Harris Nelson woke up on a normal day in January, 1906 not knowing he, his son, and fifteen others would be swallowed by the earth just after lunch.
Harris was a merchant in the small but prosperous town of Haverstraw, located approximately 60 miles south of the Hudson River Maritime Museum in New York’s Rockland County. The day Harris Nelson died the town boasted around 6,000 residents, with a population nearly double that today. Inventively called “Bricktown” more often than not, Haverstraw in 1906 was still benefiting from the Hudson River brick industry boom following the great New York City fires of 1835 and 1845, which left hundreds of wooden structures destroyed and a huge demand for brick as a less flammable building material. The Hudson River Valley, with its abundance of clay deposits left behind in the wake of post-glacial lakes nearly 12,000 years ago, stood up to answer the demand. Including the one in Haverstraw, over 40 brick factories cropped up along the Hudson, and where there were factories, there were often mines.
During most of the 19th century, clay was extracted from beneath Haverstraw until its residents lived and worked on hollow ground. The eventual and somewhat inevitable partial collapse of the mine began without fanfare, a slow cracking of the ground that some Haverstraw residents paid no mind. When it was evident homes and lives were in danger, it was too late for Harris and Benjamin Nelson, both of whom were either crushed in the collapse or killed by the ensuing fire, sparked by the toppled stoves of destroyed homes. The initial disaster took twelve lives, the additional five lost by men and women rushing to the aid of their neighbors.
Adding fuel to the literal fire was the frigid weather, which discouraged residents from leaving their homes, as well as a water main break that prevented fire-fighters from dousing the flames. It seemed that residents were attacked on several fronts by forces that merged to make the clay pit disaster an incredibly deadly one. And yet, Haverstraw’s residents carried on in its wake, and managed to rebound from the landslide of 1906 to continue as a place worthy of the name “Bricktown.” Remembering this dark spot in Hudson River history is not merely a cautionary tale in resource depletion; Haverstraw’s ability to carry on and grow into the diverse and history-rich village it is today also serves as a needed reminder that there’s a tomorrow after even the worst of times.
Audrey Trossen is a Hudson Valley native and worked as an intern with the Hudson River Maritime Museum during the summer of 2017. She is a current undergraduate student at Smith College in Northampton, MA where she majors in Geology and concentrates in Museum Studies.
Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site has been open to the public since October 17, 1917 and will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this season. The home was built between 1761 and 1765 by Philip Schuyler of Albany who, after serving in the French and Indian War, went on to become one of four Major Generals who served under George Washington during the American Revolution. Prominent for his military career, as a businessman, farmer, and politician, Philip was the main focus of the museum when it opened in 1917. Over the last hundred years, however, the narrative told by historians at the site has expanded to emphasize the roles of Philip’s wife Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, their eight children (five daughters; three sons), and nearly twenty enslaved men, women, and children owned by the Schuylers at their Albany estate.
Since March was Women’s History Month, I am pleased to set aside Philip Schuyler, and instead bring you the history of the women of Schuyler Mansion – Catharine Schuyler and her five daughters Angelica, Elizabeth, Margaret, Cornelia, and Catharine (henceforth Caty to avoid confusion with her mother). Some of those names will sound familiar to fans of the Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical. The oldest daughters, Angelica, Elizabeth, and Margaret “Peggy” Schuyler, born in 1756, ‘57, and ‘58, feature heavily in the plot because second daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, in 1780.
It is largely through Elizabeth’s efforts that so much information exists about Alexander Hamilton, Philip Schuyler, and the rest of the family. Women were often the family historians of their time, collecting letters and documents. Elizabeth was particularly tenacious in this role. Unfortunately, since women’s actions were not considered relevant to the historical narrative (and perhaps due to some degree of modesty from the female collectors), sources by and about women were not always preserved. Through careful inspection of the documents that remain, however, we can piece together quite a lot about these six women.
For the Schuylers, documentation started young, with receipts and letters describing the girls’ education. In the period, core literacy was most often taught at churches where basic reading and writing were a means to an end in teaching scripture. This holds true for the Schuylers. In 1764, when Angelica was 8 years old, Philip purchased “cathecism books more for Miss Ann”. Philip additionally paid for lessons in French, dancing, geography, history, writing, and arithmetic. In combination with references to music, ornamental embroidery, and the “women’s work” which the girls most likely learned from Catharine, these lessons constituted every subject deemed appropriate for women by contemporary educational philosopher Benjamin Rush, and more. This family was well educated even amongst their peers.
