Peoples of the Mill Towns: Lyman Jackson (1796-1858), African American Cabinet Maker, and Clarissa Buck Jackson (1799-c. 1875), African American Wife and Barber

Jamie H. Eves

Shortly after I moved to Willimantic, CT, in the summer of 1988, I learned that one of the former Thread City’s main streets was named Jackson Street. While walking one day with my five-year-old, teaching him the streets of his home town, he asked if Jackson Street had been named for Jesse Jackson, an African American candidate for President that year. I told him no, the street had been built a long time ago, before Jesse Jackson had been born. Maybe, I guessed, it had been named after Andrew Jackson, who had been President in the 1830s. As it turns out, Jackson Street wasn’t named after either Jesse Jackson or Andrew Jackson, but after Lyman Jackson, an African American cabinet maker who, in the years before the Civil War, had lived on the street with his wife Clarissa and children Cynthia, Rachel, Simeon, Hamina, Sarah, Andrew, Martha, and Mary, his sister-in-law Abby Buck, and his nephew James Buck.

Lyman Jackson, like most Connecticut people of color in the 19th century, was neither wealthy nor powerful. Rather, he lived almost invisibly at the margins of American society. He left no written records, held no elective office, sat on no juries, cast no votes, owned no land, and paid no direct taxes. Although a citizen, he had fewer rights than his white neighbors. The Connecticut State Constitution, approved in 1818, had reserved the right to vote for whites only. To justify that kind of racism, Connecticut also exempted people of color from paying taxes. Lyman Jackson paid taxes indirectly. He leased his home, which meant that he paid his white landlord’s taxes with his rent. Although he lived in a cotton mill town, Jackson neither owned a mill nor worked in one. His small marble gravestone in the Old Willimantic Cemetery is modest and easy to miss. In the decade following his death in 1858, his wife, children, and nephew all moved away. I only learned who he was — and how Jackson Street got its name — from a short squib in a 19th-century local history. Lloyd Baldwin, writing in the 1890s, noted the origin of the name, adding: “Mr. Jackson was for some years a resident on this property as a tenant of Deacon Samuel L. Hill. He was a respectable, quiet colored citizen, and with his family enjoyed the confidence and respect of the community in which they resided.” Most people in Willimantic today have no idea who Lyman Jackson was, nor that one of their town’s busiest streets was named for him.

As it turns out, quite a few men and women of color lived in the mill towns and farming communities of eastern Connecticut in the 18th and 19th centuries. But evidence of their existence can be hard to find and takes some digging. Consequently, it is easy to forget that they were ever here, contributing to the communities in which they lived, helping to build Connecticut. For too many years, Americans of color were elbowed to the margins and deliberately not seen. Unless white writers wanted to talk about slavery, or provide some comic relief, they generally left black Americans out of literature, movies, and television. A few years ago, when I taught an undergraduate course in African American History at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, the class examined the absence of people of color in movies and television. One student, an older African American woman, laughed and said sarcastically, “Honey, don’t you know that there were no black people in Connecticut before 1960?” This article attempts to rectify that, to put people of color back into Connecticut history, where they actually were all along. This is Lyman and Clarissa Jackson’s story. It is also the story of Jackson Street in Willimantic.

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Lyman Jackson died in Willimantic, CT, on Dec. 22, 1858, a few days before Christmas. His simple marble headstone on the side of shady, grassy hill in the Old Willimantic Cemetery says he was 62 years old, which means that he was born around 1796, when George Washington was President. His childhood is mostly a mystery. He didn’t appear in official records until Jan. 23, 1823, when he was 27. On that day, in Lisbon, CT, he married Lisbon resident Clarissa Buck, who was 24. Although Connecticut town clerks didn’t record the racial identities of white people in birth, death, and marriage records, they routinely noted them for people of color, describing them variously as “black,” “negro,” “colored,” “mulatto,” “Indian,” or “mustee.” It was a world in which race mattered, and people of color were seen as “different.”

