Searching for Neptune: One Man’s Journey to Freedom

By Donna Dufresne

In 1799, the ship Neptune returned to New Haven Harbor after a three-year circumnavigation of the globe to China and back. Her cargo was worth millions of dollars and created great wealth for her owners and investors. The story of the Neptune and her lucrative voyage spread across the globe. Among mariners, Neptune became a symbol of good fortune.

Not long before the Neptune arrived in New Haven, a young man from Abington, Connecticut, embarked upon his own voyage, seeking fortune and a foothold in trade. Oliver Ingalls was the son of Zebadiah Ingalls. Although his father captained the Abington Militia and the 11th Regiment in the Lexington call, Oliver, born in 1770, would have been too young to earn his stripes in the military.

Items on his probate inventory in 1815 indicate that Oliver had been a sea captain: “1 spyglass, old sea charts and gauging rod, sea writing desk, and a marine case with bottles.” The study included “2 practical navigators, table of the poles, American Clerks Magazine, 1 French Grammar, Franklin’s Life, Dwight’s Geography, and a book of Spanish Grammar,” further indicating a life at sea. The grammar books imply that Captain Ingalls was engaged in the West Indies trade.

My investigation into Oliver Ingalls began with the discovery of Neptune Ingalls in Pomfret Vital Records. Neptune Ingalls was born in Africa in 1790 and died in Pomfret in 1868. I hypothesized that he must have been brought to Pomfret by one of the local Ingallses. It did not take long to discover a sea captain among the Abington clan. Fortunately, both men left a trail of documents which helped to guide the construction of Neptune’s story.

So, how did Neptune end up in Pomfret? He was likely picked up in the West Indies as a young child. According to an exhibit in the John Brown House in Providence, it was widespread practice to reward the captains of a voyage with up to five enslaved captives to sell or keep. For example, according to Brown University’s Slavery and Justice report(2004), Captain Esek Hopkins “was promised 50 pounds per month, plus a ‘privilege’—a commission—of ten barrels of rum and ten enslaved Africans to sell on his own account.”1

Neptune may have been captured as a young boy and brought to the West Indies with his mother. He may have been orphaned by the time the slave ship arrived in the Caribbean, or deliberately separated from his mother when she was auctioned. The sugar plantations were brutal, and enslaved people were literally worked to death. Underfed, overworked, and medically untreated, the life expectancy for adults was only five years after captivity. It was cheaper to buy new African captives than to ensure the health and well-being of the labor force. There was no use for children and elders on the islands. They became part of the return cargo, collateral perks to be sold in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Rhode Island.

The mystery of Neptune’s trauma-laden journey to Connecticut may never be solved unless I unearth some of Captain Ingalls’s account books and diaries. Census records list only heads of household until 1850; everyone else is represented by a hashmark indicating age, sex, and race. From his birth in Africa in 1790, we next encounter Neptune on the 1810 census as the “other than white free person” living with Ingalls, his wife, and four children. By disaggregating the census data and investigating land records, I was able to determine that in 1810 Ingalls owned what we know as the Brayton Grist Millon Mashamoquet Brook in Pomfret. Neptune remained whitewashed out of history until he shows up in church and land records, and later data indicates that he was working in the carding shop and fulling mill owned by Ingalls and later in the Pomfret Fulling Mill. Ingalls’s story may help to fill in the gaps.


In 1803 Oliver Ingalls married Betsy Abbott, whose father was a merchant and owned a store in North Providence. Apparently Oliver gave up his stint as a sea captain and settled back in Pomfret with Betsy, where their first son, Gerard, was born in 1804. In the Ingalls genealogy, Oliver is listed as a farmer in Pomfret with 30 acres, about the same amount of acreage he bought in 1810 from Jonathan and Rufus Brayton. The land included Mashamoquet Brook, the grist mill, a linseed-oil mill (fulling mill), and a carding mill. Three more children, Esther, William, and Zebadiah, were born before 1815.

An analysis of Oliver’s probate inventory in 1815 shows that he was more than a farmer. His contacts with merchants in North Providence and his property on the busy Providence Turnpike enabled him to build a thriving business. His personal inventory included more than 40 articles of clothing, including expensive suits and imported fabric. His blacksmith shop was producing more than horseshoes; it imported steel from England and Russia, and numerous shovels, grub hoes, scythes, and plow irons were in mass production—the kind of tools that were exported to the West Indies.

