Bristow's History

Who was Bristow?

students looking at sign

Who was Bristow (or was it Bristol)? The history of Bristow the person is a complex, nuanced, and quintessentially American history. Inasmuch as his personal story can tell us about American history and the history of West Hartford, the process of learning about and documenting his story is very much a lesson in the work of historians.

Below you will find two different summaries of Bristow’s story. The first is from a journalist and was written upon the opening and dedication of Bristow Middle School in 2004. The second is from an 8th grade student-researcher written in 2019. The student work was produced as part of a social studies project conducted in association with the West Hartford Witness Stones Project and the Noah Webster House.

As you read the two histories side-by-side how would you compare them? For what purpose was each written? How might the purpose have influenced the content and tone of the piece? How would you characterize the tone and message of each one? What might be some broader generalizations that a person might take away from each history if they had only read that one? 

And, after reading and interpreting them both—who do you think Bristow was?

The following excerpt is from Carolyn Moreau’s article entitled, “What’s in a Name? A School’s Identity” published in The Hartford Courant, October 4, 2004.

Bristow earned money advising local farmers on agricultural problems. When he died, he left a will — an extraordinary thing for a black man of his day. His estate included books, which he left to the children of his former owner. Bristow signifies the archetypal American story — a man who makes something of his life through hard work, despite incredible adversity. From the few documents that exist on the former slave, local historians surmise that he was kidnapped in Africa and brought to the New World. He bought his freedom from Thomas Hart Hooker as Hooker left to fight the Revolutionary War; Hooker reputedly said that he “would not fight for liberty and leave a slave at home.” After Hooker was killed in the war, Bristow continued to live with Hooker’s family in what is today called the Sarah Whitman Hooker Homestead, the oldest house in West Hartford. 

By Taylor, Bristow 8th grade student, 2019

Bristow was born in 1731 and was believed to be captured in Africa and transported to America in the Middle Passage.  Bristow was enslaved by the wealthy Thomas Hooker household of The West Division of Hartford where he was accompanied by another enslaved man who went by the name of Amboy.  According to the account book of Hooker’s father-in-law, John Whitman, Thomas Hooker sold cheese, butter, and wooden boards.  Based on these records, it is inferred that Bristow spent his time milking cows, churning butter, cutting down trees, and turning logs into boards.  With perseverance, Bristow was able to buy his own freedom for 60 pounds, according to his Manumission papers, when Thomas Hooker went to fight in the Revolutionary War in May of 1775.  Once freed, it was believed that Bristow worked and lived with Roger Hooker in Farmington, CT. Then, once he earned enough money, Bristow purchased three acres of land along with a gristmill from Elijah Gridley in Bristol, CT for 140 pounds according to a land sale document. Bristow passed away in 1814 at the age of 83. When he died, it was found in Bristow’s will that all of his estate was left to his former owner’s children. This make us wonder about the reason behind his choice. Did he even have a choice?  Was there anyone else to leave his property to?  Bristow was buried at the Old Center Cemetery in West Hartford, CT along with a gravestone that he paid for himself. The gravestone states, “In Memory of Bristol a native of Africa, died March 8, 1814, Aged 83 years."