More is known about Clarissa at the time of the marriage than about Lyman. Unlike her husband, Clarissa’s birth was officially recorded, in the town records of Preston, CT. She was born on Dec. 25 — Christmas day — in 1799, the eldest child of Gurdon and Martha Buck, who resided in Preston at the time. (Names like Lyman and Gurdon sound strange to us today, but they were fairly common for both white and non-white men in the late 1700s and early 1800s.) Clarissa’s birth and marriage records noted that she was black, as were her parents and her husband.

Clarissa’s father, Gurdon Buck, had been born around 1777 in Griswold, CT, during the tumultuous years of the American Revolution. Her mother, Martha Moody, was three years older, having been born on Sept. 4, 1774, a few months after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Martha was born in Preston, the daughter of Pico Moody (1745-1828) and Abigail Walley Moody (1745-1790). Pico and Abigail had had a hard time with their children, and death had been an all-too-frequent specter in the Moody household: four of the eight Moody children died before their 20th birthdays. The eldest, Clarissa, had died in 1789 at the age of 18. Johnson was only two when he died in 1775. Another Johnson was just eleven when he passed away in 1787. Jedediah was two when he died in 1785. And Marshall also was two when he passed away in 1788. Only Martha, Thaddeas (1780-1853), and Nancy (1790-1832) made it to adulthood. Martha’s mother, Abigail, had herself died young, in 1790, only 45, probably from complications with the birth of her last child, Nancy. The loss of so many family members must have been felt keenly. When Martha came to have children of her own, she named her elder daughter after her deceased older sister Clarissa, and her younger daughter for her departed mother Abigail. It was one of the few ways she would have had to make sure they were remembered. Unlike Martha Buck, Gurdon Buck’s parents are not known. Although he was born in Griswold, he was baptized on April 12, 1778, in Wethersfield, CT, so perhaps he had kin living there. Gurdon was living in Preston when he married his first wife, Rhoda (1776-98), in 1795. However, Rhoda died after only three years of marriage and Gurdon rewed, marrying Martha Moody (1774-1851) in Plainfield, CT. The Preston town clerk dutifully recorded that both Gurdon and Martha were black. Like many propertyless people, Gurdon’s life was peripatetic. He was born in Griswold, baptized in Wethersfield, married in Plainfield, and settled in Preston. He would continue to move — to Lisbon, then to Canterbury, and eventually to Willimantic, where he died in 1842.

In addition to Clarissa, Gurdon and Martha Buck had two other children, a daughter Abby (1808-1850) and a son Alvan (b. 1813). When Gurdon Buck died in 1842, aged 72, he was in Willimantic, where he had probably come in his old age to live with his daughter and her family. Gurdon was buried in the old Willimantic Cemetery. His stone is near Lyman Jackson’s, on the same grassy hillside. It has fallen over, and lies nearly flat on the ground, face up. Abby and son Alvan are buried nearby, their plain marble stones so weathered with time as to be unreadable. Martha’s name is carved onto Gurdon’s headstone: although she died in 1851 in Andover, CT, she was brought to Willimantic for burial. Although Martha’s mother Abigail had died before Clarissa Jackson was born, her father, Pico Moody, lived until 1828, when he was 83. Did Clarissa spend time with him? Did he tell her stories of the days of the American Revolution? A number of African American men from Connecticut had fought on the patriot side in the Revolutionary War. Had Pico known any of them? As is so often the case, there are more questions than answers.

While we know a fair amount about Clarissa’s family, Lyman’s remains a mystery. When Lyman and Clarissa recorded their marriage with the Lisbon town clerk in 1823, Lyman said he was a resident of Stonington, CT. Yet, he does not appear in the 1820 United States Census as living in Stonington — nor anywhere else, for that matter. The absence is not unusual. Until 1850, the Census recorded only the names of the heads of households. Children, servants, enslaved people (and there were still slaves in Connecticut as late as the 1840s), boarders, lodgers, and most women appeared only as anonymous hash marks in various categories of age, gender, race, and servitude. Most likely, the young Lyman Jackson was one of those hash marks, living in someone else’s household. No one with the surname Jackson was recorded as living in Stonington in 1790, 1800, 1810, or 1820, but if his parents were servants living with a master, they, too, would not have been recorded by name. There were Jacksons living in New London at that time, but none of them were black. There was a black family named Jackson living in Lisbon, headed by David Jackson, Sr. Could David Jackson have been related to Lyman? Was it through David that Lyman met Clarissa, who also lived in Lisbon? Again, there are more questions than answers.

