The Lonely-Hearted Man: Joe Ginne, Town Founder

Jamie H. Eves

Windham Textile and History Museum

The late 19th century in Connecticut was a great time for writing local histories, an era when local historians and authors put into writing the oral stories of how their communities had been founded and established. So when in 1892 the town of Windham, CT celebrated the 200th anniversary of its incorporation, a small parade of speakers gathered on the town green to relate the narrative of how their town had come into being. A central figure in the narrative was the town’s “first settler,” an Englishman named John (or perhaps Jonathan) Cates, who had arrived in 1688. In telling the story, the speakers understandably focused on Cates himself, but some of them also mentioned the presence another man, an enslaved African American whom they called Joe Ginne. One of the speakers, Jane Gay Fuller, a longtime local resident and published poet and author of children’s stories, commented that while most people in Windham were familiar with the legend of Joe Ginne, they didn’t really think of him as a “first settler.” After first acknowledging Cates as “the Father of our Town,” Fuller chided her audience for not also considering Ginne a first settler:

Nor was he [Cates] Abolitionist, / For in the South he bought a slave, / A trusty servant, faithful friend, / Who loved his master to the end. / You all have heard of “Guinea Joe,” / Who would have been a settler, too, / If he had been a man, you know!

The story of Joe Ginne is an example of how African Americans, even when their presence was acknowledged, too often have been denied an equal place in the history of Connecticut. This essay discusses what is known about Joe Ginne and his role as a settler and founder of the town of Windham.

Above: Celebrating Windham’s bicentennial in 1892. The bicentennial provided an opportunity for the community to review its history. Numerous speakers read essays or poems based on the town’s oral history and lore. Most of these stories were what anthropologists call creation or foundation myths, the stories people tell about how they believe their communities and cultures came into existence. Several of the speakers told, in various forms, the story of “first settler” John Cates and his slave, Joe Ginne. The essays and poems were published in book form the following year as A Memorial Volume of the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Town of Windham, Connecticut (Hartford: New England Home Printing Company, 1893). This image appeared in the book.

Most of what has been written about Joe Ginne comes from 19th-century local historians, 200 years after his death. These local historians worked from a combination of preserved documents and oral traditions. Oral traditions might seem untrustworthy as sources of history, but anthropologists who have studied them know that, unless outsiders become involved, they are remarkably stable, as the same stories get repeated year after year with very little change. One of the first local historians to record the story of Joe Ginne was Ellen Larned, in her monumental History of Windham County, Connecticut, Volume I (1600-1760), published in 1874. It was a well-told tale, nicely connected to several larger themes in Connecticut history. In England, the authoritarian King James II was tangling with Parliament. In New England, he was challenging local control, attempting to merge the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven with Rhode Island, New York, East Jersey, and West Jersey into a single, sprawling royal colony, styled the Dominion of New England and managed by royal governor Sir Edmund Andros. The Dominion was based on the Spanish Empire to the south, where individual colonies were grouped into larger viceroyalties in order to tighten imperial control. In New England, creating the Dominion meant requiring all of the colonies that would be part of it to surrender their old colonial charters and a good portion of their self-government. It was an authoritarian structure designed for an authoritarian age, stiffly resisted by the colonists. When Andros came to Hartford to seize Connecticut’s colonial charter, local leaders hid the document in a hollow tree, the famous Charter Oak. The Dominion of New England lasted only from 1686 to 1689, when Parliament deposed James (an event known as the Glorious Revolution) and restored all of the original colonial charters. The whole episode, though, was a big deal and would have a major impact on the way Connecticutters thought about government for years to come. And it was in the midst of this crisis that John Cates and Joe Ginne arrived on the Connecticut frontier.

Above: The official government seal of the Dominion of New England. A settler and an Indian are pictured kneeling before King James II, reinforcing royal authority. Colonial leaders in New England resented such authority and resisted it, although they imposed their own authority on women and people of color, including enslaved people like Joe Ginne.

