By Tedd Levy
Sometimes history shows us our better natures.
Read on about when the caring residents of Deep River welcomed a stranger to their midst.
Imagine taking a journey of several hundred miles on foot during the night through an unknown territory where you could be caught, locked-up and tormented. And, if you were lucky enough to reach your destination, you had to rely on strangers to feed, shelter and safeguard you, and your very appearance was a giveaway that you were a runaway.
That was the plight of fugitive slaves as they traveled on the Underground Railroad.
One of those slaves managed to reach Connecticut and tell his story and live a long, productive and caring life.
It is the story of a man born a slave in Virginia, taken to the Carolinas, escapes from slave catchers and travels north to New Haven and then Deep River where, with the help of a few leading citizens begins a new but sometimes fearful life.
William Winters (1808-1900), the name he eventually took to protect his identity, was born into a slave family and worked on a Virginia plantation until he was sent to Richmond where he was sold for $550 to work for a cruel master on a South Carolina cotton plantation.
Desperate to escape the cruelty, he and another slave decided to run away and head north. They took a horse and, he explained, “one of us rode the horse while the other ran beside it and in this way we changed about until morning.”
Several times, after a night of hard traveling and with only the North Star to guide them, they sometimes found themselves back to where they started. They only ate what they found in corn fields and in the woods.
After weeks of dreadful conditions, they reached Richmond. Exhausted, they wandered several days in the woods before finding a way to cross the Rappahannock River by stealing a boat.
Stopping to see his kindly first owner, he was advised to find and hide in a vessel going north. With no boats immediately available, and knowing their master from South Carolina would be searching for them, they dug caves in the woods and hid there for three months. In ragged clothes and starving, they foraged for food at night and finally stowed away on a boat heading to Washington.
The captain discovered them but, according to Winters, “he was a kindly man” and when they arrived he gave them “a good meal, and two loaves of bread, and told us how to get out of the city and start north.”
After traveling several days without food, they reached the Delaware River and had to walk five miles before reaching a bridge. Knowing they needed a pass to cross, they gave the woman in charge a penny each from money given to them by the ship captain and she let them cross.
On the other side, where they would have to show their pass, they managed to get through by hiding behind a team of animals and “running for our lives.”
After several days and some close calls with men looking for runaway slaves, they arrived in Philadelphia, where they were advised to separate since there were many kidnappers in the city who made it a business to take “Negroes south to sell in the plantation markets.”
Winters was given better clothes and brought with others to New York where he was sent by steamboat to New Haven. Here he was taken to the Fontine Hotel and told to go to Deep River and ask for Deacon Reed or Judge Warner.
“I walked all the way.” Winters explains, “and [was] so frightened I hid in the woods when I saw a team of men coming along the road. I traveled the old stage road from New Haven to Deep River and in going through Killingworth I stopped at the tavern kept by Landlord Redfield but was driven away.”
“When I came to Winthrop I did not know which road to take and could not read the signs and a woman I asked drove me away, but called out, ‘Take that road,’ and pointed to it.”
Arriving in Deep River, he found Deacon George Read, prominent civic leader and businessman, who gave him the name of William Winters and told him to never reveal his true identity and gave him a wig, which he wore for most of the rest of his life.
George Read (1787-1859) was a large, quiet public spirited citizen responsible for promoting community affairs on many fronts. Engaged in the ivory business from its earliest days, he was the town’s largest employer and most important businessman. He was a founder of the First National Bank and early and strong supporter of the Baptist Church.
His company was the first to make ivory piano keys used by the Chickering Company of Boston, the makers of the first pianos in the United States.
Winters was relatively safe in Deep River, described as “a sort of out-of-way location and all Abolitionist.”
After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 requiring northerners to capture and return escaped slaves, Winters was sent to New Bedford, Mass. where fugitives were safer than in Connecticut. He remained there for 12 years and did not return to Deep River until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
After the Civil War, a Deep River minister wrote letters to help Winters find his family in the south. His sister Nancy and other family members followed him to the Deep River area. Every summer after that time, other family members came from Virginia or Washington to visit.
Greatly respected in the community, Winters worked in town and was a careful businessman and skillful entrepreneur. He purchased property near the center of town that later became known as Williams Hill and also bought land in the northern part of town where he had pastures, apple orchards and experimented with growing cotton and tobacco. A road through that area is now called Winter Avenue. In addition, he operated a catering business, purchased and sold real estate and was a landlord.
William Winters died at the Hartford Hospital in 1900 at the age of 92 and is buried in Fountain Hill Cemetery, established by George Read. He never married, but his sister Nancy had children that lived in Deep River until 1964 when Nancy’s granddaughter, Florence Sturgis died.
“I have been prosperous in many ways,” he observed, “and I feel that the hand of God has directed my ways and I thank him for taking me from a life of slavery so many years ago and placing me among a respectful and freedom-loving people.”
He was welcomed as a stranger, and he became part of a caring community. There must be a lesson here.