African Americans in early Connecticut sometimes had difficulty finding marriage partners. They comprised only 2.9% of the population in 1820. Interracial marriages with whites, while they occurred, were not the norm. African Americans did marry Native Americans, but they were even less numerous. Who knows how far afield Lyman Jackson had to go to find a wife?

What we do know is that there were African Americans named Jackson living in southeastern Connecticut during the 1600s and 1700s, any of whom could have been kin to Lyman. The best known is John Jackson (c. 1668-1737), enslaved in the West Indies and transported to New London in the late 1600s from the West Indies. John Jackson was born either in Africa or the West Indies, and English was not his first language. He was known for his determination to free himself, his wife, and his children. Part of his campaign to make himself free was his insistence on selecting his own name. Unlike most enslaved people in 17th-century Connecticut, whose names were given to them by their enslavers (and hence were considered “slave names”), John Jackson chose that name himself. He married Joan, a Connecticut-born enslaved woman whose mother had been brought to New London from the West Indies a generation earlier, and whose father had been an anonymous English colonist. John and Joan Jackson had many children, the best known of whom was Adam Jackson, enslaved by Joshua Hempstead and mentioned repeatedly in Hempstead’s well known (to historians) 18th-century diary. Although John Jackson succeeded in freeing himself and Joan, he was less successful with his children, most of whom remained enslaved into the 1700s. It is possible that Lyman Jackson was descended from John and Joan Jackson. It is also possible that he was not. To read more about John and Joan Jackson — and about race and slavery in colonial southeastern Connecticut in the colonial era — I recommend the wonderful For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (2013) by Allegra di Bonaventura. See also James M. Rose and Barbra W. Brown, Tapestry: A Living History of the Black Family in Southeastern Connecticut (1979).

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Shortly after Lyman and Clarissa Jackson married, they moved to the northern part of the town of Lebanon, CT, which later broke off and became Columbia, and which bordered on Willimantic. Their eldest daughter Cynthia was born in 1826, either in Lisbon or in Lebanon. Their second daughter Rachel was born in 1827 in Lebanon. Their third child, Simeon Chapman Jackson was born in 1829, followed by Sarah in 1830. The 1830 Census recorded the family as living in Columbia, a rural community, where most likely they were farmers. Another daughter, Hanima, was born in 1832, and another son, Andrew, in 1843. The 1840 Census showed them living in Willimantic, a large, bustling household of nine free colored persons headed by Lyman Jackson. And the family continued to grow. Daughter Martha O. (named for her grandmother) was born in 1843, and their youngest child, Mary, came in 1845. Unlike Clarissa’s parents, who had chosen family names for two of their three children, Clarissa and Lyman preferred biblical names. Did this choice reflect deep religious feelings? Did they just like the sound of the names? Was it an attempt to fit in with the dominant white Yankee culture? Again, there are more questions than answers. It was a large family in an era of large families. What was unusual is that none of the children died in infancy, and only one — Hanima — in their teens. Hanima died on May 11, 1848, at the age of 16. She was buried in the family plot in the Old Willimantic Cemetery, her headstone only a few feet from that of her grandfather Gurdon Buck, who had passed away just six years earlier. Altogether, Clarissa gave birth to seven children over 19 years — from 1826-45 — starting when she was 27 and continuing until she was 46, and survived each birthing.

