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Slavery in Albany, New York, 1624-1827.

In 2005, the New York Historical Society opened an exhibit titled "Slavery in New York," bringing attention to the fact that slavery was not limited to the South. Fourteen years before, in 1991, the discovery of human remains by construction workers in lower Manhattan brought attention to the African Burial Ground, where slaves in New York City were buried. These developments and previous studies by scholars have emphasized that New York City practiced slavery well into the 19th Century. However, most studies on slavery in New York mention other New York state cities and towns only intermittently. It should be emphasized that slavery was widespread throughout New York State, and that the capital of New York State, Albany, had a significant history with the institution. This article will discuss the evolution of slavery in Albany, prominent slaveowners in Albany, the type of work slaves did, and how slaves fared under the laws of Albany.

The story of slavery in Albany, New York began with the establishment of the Dutch West India Company in 1621. Prior to the company's establishment, its parent company, the Dutch East India Company, sponsored exploration in the Americas in the hopes that they would repeat the same success as its nemesis Spain. English seaman Henry Hudson was commissioned by the company in 1609 to find the elusive Northwest Passage. Instead, Hudson sailed along a river valley that would later bear his name. Although his journey was a failure, his journey fostered the establishment of New Netherland in 1624. The northernmost point of New Netherland was Fort Orange, which evolved into present-day Albany.

To achieve the goals of permanent settlement and agricultural production, the Dutch West India Company instituted the patroon system, in which landowners were given tracts of land to settle and develop. As with the English colonies, indentured slaves from the European settlement population were initially used to meet the demand for labor. However, this proved to be unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. A 1626 report by the Director and Council of New Netherland best describes the reasons: "Many servants daily run away from their masters, whereby the latter are put to great inconvenience and expense; the corn and tobacco rot in the field, the whole harvest is at a standstill, which tends to the serious injury of this country, to their master's ruin, and to bring the magistracy into contempt." (2) To correct this, the Dutch West India Company instituted the following policy: "In like manner, the incorporated West India Company shall allot to each patroon twelve men and women out of the prize in which Negroes shall be found, for the advancement of the colonies of New Netherland." (3)

Eager to accelerate Dutch colonization of New Netherlands, the act was later changed to provide as many slaves as possible. One possible reason for the change was the role the Dutch played in the Atlantic Slave Trade at the time. Via piracy of Spanish slave ships and shrewd dealings by the Dutch West India Company, enslaved Africans found their way to the Dutch West Indies and New Netherland. Of those who went to New Netherland, the majority were found in urban areas such as present-day New York and Albany. At the same time, patroonships in rural areas used slave labor to duplicate the riches of plantations in the American South and Caribbean.

The patroon system in New Netherland proved to be unsuccessful for most Dutch settlers. However, there was one Dutch family that held the only successful patroonship in the colony: the Van Rensselaer family. Considered one of the first families of New York, the Van Rensselaers settled in the Albany area and held dominance in New York economic and political affairs from the early 1600's well into the mid 19th century. The Van Rensselaer patroonship began in 1629 when Killian Van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant and trader, purchased an immense tract of land surrounding Fort Orange. Named Rennselaerswyck, the land included five present-day counties, the city of Albany, and stretched eastward to the present-day state borders of Massachusetts and Vermont. (4)

From the beginning of the patroonship, it became clear that indentured and slave labor was crucial to the success of Rennselaerswyck. Dated from 1632, a "list of men on the farms" attests to the use of African labor at a nearby farm, Godyns burgh, in which a laborer is to be replaced with "a black in his stead." (5) Waterford, a Hudson River town a few miles above Albany, was the site in 1647 of the arrival of enslaved Africans on a West India Company slave ship, who, according to town historian Sydney Earnest Hammersly, were sold for "peas and pork." (6) Jeremias Van Rensselaer, Killian Van Rensselaer's son, purchased many slaves but in one instance exchanged one slave "because I found he was even more refractory and a useless dirty beast." (7)

