On June 28, 1839, the Spanish ship La Amistad left a port in Havana, Cuba with 49 men, 1 boy and 3 girls kidnapped from Mendeland, Africa, modern-day Sierra Leone. They were being taken to Puerto Principe, Cuba for a lifetime of slavery. Before the ship reached its destination, the Mende Africans seized control and forced the Spanish owners to sail towards Africa, using the sun as a guide. At night, however, the owners sailed northward, hoping to come ashore in a Southern slave state in America. Instead, the ship entered the waters of Long Island Sound where the U.S. Navy took it into custody. The vessel was towed into New London harbor and moored at Lawrence Wharf, near the U.S. Custom House.
The Mende Africans were eventually placed in jail in New Haven while their fate became a major legal case that took two years to resolve. Although the primary issue was whether the Mende Africans were to be considered slaves or free, the long process led the public's attention to focus on the rights of African Americans in the United States and on moral, social, religious, diplomatic and political questions. Former President John Quincy Adams successfully defended the Mende Africans before the U. S. Supreme Court, and in February 1841, they were declared free.
In March 1841, the Mende Africans were sent to Farmington to live while funds were raised for their return home to Sierra Leone, Africa. In November, the 35 surviving Mende Africans sailed towards their homeland as free individuals. Along with them were five missionaries who were sent under the auspices of the newly formed Union Missionary Society, a forerunner of the American Missionary Association. The group reached Sierra Leone in January 1842.