Lawrence, Amasa, 1811 - 1879
Amasa Lawrence was born in Thompson, Connecticut, circa 1811. While little is known of his childhood or parentage, as a young man he took to the sea, a crew member aboard the ship Manchester Packet, which departed from the New London, CT on June 30, 1832 bound for the South Atlantic. By December of 1833 Amasa had returned home and was enumerated in a private census of tribal members living on the reservation in what was then Groton, Connecticut.1 Erastus Williams, having just concluded his tenure as state appointed overseer, described Amasa as 22 years old, of mixed black, white, and Indian ancestry, and the grandson of Esther Dick. In February of the following year, Amasa found himself in trouble with the law, charged with and found guilty of theft. Fellow Pequots and contemporaries, Joseph and Charles Fagins were named as witnesses in the case of State v. Lawrence. In order to pay the $42.76 fine levied against him, Amasa agreed to go " on a voyage on the ship Indian Chief now about to Sail. " True to his word, he was among the crew aboard the Indian Chief leaving the bustling port city of New London that same day and headed to the Indian Ocean. Also on board was Eastern Pequot Solomon Brushell. This was not Amasa's last voyage. In May of 1838, he was part of a much smaller crew aboard the sloop Mary Jane sailing to Havana, Cuba.
Undoubtedly, Amasa's maritime employment kept him from his reservation home for months on end, but the records of the state appointed overseer of the tribe indicate that he did return between voyages. In February of 1834 he dug the grave for a fellow Pequot. Later that summer, he fell ill, requiring the services of Dr. Thomas Gay who billed the tribe for the visit, advice, medicine, and sundries.
Although the record is not extant, by May of 1836, perhaps earlier, he had married Priscilla Niles Brooks, a Narragansett woman.2 While Amasa was at sea, Priscilla maintained the household back at Mashantucket as evidenced by the receipt of goods and services from the overseer from 1836 to the winter of 1839.
According to the 1840 Federal Census for Ledyard, CT, Amasa Lawrence was the head of a household, married and the father of two young girls under the age of ten. Based on this same enumeration the Mashantucket reservation community was made up of thirteen households, some of which were headed by tribal members, others not. Neighbors of Amasa Lawrence included Mark Daniels, Betsy Wheeler, Joseph Lawrence, Hiram Lawrence, Rhoda and George Cottrell, Sullivan Fagins, Charles Fagins, Paul Baker, Frederick Toby, Basha Holt, Plowden Fagins, and Catherine Meazon Oxford.
Perhaps his growing family prompted a change in both residence and employment, for it seems as if Amasa gave up his life as a mariner. In fact, neither he nor Priscilla appear in the overseer records of the tribe for nearly fifteen years, explained, in part, by a relocation north of Hartford in the Town of Windsor, CT. Here, he and his family were enumerated in the 1850 Federal Census. His three daughters, Salome age 12, Cynthia age 10 and Josephine age 8 had all attended school in Windsor within the past year.3 The two eldest were likely the same girls enumerated ten years earlier in Ledyard.
By January 30, 1855, Amasa had returned to Mashantucket. He was a signatory on petition along with Peter George, Hannah Fagins, Hannah Goldsmith, and Caroline Wheeler. Together they complained that overseer Amos L. Latham was in the practice of cutting and selling wood from the reservation at " small and ruinous prices" and that he was unreasonably raising the rents of those who had leased land on the reservation for decades. William Morgan was appointed overseer in the place of Amos L. Latham. On April 21 of the following year Amasa signed another petition, along with twenty other members of the tribe, this time remonstrating against an 1855 bill authorizing the sale of hundreds of acres of reservation land. Ultimately, this and a subsequent petition were unsuccessful. Amasa and his family, however disheartened by the land sale, moved into one of the newly constructed homes on the much reduced 179- acre reservation.
From this point until his death, Amasa appeared consistently in the records of the state appointed overseer of the tribe, both in terms of receiving goods and services and also listed as a member of the tribe in the annual censuses. The overseer records indicate Amasa dug graves for friends and family within the reservation community, including the graves for Mary Ann Deshon Sears and her son Edward in 1858 and 1859 respectively, as well as the grave for Betsy Meazon Wheeler in April of 1863. Amasa took ill in July of 1859. While he recovered to live another twenty active years, the illness was such that a large sum, $17.50, was paid to Dr. Tribou for the medical attention, suggesting numerous visits and considerable care. Amasa had long since given up a life at sea and was settling into the role of small scale farmer. His family continued to grow with the birth of daughter, Clarissa. Her school bills were paid for with tribal funds in 1860.
