Black Sal’s Cave

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in Bolton Horizons, December 2009)

On Box Mountain, to the west of Squaw Cave, is Black Sal's Cave, the home of a Mohegan/African-American family. It is one of five potentially human inhabitable caves in the Bolton Notch region.

Darren Wright, an anthropology student from Central Connecticut State University, visited us several times this past summer and gathered historical information about the hill off Route 44 rising up to Box Mountain. Prior to 1922, Route 44 was called the Boston Turnpike. Starting from before the Civil War and continuing to the early 1900s there were African-American families reported living on the vacant property of that hillside.

When Darren first called I suggested the stories about the area originated with Black Sal, but with further investigation we found a few current Bolton seniors who remember the Sumner family historians telling about other minorities living in small houses on that hill at the turn of the century. Darren discovered that there were many such groups in Connecticut, and that is the subject of his thesis for his degree in anthropology.

Darren then went to the Connecticut State Library and to Washington, DC, and obtained copies of the available Bolton US Census reports from 1790 to 1930. In the 1830 census he found an individual who met the description of Black Sal. Her name was Sally Arron and she was reported as a "Free Person of Color" who was between the ages of 36 and 45 years of age. The census further documented three children living with her — a boy of color and a girl of color under 10 years of age, and a girl of color between 10 and 24 years of age. Sally Arron was not listed as living in a home and was not listed in any census before or after 1930. Other "free persons of color" were sometimes listed at their own homes or with other Bolton residents. Some were clearly still slaves.

We invited Darren into the Bolton vault in the town clerk's office, and we went through all the old hand-drawn Bolton maps together. We found no "free persons of color" on their own property on the Boston Turnpike hill of interest. That indicated that the inhabitants there probably were squatters. But to our amazement, one town map had Black Sal's cave clearly marked. It turned out to be the map from 1830, the year Sally Arron appeared in the census.

Darren said the anthropologists call these transient settlements "Outsider Settlements" and many were on the routes of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. Escaping slaves could usually pass undetected at these settlements and get food and shelter on their way to Canada. If they were caught here in Bolton the federal law prior to the Civil War allowed slave bounty hunters to arrest escaped slaves and take them back to the South. But in some communities the neighbors would concoct false charges against the runaway that took precedence and could be used to take custody of the runaway from the bounty hunters. One such runaway was saved that way in Hebron and successfully applied to the State Legislature for his freedom.

ADDENDUM, April 2010: I just came across a 1950 historical publication that said Sally Arron's first husband froze to death returning home to the cave one night circa 1826. The publication also reported that the roof of the cave collapsed shortly before 1950. The cave was therefore once lower, deeper and much more suitable for living than it is today. The 1830 census said she was living there with her three children.