“In the autumn of 1688,” Larned wrote almost 200 years later, “Joshua’s tract received its first settler. John Cates, an English refugee, fearful of the spies of Andross [sic], found his way into this desolate, uninhabited wilderness, and passed the winter, Crusoe-like, in a cave or cellar, fashioned by the hands of his faithful negro, Joe Ginne. Little is known of the previous history of this gentleman. Tradition represents him as a high political offender, a Commonwelath soldier and even a Regicide, but the shy Englishman kept his own secret. It is said that he landed first at Virginia, where he purchased his servant, and thence came on to New York and Norwich, but found no security till he took up his abode in this remote wilderness.”

There is a lot to unpack in Larned’s paragraph. The first is that Joe Ginne’s life in Connecticut was inextricably connected to John Cates’s. The two men arrived together. They would live together until Cates died in 1697. For two of those years, until Jonathan Ginnings and his wife arrived at the settlement in 1690, they had only each other for company. A second is that Joe Ginne was enslaved. Cates had purchased him (perhaps) in Virginia before coming on to Connecticut. A third is that Cates may (or may not) have been a political refugee. Local tradition held that he was an English Puritan, a supporter of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth, and an enemy of the king. In a subsequent paragraph, Larned reported that Cates had brought a quantity of gold and silver with him, that he was an elderly widower, and that he had left children behind in England. As no documentation exists for any of the information in this paragraph, it is probably based entirely on oral tradition. Thomas Snell Weaver, one of the speakers at Windham’s 1892 bicentennial celebration, told essentially the same story, although he had the two men arrive in Windham in 1689, not 1688. Weaver told his audience that he based his information on notes left to him by his late father, William L. Weaver, a longtime Windham resident. The elder Weaver had collected the information in the 1860s.

Because Cates and Ginne were so closely connected, in order to understand the life and experiences of Ginne it is necessary also to come to grips with Cates. Although Larned wrote that Cates was rumored to have been a Regicide, that is unlikely. The identities of most of the Regicides are known. But bringing up the possibility gave Larned the opportunity to tie into another large theme from colonial Connecticut history. The bloody English Civil War (1642-51) had ended with the triumph of Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell and other Puritans, and the execution of King Charles I. Colonists in Connecticut, Puritans themselves, had sided with Parliament. Cromwell ruled England until his own death in 1658. (The period 1649-60 is known as the Commonwealth.) Two years later in 1660, tired of sectarian strife, a more moderate Parliament invited Charles’s son, Charles II, to be king, and event known as the Restoration. In return for the throne, Charles II and his allies had agreed to pardons for most of the supporters of the Commonwealth, but 104 men were excluded. Most of them had been members of the commission that had served as Charles I’s jury and assented to his execution. Historians therefore refer to all 104 by the term Regicides, not a term used at the time. Many of the Regicides (including Cromwell himself) were already dead by 1660, but many were not, and most of those still alive were rounded up and either executed or imprisoned. Twenty-four fled. Three went to New England, where they were given refuge by the New England Puritans. Cates was not one of the three (historians know who they were and what happened to them), and likely was not one of the 104 at all. But he may have been a supporter of the Commonwealth who had enemies among the allies of the king. It is also possible that Cates (sometimes spelled Kates or Keates) was an alias. All that is known for sure is that he and Ginne arrived in Norwich, Connecticut in the 1680s and around 1688 continued on to a tract of unsettled land further north known as Joshua’s Tract. “Joshua” was actually Attawanhood, a son of the legendary Mohegan sachem Uncas. Under the influence of old age and alcohol, Attawanhood had devised Joshua’s Tract – which included the later town of Windham – in his will to a group of Connecticut land speculators known as the Legatees. Cates was not one of the Legatees. Rather, he was a squatter with no legal title to the place where he took refuge.

Above: Joshua’s Tract (outlined in red), from Larned.