When New Netherland fell into the hands of the British and became New York in 1664, the slave population increased. Naturally, the majority of slaves were found in New York City. However, Albany's slave population witnessed growth as well. Albany's first census, taken in 1697, counted a total of 714 inhabitants in the city, of which only 23 were described as Negroes. Of how many were slaves and free blacks is unknown. (8) The census failed to take into account the population outside the city, which would have yielded a significantly larger number of people of color. Nearly a century later, in 1790, the first U.S. Census would yield a clearer picture of Albany's population. In Albany County, the total population was 75,921, of which 3,929 were slaves. In the city of Albany, the total population was 3,491, of which 572 were slaves and twenty-six were free blacks. (9)

Unlike New York City, which held the largest number of enslaved Africans, Colonial upstate New York found most slaves on rural manors, or plantations, located near the Hudson River. On these large estates, slaves assumed the duties crucial to the operation and self-sufficiency of the manor. A colonial-era description by Anne Grant tells of the tasks of slaves on one such manor in the Albany area, and the fate of those who fell out of line:
  Of the interior personages, in this dark drama I have been
  characterizing, it would be tedious to tell: suffice it, that besides
  filling up all the lower department of the household, and cultivating
  it to the highest advantage a most extensive farm, there was a
  thoroughbred carpenter, and a shoemaker, and an universal genius who
  made canoes, nets, and paddles; shod horses, mended implements of
  husbandry, managed the fishing, in itself no small department, reared
  hemp and tobacco, and spun both; made cider, and tended wild horses
  as they call them; which it was his province to manage and to break.
  For every branch of the domestic economy, there was a person
  allotted, educated for the purpose; and this society was kept in the
  same way that the Quakers preserve the rectitude of theirs; and
  indeed, in the only way that any community can be preserved from
  corruption, when a member showed symptoms of degeneracy, he was
  immediately expelled, or in other words, more suitable to this case,
  sold. (10)


In urban areas, slaves were usually owned by artisans who would train them in their particular craft, employed to load and unload ships, or were used for other means of income. One example is the case of Sam, a young male slave of Peter Van Bergen of Albany, who in 1789 was apprenticed to William Brown, a shoemaker, for three years, and forty pounds. The contract further stated that during the apprenticeship "whenever the said Peter Van Bergen or his family shall want the said Negro boy Sam to fetch water and to clean shoes or any such things in and about the house, that then the said Negro boy Sam is to do it." (11)

The Albany area also employed slaves in industrial endeavors such as the milling, iron, and lumber industries. Influential families such as the Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, and Livingstons owned several mills in the Hudson Valley that used extensive slave labor. In a 1774 letter, Philip Livingston, prominent Albanian and member of the Second Continental Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence, expressed to his son the desire to have one of his slaves trained to work in his iron mill: "1 hope you can spare him, I must continue to have a Negro to learn somewhat about ye iron works. I have now five at Ancram and want ten more with a good overseer." (12)

Among the most wealthy and influential slaveowning families in Albany were the Van Rensselaer and Schuyler families. As one of the founders of New Netherland, the Van Rensselaers and Schuylers established their home in the Albany area and built several plantations. Among them were three manor homes that still exist today in downtown Albany: The Schuyler Mansion, Cherry Hill Mansion, and Ten Broek Manor. Other plantations, such as the Schuyler Flats (located in present-day Menands, New York) and Van Rensselaer Manor (in present-day Waterville, New York), no longer exist. Typically, the number of slaves on such manors, or plantations, numbered between 10-30 slaves.

The relationship between the slaves and their masters were typical of slave-master relationships in the South, and naturally involved intimate contact. In the family of Revolutionary War hero Philip Schuyler, who built the Schuyler Mansion, one male family member had a slave woman bear him a child. The Schuyler family was reportedly embarrassed by the affair, but raised the child. When the child became an adult, he was freed and given a farm outside the city so that he would live in anonymity from the Schuyler family. (13) Interestingly, the most prominent free black family in Albany during the antebellum era was the Schuyler family, whose patriarch, Samuel Schuyler, owned a fleet of tugboats that served Albany on the Hudson River. It is not known whether there was a connection with the Schuyler family via the slave child or other unknown offspring. (14)

