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US Custom House Maritime Museum

The landmark Custom House Maritime Museum is on both the CT Freedom Trail and the NPS Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Our largest exhibition is on the Amistad incident.

In 1839, New London and its U.S. Custom House, now the Custom House Maritime Museum, played a small but significant role in the story of the Amistad. It was in New London where Dwight P. Janes, a local grocer and abolitionist took an important step towards setting the captives free: New London is the only American port to which the original La Amistad ever sailed, New London is where Dwight Janes first spoke up in defense of the ship’s captives, the ship stayed moored at the Lawrence Pier throughout the trial, and it was at New London’s U.S. Custom House where, ultimately, the ship & its cargo were auctioned after the conclusion of the trial.

Twenty years after the Amistad incident, the Custom House was the setting for an Underground Railroad escape that pitted local abolitionist sentiment against federal authority. It began when an enslaved man named Benjamin Jones fled his circumstances and attempted to gain his freedom. The next day, fugitive was seized and taken to the federal authorities at the New London Custom House. The 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act required that runaway slaves be returned to their owner, regardless of the location (state) within the Union where they were at the time of their discovery or capture. However, two years prior in 1848, the Connecticut Personal Liberty Law had prohibited slavery in Connecticut. This conflict seemed to have created confusion, or at least questions, about which authority reigned in the case of a fugitive slave.

At the Custom House Benjamin Jones was asked “Do you want to be slave or free?” When he responded with “Free,” state law was allowed to trump federal. Judge Brandegee told the captive to be off, and Benjamin Jones gained his freedom.

The Customs House in New London was constructed in 1833 and is the oldest continuously-operated customs office in the United States. This building is still a functioning customs building for the city of New London. Another notable feature of this building is that it was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument. The Customs House is today home to the Maritime Museum that offers a glimpse into the town’s fascinating history and culture as well as the famous story of La Amistad, a historic schooner. The museum also offers special lighthouse and boat trips, a museum shop, and interesting temporary exhibitions. 


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Opening hours

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
    1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
  • Thursday
    1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
  • Friday
    1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
  • Saturday
    10:00 am - 5:00 pm
  • Sunday
    1:00 pm - 5:00 am