There is some tenuous evidence linking both John Cates and Joe Ginne to Virginia. According to Cate-Cates Family of New England, four Cate brothers – William, John, Joseph, and James — sailed from England to Virginia in 1635. And it is true that Larned and other 19th-century sources believed that Cates had been in Virginia before coming to Connecticut, and had purchased Ginne while he was there. The Genealogical Dictionary of New England Settlers, vol I, adds, “There was a report, that he [John Cates] came from Virginia and possibly he was [a] passenger from London in the ship Safety [in] 1635.” If Cates did sail to Virginia in 1635, then he could not have been fleeing the government of Charles II, who did not ascend to the throne until 1660. Nor could he have been a Commonwealth man, for the Commonwealth did not come into being until 1649. He could not even have been a participant in the English Civil War, which did not begin until 1642. Was he then a political refugee at all? Or did he have some other reason for hiding out on the Connecticut frontier? “Perhaps,” opines the Genealogical Dictionary, “he was only a misanthrope, humorist, perhaps had been a buccaneer, and thought seclusion his safest course.” Or were John Cate and John Cates different people? If they were the same man, and had been old enough to have left children behind in England, Cates would have been nearly 80 years old by the time he arrived in Connecticut, more than 50 years after docking in Virginia.

If John Cates is a mystery, even less is known about Joe Ginne, besides that he was Black and enslaved. Even his name is a question mark. It is unlikely that he was actually called Joe. In the only 17th-century document in which he is named, Cates’s will, he is called “Jo.,” an abbreviation for Joseph. In 17th-century English, abbreviations were commonplace but nicknames were not, and it is likely that he was called Joseph, not Joe. And what was the origin of the surname, Ginne? Was it pronounced with a soft or hard “G”? In the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries, “Ginne” was often an alternate spelling of the feminine name “Ginny,” with a soft “G” and a long “E.” The 19th-century poet Jane Gay Fuller thought “Ginne” might be an alternate spelling of “Guinea,” a place in Africa, calling him “Guinea Joe.” The English word Guinea derives from the Portuguese Guine, which is pretty close to Ginne, and which referred to the Atlantic coast of Africa south of the Senegal River. There are several hypotheses about the meaning of the place name Guine, the most common being that it derives from a Senegalese word for “black,” and “guinea” has often been used in English as an alternative word for “black.” Also known as the Gold Coast or Slave Coast, from the 1400s through the 1700s Guinea was a major source of gold, spices, and slaves, and the majority of the Africans transported to the Americas in the transatlantic slave trade came from there. The English gold coin called a guinea, dating from the mid-1600s and valued at one pound and one shilling, was minted from gold from Guinea. Had Joe Ginne been born in Guinea and survived the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, to wind up in Connecticut? Perhaps. But a quick search on Ancestry.com failed to find any examples of African Americans bearing the name Guine, Guinea, or Ginne. Ancestry.com did turn up a few white Americans with the surname Guinea, most of whom were Irish. There were even fewer Americans with the surname Ginne, and all of them seem to have been of German descent. Could “Ginne” have been a contraction for “Virginny” (for Virginia), where, according to tradition, Joe Ginne once lived? Another possibility is that Ginne was an alternate spelling for Ginnings, itself an alternate spelling for Jennings. Jonathan Ginnings and his family were among the early settlers of Windham, but Joseph (as we should probably now call him) was never enslaved by the Ginningses, so it is unclear how he would have come to carry their name. Furthermore, if he was born in Africa, his African name is lost. And while it is likely that his name was bestowed upon him by his owner, it is true that enslaved people occasionally named themselves. The best known example of such self-naming in 17th-century Connecticut was the enslaved man John Jackson of New London. A more famous (although 18th-century) example is Olaudah Equiano, although in Equiano’s case, the self-naming came after he became free. The most accurate answer to the question of the origin of Joe Ginne’s name is, “we don’t know.”

Larned and other 19th-century writers all claim that Joe Ginne was a “loyal” and “faithful” servant. Was he really? Or did he actually resent his enslavement, but wisely choose not to say so? Nineteenth-century white Americans, even Northerners, frequently accepted uncritically the myth that Black slaves became emotionally attached to their white owners. But the historian Eugene Genovese has written about “puttin’ on ole massa,” the wisdom of acting happy around whites, who could exercise the power of life and death over enslaved people. It was simply safer if white folks thought you were loyal, faithful, and happy. Joseph may have been playing a role. Or, it is possible that 19th-century writers simply assumed that he must have been loyal, faithful, and happy, because they assumed that Cates, as the town’s first settler, must have been the kind of master who would have inspired such feelings.  

