hundreds of miles to the coast. There he’s put on a ship and traded for “four gallons of rum and piece of calico.”

The boy’s name is Broteer Furro.

History will remember him as Venture Smith, whose 18th-century narrative is the earliest published narrative of slavery in the Americas. It’s also one of the few published accounts of slavery in New England. Thousands of people were enslaved across the region.

Today, more people are learning about Venture, in part because his narrative was published, but also because descendants who know his history are working to keep his story alive.

“Despite everything that happened to him, he was determined to live his life as a free man,” says Susi Ryan, Venture’s ninth-generation descendant.

Susi Ryan stands for a portrait in Stonington, Conn. She is a 9th-generation descendent of Venture Smith whose 1798 narrative is one of the earliest known eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Susi Ryan stands for a portrait in Stonington, Conn. She is a 9th-generation descendent of Venture Smith whose 1798 narrative is one of the earliest known eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States.

“He actually stood his ground,” she continues. “And when a Black person says ‘I’m going to stand my ground,’ or ‘stand for who I am,’ that feels like a threat to a lot of people.”

‘A good venture’

Venture Smith’s narrative was published in 1798. It’s a harrowing tale, a story from a man who stood up for family and freedom.

But before the kidnapped boy arrives in New England, he faces a nightmarish trip called the Middle Passage.

This voyage, which trafficked roughly 12 million Africans across the Atlantic as human property, was one of disease and death.

For Broteer, the journey also includes a captor stripping him of his name.

“He gave him the name ‘Venture,’ because it was a good venture for him to purchase this young child,” Ryan says.

According to Venture’s narrative, 60 of the 260 enslaved people aboard the ship that brought him to New England die of smallpox.

The title page of Venture Smith’s narrative, published in 1798. It is one of the earliest known eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States. The book pictured is the original of “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” and is located at the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
The title page of Venture Smith’s narrative, published in 1798. It is one of the earliest known eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States. The book pictured is the original of “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” and is located at the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History.

Most survivors of the voyage are sold in Barbados. But the boy continues on to colonial America — not to the South, but to the North.

He’s taken to Rhode Island. He grows up enslaved along coastal New England, eventually marrying and having a child.

Then, only about a month after his daughter is born, Venture is sold to Thomas Stanton II of Stonington, Connecticut.

‘The scar of it remains’

The sale separates Venture from his wife Meg and their child. But one year later, Stanton buys them, too. The couple would eventually have three more children.

They also would have violent conflicts with the Stanton family.

One day when Stanton was away, Venture hears a commotion in the house and finds Stanton's wife beating Meg. Venture asks Meg to apologize so this would end, but Stanton's wife begins beating Venture with a whip. He grabs the whip and throws it in the fire.

Days later, Venture describes the consequences in his narrative.

“In the morning as I was putting on a log in the fire-place, not suspecting harm from any one, I received a most violent stroke on the crown of my head with a club two feet long and as large round as a chair-post. This blow very badly wounded my head, and the scar of it remains to this day."

He’s sold again.

Venture is determined to reunite his family, so he spends years performing extra labor – fishing, cutting wood and farming – to save the money to buy his freedom.

At the age of 36, he succeeds. He pays 71 pounds and two shillings – a massive sum – to purchase his freedom.

“My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal,” Venture writes in his narrative.

He buys 26 acres of land in Stonington. The land is directly next door to the property where his family is still enslaved. It allows Venture to watch over his loved ones.

The ‘intimacy’ of this land

As John Wood Sweet walks through the land today, his mind harkens back to over 200 years ago.

“This is a site that represents the way slavery tore families apart,” Sweet says. “And how hard enslaved people, and free people, worked to reunite their families.”

Today, the land where Venture used to be enslaved is known as the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, filled with trees and forests.

An aerial view of “Venture’s Rock” — which was used to symbolically represent the boundary markers of Venture’s Smith’s property in Stonington, Conn. Today, the property is located in the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
An aerial view of “Venture’s Rock” — which was used to symbolically represent the boundary markers of Venture’s Smith’s property in Stonington, Conn. Today, the property is located in the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area.

Sweet, a historian at the University of North Carolina who is writing a book about Venture, walks down a centuries-old pathway that leads to a clearing – and the stone foundation walls for a small dwelling house.

Researchers have confirmed Venture Smith built this home as a freedman. He lived here while working to save money to buy his wife and children.

“The intimacy of this tract with the Stanton farm is a testament to his desire to be a good husband, to be a good father, to be connected to his family even though legal ownership was separating them,” Sweet says.

Venture would work for years to save money to buy freedom for his family.

In 1769, he purchased the freedom of his two sons, Solomon and Cuff. Solomon would later go to work in Rhode Island and die of scurvy on a whaling expedition.

