Dad's Memories - VENTURE SMITH

- 18 November 98 - 22 November 98

VENTURE Smith - A Real Haddam Neck Legend 

and Author of

A NARRATIVE -of the- LIFE AND ADVENTURES -of- VENTURE A NATIVE OF AFRICA, But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America RELATED BY HIMSELF 

Originally Printed in 1798

VENTURE'S Story is presented here with commentary from many sources - both print and "web" 

Compiled by R.E. Langdon

FROM: 5 BLACK LIVES - Documents of Black Connecticut, ...c 1971, by Wesleyan University Press

Traditions of Venture - Known as Venture Smith* - Compiled by H.M. Selden (1896)

* Venture assumed the name Smith in compliment to his latest master, Col. Oliver Smith, who generously permitted him to secure his freedom by his own earnings.

SEVERAL editions of the Life of Venture have been published successively by his family, and by them circulated throughout the country, but more in the towns contiguous to his home, where the subject was well known for his abnormal strength, industry, and goodly character, confirmatory of the personal narrative. Copies of the remarkable autobiography were also sent by purchasers to friends abroad. It has long been out of print. To meet the demand for a new edition and to include traditions gathered by correspondence, personal intercourse with the aged and supplemented by some account of his family, is the object of the compiler. Tradition says Venture's amanuensis was Elisha Niles, of Chatham, who had been a school-teacher, and also a Revolutionary soldier, like one of the sons of Venture.

The reader of this new edition will find much in confirmation of the truthfulness of Venture's statements.

Among the different homes of Venture, the later and favorite one was in Hadddam Neck, near the western shore of Salmon River, on higher ground and overlooking the cove. His farm was excellent land, fine mellow soil and very easy to till. In illustration of its fertility and old and current tradition says: "A black snake was once seen moving on and over the heads of the standing rye on one of the fields." His house was a one-story unpainted building, in the upper portion of which he had a room that he called his office. Here, after his decease, his younger son, Solomon continued to live many years. A few rods from where it stood Wells C. Andrews built a large two-story house now owned by John H. Cone.

[ Rick's Note: I think that the house referred to above - as now (1896) owned by John H. Cone may be the Farmhouse bought by my Grandfather, James A. Langdon from Mr. William D. Hill in 1911 which remained in Langdon hands until 1986 when the last piece of "The Langdon Homestead" was sold to Mr. Andrew Egri. I am not aware of any homes or homesites existing South of "The old farmhouse" except for VENTURE's place.]


Venture presented a noble appearance. In mention of himself he says, "Though once straight and tall, measuring, without shoes, six feet one inch and one half, and every way well proportioned," etc. Tradition says he weighed over three hundred pounds and measured six feet around his waist. The tradition of the waist measure was received by the compiler from two sources. The first, from Mr. Orville Percival of Moodus, in 1894, then over 80 years of age, who said Venture measured six feet around the waist, that his feet were very large and twice the width of his (Mr. Percival's) father's feet.

The incident Venture relates of taking upon his knees a tierce of salt has with variation passed into tradition, or the act has been repeated. Mr. Percival gave it as occuring in a store at East Haddam, when Venture burst both of his brogan shoes in carrying the salt across the floor. Mr. Percival added: "A noted wrestler tried his skill in wrestling with Venture, but found he might as well try to remove a tree."

Mr. Alex M. Clark of Haddam Neck, over 82 years of age, says that Venture worked occasionally for his Grandfather, Robert Clark, and with his father, Benajah Clark, at the same time, and that he had often heard them say that Venture measured six feet around the waist, and one or both saw him measured; that Gersham Rowley, a brother of the late Elazar Dunham Rowley of Young Street, Chatham, was present and assisted in the measurement. Mr. G. Rowley afterward moved to Farmersville, N.Y., where Mr. A.M. Clark visited and heard him relate the occurrence. Mr. A.M. Clark says he heard his father say that Venture weighed over 300 pounds; that his axe weighed nine pounds; that his usual day's work was seven cords of wood, but had cut nine cords in a day; that with his canoe he went often to Long Island, a distance of forty-five miles, to chop, and bring back clams on his return; that by his great strength he made the canoe go very straight and fast. Mr. Clark says that Venture called one day on his grandfather, Robert Clark, for him to stack some wheat, saying in disparagement of himself "Nigger never know nothing!" Mr. Clark also related the tradition of the salt lifting and mentioned it as occurring in a store in East Haddam.

Traditions vary sometimes.