Catharine’s education, however, remains mysterious as no letters in her handwriting exist. Given her social status, it is unlikely that she was illiterate. However, it is possible that she was literate only in Dutch, as approximately half of Albany still spoke Dutch as their first language. Anne Grant (a contemporary of Catharine’s) described in A. Kenney’s Gansevoorts of Albany:
“In the 1750s girls learned to read the Bible and religious works in Dutch and to speak English more or less, but a girl who could read English was accomplished; only a few learned much writing.”
Knowing women’s childhood education is critical to our understanding of their adult lives. Even today, education molds children to fit the ideals of the culture they live in and therefore shows parents’ aspirations for their children. In the 18th Century, the ideal for women of this social class can be defined by four main roles: wife, mother, household manager, and social manager. By educating his daughters in dance, music and etiquette, Philip Schuyler prepared them for the wealthy social scene where they would meet potential suitors. By having them learn French, they could read philosophies and poetry and other refined subjects that would be impressive to the educated elite that Schuyler hoped those suitors would be. Meanwhile, Catharine taught them the household work that would be required of them once married.
Historically, women have been defined primarily by their spouses. It is a mistake to do so, however, marriage was exceptionally important for women in the 18th-Century. Under English government, women had no political rights and very limited legal, economic, or property rights. An adult woman’s power came from the influence she had over her spouse, and the influence she had over the next generation through the training of her sons. As such, at the start of the 1700s, 93% of women in the Northeast were married. This declined to 78% by century’s end, which likely correlated with a growing population of women, rather than declined need or desire to marry.
While arranged marriages were fading out of style with non-nobility by the mid-18th-Century, wedding arrangements still looked quite different from today. In more liberal households, as the Dutch tended to be, a woman had a fair amount of say in who she was to marry, but only so long as she was marrying from within an appropriate social circle. Parental permission was still required and a suitor who brought in political or property assets was preferred. Romantic love (or attraction - the term “romantic” was not yet used as we think of it today) as a prerequisite for marriage was gaining popularity, but was not considered necessary. Marriage was often treated as an economic pact. If love existed or developed, it was a bonus.
There are two marriages in the Schuyler family that are key to understanding this family’s dynamics - Philip Schuyler’s marriage to Catharine Van Rensselaer in 1755, and eldest daughter Angelica’s marriage to John Barker Church in 1777.
Philip and Catharine’s marriage mostly fit the cultural ideal described above. Both were fourth generation Dutch, meaning that their great-grandparents were the first to come from the Netherlands in the mid- 1600’s. Philip’s family made its fortune in the beaver fur trade and supplemented their income through land speculation and marriage. Meanwhile, Catharine’s family came over as part of the Dutch Patroon system. Akin to a feudal system in some ways, Patroonships gifted land to wealthy Dutch families in order to colonize New Netherland, which later became New York. By the time of Catharine’s birth, her father owned more than one hundred and fifty thousand acres of land throughout the colony. Not only was the couple from the same wealthy elite social circle and approved of by both families, they had a seemingly romantic courtship. In letters before their marriage, Schuyler asked his friend Abraham Ten Broeck to pay his regards to “Sweet Kitty VR” if he should see her.
Philip and Catharine likely expected their children would also marry with wealth, education, and family approval in mind. Angelica’s marriage broke those expectations when, in 1777, she married an elegant young commissar who called himself John Carter. Carter came to the home to settle military accounts with Philip Schuyler. While Carter looked the part of the wealthy, well-educated man, Philip knew nothing of Carter’s family and worried about his connection with Angelica. No one could tell Philip more about “Carter”, because this was an assumed identity. The man was actually John Barker Church, a broker from a prominent family in England. Church fled to the colonies to escape gambling debt, and possibly fallout from a duel.
Either unconcerned with her suitor’s background, or uninformed of it, Angelica married John Barker Church without parental permission. As a result, she was disowned and forced to take up residence with her maternal grandparents in Greenbush. She stayed with them only two weeks before her grandfather coaxed Philip and Catharine to meet with the couple and forgive them. It is unclear if Church revealed his identity to the Schuylers at that time, as the couple continued to be known as the “Carters” until the end of the war.
After this marriage, Philip no longer had the confidence that his children would marry under the ideals of the time, and because he was so quick to forgive Angelica, his children saw this as precedence. At least three more of the eight children eloped.
