Many may know the story of Timothy Hinman, best known for the construction of the Hinman Settler Road that stretches from Greensboro to Derby Line on the Canadian border.
While driving on Hinman Settler Road, you may even reflect on the great feat it was to construct the 30-mile rural highway in 1791 and the opportunities it must have provided for those settling in Northern Vermont at the turn of the century. But, alongside the story of Timothy Hinman, is one much lesser-known, yet no less important. The story of someone who was impacted by Hinman’s road, yet offered none of its opportunities. This is the story of Cyrus Homer.
Cyrus Homer’s story is not documented as well as Hinman’s. The documents that tell us about his life often leave gaps of decades. This is because Cyrus Homer was an African American man enslaved by Timothy Hinman. But, there is still much about his life that is known. The following biography will be told from the perspective of Cyrus Homer, recognizing that there are missing periods about Homer’s life, the result of his lack of freedom.
Cyrus Homer was born in 1764 in Milford, Connecticut, but little is known of his early years. Most likely he was born into bondage, so his earliest records are tied to the Hinman family. Many of these documents are housed in town land records since, as an enslaved person, Cyrus Homer was viewed as property rather than as an individual.
The nature of slavery in New England in the late 18th century was slightly different from that of slavery in other parts of the United States. Most enslaved peoples in New England worked as part of the household of wealthy families, like the Hinmans, and might work for that family for generations. Enslaved peoples were usually noted in wills, listed alongside other “property.” Cyrus Homer himself has been described as “inherited” by Timothy Hinman, from Hinman’s father.
The year 1789, marks the beginning of changes in Cyrus Homer’s life. That summer Timothy Hinman is known to have left for Vermont to view the land for sale in what is now the town of Derby. Hinman’s wife, Phebe, and their young son remained at their home in Southbury, Connecticut “in the care of Cyrus Homer.” Two years later, the construction of the Hinman Settler Road began and in 1792 Hinman moved Phebe and their children to Derby but left Homer behind in Southbury.
The reasons for this are unknown, but it is possible to speculate some of the factors that may have contributed to the decision. In 1784, Connecticut passed a law officially making slavery illegal, but not freeing those who were already in bondage. To placate slave owners who did not want to lose money, this law only freed those born after 1784 and only when they became 25 years of age. In 1788, the state of Connecticut also made it illegal for enslaved people included under the previous law to be transported outside the state. Since Cyrus Homer was born 20 years before this law, he was denied his freedom and Hinman would have been permitted to take him to Vermont. However, since Vermont went through a similar legislative process in 1777 and 1786 respectively, it is possible that Hinman considered it too complicated to bring Homer to Vermont due to the potential legal issues.
Although Hinman never returned to Southbury, it is also possible that he had intended to and left Homer there to maintain the house and property for a time. Phebe did return in 1795 to visit her family, but there is no confirmation that she crossed paths with Homer when she did. A third possibility is that Hinman exercised a practice of the time called “binding out,” permitting another household to use Cyrus Homer for work for a period time.
Beyond these speculations, there is no way of knowing how Homer survived in Southbury financially or where he resided. What is certain is that he remained in Connecticut and was deprived of liberty for 10 years while Timothy Hinman continued to live in Vermont. Until, in 1801, Hinman wrote a letter to the town of Southbury. Hinman noted that he owned Cyrus Homer, that Homer was in good health and over 25 years of age (meaning that he would not be a burden to the state), and that since he was “desirous of being made free,” Hinman had decided to emancipate him. Why Hinman decided to grant Homer his freedom a decade after departing Connecticut is yet to be uncovered. Given the language in Hinman’s letter, perhaps Homer had bravely written to Hinman asking for his freedom.
Following his manumission, Cyrus Homer is listed in every census from 1800 to 1850 (with the exception of 1810) and as a farmer in each. The 1850 census also reveals that Homer’s wife was called Jane. In 1807, a land record appears indicating that Homer was able to purchase a few buildings with 12 acres of land in Southbury. In 1810, he was able to buy three more acres in nearby South Britain and later bought an additional house with an acre of land. This last house was eventually bought by his son, Albert Homer, when his father Cyrus began selling some of his property in his aging years. Cyrus Homer’s story comes to a close with his death in 1856 at the age of 86.
Reflecting on Cyrus Homer’s story, one might argue that his experience is mild compared to others who were enslaved at the time. However, it is impossible to argue that he was not deprived of opportunities in his lifetime because of his enslavement. Despite the absence of freedom in his life, Homer was able to become a property owner, a great signifier of success. His story is evidence of the fact that the history of slavery in the United States has roots in New England that extend to the northernmost border of Vermont. Despite his lack of liberty, Homer’s life is well documented and can serve as a local reminder of the countless stories of enslaved Africans who have no records at all. So, the next time you take a drive on the Hinman Settler road, consider reflecting on the story of Cyrus Homer.
Mahala Nyberg is associate director of collections and programs at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.