The Jacksons seem to have prospered in Willimantic. The 1850 census listed Lyman as a cabinet maker, a skilled trade. He must have been a valuable member of his community, with wealth enough to afford — if not a home of his own — several plots and headstones in the public cemetery. These were not paupers’ graves: they were bought and paid for. Lyman also made enough money to be able to take in his sister-in-law and her small child, and probably his elderly father-in-law and mother-in-law, as well. Clarissa contributed to the family economy: the 1850 Census recorded her occupation as barber. It may be that it was the family’s modest prosperity — their independence — that gave rise to the belief among later residents of Willimantic that the Jackson’s owned their home. In the 1890s, Lloyd Baldwin, a local historian, scoured the Willimantic land records for their deed, and concluded that the Jacksons had been tenants. No description of their house exists. It was probably modest, but well enough kept to make locals believe it was owner-occupied. Baldwin concluded that it sat on a thirty-acre lot, indicating that the family probably farmed in addition to making cabinets and barbering. It would not have been the best farmland — the lot swept up the east slope of Prospect Hill — but it would have added to the family’s competency.

When the Jacksons moved from rural Columbia to urban Willimantic in the 1830s, they moved into a growing young mill city on the rise. Willimantic was located in the northwestern part of the town of Windham, in the gorge of the Willimantic River. Steep, granite hills rose on both sides. The river itself tumbled over several rapids and waterfalls, descending more than 90 feet in less than a mile, providing enough power to drive four cotton mills. The mills were new, having been built in the 1820s, when the Jacksons had been living in Columbia. As mill workers and others with urban crafts and skills flocked to the expanding city, the population burgeoned. In 1833 Willimantic was “citified” enough to incorporate under a new state law as an urban “borough” within the town of Windham. A former turnpike had metamorphosed into a wide Main Street, paralleling the Willimantic River on the north, with a panoply of new side streets: Winter Street, High Street, Bridge Street, Union Street, North Street, Church Street, State Street, Washington Street, Milk Street, and Jackson Street, among others. Most of the street names were typical post-revolutionary New England street names. But Jackson Street stood out as different. Even today, there are folks in Willimantic who are adamant that Jackson Street was named not for the President of the time, but for the Jackson family that lived on it. Jackson Street was laid out sometime after 1833 and before 1855, and quickly became the main street leading north out of the mill city to neighboring rural Mansfield. Shown on an 1855 county map, the Jackson home was not located downtown, but on the outskirts, on the slopes of Prospect Hill, on 30 acres rented from Samuel Hill. It is unlikely that residents named Jackson Street in honor of the family. The Jacksons were not community leaders, movers, or shakers, nor holders of local office. Moreover, with the exception of Washington Street, none of the other streets were during this time were named for individuals. Most likely Jackson Street was called Jackson Street because it was the road that led out to the Jackson home on the outskirts of the city, a visible landmark at a bend in the road. Naming roads for where they went was an old Connecticut custom. But it gave the Jacksons something most people of color did not have in 19th-century Connecticut: visibility. There were no shops and stores on Jackson Street when the Jackson family lived there. Downtown was confined mostly to Main and Union Streets. It would only be later, in the second half of the century, that Jackson Street became a commercial area. When the Jacksons lived there, it was a residential area north of downtown.

