By PAUL SCHOTT
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) — Census records do not know for sure, but they put Peter John Lee between the ages of 16 and 24 on the night in 1830 when he and six other slaves escaped their plantation and boarded a boat off Virginia’s shore.
What happened on their journey north is lost to history, the kind not written down. But Lee did not stop until he reached Connecticut, and eventually landed at the late-17th century wood-shingled house that now stands at the corner of Byram Road and U.S. 1.
The story of his life there, triumphant and tragic, is the story of countless slaves who risked all for freedom in pre-Civil War America — and it is the basis for the Thomas Lyon House’s induction Sunday into the Connecticut Freedom Trail, which designates important sites in African-American history throughout the state.
“It documents one more part of the history that belongs to this house,” said Jo Conboy, chairwoman of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, which documented Lee’s connection to the house and applied for the Freedom Trail designation. “The house matters because there is history here. It’s solid history, and it tells us what was here and what went on here.”
Already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Thomas Lyon House joins two other Greenwich properties on the Freedom Trail, First Baptist Church and Little Bethel A.M.E. Church.
The Nutmeg State was hardly a haven for African Americans when Lee set out for the North — there was a lot of anxiety among whites about the prospect of large numbers of blacks arriving — but it was still much safer than New York or the mid-Atlantic states.
“One of things that Connecticut at that time did is it provided for jury trials for escaped slaves,” said Yohuru Williams, a history professor at Fairfield University. “That would’ve made it possible for slaves to present evidence to demonstrate their liberty and to testify against their captors, which would’ve put slave catchers in great jeopardy. Slave catchers didn’t want to run the risk of being arrested or even incarcerated.”
For Seth Lyon, then head of the house built by his ancestor, Thomas, hiring Lee was practical. He was a widower, needed help running his farm, and had two sons to raise.
Lee was joined by his wife, though not much is known about her, and records do not indicate how she came to be free. But the southern transplant apparently lived in the house with the Lyons, and working there appeared to be agreeable for him.
“He bore a good character for industry and became quite a favorite in the neighborhood,” abolitionist W. Johnston, secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee, wrote of Lee in a July 1844 letter that appeared later that year in the Emancipator and Republican.
But danger lurked only yards away, on the other side of the Byram River. Lee’s former owners had obtained a requisition from the governor of Virginia to the New York governor to apprehend Lee and his six fellow escapees, and charge them with stealing a boat. The New York governor signed off on the request, which authorized fugitive-slave hunters known as blackbirders to capture Lee.
They could not simply storm across the Byram River and kidnap Lee in Greenwich, however. Their jurisdiction did not extend over the state line. So they hired a man to tell Lee that a friend wanted to see him across the river, in what is now Port Chester. There they struck.
The November 1836 abduction sparked an uproar in the northern press.
“He was immediately seized by ten or a dozen ruffians, bound, and thrown into a wagon, which was then driven at great speed for New York,” the New York Sun reported on Nov. 23, 1836. “Great excitement prevails both at Rye and Byrum (sic), in consequence of this outrage.”
Lyon and a Justice Brown, of Rye, New York, wrote to the mayor of New York about the kidnapping, but their entreaties were fruitless.
From New York, Lee was taken back to Virginia. He initially faced the death penalty, presumably for the theft of the boat. But, as Johnston noted, his life was spared because slaves were regarded “not so valuable dead as alive.” He was then handed back to his former masters.
Seven years after his capture, Lee fled again. Again traveling by boat, he led a group of about a dozen other escaped slaves, Johnston recounted in his letter. Pursued by boats in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, they landed in Cape May, New Jersey and fled the seamen through the woods. Lee was among the 11 who reached New York. There, Johnston’s vigilance committee helped them journey on to Canada, where their freedom was assured.
What became of Lee north of the border is apparently unknown.
But now, almost 180 years after he was abducted, Lee is enshrined as an important figure in Greenwich history.
And its place on the Freedom Trail will help assure the continued survival and upkeep of the house where he lived.
“This recognition adds to the house’s prominence and is a reason for restoration,” said First Selectman Peter Tesei. “We’re very much in support of efforts to have it properly restored and be a place that can be visited for educational purposes.”
Greater awareness of the house’s educational possibilities could be one of the greatest benefits of the new designation. Preservation Trust members envision students leading tours of the house. The focus on a younger audience is an ideal way to promote the house, historians say.
“The great thing is we’re saying that we recognize the value of history and we recognize that history is sometimes best remembered in built environments,” said Williams, of Fairfield University. “To be able to visit and touch spaces such as the Lyon House is as important as the words and stories about the people who occupied them. We don’t want to ever lose sight of our past.”