Deep River and the History of Ivory in the US – Part I

Pratt Read & Co.'s ivory advertisement showing how prominant slaves were to their business.

A mid-nineteenth-century catalog cover from the ivory business of Julius Pratt – Deep River Historical Society, Ivoryton Library Association and the Treasures of Connecticut Libraries.

“If Americans are going to condemn others for trading in ivory they should at least know their own history,” – Marta Daniels, Freelance Journalist and Historian.

Deep River is a sleepy little quintessential town in Connecticut. From the outside it looks innocent enough. Situated just two hours outside of New York it has become a hot spot for those looking to escape the noise, hustle and bustle of the Big City. But underneath its unassuming veneer Deep River holds a very dark secret. It’s the kind of secret that once told makes you want to scream at the top of your lungs, hit your knees and beg for forgiveness. It’s the kind of secret that imparts with it shame for centuries. And yet there is a tinge of clemency that has cast itself on this peaceful place.

Louis Pratt, Master Ivory Cutter for Pratt, Read and Co. shows off 8 tusks in 1955. (photo courtesy of the Deep River Historical Society).

Louis Pratt, Master Ivory Cutter for Pratt, Read and Co. shows off 8 tusks in 1955. (photo courtesy of the Deep River Historical Society).

For more than a 100 years Connecticut was the largest ivory manufacturing capital in the world. Yes, you heard it right. Ivory. Between 1884 and 1911 it is estimated that 10 million pounds of unworked ivory was brought through the Deep River Valley; a modern day equivalent of $310 million dollars.

Dr. Livingstone, a famous Scottish physician and clergyman who spent decades living in Africa was one of slavery’s most outspoken abolitionists of the time. He estimated that for every tusk brought through the Connecticut Valley five black people were either killed or forced into slavery. More than two million black families were ripped apart by two nondescript ivory manufacturing businesses nestled along the quiet Connecticut River.

Yet the men responsible for so much slavery in Africa were they themselves staunch American abolitionists. They harbored, fed and freed slaves that were under their care or who travelled long distances to find the safety that they knew this community would provide. Deep River’s ties to the Underground Railroad fighting for the freedom of slaves, a problem they helped to create, are well known and makes the story of its past that much more incredible (1).

It all began in 1798 when a man named Phinneas Pratt invented a device that allowed for the mechanical cutting of combs. As the middle class was coming up tortoise shell and ivory combs were objects of desire by women everywhere. They were very labor intensive, however and only highly skilled workers could do the delicate handiwork required to cut the thin teeth that is…until this one invention changed everything.

Ivory Cutting Machine (E.D. Moore Collection, Ivoryton Assoiation and the Treasurers of Connecticut LIbraries

Phinneas Pratt’s famous Ivory Cutting Machine (photo: E.D. Moore Collection, Ivoryton Association and the Treasurers of Connecticut Libraries)

Several Pratt relatives bought one of these machines and pretty soon every son of Pratt (of which there were three) were in the comb-cutting business themselves. Ulysses Pratt damned a section of the Connecticut River so that a water wheel could be installed in order to industrialize the process and cut textiles even faster than before.

George Read, who was married to one of the Pratt sisters, had partnered with a man named Ezra Williams in 1820 (also in the comb-cutting business) and had begun making piano keys and using what was to become the most important textile of the time…ivory. It was decided to merge all of the Pratt’s together in order to create one mega-company. So in 1856 Pratt, Read and Company became the largest employer in Deep River (1).

Samuel Comstock was the son of a sea captain trading merchant in the West Indies and lived in the neighboring town of West Centrebrook. He too, was a comb-maker and had purchased one of Pratt’s machines. He partnered with George Cheney and together they built an entire succession of dams along the river in order to harness the required amount of energy needed to maximize their production. And it worked beautifully.

George Cheney was eager to join in on the action. His father-in-law Rufus Greene was a shipping merchant based out of Providence, Rhode Island and found the trade in ivory so lucrative that he rarely traded anything else.

Slaves in Zanzibar weighing ivory collected for Comstock, (photo courtesy of Treasurers of the Connecticut Libraries)

Slaves in Zanzibar weighing ivory collected for Comstock & Cheney, (photo courtesy of Treasurers of the Connecticut Libraries)

Cheney went to Africa for the first time in 1850 along with Greene to set up the first ivory trading firm in Zanzibar (modern day Tanzania). Soon after Comstock, Cheney and Co. became the largest competitor of Pratt, Read and Co. Located only a few short miles apart these two companies dominated the entire world market of ivory for decades to come.

Comstock and Cheney were so successful that they decided to change the name of the town from West Centrebrook to Ivoryton, as it is still named today. Ivoryton was a company-owned town in which Comstock, Cheney and Co. employed all of the people, owned all of their homes and most of the town’s buildings. Because of the enormous success of the two towns, Deep River and Ivoryton, the region became known as “Queen of the Valley.”

Cheney’s father-in-law, Rufus Greene had two brothers who loved to hunt. Together they created a hunting firm in Zanzibar called Arnold, Hines and Company so that they could spend their days killing as many elephants that they could in order to meet the demand of the rising quota. They became the main ivory supplier for the Deep River Valley and made massive fortunes for many men.

A wagon of ivory making its way up the road of tears.

A wagon of ivory making its way up the road of tears in Deep River (photo courtesy of the Deep River Historical Society).

But the ivory was quite heavy to transport from the inlands to the outlands of Zanzibar. If it was moved by slaves then both could be sold at the coast, therefore increasing the profit for the trading venture and a win-win for the white men. But many of the kidnapped slaves were women and children, which made poor carriers of the heavy ivory and if they survived the journey to the coast many more died once they arrived (2).

A Scottish theologian wrote witnessing the events in Zanzibar, “The slaves are needed to buy the ivory with; then more slaves must be stolen to carry it…like a river; a Slave Caravan.”

Soon long lines of slaves transporting ivory of what was to be referred to as “Slave Trains” were spotted regularly winding their way to the coasts of Zanzibar. The experience was written at length by explorers such as Dr. Livingstone who was appalled at the sight of so many young children being ripped from their families and left for dead along the roadside.

But now the vast majority of Africa’s ivory was being shipped into the Deep River Valley and the profit margins were enormous. Unloaded from ships and stacked onto horse-drawn wagons the ivory was taken for a short ride up the road of tears to a humble looking brick building looming at the top of the hill. Here, Pratt’s now famous cutting machines always starving for more ivory would be patiently waiting to cut it into combs, piano keys and billiard balls.

No one had any idea just how big their next venture would become or how dark the shadow it would cast on the nation as a whole.

In Part II the story takes a riveting twist and the conscious of humanity begins to raise her exhausted, weary head.

Additional References:

(1) Hileman, M. (2000, December 25). A Former’s Slaves Odyssey. The Day Newspaper, pp. A1, A5.

(2) Walker, J. (2010). Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. Grove/Atlantic.