Early winter in 1863 Amasa had another brush with the law, nearly three decades after his theft conviction as a young man. This time he was accused of burning the barn of reservation neighbor Jeff Brown. Amasa's alleged role as arsonist came to light as the result of an entirely different legal dispute between Jeff Brown and Amasa's daughters, Esther, Saloma, and Charity. After "a regular-rough-and tumble-sea-fight" Amasa's daughters were charged with assault and during the course the trial enough evidence emerged for Justice Edmond Spicer to call for a December 31, 1863 hearing into the arson case and demand a bond of $300 from Amasa. Not being able to raise the money for the bond Amasa traveled alongside his daughters to Jail. He spent the next several weeks there until his January 20, 1864 trial in New Haven. He pled not guilty to the alleged March 29, 1863 arson and was ultimately acquitted of the charge.4
On August 9, 1864, Amasa's already colorful life took another twist when he enlisted in the Union Army as a soldier in the 29th CT Volunteer Regiment.5 Whether Amasa had accrued any debts from his earlier court battle is unknown and perhaps his enlistment was founded entirely on ideological grounds, but it is more than likely the $500 substitute bounty, a significant sum of money, was a motivating factor for his enlistment.
He was mustered into service in Norwich on August 15, 1864. As a soldier in Company K he traveled with the rest of the 29th to be stationed outside of Petersburg. It was there that under examination he confessed to having lied about his age. According to the officer taking his deposition,"[t]his man was sent as a recruit and is apparently over forty-five years of age." It was determined he was 55 years old and as such unfit to be a soldier due to old age. The officer in charge made it clear that Amasa was not to be considered for a pension and he was discharged before the Battle of Petersburg on September 29, 1864, a mere month and a half after his enlistment. Amasa was apparently never was paid for that time, but nor did he pay for the knapsack, haversack, or canteen provided by the government. It is unclear as to what became of the $500 bounty he was paid.
Amasa returned to the Mashantucket Reservation and appeared consistently in the overseer records there for the remainder of his life, engaging primarily in farming. He was also, however, considered by some as a healer or "medicine man". In the military pension record of fellow soldier and son- in- law Azariah Freeman, Amasa is described as "a kind of Indian doctor" and credited with effectively treating Freeman's ailment with herbs and roots.
In August of 1870, Amasa was enumerated as the head of a household on the reservation consisting his wife Priscilla, daughter Salome Robinson, son-in-law Garner Robinson, sometimes referred to as William Garner Robinson, daughter Esther Swan, alias Phoebe Esther Swan, son-in-law William Swan, and Naomi Hops Champlin Stanton.
On September 26, 1879 Amasa died of dropsy in Ledyard, likely at his home on the reservation. His death record indicates he left behind a widow and that he supported himself as a basket maker.6 The tribe paid for his burial, burial clothes, and the funeral service.
Crew Lists, Mystic Seaport; CHS, William Samuel Johnson Papers, III, 100: December 13, 1833 letter from Erastus Williams to William T. Williams; NLCCR, February 1834, State v. Lawrence, Box 3, Folder 19; Florence Griswold Museum, Daniel Chadwick Papers, Box 5, Folder 2: Legal Correspondence; NLCC:PbS, Indians, Mashantucket Pequot;1840 US Federal Census, Town of Ledyard, CT; 1850 US Federal Census, Town of Windsor, CT; CHS, Satterlee Family Papers 1810-1889, Letters, 1850-1867, MS 86613; RG3, NLCSCR, Box 87, #678; CSL, Army of the United States, Disability For Discharge Certificate, Amasa Lawrence; CT State Museum of Natural History, Norris Bull Collection; Military Pension Request of Azariah Freeman; 1870 Federal Census, Town of Ledyard, CT; Brown and Rose, Black Roots, 227
Image courtesy of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Archives & Special Collections
- 1. It wasn't until 1836 that this northern part of Groton was established as the Town of Ledyard.
- 2. The possibility exists that Priscilla Lawrence, alias Priscilla Dick, was first the wife of Hiram Lawrence, alias Hiram Dick, and that the marriage to Amasa didn't take place until later.
- 3. The historical record is unclear, but it possible that Amasa was the father of a son, Lyman Lawrence, born c. 1832. This relationship is indicated on Lyman's death record. However, Lyman may also have been both a nephew and then later stepson of Amasa. Lyman is noticeably absent from the Amasa Lawrence household in the 1840 Federal Census for Ledyard, CT. He may have been bound out as an indentured servant to another household. By 1850, Lyman, age 18, was living in Eastford, Connecticut in the household of Joseph Douglas.
- 4. Interestingly, the attorney for the State was the same Daniel Chadwick who also prosecuted Amasa thirty years earlier for theft.
- 5. He was one of many Connecticut Indians to volunteer for service. See David Naumec's article From Mashantucket to Appomattox: The Native American Veterans of Connecticut's Volunteer regiments and the Union Navy in The New England Quarterly 81(4):596-635 for more.
- 6. Once again, Amasa's age comes into dispute. Based on the death record, which indicates his age at death as 76, he was born in 1803. The bulk of the extent documentation supports a younger age at death and a birth date of c. 1811.