Venture Smith, 'The Black Paul Bunyan'

In the 1700s, after escaping slavery, Venture Smith achieved success as a farmer and businessman in New England. Hear how researchers are trying to keep alive the story of Smith, dubbed "the black Paul Bunyan."

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Venture: it's a name that conjures up boldness in industry. Now archeologists in Connecticut have unearthed the 77-year-old remains of Venture Smith, a man who worked odd jobs to buy himself and his family out of slavery.

Known for his size and strength, many revered Smith as a real-life Black Paul Bunyan. In 1798, he described his life in slavery and freedom to a local schoolteacher who published the narrative. Scientists want to see how this tale measures up to real life.

From NPR member station WSHU, Tandaleya Wilder reports.

TANDALAYA WILDER: Venture Smith's family plot is near the most famous church in East Haddam, Connecticut: the First Church of Christ Congregational. This wealthy community along the Connecticut River is dotted with forests and colonial homes. His gravesite is an important landmark on the state's freedom trail.

Ms. FLORENCE WORMSLEY(ph)(Descendant from Venture Smith): My name is Florence Wormsley. I'm an eight-generation directly descendant from Venture Smith.

WILDER: Wormsley says she's known since she was a little girl about her relative Venture Smith. Her grandmother used to proudly tell stories about him. In New England, Smith has become a man of mythical proportions. Known not only for his great size, strength and endurance, but his entrepreneurial spirit.

He owned a boat yard in Long Island, property in Ghana, and in 1776 purchased a 300-acre farm in East Haddam.

Ms. WORMSLEY: They believe that he was the first person in America to bottle spring water and sell it.

WILDER: According to Venture's own oral narrative, which was recited to a local schoolteacher, he was sold in and out of slavery three times and was beaten and cheated often. A slave master named Colonel Oliver Smith permitted him to work odd jobs on the side to eventually buy his freedom.

As gratitude, the lumberjack slave took Smith's last name as his own. After saving frugally for years, Venture Smith earned enough money to buy freedom for his wife and three children.

Ms. WORMSLEY: This is Venture Smith's grave. It says, sacred to the memory of Venture Smith, an African. Though the son of a king, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave. But by his industry he acquired money to purchase his freedom. He died September 1805 in his 77th year of age.

WILDER: Several of Smith's other descendants, including his wife Meg, his son Solomon, who served in the Revolutionary War, and his granddaughter Eliza are also buried here. The family settled in East Haddam and Venture Smith made a living by fishing, whaling and farming his land. He spent the remainder of his life in town on a farm that he bought.

Wormsley says his story is important because he overcame the horrific conditions of slavery to eventually live the American dream. He became known as the Black Paul Bunyan, although unlike Paul Bunyan, he was a real person.

(Soundbite of knocking on door.

WILDER: Hi, we're looking for Nick Bellantoni.

Mr. NICK BELLANTONI (State Archaeologist, Connecticut): Hi, I'm Nick Bellantoni, the state archaeologist here in Connecticut.

WILDER: This summer Wormsley and other family members gave a team of archaeologists permission to dig up the graves of Venture Smith and his family to look for artifacts and take DNA samples. They're hoping the forensic analysis will help them learn more about this slave turned wealthy landowner and if the legends passed down about him are true. Stories like just how big he was; if he came from a tribe of tall people, as he claimed; and if his wife was also African. The summer dig lasted about two weeks and included a team of 25 scientists. A man, small in stature but big on enthusiasm, led the dig and retrieved the samples.

No one's ever found images of Smith, but Bellantoni says they were able to determine his size almost immediately by viewing what was left of his coffin. Written accounts have said his shoulders were so broad he had to walk sideways through the narrow doorways common in his day.

And legend has it the lumberjack slave was so strong he could cut hundreds of cords of wood a day.

Mr. BELLANTONI: Coffin nails were still in place, really giving us the outline, and three-dimensionally the outline, of the coffin. And this was one of the largest coffins of its style I have ever seen. It was almost seven feet and it as very, very deep. And kind of indirect evidence, maybe in some ways, of Venture's size.

WILDER: Bellantoni says Smith was likely over 6-feet-2 and more than 300 pounds. He says unearthing his family plots also offered some clues about the family's stature in the community.

Mr. BELLANTONI: Eliza, the granddaughter, was in a very fancy - what I would call a casket - and very interesting handles, and nameplates and so forth. So, you know, the tombstone and whole plot for the family really says something about the man. You know, he owned property and he had resources.

WILDER: In Smith's narrative, he claimed to be the son of an African king or prince. He says he was kidnapped as a child and sold to European slavers. He and other slaves were packed into a cargo ship on the west coast of Africa. The Rhode Island slave ship, Suzanna(ph), then sailed the so-called middle passage, the leg of the slave trade that led from Africa to America.

Chandler Saint, a local historian, is one of several people leading an international effort to preserve Venture Smith's place in history. As president of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, he helped coordinate the dig. Saint says Smith could've disappeared into the anonymity of the slave trade like millions of other Africans, but he didn't.

Mr. CHANDLER SAINT (Local Historian): Probably one of the very cruelest acts of the middle passage in the slave trade was stripping of identity. And Venture's whole life is about retaining who he was in Africa, but later who he was here. And when he died he made the point of we weren't going to forget Venture Smith.

WILDER: Saint says another goal of the project is to preserve the places Venture Smith lived in and owned in Ghana and New England, especially his 300-acre farm in East Haddam. Historians like Chandler Saint hope Smith's story will advance the nation's dialogue on American race relations and broaden Connecticut's understanding of its role in the slave trade. He says the story imparts hope and optimism.

Mr. SAINT: It's not a story of tragedy. It's the triumph of a human spirit struggling to retain his identity and achieve freedom.

WILDER: Florence Wormsley believes her distant grandfather is an American hero.

Ms. WORMSLEY: When I think of Venture Smith, I always think of strength. Now physical strength - emotional, mental strength. He was a person with much dignity, much honor.

WILDER: This month Venture Smith's descendants will celebrate his life at an annual ceremony near the gravesite. A national conference will also be held to announce the findings of forensic information and any other new revelations about the man they call the real-life Black Paul Bunyan.

For NPR News, I'm Tandalaya Wilder in East Haddam, Connecticut.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. And if you'd like to comment, give us a call at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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