Similar to their Southern counterparts, enslaved Africans in the North fought to retain their African culture intermingled with newly acquired European customs. In Albany and New York City, enslaved Africans incorporated a Dutch religious holiday into a celebration of African culture called Pinkster carnival. In Albany, the week-long celebration was a festival of dance, food, music, and song centered on an African god named Total, who was later anglicized into a figure named "King Charles." As the master of ceremonies, "King Charles" presided over the festival, and was paraded around an area called "Pinkster Hill," which is now the state capitol of New York. "King Charles" also held the title of Master Drummer, in which he would lead ceremonial dances. Although the ceremony was considered a slave celebration, whites were also known to join in Pinkster carnival, tasting the dishes made by enslaved Africans and participating in dancing and drinking with slaves. (15)

As discussed by previous and contemporary scholars, slavery in the North was not a benign system. Slaves were greatly restricted by the law and found themselves at the whim of a fearful and hostile white population. When New Netherlands became New York, the British established the first universal code of laws defining the status of enslaved Africans in the colony. Titled Duke's Law, named after the proprietor of the colony of New York, the Duke of York, the law made efforts to protect white indentured servants from abuse and defined their term of servitude to be no more than seven years. In the case of enslaved Africans, Duke's Law marked the permanence of slavery in New York by classifying "servants indentured for Life." Duke's Law also emphasized the master being responsible for punishing their slaves rather than the government, and prohibited slaves from "selling and trucking" by levying heavy fines against those who purchased items from slaves. (16)

As in New York City, Albany passed laws that greatly restricted the mobility of enslaved Africans. One such law stated the following:
  And be it further ordained by the authority aforesaid that No Negro
  or Indian slaves above the number of three do assemble to meet
  together on the lord's day or any other time, at any place from their
  master's service, within this city and the liberties thereof, and
  that no such slave to go armed at any time with gun, sword, club or
  any other kind of weapon whatsoever, penalty of being whipped at the
  public whipping post fifteen lashes, unless master or owner of such
  slave will pay six shillings to excuse the slave. (17)


Albany passed laws that focused on prohibiting enslaved Africans from frequenting the many taverns in the city that served liquor. The Common Council of Albany often passed laws such as the 1703 law that stated that tavern keepers who served "Strong Liquor whatsoever to any Negro or Negroes, Indian or Indians, whatsoever, upon the Sabbath Day as aforesaid, shall pay a fine for each such default the sum of six shillings, for any such Indian or Indians so found, and for the Negroes according as the acts of the Assembly directs." (18) Pinkster carnival became a casualty under the Common Council of Albany as well. In 1811, the council passed the following:
  No person shall erect any tent, booth or stall within the limits of
  this city, for the purpose of vending any spirituous liquors, beer,
  mead or cider, or any kind of meat, fish, cakes, or fruit nor to
  collect in numbers for the purpose of gambling or dancing ... or to
  march or parade, with or without any kind of music during the days
  commonly called pinxter, under penalty often dollars or confinement
  in jail. (19)


Throughout the Colonial period, Albany was often a focal point of military campaigns in New York. British colonists were greatly concerned with the close proximity of the city to the French in Quebec and their Native American allies to the west. Consequently, laws were implemented to discourage enslaved Africans to escape to enemy territory for freedom. In 1705, such a law was passed, which stated "Any runaway Negro found traveling forty miles above the city of Albany, at of above a certain place, Saratoga (Springs), unless in the company of his, her, or their master, mistress, or such employed by them or either of them, would be given the death penalty just as in the case of felony." (20) During the Revolutionary War, this act would be greatly enforced by the Common Council of Albany to keep enslaved Africans from escaping to British and Loyalist forces in the area.

The universal concern of slaveowners throughout the colonies was the threat of slave insurrection. New York City experienced the insurrection of enslaved Africans in 1712, which resulted in the drafting and institution of an aggressive slave code that punished most offenses by slaves with corporal punishment, deportation, or death. The city was the site in 1741 of fears of a slave revolt, which resulted in the selling of seventy enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, and the gruesome public executions of twenty-seven blacks by hanging and burning at the stake. (21) Albany reacted against both events by passing additional laws and increased enforcement of restricting slaves. One example was the Common Council of Albany passing a law in 1741 forbidding blacks from retrieving water from city wells and the Hudson River "during the time of divine service or preaching on the Lord's Day." (22)