In either 1773 or 1774, Venture purchased his wife, Meg, who was pregnant with their fourth child, a boy who they also named Solomon.

Two years later, Venture also bought his oldest child, Hannah.

Historians know all of this because decades after purchasing this land in Stonington, Venture Smith would recount his life story.

“A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” was published in 1798. It stands as one of the first known eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States.

Seeing the land, Sweet says, brings that history to life.

“I think it’s really important – when you have a narrative like Venture Smith that challenges common narratives of American history – to be able to root him in an actual physical landscape to demonstrate that events that he describes happening did happen,” Sweet says.

In 1774, Venture sold the land in Stonington. With the proceeds, he purchased a plot about 40 miles away on Haddam Neck on the Connecticut River.

He became a busy entrepreneur, farming, logging, fishing and trading along the river.

His property grew to more than 100 acres.

‘I had never felt anything like that before’

Venture Smith died in 1805. He’s buried at First Church Cemetery in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Each year, his descendants meet there to honor him.

On a beautiful sunny day in early September, people sit around chatting.

A quilting guild, led by Venture’s descendant Susi Ryan, pins several colorful quilts onto the side of a small shed nearby.

There are about 100 people here, including roughly 30 descendants of Venture Smith. They pose for a family photograph near his grave.

Amina Merritt, a descendant of Venture, flew in from California.

“The first time I came and I put my hand on the headstone. And I fell to my knees and cried uncontrollably,” Merritt says. “I had never felt anything like that before.”

Descendants of Venture Smith pay tribute at his gravestone in East Haddam, Conn. at the 27th Annual Venture Smith Day on September 9, 2023.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Descendants of Venture Smith pay tribute at his gravestone in East Haddam, Conn. at the 27th Annual Venture Smith Day on September 9, 2023.

Merritt discovered her family history through a letter from Karl Stofko, East Haddam’s longtime town historian.

Weaving through the gathered descendants, Stofko approaches Venture’s grave and reads the headstone.

“Sacred to the memory of Venture Smith, an African, the son of a king. He was kidnapped and sold. But by his industry he acquired money to purchase his freedom.”

The fact that Venture’s headstone is here is a bit of a historical anachronism, Stofko says. In the early 1800s, it was unusual for any out-of-towners to be buried at this cemetery.

But Venture’s industry earned him a place. Stofko says records show how Smith and his sons cut down trees and helped build the nearby church.

The burial plot was their payment.

But even in death, Stofko says, some would shun Venture and his family.

“When he died, there was nothing anywhere around him,” Stofko says. “And nobody wanted to be buried [near him] … because he was Black.”

‘We need to be careful’

Today, that grave does the opposite, attracting visitors from across the country seeking to honor Venture Smith and connect with his legacy.

Corinne Henry Brady, a descendant of Venture Smith who lives in Rhode Island, remembers hearing tales of him when she was a child.

“My dad used to tell stories. But I didn't believe him,” she says. “The way he talked about Venture was almost like he was a mythical figure – lifting rocks and this big strong guy, I didn't really think that he was real.”

Eventually, Brady traveled to Ghana, where Venture was captured and enslaved, to visit Cape Coast Castle. That old slave trading outpost was where kidnapped Africans were walked under an arch called the “Door of No Return” and transferred onto slave ships.

“We walked through the Door of No Return … And I was able to bring my father's ashes back to Africa. So it was very moving,” she says. “It really helped me to understand who I was – and who I am and where I came from.”

Today, more and more people are learning about Venture Smith. His narrative helps to preserve his experience, but so do his descendants.

Still, society should be careful with stories of Black people who may be perceived as unique or exceptional, says Akeia de Barros Gomes, a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

“My mind always goes to how many more Venture Smiths would there have been had racism and slavery not been a factor in their daily lives?” she says.

“They are really important stories because they highlight the ingenuity and the creativity of the enslaved and the free. But we need to be careful to make sure that we are not somehow saying that individuals like Venture Smith are different from the rest of the Black population.”

Venture Smith shared his story. Now, history is waiting for more, says Susi Ryan, his descendant.

“The history of enslaved people, it’s out there,” Ryan says. “It’s just not uncovered.”

Read more from Unforgotten: Connecticut's Hidden History of Slavery

Chapter 1: Think slavery wasn't in the North? Think again. Slavery has roots in Connecticut dating to 1600s

Chapter 2: ‘This is my country': A family learns their ancestors were enslaved in Connecticut

Chapter 3: An enslaved man told his story. Descendants are determined to keep Venture Smith's story alive

Chapter 4: A once-enslaved man’s music was hidden for centuries. Go on a journey to rediscover his melodies

Chapter 5: As CT learns more about its ties to slavery, students shape efforts to ensure the stories live on

About the series: Why we're reporting on Connecticut's history of slavery

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Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.