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Austin F. Williams Carriagehouse Austin F. Williams Carriagehouse

The Austin F. Williams House and Carriagehouse are significant for their association with the Underground Railroad and the celebrated Amistad affair of 1839-1841. Oral tradition indicates that Austin F. Williams (1805-1885), a leading abolitionist of the day who devoted much of his life to the cause, was an Underground Railroad conductor and, along with other citizens, made the Farmington community a major Underground Railroad stop. After the Civil War, Williams was appointed director of the Freedman's Bureau of New England and New York and found housing and job opportunities for freed African Americans. However, it was the Amistad affair that brought national attention to Williams' abolitionist activities. In June of 1839, 53 members of the Mende tribe from present-day Sierra Leone who had been illegally captured and transported to Cuba, were sold to two Spanish planters in Havana. The slaves were loaded onto the ship Amistad which set sail for Puerto Principe, another Cuban port. Four days out of Havana, the Mende, led by Sengbe Pieh (renamed Joseph Cinque by his Spanish captors), took control of the vessel and ordered the ship to sail to America. During the siege the Mende killed the ship's captain and cook, and by the time Amistad anchored off the tip of Long Island on August 24, 1839, 10 of the Mende had died from disease or wounds sustained in the takeover. Brought into custody by the United States Navy, the Mende were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut, and charged with piracy and murder. A defense committee, including Austin Williams and headed by Lewis Tappan of the American Missionary Society, was formed and hired the Honorable Roger Sherman Baldwin and former President of the United States John Quincy Adams to represent the Mende. The Supreme Court ruled that the Mende had been held illegally by force and that the siege and murder of the captain and cook had happened in self-defense. The Mende were ordered free on March 9, 1841.

Upon their release, the Mende were taken in by members of their defense committee, including Austin Williams. Williams constructed a building on his property in which the male members of the group lived. This building is today the east section of the carriagehouse--the west section was added on after the Mende had returned to their homeland. The men worked in local agricultural fields and the women worked as domestics in the private Farmington homes in which they lived. Required by the defense committee to attend the First Congregational Church, the Mende also were taken to different parts of New England and asked to perform at various fundraising events. With the money raised at these events, the defense committee hoped to establish a Christian missionary in Africa and pay for the Mende's transportation back to their homeland. Within a few months, it became clear that the Mende were eager to return home and felt somewhat exploited by these fundraising events. On November 27, 1841, they set sail for West Africa along with several missionaries and arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone in January of 1842.

The Austin F. Williams House is located in Farmington, Connecticut. A private residence, it is not open to the public.

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