Albany's closest version of New York City's panic in 1741 was the city fire in November 1793, which destroyed the property of Leonard Gansevoort, an Albany merchant and First Judge of Albany County, twenty-six houses, and the office of the city newspaper the Albany Gazette. Fortunately for the city, rain then sleet distinguished the fire before it could spread. (23) Suspicion immediately fell upon the slave and free black population. After widespread interrogation, three slaves were charged with arson. Pomp, a sixteen-year old male slave, was seen as the instigator of the fire. Two slave girls, Bet, who belonged to Philip Van Rensselaer, a wealthy merchant who became mayor of Albany, and Dinah, were charged as accomplices. Through interrogation, Bet "confessed" her crime to the authorities and told that Pomp was encouraged to set the fire by a group of men who had a grudge against Gansevoort. Pomp then encouraged the girls to set the fire by placing hot coals in the horse stables at Gansevoort's home. (24) The slave girls pled guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging. Pomp, described in an 1867 account of the incident as "indolent," "foppish," "a thief," and "a gay fellow among the wenches," maintained his innocence. Nonetheless, a jury of all-white men found him guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. (25)

During the first three months of 1794, the executions of Pomp, Bet, and Dinah were postponed, much to the disappointment of crowds who clamored for the public execution of the three slaves and would gather several times in anticipation, only to be dispersed. Interestingly, Pomp had a change of heart and "confessed" his guilt in the crime, implicating Bet and Dinah in setting the fires. The men who allegedly encouraged Pomp to set the fire were never revealed. The bloodthirsty crowd in Albany received their wish when Bet and Dinah were executed March 14, 1794, at Gallows Hill, located at the present-day corner of State and Pearl streets, a few blocks from the state capital. Pomp would meet his fate on April 11, 1794. As an intriguing epilogue, there was little evidence to implicate Pomp, Bet, and Dinah, and fires continued to break out over the city during and after the persecution of the three slaves. (26)

The post-Revolutionary War period witnessed the decline of slavery in the North. New York, however, continued to practice slavery well into the early 19th century. During this period, the question of manumission of slaves became an issue that was finally addressed via legislative action. In 1799, the New York state legislature passed the first of Gradual Abolition laws that would eventually end slavery. The 1799 law stated:
  Any child born of a slave within this state after the forth day of
  July next, shall be deemed and adjudged to be born free: Provided
  nevertheless that such child shall be servant of the legal proprietor
  of his or her mother, until such servant if male shall arrive at the
  age of Twenty Eight years, and if a female at the age of Twenty-Five
  years. That the master of the mother shall be entitled to the
  services of such child. (27)


In 1802, the act was amended to give compensation to masters who held abandoned slave children until the age of four, when they could be given to the "overseer of the poor." In 1804, the act was amended again to allow masters to abandon slave children at anytime, as long as the overseer of the poor certified the abandonment. (28) Ironically, these laws perpetuated slavery in New York, rather than ended it. Slave children who belonged to the overseer of the poor were subject to sale or were bonded out to masters who used their services. Parents of slave children were not included in the 1799 law and were powerless in the matter of their children. It would not be until 1817, when the New York state legislature declared that all slaves would be declared free on July, 4, 1827. It should be emphasized that slavery in New York did not die out of benevolence, but out of economic necessity. An emerging slave-based agricultural economy in the South, the growth of industry and manufacturing in the North, the increased arrival of cheap labor in the form of European immigrants, and the implementation of advanced transportation in form of canals and railroads spelled the end of slavery in New York.