Second daughter Elizabeth married with permission, but Angelica’s elopement clearly still weighed heavily on Philip’s mind when he responded to Alexander Hamilton’s request for Elizabeth’s hand in February of 1780:
“Mrs. Schuyler[...] consents to comply with your and her daughter’s wishes. You will see the impropriety of taking the dernier pas [fr: last step] where you are. Mrs. Schuyler did not see her eldest daughter married. That gave me also pain, and we wish not to experience it a second time.”
The formal parlor at Schuyler Mansion where Elizabeth Schuyler married Alexander Hamilton on December 14, 1780
Hamilton was far from Schuyler’s ideal. He was an orphan raised in poverty in the Caribbean with no land, money, or family ties. And yet, Schuyler hesitantly said yes. Perhaps it was only Hamilton’s military career under George Washington that earned Philip’s approval. Or, perhaps the question lurked at the back of Philip’s mind: “if I say ‘no’… will they marry anyway?” Philip maintained control over the situation by asking the pair to marry at Schuyler Mansion, forcing them to wait until Hamilton could take military leave. The couple married in the formal parlor of Schuyler Mansion on December 14, 1780.
The next in line was Margaret, nicknamed Peggy. Unlike her sisters, Peggy married close to home in 1783. Stephen Van Rensselaer was a cousin on her mother’s side. The relationship was very near the ideal set forth by their parents. It strengthened the family’s connection with one of the wealthiest Dutch families in Albany. In fact, after inheriting the bulk of the Van Rensselaer estate at 21 years old, including his land holdings - approximately 1/40th of New York State – and accounting for inflation, Stephen ranks 10th on Business Insider’s list of the wealthiest Americans of all time. There are rumors that Peggy and Stephen eloped, but very little evidence to support it. A relative of Stephen’s reacted with surprise that Stephen, then 19, married so young, especially since his bride was 25, but there was no surprise or outrage from either parents. There was no question that this was a powerful match.
The next Schuyler daughter, Cornelia, was 17 years younger than Peggy, but despite the age gap, the influence of Angelica’s marriage still held power. Cornelia eloped in 1797 with Washington Morton, an attorney from New York who appears to have attempted to gain parental permission but, in his own words:
"Her mother and myself had a difference which extended to the father and I had got my wife in opposition to them both. She leapt from a Two Story Window into my arms and abandoning every thing [sic] for me gave the most convincing proof of what a husband most Desire [sic] to Know that his wife Loves him."
This description is hyperbole, since Cornelia more likely snuck out a door than leapt out a window. It is possible that Angelica gave her young sister advice or even direct aid with her elopement. Angelica had recently returned from Europe and Morton wrote that they were married by the same Judge Sedgwick who had married Angelica to John Barker Church. Philip forgave Cornelia quite quickly, but never really found a place in his heart Morton, who became Schuyler’s least favorite in-law. Philip wrote to his son of Morton:
Washington Morton fit the economic expectations of the Schuylers, but his irreverent sense of humor & flippant behavior diminished his worthiness in Philip’s eyes.
"his conduct, whilst here has been as usual, most preposterous. Seldom an evening at home, and seldom even at dinner - I have not thought it prudent to say the least word to him[...]as advice on such an irregular character is thrown away."
Young Caty did better in Schuyler’s estimation, but her marriage was also an elopement. She married attorney Samuel Bayard Malcolm not long after her mother’s death in March of 1803. However, given descriptions of the big reveal, it is likely that the couple has already married, but Catharine’s death prevented Caty from being able to tell her father. Schuyler accepted Malcolm soon after, so when Schuyler died the next year, Caty would have had a clean conscience.
Unfortunately, Malcolm died in 1817. So as not to remain a powerless widow, Caty remarried in 1822 to James Cochran, a prominent attorney and politician who was the son of Washington’s personal physician. Cochran was also her first cousin. Marrying a cousin was seen as a safe match, particularly for widows and widowers, as it consolidated wealth amongst family and one could trust that one’s children would be accepted since the new spouse was kin.
The Schuyler women had birthing rates similar to the averages for their time period. Margaret and Cornelia Schuyler died young (42, and 32 respectively). Caty's reflect two marriages, as her first husband died while she was still of child-birthing age.