It does seem that Joseph worked hard. Larned said that the “cave or cellar” that he and Cates lived in for their first winter in Windham was “fashioned by the hands of [the] faithful negro.” Considering Cates’s age, it is likely that she was right. The next summer Cates abandoned the cellar, purchased a settler’s lot from the Legatees, and built “with his servant, in the summer of 1689, the first house in the new Plantation.” Again, because of Cates’s age, it is likely that Joseph did much of the building. Weaver wrote that Jonathan Ginnings had also helped with the construction, although Larned said that Ginnings did not arrive until the next year in 1690. A. W. Parkhurst, another 19th-century commentator, wrote that, during their first winter in Windham, Cates and Joseph survived largely on game that Joseph had hunted or trapped. Parkhurst also said that Cates and Joseph inhabited the cellar “happily.” Did they really? Was Joseph actually pleased to be occupying a hole in the ground during a cold New England winter with a man who owned him? It seems more likely that 19th-century white folks, living after abolition, wanted to believe that Joseph was happy, loyal, and faithful.

Unsurprisingly, Joseph did not play any public political role in the new settlement. Several 19th-century historians reproduced documents relating to Windham’s early history, such as its petition to the Connecticut General Assembly for incorporation as an independent town. Cates was a frequent signer, as were most of Windham’s other adult male heads of household. Joseph, of course, signed none of these documents. He was neither a freeman nor a householder. Like women, children, and indentured servants, he could not vote or hold office. His name was absent from church records.

John Cates died in 1697, apparently of old age. He left a will, in which he made specific reference to Joseph.

I John Kates of Windham, in the Colony of Connecticut, doe make this my last Will & Testament: I give 200 acres of my Land not yet laid out to the Poor of the Town of Windham, to be Instayled to sd. Poor for their Use forever. I doe also give and Instayle 200 acres more of my lands not yet laid out to a scoole House for the Use of the above said Town forever. And further I doe give unto the Reverend Mr. Samuel Whiting (Minister of the Gospel), of said Towne, I say I give unto him my Negro Jo., one bed and bedd Clothes, one Chest, and my Wearing Clothes. And further, I do give unto the Church of Windham ten pounds in Money. I doe make Mary Howard my Executrix, and doe give unto herr all my Estate not above mentioned, both personal and real. And I appoint Ensign Jonathan Crane and sergt. Thomas Bingham to be Overseers of this my Will. Always provided that if any of my Children should Come over out of England, then my Will is that they, he or she, should enjoy my Estate notwithstanding what is above exprest. Otherwise, to stand Exactly in all Points. The Negro Jo. An Exception. Jno. X Kates.  

What can we discern from Cates’s will? For one thing, he was illiterate, signing his name with a X. For another, he was prosperous. Larned and other 19th-century sources agreed that he brought a quantity of gold and silver with him to Connecticut, which he used to purchase several hundred acres of land in Windham. He wanted to be a benefactor, leaving 200 acres of land to benefit the poor and another 200 to finance a school. He also had plenty left over to endow his housekeeper, Mary Howard, the unmarried sister of one of his neighbors. He had left children behind in England. Did he always hope they would come looking for him, even after his death? In any case, none ever did. And then there was Joseph, whom he bequeathed to the town’s minister, Rev. Samuel Whiting. Whiting was young, a recent graduate of Yale, and was said to be a passionate preacher. Whiting remained in Windham for the rest of his life, settling into the role of community pastor. He spent at least as much time caring for his parishioners’ social needs as their spiritual. Whiting’s negotiations with the town to become minister had been protracted, and he had received a decent living as part of the bargain. He was not poor, as ministers in other towns sometimes were. His father, Rev. John Whiting, was minister of the prestigious Hartford church. Samuel Whiting was married, with children. Did Cates bequeath Joseph to Whiting as a further economic incentive to stay in Windham, a valuable servant still able to contribute a good day’s work? Or was Joseph, like Cates, getting on in years, and Cates wanted to place him with someone he trusted to care for him? In addition to Joseph, Cates also bequeathed Whiting a bed, bed clothes, a chest, and his old “wearing clothes.” It is likely that these for Joseph. Larned reported that Joseph did not long survive his old owner, evidence that he, too, may have become infirm by this time, worn out either by old age or by a life of toil. (Larned also reported that Joseph exhibited much grief at Cates’s death.) It cannot be certain, but it seems likely that the bequest of Joseph to the minister was made to ensure that Joseph was cared for more than anything else. That Cates made Joseph the sole exception in the clause in his will that provided that all of his property would pass to any of his children who might show up to claim it reinforces that interpretation. It suggests that while Cates continued to see Joseph as property, he may have viewed human property as something different from other kinds. It hints that the relationship between Cates and Joseph was complex.