While business boomed, tragedy struck the family in 1812 when eight-year-old Gerard drowned in the millpond. Still, Oliver continued to build the Pomfret Woolen factory, designed to include carding, spinning, and weaving under one roof, downstream from the grist mill on his 30 acres of land. By 1815 he had established a board of directors, and the factory was running with several seasonal laborers, including Neptune. 

Unfortunately, Oliver drowned in the millpond in 1815, after returning late at night from Dresser’s Store at Abington Four Corners. He missed the road and fell into the millpond. His Newfoundland dog, another remnant from a life at sea, barked, but Betsy saw nothing amiss from the window. They found Captain Oliver in the morning. He is buried with his son, Gerard, in the Old Abington Burial Ground with a stone carved by Nathaniel Hodgkins. His older brother, Lemuel Ingalls, Esq., became executor of the estate and legal guardian of Oliver’s children. It took several years to settle debts, sell property, and sort out investments in the mills. The blacksmith shop and mills were sold to Orin Marcy, whose family owned the mill complex for several generations. Betsy and the children moved to Providence, while Lemuel managed their inheritance. His sons, William and Zebadiah, became renowned merchants in New York City.


Meanwhile, Neptune continued to live and work in the mills. He met his first wife, Lucinda Malbone (descendant of the Malbone slaves), in the Pomfret Fulling Mill, where they worked seasonally for 26 years. They married in 1816 in the Abington Congregational Church and continued to live in Abington, working in the Ingallses’ wool factory until it was destroyed in a flood in 1819. They attended the Abington Congregational Church, where records show their marriage and the deaths of their three children.

In 1832, Neptune bought 12 acres of land, including buildings, from Joel Baker in Baker Hollow. He was listed on the 1850 census as a farm laborer living with Joel and Joseph Baker. There were mortgages and a road dispute, but in the end, Neptune Ingalls appears to have led a decent and industrious life as a farm laborer and skilled millworker. After Lucinda died in 1859, he married Roseanna Robinson, age 65. On the 1860 census, her daughter, Nancy Hinckley, and grandson, George, age six, were living with them. By then, a little neighborhood of Black farm laborers and their families had grown in nearby Jericho. Edward Malbone, Ichabod Fagan, George Malbone, Evan Malbone, and Henry Jackson all lived nearby with their families. There was work to be had. The large farm of Horace Sharpe on Sharpe Hill needed farm workers; the Fay/Elliot saw and shingle mills were booming, and the Red Top Quarry on Carter Road continued to be active during the building of the railroad.

Neptune Ingalls’s life was snuffed out just before the first puff of a steam engine rolled into Elliot Station. The railroad changed everything. It disrupted the landscape and the community. The Pomfret Fulling Mill on Abington Brook was dismantled and replaced by the Abington Mail Drop and Big Y Grain Station. Farms began to use steam engines and required less labor. Foundries and blacksmiths switched to anthracite coal from Pennsylvania rather than the locally burned charcoal. Work in the quarries would soon be replaced by steam shovels. The community of Blacks that surrounded Neptune began to move on. The Civil War pensioners who fought in the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry Regiment, the descendants of the enslaved Malbones, and Nipmuc stoneworkers in Jericho migrated toward the cities, where they found work on the railroad as brakemen, porters, and track maintenance workers. No one was left to visit the grave of Neptune Ingalls or to stop the steamroller of progress that paved over his remains. Only a few hints in the town archives remain to tell the story of Neptune Ingalls and his incredible journey from Africa to Pomfret.

In the book Full Circle: A Directory of Native and African Americans, Windham County, Connecticut, 1650–1900 (2002),Marcella Houle Pasay notes that Neptune Ingalls is buried beneath the road at the Four Corners in Abington. His probate estate provided for a casket, the digging of the grave, and a small house on 13 acres of land for his widow. I am not sure why Neptune is buried beneath the road, and it makes me wonder if there are others by his side. Perhaps it was more cost-effective to build the road on top of Neptune Ingalls than to move him to a different site. As at many African-American burial grounds, the people who were dispensable in life were dispensable in death. In the 1940s when the road was reconfigured, there were no advocates for preserving an uncomfortable past. Instead, Neptune’s bones rattle beneath the rumble of semi rigs and the roar of motorcycles on a busy road.

1 James T. Campbell, “Slavery and Justice at Brown—A Personal Reflection,” Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Report.

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