For women, a marriage contract provided necessary economic stability. Spending too long outside of the contract resulted in a lack of security for oneself and one’s family. By marrying well, men could also gain economic ground and benefit from the production of heirs. A woman could have a lot of influence on the early education of these heirs since she was the main caretaker until a child was old enough to go outside the home. For women, childrearing was an all-consuming part of their life after marriage. On average, women in the mid to late 18th century gave birth once every other year from her marriage until death or menopause, whichever came first. Infant mortality rates were high, with approximately half of children dying before reaching the age of 3. Even with this mortality rate, birthrates still averaged eight surviving children per mother! Towards the end of the century, women began having fewer births with slightly lower infant mortality rates – averaging 6 surviving children per mother.
Catharine Schuyler fit these averages. According to the family bible, Catharine gave birth to fifteen children. Eight survived to adulthood. Her last child came when she was 47 years old. In other ways, Catharine was unusual - among the seven children who didn’t survive infancy, there was one set of twins and one set of triplets. Multiple births were rare, and the fact that Catharine survived those dangerous births was a testament to her health.
As one can imagine this pattern was both physically and emotionally devastating for women. The majority of their lives were spent being pregnant, recovering from pregnancy, and taking care of young children, many of whom did not survive. Throughout this cycle, the Schuyler women were also managing the household and the social affairs of the family. Catharine thrived as a manager and Philip seemed to put a great deal of trust in her logistic abilities. She made purchases for the home, received orders, and was responsible for decisions concerning the estate in Schuyler’s absence. Aided by Schuyler’s military mentor John Bradstreet, she also acted as overseer for the initial construction of Schuyler Mansion while her husband was on business in England.
Schuyler Mansion once had 125 total acres with 80 acres of farmland and a series of back working buildings. Catharine was often placed in charge of the property in Schuyler's absence and managed the slaves who worked in the household.
While attending to business, political, and military affairs, men were not home to prepare for or entertain high caliber guests whose support was often needed to maintain said business, political and military affairs. It fell on Catharine and the girls to foster a social atmosphere for their home. They threw parties, called on other households, and were ready to receive unexpected visitors at any time – including, for instance, the more than twenty military visitors sent to the home when Burgoyne was taken “prisoner guest” after his surrender to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga.
Catharine also acted as an overseer for the unsung women of Schuyler Mansion – the enslaved servants. The head servant Prince, the enslaved women including Sylvia, Bess and Mary, and the children like Sylvia’s children Tom, Tally-ho, and Hanover, who helped serve within the home, all reported directly to Catharine. These women did the majority of labor within the home – cooking, cleaning, mending, laundry, acting as nannies when the girls travelled, and perhaps even producing the materials used for these tasks – like rendering soap and dipping candles. All this was done while raising their own families. Sources on the enslaved women of the Schuyler household are even sparser, of course, but we tell the stories we have and hope that we will someday know more.
Documents do not always allow us to tell the full range of stories we would like to tell. Thankfully, the Schuyler women were accomplished. Though they did not always fit the ideals of their society perfectly, they made themselves a prominent part of it. They married well, managed their family’s social connections and households, and very importantly, raised children who valued history and valued preserving their family’s legacy. While there are many questions that we at Schuyler Mansion still wish to answer about these women, we are fortunate to have the sources to interpret their lives, not just during Women’s History Month, but year round. To get more stories about these women, visit Schuyler Mansion’s blog or visit Facebook for information on our upcoming “Women of Schuyler Mansion” focus tour.
Danielle Funiciello has been a historic interpreter at Schuyler Mansion since 2012. She earned her MA in Public History from the University at Albany in 2013 and has been accepted into the PhD Program in History for Fall 2017. She will be writing her dissertation on Angelica Schuyler Church.
February 26, 2017
Position: 18˚ 47’ N x 68˚ 05’ W
Sailing through the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
As I write this guest blog entry for the Hudson River Maritime Museum, I am tucked away in the aft cabin of the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134-foot brigantine, nearing the end of a transit from Portsmouth, Dominica, to Samaná, in the Dominican Republic. This is the second leg of our six-week journey that started in St. Croix, USVI, and will end in Key West after additional stops in Jamaica and Cuba. For this SEA Semester program, Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean, I have the pleasure of working with a group of student crew members and professional ship’s staff conducting oceanographic research and island cultural and environmental exploration. My role involves continuing instruction in Atlantic History, Maritime History and Culture and Maritime Environmental History with my faculty colleagues, the Captain, Chris Nolan, and Chief Scientist. Dr. Jeff Schell. The program, operated by the Sea Education Association (www.sea.edu), began back in Woods Hole over seven weeks ago, and the exploration will continue until we are alongside at our destination in Florida.