Parkhurst wrote that both Cates and Joseph “were buried near the place of their concealment [the cellar in which they had lived together during their first winter in Windham], and a rough stone, rudely initialed, marked for a time the spot. When the first cemetery was laid out, the body of Cates was removed thither.” In other words, the townspeople exhumed Cates’s body and reburied it in the new town cemetery. Did they also move Joseph’s body? Parkhurst did not say. If they did, they did not mark it with a stone. Was a slave’s body not worth the effort? Cates’s new gravestone, paid for by the town, was for its time large and ornate. By contrast, there are no slaves’ gravestones in the Windham Cemetery.

As the poet Jane Gay Fuller wryly noted, in 1892 the inhabitants of Windham considered Cates the town’s first settler, but did not extend that designation to Joseph who had arrived at the same time, dug the cellar hole in which he and Cates had lived for a winter, hunted and trapped to make sure they had enough to eat, and built or helped build the first house in the town. “He would have been a settler, too, / if he had been a man, you know!” she wrote accusingly. Because Joseph had not been “a man” – not a freeman, anyway – local tradition made Cates the first settler, the “father of our town,” but left Joseph merely a supporting character, a shadow standing on the edge of the community, not fully part of it, not even worthy of a gravestone.

Theron Brown, who also wrote a poem to commemorate Windham’s bicentennial in 1892, thought Joe Ginne (as he knew him) deserved better. After several verses extolling Cates, Brown – a Windham native, Yale graduate, and in 1892 an editor at Youth’s Companion magazine in Boston – brought up the subject of Joe Ginne. In 1892 the people of Windham remembered the recent war to end slavery, and doubtless some were embarrassed that their ancestors had once accepted slavery uncritically. Brown was a didactic writer who expressed strong disapproval at the marginalization of Joe Ginne.

Pious he [Cates] was, and Puritan, possessed / Of worldly goods, a gentleman, a guest / Of Pilgrim Land, a friend of high and low, / A freeman – and he owned a slave, black Joe!

Enough that by the moral light he saw, / When liberty was only white man’s law, / His human chattel was no swift reproof / To one whose soul had felt oppression’s hoof, / Since Right, to even a Mayflower refugee, / Implied no negro’s title to be free.

We trust the legend that John Cates was kind, / As kind of heart as liberal of mind. / And, after twice four years of upright deeds, / And generous thoughts for Windham’s future needs, / When, praised for scattered blessings, he who gave / The town’s first dwelling filled its earliest grave. / That the green threshold of his churchyard inn / Was watered by the tears of black Joe Ginne.

Fuller was a sentimental poet. After penning stanzas that described both Cates and Joseph, she moved on to a stanza in which she wrote only in masculine pronouns, so that what it said could have been about either man, or both. Fuller was not always a skilled poet, and perhaps the stanza was an accident, but it can be read to apply to both John Cates and Joe Ginne, two refugees in a strange new land.

The forest welcomed him! The breeze / Brought back the tuneful melodies / His childhood loved beyond the seas! / And blue-birds sang, and blossoms sprang / To cheer the lonely-hearted man, / Till others came; then life began / Anew for the poor refugee / Unsought in his obscurity.

Others did come, and that is part of the the sadness of the story. The first census of Connecticut, conducted in 1756 when it was still a colony, found 2,406 white folks and 40 Blacks living in Windham Town, all or most of them enslaved. Windham County had 19,670 whites and 345 Blacks. “These blacks were mostly negroes,” Larned wrote, “owned by the opulent families. A few Indians held as slaves were probably included among them. Apparently, the list is not complete…. Several negroes were owned by Colonel Thomas Dyer [of Windham Town]; a still larger number occupied Godfrey Malbone’s plantation in Mortlake.” Indeed, as the story of Joe Ginne reminds us, people of color were here all along.