Slave, soldier, emancipator: The incredible life of Trumbull’s Nero Hawley

TRUMBULL — The life of Nero Hawley reads so much like a movie script it seems hard to believe Hollywood hasn’t filmed it.

Born into slavery and given away as a wedding gift at age 17, he served with distinction in George Washington’s Continental Army before becoming a prominent businessman and landowner, all while spending two decades emancipating five other members of his family.

“For a Black man at that time to be in business and own property was a really big deal,” said Lois Levine, president emeritus of the Trumbull Historical Society. “He owned property all over town, was active in his church. If he had been white, he would have been first selectman.”

Hawley was born in the Tashua area, then part of Stratford, in 1742 and was one of about 25 slaves in the area. From birth, he was the property of Peter Burr Mallet, according to “From Valley Forge to Freedom: A Story of A Black Patriot,” a biography of Hawley written by E. Merrill Beach and published in 1975.

Beach was the first president of the Trumbull Historical Society and wrote several books about town history in addition to donating the land that would later become Beach Memorial Park.

“Nero’s story has so many interlocking parts with modern day Trumbull,” said history teacher Meredith Ramsey. “It is fascinating that he was continually able to reinvent himself.”

Ramsey, a Trumbull native and a society board member, teaches history in Wilton. She also has spent the past few years researching Nero Hawley’s life and developing a program designed to bring his story to Trumbull school children.

“The African American voice is sadly lacking in history,” she said. “Many people played a huge role in this country’s founding, and they just don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

Not much is known about Hawley’s early life. In 1758, Mallet’s daughter Phebe married Daniel Hawley and the couple received Nero as a wedding gift from Mallet, along with a house and barn and 20 acres of land from Daniel’s parents.

The house still stands along what is today Daniels Farm Road, according to Hawley Family geneologist Pam Hawley Marlin.

“It really opens people’s eyes to learn that there was slavery and a slave trade in Connecticut at that time,” Ramsey said.

Mallet, one of Tashua’s earliest settlers, was known to have owned numerous slaves and traded them during the French and Indian War, according to Beach. Two years after giving Nero to his daughter and son-in-law, Mallet died of smallpox at age 48. In his will, he ordered his slaves, possibly including Nero’s mother and other family members, sold.

During the next 19 years, Nero Hawley worked in Daniel’s saw mill and clay pit, gaining expertise that he later put to use for his own benefit and his family’s.

He married Peg, who was a slave of the Rev. James Beebe, in 1761. Though he remained the property of Daniel Hawley, Nero lived on Beebe’s farm and worked in his mill. He and Peg had four children over the next 16 years.

The turning point in Nero Hawley’s life came on April 20, 1777, when he made the 25-mile trip to Danbury and enlisted in the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army in Daniel Hawley’s place. By signing up for the duration of the war, Nero was entitled to a bonus, and he earned a salary of $6.67 per month, about $164 today, according to Beach.

“During his time in the army, he was present at some of the most important events of the war,” Ramsey said. “His regiment engaged the British at the Battle of Monmouth, he was with the army during the winter at Valley Forge. His unit was at West Point during Benedict Arnold’s betrayal.”

Interestingly, during the Revolutionary War, Black soldiers served in fully integrated units, according to the U.S. Army.

Emancipated in 1782 after his war service, Nero Hawley, then 41 years old, returned to Daniel Hawley’s farm as a hired hand but by 1785 had purchased five acres of land including a clay pit along modern day White Plains Road with money he had saved, combined with his army pension. Nero Hawley also purchased a small house, described as a cabin-like structure near Daniel Hawley’s house, from Beebe.

The clay pit and kiln, used to bake bricks, were located near the current Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ramsey said. Some of the bricks, uncovered during the construction of the Route 25 connector in 1974, are on display at the historical society’s museum. Many still bear scorches from being heated and cured in the kiln.

“When the workers uncovered them, they brought them to Mr. Beach, and he knew right away based on where they were found, that they had to be from Nero Hawley,” Levine said. “These were actually loaned to the Smithsonian, which put them on display for a while before returning them.”

The income generated by the brick-making business, along with several properties around town, allowed Nero to buy Peg and two of his children out of slavery. His two youngest children were probably freed around 1801 by Beebe’s widow. Beebe himself had died in 1785. A census of Trumbull in 1800 listed four slaves and 31 free Blacks, out of a total population of 1,291, according to Beach.

Following the emancipation of his family, records of Hawley’s life become more scarce, but he did purchase a wooded plot near current day Hedgehog Lane for use in timbering. He later sold that land to Joseph Plumb, a fellow Revolutionary War veteran.

The final land transaction of Nero Hawley’s life came in 1807, when he and a small group of other men bought a lot next to Daniel Hawley’s property to be used as a burial ground, according to Marlin. The land eventually became Riverside Cemetery, and when Nero Hawley died in 1817, at age 75, he was buried there. Peg Hawley, who died in 1833, is also buried there.

Ramsey said it was important to keep the Nero Hawley legacy alive, especially to Trumbull students.

“He really had an incredible life and he impacted so many aspects of the town,” she said. “To come from slavery and see how he and his family made a life for themselves right here where they are now. This story needs to be told.”