Returning to my talk and this blog, let me begin by saying just how honored I felt to be invited to speak at the Museum and then briefly write for this blog on the subject of black mariners in Early America for Black History Month. The fact that my talk also fell on the birthday of activist Rosa Parks made the day all that much more meaningful to me. The topic of free and enslaved maritime workers in Early America and the Atlantic World is one that I have continuously worked on from the early days of my doctoral work and now as part of what I teach in SEA Semester programs. In teaching this subject, I find it effective to begin with an outlining of the changing nature of the historiography of the slave trade, slavery in the Americas and the African American experience up to the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
To begin, I use an image of the diagram of the slave ship Brooks (often spelled: Brookes) to start a discussion of both the slave trade and they ways in which people from various parts of Africa enter into the story. Most students are now familiar with the abolitionist image, and many can tell me that the diagram that those working to end the slave trade created is of an actual ship that did make slave trading voyages. Fewer students, however, are aware that the 450-person capacity that is indicated in the diagram is after England began regulating the slave trade. After then sharing with students that we have records indicating that the ship carried more than 600 enslaved people on board on more than one trip, I discuss how much of the historical work done in decades past on the slave trade, and indeed of the plantation system itself, treated these enslaved people as mere passive recipients of historical actions rather than active creators of historical events. Recent work on the slave trade has uncovered plenty of evidence of active participation of the enslaved in this chapter of history, much of it in the realm of resistance and uprisings. Still, there is a tendency to gloss over the actions of those forced to toil for others in the surveys that cover the system of slavery in a broader context of national or regional history.
I feel that it is very important to let students know that much of this glossing over, or what I would call an ignoring of agency, in the literature is a result of misconceptions about the nature of the work that enslaved people did in the Americas. In my classes, I display some generic work or occupation images for students to first identify and then decide whether or not the activity could have been done by slaves. Classic images of gang labor in fields are juxtaposed to what are thought of as more skilled occupations that ranged from printing to tailoring, carpentry to blacksmithing, and from shipbuilding to deep-sea sailing. While some of the occupations outside of field work fit into students’ perceptions of common work for enslaved people (I have usually referenced enslaved maritime workers at some point prior to this exercise, so that one is no surprise to them), many are surprised that all of the examples I give can be connected to common instances of unfree workers doing that work. The truth is, enslaved people were put to work in almost any setting where any kind of labor was needed. In fact, masters often relied on previously developed and demonstrated skill or knowledge among those they purchased for forced labor. It is important to note that the system of slavery was equally brutal and terroristic for such non-plantation workers. Still, pointing out that labor in the fields, while also requiring skill, was not the only work that enslaved people did helps to break down some erroneous preconceptions about the forced labor system and it opens up the possibility for a deeper discussion of enslaved maritime workers.
Drawing upon my own dissertation research that focused on river boatmen and other enslaved maritime workers in South Carolina, I also point out to my students that close supervision of such skilled men in their work was often sacrificed to maximize the efficiency of the transport of cash crops. Thus, slave boatmen in the Carolina Lowcountry often worked in all black crews with no supervision as they traveled, on locally constructed boats called pettiaugers, from plantation to port and back again delivering rice and indigo or carrying provisions. Again, the desire to move goods and people as efficiently as possible in South Carolina, and in the Atlantic World more broadly, meant that any desire or efforts to completely isolate enslaved people to their plantations or other areas of work were undermined by this need for constant movement—a need that brought people and news in and out these environments on a regular basis. This has pretty broad implications for the enslaved, and one of these was the fact that the process of dehumanization of slaves that was at the heart of the plantation complex was countered to some degree by the ability of enslaved people to create and keep open avenues of communication. These avenues or outlets kept mobile maritime workers and plantation workers alike aware of what was happening in the regions around them and connected to family or surrogates for family, thereby maintaining useful knowledge and relationships that helped to maintain a sense of self that was not determined by the slave regime.