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Besides Lyman, Clarissa, and their children, the Jackson household also included Clarissa’s younger sister Abby Buck, and Abby’s small son James Buck. Abby had never married, and it may be that Clarissa took her sister in 1846, either just before or after she became an unwed mother. Or perhaps Abby had moved in earlier. Gurdon, their father, died in Willimantic in 1842, so it is likely that he and Martha had moved in with his Clarissa and Lyman sometime shortly before he died. Perhaps Abby came with him, along with Clarissa and Abby’s brother Alvan, who died in Willimantic in 1842, the same year as his father, and was also buried in the family’s hillside plot in the Old Willimantic Cemetery. Abby died in 1850 and Martha in 1851, and they too are are buried in the same plot. Abby’s son was thus left motherless at the age of four. He continued to reside in the Jackson household, where undoubtedly he was raised by Clarissa. Who was James Buck’s father? Years later, in 1875, when James was living in Boston, he married Nellie Cunningham.  He and Nellie had to give the names of their parents to the Boston City Clerk’s office. Only the first names of the parents of the bride and groom were recorded, not their surnames. James gave his father’s name as “Andrew.” Could it have been Abby’s nephew and Clarissa’s younger son, Andrew Jackson? Perhaps. But Andrew was only eleven years old when James was conceived — possible, but not likely. Besides, Lloyd Baldwin had referred to the Jacksons as a “respectable” family, and incest would not have been considered respectable at all. And there is another piece of evidence to consider. Throughout his life, James was always recorded as “colored” (including during his service as a soldier in the Civil War), as was his wife Nellie. But James and Nellie’s only child, James Buck, Jr., would as an adult be classified in the United States Census as “white,” and he married a white woman. If James Buck, Jr., was “passing,” he must have been very light complexioned. Was the “Andrew” who sired James, Sr., then, a white man? More questions thus arise without answers.

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After Lyman died in 1858 at what was for the time the ripe old age of 62, Clarissa and the children remained in Willimantic only for a short while. The 1860 Census, taken two years after Lyman’s death, records her as the head of household, living in the family home in Willimantic, along with teen-aged younger daughters Martha and Mary, and young James Buck, who was 13. Older daughter Rachel also still lived in Willimantic in 1860, at 32 a live-in servant in the large, elegant home of cotton mill owner John Tracy and his wife Delia, wealthy white folks. But by 1870, during the tumultuous Civil War Era, the entire family had left. Rachel moved to Norwich, a large river port city to the south. The 1870 Census records her as the wife of Lewis C. Willard, almost 40 years her senior, an African American gardener. Lewis died around 1880 from paralysis. The 1870 Census also recorded another person living in the Willard home: C. C. Jackson, 70 years old with no recorded occupation. This almost certainly was Clarissa, having moved in with her daughter. Clarissa was not present in the Willard household in 1880, most likely having passed away sometime between the two Censuses, well into her 70s. Rachel, widowed in 1880, remarried in 1890 to Loren Brooks, who was also African American. She does not seem ever to have had any children. Simeon had moved out either before or shortly after his father died. In 1860 he was living in Norwich, a live-in servant in the home of three elderly white women surnamed Huntington. In 1865, Simeon married Nettie F. Scott, an African American woman. They continued to reside in Norwich. Simeon and Nettie would have three children, a son and two daughters. Simeon’s occupation was recorded in 1860 as laborer. Clarissa, also living in Norwich at the time, thus would have had the chance to know her grandchildren, just as her grandfather Pico had known her. The other children have been harder to find and have disappeared into the mists of history.

Except, that is, for Clarissa’s nephew, James Buck, whom she raised. He left Willimantic around 1864, when he joined the 31st United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored) to fight in the Civil War. He seems never to have come back to Connecticut, moving first to Boston, and then eventually settling in Manhattan. But he is another story, to be told elsewhere.

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What can we conclude about the Jacksons and other people of color in early 19th-century Connecticut? First and foremost, they were there. They were marginal but not invisible then — white folks in Willimantic knew who they were, where they lived, and even named a street after them. They became invisible later, erased from history. The name Jackson shows up on old maps, as the name of a street, and on gravestones in the Old Willimantic Cemetery. But unless one goes looking, digging into government records, there are few indications that they were people of color. It becomes easy to forget that people of color were here in Connecticut all along and helped build the mill towns, as farmers, laborers, cabinet makers, barbers, and good neighbors. Lloyd Baldwin would call them respectable and quiet. Perhaps it was safer that way, to be quiet. Racism was a powerful force, and people of color had few legal rights they could count on. The Jacksons had neither money nor power to protect them. They were part of the community, true, but also on its outskirts, both included and marginalized.

The Jacksons illustrate one facet of the African American experience in early Connecticut. Another facet appears in the lives and stories of the Connecticut men of color who, during the Civil War, joined the Union army and fought both to preserve their country and end slavery. We will look at some of these men in a future article.