Daniel Cone of Moodus gives the tradition of Venture's axe as weighing six pounds, and that he cut six cords of wood a day. He also repeated the salt-lifting tradition. Another tradition current over forty years ago was that Venture while chopping never raised his axe higher than his head, but forced it into the wood up to the eye at every blow, and further that he said he did not believe in chopping air. This appears to confirm the greater weight of his axe.

Mr. Robert S. Cone of Moodus writes: "About the weight of Venture's axe, I have no knowledge, but should think six pounds a light weight, for my father used a five and one-half pound weight." Mr. Cone adds: "I have heard father say that he and his brother Horatio cut wood for Venture at thirty-four cents per cord to pay for the use of his scow. When they went to get the scow she was well up on the beach. They thought it impossible to get her off. Venture said, 'Lead me down. True, I am blind, but I can give you a lift.' They lead him to the waters edge. Father said the timbers fairly cracked as his hands touched the scow. She swept into the water like a bird on the wing."

Another tradition, received from various sources, says that when Venture purchased oxen after his sight failed, his method of examining them, besides feeling, was to sieze each ox by its hind legs and raise it up to estimate the weight. Again, that Venture while in the house of Ansel Brainerd, Sr., in Haddam Neck - who weighed two hundred or more - stooped down and, placing his hands palm upward on the floor, said to Mr. Brainerd, "You put your feet into my black paws and clasp your hands in my wool and I will raise you up!" This was done and Venture raised him up.

Among the early recollections of the compiler is his visiting an old, unoccupied gambrel-roofed house - the early home of his great-grandfather, Robert Chapman - having narrow doors. Tradition said that whenever Venture called, which he often did, he invariably turned sidewise to pass through.

Dea. E.C. Hungerford of Chester, in a letter of April 22, 1895, wrote: "The history of Venture will be interesting, I believe, to a great many. I shall want a copy, perhaps more than one.

"You ask me to rewrite my father's recollections of him. My father (born in 1777) told me that, when he was young, Venture often came to his father's house, and, as he was to heavy a burden to ride on a horse's back, he rode in a sort of two-wheeled cart. Sometimes his horse did not behave well, and then, Venture would put one hand in front of his horse's fore legs and one behind them and jounce the fore parts of the horse up and down a few times and remark, 'There!' The horse would usually behave well after such a jouncing. Father said he used to go behind Venture when he sat in an ordinary chair to look at his broad back and hips, which projected beyond the chair on each side, showing what a large man he must have been."

There was a tradition that the owner of a valuable wood or timber lot, wishing to have some of it cut, had engagedd Venture to do it. He arrived later than expected, for which the owner reproved him. Venture, displeased, replied, "You will have cut all you want." At noon the owner came, and to his great surprise and disgust found nearly the whole of his beautiful grove laid low. Robert S. Cone thinks the party whose wood Venture nearly demolished was Capt. Elisha Cone of East Haddam, as his home was Venture's headquaters when he was on that side of the river, but he must have been aware of Venture's peculiarities. It is easy to suppose similar instances and in a different location.

Dr. A.B. Worthington of Middle Haddam, born in 1819, relates the tradition says Venture had engaged to cradle a field of grain. At noon he returned bearing the cradle, having finished the field, to the great surprise of the owner, who expected it would require more than a day to complete it.

Mrs. Philo Bevin of East Hampton, in her letter of March 12, 1895, which we copy in full, gives a similar occurrence which, perhaps, may have originated the former:

East Hampton, Conn., March 12, 1895
Mr. H.M. Selden:

Dear Sir -

I have been quite interested in the history of Venture, and my mother, who is living with me, at the age of 96 years and 9 months, is possibly the only living person in this vicnity who has personal recollections of him. Mother is the widow of Alfred I. Loomis of Westchester. Her maden name was Abigail Foote, born in June, 1798, and in her childhood lived in S.W. district, known as Waterhole. Venture used to visit at a neighbor's, Mr. Bigelow, grandfather of D.S. Bigelow, who lives where his grandfather did when she was young. She says Venture froze his feet, and she remembers well that he walked on his knees and could travel quite fast, and for sport used to chase the children. She was afraid of him, and would never allow him to catch her, but Polly Bigelow would let him catch her. She says he was a very powerful man, and Mr. Bigelow one morning set him to cut down trees before breakfast and he hurried to call him away, fearing he would cut down the whole grove of timber. Perhaps you have heard all this, but I don't remember to have seen anything about his going on his knees, and possibly it may have been for only a little while. Mother is very bright and clear in her mind and her memory is better than the average of young folks, so I am sure she cannot be mistaken about this. I have promise of the loan of "Life of Venture" from a lady who lives here.