From 1624 to 1827, slavery in New York was protected by the law and was crucial to the Colonial dominance of the Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, and other influential families in Albany. It helped to create a capital city that relied on an exploited cheap labor force to build its institutions and create its wealth, but failed to compensate them. In addition, the end of slavery in New York did not mean the end of its involvement in the system. The Port of Albany received numerous shipments of cotton for nearby textile mills during the antebellum era. Wealthy slaveowners would come to Albany to take in the mineral waters at nearby Saratoga Springs and bring their slaves. During the antebellum era, Albany became a hotbed of fugitive slave activity, attracting slave catchers and bounty hunters to the capital city. In one case involving a captured fugitive slave, a tragic macabre scene unfolded on a steamboat near Albany:
  He was, I judged, about forty years of age; his clothing coarse and
  very ragged; and the most friendless, sorrowful looking being I ever
  saw. He spoke to no one, but silently paced the deck; his breast
  heaving with inaudible sighs; his brow contracted with a most
  terrible frown; his eyes dreamily fastened on the floor, and he
  appeared to be considering some hopeless undertaking. I watched him
  attentively, as I walked to and fro on the same deck, and could
  clearly discover that some fearful conflict was taking place in his
  mind; but as I afterwards repassed him he looked up with a happy,
  patient smile, that lighted up his whole countenance, which seemed to
  say plainly, I see a way of escape, and have decided on my course of
  action. His whole appearance was changed; his heart that before had
  beat so wildly was quiet now as the broad bosom of the Hudson, and he
  gazed after me with a look of calm deliberation, indicative of a
  settled, but desperate purpose. I walked hastily forward and turned
  around, when, oh, my God! What a sight was there! Holding still the
  dripping knife, with which he had cut his throat! And while his
  life-blood oozed from the gaping wound and flowed over his tattered
  garments to the deck, the same exultant smile beamed on his ghastly
  features! (29)


After the Civil War, Albany evolved into an industrial and manufacturing city. Slavery became another forgotten chapter of city history. As the city nears its 400th anniversary, there are no plans to commemorate the presence of enslaved African Americans via memorial or other means. It is hoped that this article will assist in bringing more attention to this woefully neglected subject.

(1) Oscar Williams is a member of the Africana Studies Department at SUNY at Albany.

(2) Oscar Williams, African Americans and Colonial Legislation in the Middle Colonies (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 6.

(3) Ibid.

(4) "Rensselaerwyck", The Colonial Albany Social History project <http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/na/rensselaerswyck.html>, March 2001.

(5) "List of Men on the Farms, July 20, 1632," Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts, 1908. In New Netherland and Beyond, Historical Documents http://www.rootsweh.com/~nycoloni/vrbmfrms.html

(6) L. Lloyd Stewart, A Far Cry From Freedom: Gradual Abolition, 1799-1827, New York State's Crime Against Humanity (Bloomington, Indiana: Author House, 2006), 76.

(7) Williams, African Americans and Colonial Legislation, 6.

(8) "Finding the People," The Colonial Albany Social HistoryProject<http//www.nysm.nysed.gov/Albany/census.html." Afro-Albanians," Ibid.

(9) A.J. Williams Myers, Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of An African American Presence in the Hudson Valley to the Early Twentieth Century (Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1994), 22; "Census of 1790," The Colonial Albany Social History Project <http:/www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/census1790.html#first>.

(10) Williams, African Americans and Colonial Legislation, 27-28.

(11) Stewart, A Far Cry From Freedom, 68.

(12) A.J. Williams Myers, On the Morning Tide: African Americans. History and Methodology in the Historical Ebb and Flow of Hudson River Society (Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 2003), 31.

(13) Williams-Myers, Long Hammering, 54.

(14) Bielinski, Stephan, "Captain Samuel Schuyler," The Colonial Albany Social History Project http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/bios/s/sschuyler8492.html

(15) Williams-Myers, Long Hammering, 87-93.

(16) Williams, African Americans and Colonial Legislation, 42-43.

(17) Ibid. 74-75.

(18) Ibid. 74.

(19) Williams-Myers, Long Hammering, 96.

(20) Williams, 48.

(21) Ibid, 70.

(22) Ibid. 73.

(23) Don R. Gerlach, "Black Arson in Albany, New York: November 1793," Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3 March 1977, 304-305.

(24) Bielinski, Stephan, "Bet," The Colonial Social Project in Albany http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/bios/slave/bet.html#confession

(25) "The Conflagration of 1793," taken from Joel Munsell's Collections on the History of Albany, 1867, The Colonial Social Project in Albany <http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/doc/fire1793.html#sources>; Gerlach, "Black Arson," 307.

(26) Gerlach, "Black Arson," 309; Williams-Myers, Long Hammering, 166.

(27) Williams, African Americans and Colonial Legislation, 83.

(28) Ibid. 83-84.

(29) Cheek, William F., Black Resistance Before the Civil War (Beverly Hills, California: Glencoe Press), 89-90.

Oscar Williams (1)
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Author:Williams, Oscar
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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