I don't suppose I have given you any points of interest, except to tell you there is one person living who remembers Venture, and I thought I would venture to write, peradventure it might add to your history.


It is natural to suppose that the grove cutting on th Bigelow place was later than the one previously mentioned (thought to have been on the Capt. Elisha Cone farm), from the solicitude of the owner. The incident of the salt lifting related of Venture may have been reenacted by him (as mentioned in the tradition) on being appealed to by curious doubters.

It is related of Venture that on occasion of his marriage he threw a rope over the house of his master, where they were living, and had his wife go to the opposite side of the house and pull on the rope hanging there while he remained and pulled on his end of it. After both had tugged at it awhile in vain, he called her to his side of the house and by their united effort the rope was drawn over to themselves with ease. He then explained the object lesson: "If we pull in life against each other we shall fail, but if we pull together we shall succeed." The success of his later life implies that the lesson was not forgotten by his true and loving wife.

At length, borne down with the weight of years and increasing infirmities, he sickened and died September 19, 1805, in his seventy-seventh year. His heavy body was conveyed in a boat across the Cove and carried thence on a bier, a distance of some three miles, to the cemetery adjoining the First Congregational Church in East Haddam, for burial, by four strong men fittingly chosen. The two in front were white, proving the respect he had won, while two of his own race assisted in the rear. Robert S. Cone writes of the pall-bearers: "When Venture was burried, my father was one of the pall-bearers. He was six feet three inches high. Uri Gates was six feet two inches high. Hannawell, a slave of Doctor Moseley, was five feet six inches high, and a slave of Gen. Epaphroditus Champion, about the same height, was his helper. The negroes being behind threw the weight upon themselves, and as they were mounting the long Olmsted hill the darkies complained bitterly. Hannawell exclaimed, 'Durned great nigger! Ought to have quatered him and gone four times. It makes the gravel stones crack under my feet.'"

His grave is marked by a brown-stone slab inscribed:




Though the son of a King, he was kidnaped
and sold as a slave, but by his industry
he acquired money to purchase
his freedom



WHO DIED SEPT. 19, 1805



The stone on the adjoining grave read:




DEC. THE 17th, A.D. 1809



* Their names with supposed approximate dates of birth are gathered from the autobiography of their father.

1. HANNAH, born about 1752. Her freedom was purchased for £44. She married a free negro man named Isaac, and died ----. No mention of children.

2. SOLOMON, born about 1756; died about 1773, in his 17th year. His freedom was purchased for $200.

3. CUFF, born about 1758. His freedom was purchased for $200. Was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, credited to town of East Haddam, enlisted January 29, 1781, as a private for three years in Col. Heman Swift's Battalion. He married, but to whom is to the compiler unknown. Had seven children: 1st - Cuff; 2nd - George; 3rd - Daniel; 4th - Cynthia; 5th and 6th - twins, Jack and Alice; 7th - Venture, Jr., called Young Venture. Most of these were born in East Haddam. R.S. Cone thinks Cuff died in East Haddam. He was a very strong man, over six feet high. While he lived in Haddam Neck he worked some in the quarriesand assisted in loading vessels from the quarries with his brother Solomon. While so engaged, they together alone carried aboard some very heavy stone, which on being unloaded in New York those assisting could not believe were carried aboard by two men alone. George, the second son of Cuff Smith, married and had several children, one of whom was Nelson of Haddam, the father of Charles, who was born in Haddam in 1847, and married Ascenath Hurd of East Haddam. They have eight children and reside in Cobalt, worthy decentants of Venture.

4. SOLOMON, 2d, born 1773 or 1774, was a very strong man and over six feet high.

* Venture in the closing words of his autobiography disparages his sons Cuff and Solomon. The compiler, on inquiry among the elderly people who remembered them well, fails to find sufficient warrant for the language of criticism. Evidently, if any youthful foibles early appeared, they were soon overcome.

Mr. Robert S. Cone of Moodus, says:

"Solomon had seven children. He was married twice. First, to Tamar, a worthy, useful woman. A friend to everybody, every one her friend. Think she had two children. One, William, lived to grow to manhood, a straight, handsome fellow, well formed and well spoken. Died in Hartford, unmarried.

I recollect a short episode which occurred in my boyhood days in connection with the above William. We, that is, Tom Summers with others and myself when a lad, were sailing up the cove in a scow. Summers was tall and very conceited of his strength, thinking himself more than a match for the strong. Solomon's place was noted at that time for its early peaches, delicious apples, and fine vegtables, far ahead of his neighbors. As we moved along, when the scow stood opposite Solomon's place, Summers remarked, 'Now for a bag of Sol's apples!' He jumped ashore, sprang up the hill into the orchard and began to gather. William soon appeared, tall, well dressed and very comely. He very politely asked Mr. Summers to go away. Instead, Mr. Summers showed his two fists in fighting array. William again said, 'Will you go? Will you go?' Summers still showed fight. William, with a cat-like movement, seized him by the nape of the neck and seat of his pants and tossed him down the bank to the Cove with as little effort as we would manage a little child.

Solomon's second wife was as unlike Tamar as possible. Her name was Peggy. She had six children. Hannah first; then two daughters - don't recollect their names (*Mary and Harriet), 4th - Henry; 5th - Oliver; then Eliza, for many years head chambermaid on the Hartford and New York line of boats, later on the Fall River Line, the 'Puritan'. Solomon, the father, died in East Haddam at the home of George Palmer, where his daughter Eliza was brought up."

Mrs. L.E. Sexton of Turnerville writes: "I well remember Solomon and his wife Peggy. They came often to the store at Rock Landing kept by John L'Homedieu. One day she came alone and Mr. L'Homedieu kinkly inquired after her husband, calling him Sol. (He was often called Sol Venture.) She repeated the name after him in anything but a pleased manner, saying, "Why, Sol and Solomon are no more alike than Hagar and Phyllis," giving him a lecture for speaking of her husband in such a disrespectful manner.

"I remember Solomon as tall, straight and broad-shouldered, but I think she carried her head quite as high as he did. I think only two of their children attended school on Haddam Neck - two boys, one named George Oliver Washington Smith. The other one had a name equally as long, but I only remember one of them, Henry. The winter that Azariah Wheeler taught the school they attended and were his pet class. He had them come and stand by the table. First, he would drill them to get the right kind of bow, then each one had to give his name in full. By that time the whole school was interested, but if any smiled too broadly he would try to look severe and rap on the table with his ruler to call the house to order, but I think he enjoyed the fun with them and was quite willing the school should, too. He was a good teacher, and helped to make all the children happy, and that is half the battle whether at school or at home."

The compiler remembers both Solomon and George Oliver W. Smith. The former as being tall and straight, the latter a very bright young man, who married, lived in Middletown and died there several years since, leaving children.

It is related of Solomon that, calling at Capt. Justin Sexton's while he and his boys were engaged in butchering, he quoted the words, "Where the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together," and added, "among them comes a black crow and begs a piece of liver." He received some liver.

There is a tradition that a large colored family called at Solomon's home early one morning, to remain through the day. They were unwelcomed by Mrs. Peggy, who did not wish a visitation. She placed a small pot inside a larger one and both over the fire. Noon came, long passed, and night succeeded in turn; the pot boiled without ceasing and the hungry visitors at length withdrew. The father remarked later, that for all he knew the "pawt" was still boiling.

Several have claimed, or been claimed by others, as decendants of Venture. Yet the omission of their names from his autobiography casts doubt upon their claims. Among these was Diana, or Dinah Caples, more generally called Dian, and remembered by the elderly people. She often boasted of being a grand-daughter to the king. She made and sold baskets and artificial birds. Of the latter she feared some might learn the manufacture. In person she was of unusual proportions, about five feet in height and nearly as broad.

Robert S. Cone writes: "Tradition says Gideon Quash was Venture's son. He was near the age of Cuff. Both were Revolutionary soldiers. Gid, so said, resembled Venture in form, speech and feature. He was by far the most intelligent negro for miles; accumulated thousands of dollars; married a white wife, whom he told me he obtained her consent to become his, by himself showering into her lap a bag containing ninety-six hard dollars, one year's pay from government. His decendants still live in Colchester, owners of property and respected."

Dr. A.B. Worthington says that Quash called at Isham's store in Colchester and wanted to purchase a "book-tionary and a diction." for his son Jim to learn the meaning of words. Jim later showed his ability by teaching in Colchester.

Alex M. Clark says, "Sanford, who lived with Solomon, was a son of Solomon's first wife previous to her marriage with Solomon, and that he attended school in Haddam Neck and lived with the family."

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