After this introduction to enslaved maritime workers and some of the ramifications of the existence of such a group on a somewhat localized level, I typically turn to some examples of maritime workers, enslaved and free, to begin working out larger implications. As I did in my talk, I like to give examples of maritime workers who appear in “runaway slave advertisements” that appeared throughout the Colonial and Antebellum periods in North America. For instance, this is an advertisement from a newspaper published in Charleston:
...Ran away last night... A negro man named Tom, born in the Havanna, speaks Spanish and French, a very likely fellow, and somewhat used to the house carpenter’s trade... Peter, a short well set fellow... Pompey, a middle sized [fellow]... [h]e can write and read, and talk good English, [a] wench named Arabella, is very likely, short and slim... and [h]er child [who] answers to the name of Castila... As there is a small schooner or fishing boat missing this day, it’s suspected they may have [gone] off in her; and as some other Negroes are missing, among whom is a French or Spanish fellow, a fisherman, it is strongly suspected that they are gone to the Southward on their way to the Havanna. Any person or persons apprehending and securing said Negroes so that the subscriber may have them again, shall receive One Hundred Pounds currency reward, besides all reasonable charges. (South-Carolina Gazette, June 27, 1768.)
This is one of many advertisements that highlighted either the use of a boat in running away, or an experienced maritime worker/sailor as the runaway, or, as seen here, in some cases both. While this example has local implications, it also indicates that enslaved maritime workers and other skilled slaves moved throughout the Atlantic and shared their knowledge and expertise with one another in actions of resistance to the system of slavery.
One particularly famous example of such an enslaved maritime worker was Olaudah Equiano. As a slave sailor working out of Montserrat in the Caribbean (an island we sailed by just two days ago), Equiano was able to move throughout the Atlantic World as a “hired out” slave. What this meant was that he and those in a similar situation were sent out to work, sometimes in ways specified by a master but also arranged by the enslaved themselves, for wages, but the hired out slave was to return the bulk of those wages to his or her master. What it meant for Equiano in particular was the chance to earn his freedom, as his master had agreed to allow him to do so after he earned a particular sum. With his hard-earned freedom, this experienced mariner and highly literate man (he had learned to read from another sailor) set out to convince the public in England, through a published account of his life, that the slave trade and slavery should be ended.
When I teach about Equiano, I tend to emphasize the moments in the account of his life where he relates instances where, as the only enslaved sailor on board, the crew treated him as a peer with no concern about his legal position as a slave or prejudices regarding his African heritage. Even the captains he worked for, with some exceptions, assessed he was treated the same way any other sailor would have been. Those familiar with conditions on board eighteenth century merchant vessels might say that this was not “good” treatment, as seamen in this era were treated rather poorly, but for Equiano and others in his situation, it was a significant improvement. After explaining the circumstances of Equiano’s work life, I usually stop to explain to my students that it was common enough to have enslaved sailors on board, and even to work with enslaved pilots (the people responsible for taking command of vessels entering or clearing out from ports) that most sailors in the 1700s would not have found it at all out of the ordinary, so his experiences with equal treatment on board ships was not an exception.
Respect for black sailors was also apparent on shore, and this was apparent in the celebration of Crispus Attucks as a participant and martyr in the Boston Massacre. Attucks was a free black dockworker and sailor in Boston, and as such, his actions cast a light on the maritime nature of this pivotal Revolutionary event. While Paul Revere’s depiction of the event features harmless looking, middling to well- to- do Boston residents being attacked, the reality was that dockworkers and apprentices, aggressively confronted the soldiers in an expression of anger and frustration over the fact that the off duty British soldiers were taking work away from them. Indeed, in most contemporary accounts of the event, Attucks was acknowledged as the leader of this group and, at the time, he was celebrated for his bravery and honored in death after taking the first bullet fired by the British soldiers.
In nearby Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Paul Cuffee, the son of a free black man and Native American woman, worked his way from a sailor on whale ships to captain, merchant and owner of several trading vessels. His economic and social prowess was evident in his receiving an audience with President James Madison in a successful attempt to receive an exemption from the embargo then in effect regarding the importation of British goods. Cuffee’s and Equiano’s interests in terms of their activism overlapped in that they were both involved in efforts to create a community for free black people wishing to leave the Americas or Great Britain and start anew in Sierra Leone. On a personal note, I was pleased to discover when I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, that Paul Cuffee’s legacy is still being celebrated through a charter school that bears his name with a mission that highlights his accomplishments.
Finally, in my talk I highlighted the actions of David Walker. This free black man, born in the South and well traveled, eventually settled in Boston where he opened a used clothing store. Spurred on by the atrocities he had witnessed in and around the plantation system, Walker became a forceful advocate for the abolition of slavery and published a pamphlet in 1829 calling for an end to enslavement by any means possible, including armed insurrection. Taking full advantage of regular contact with his sailor clientele, he managed to gain their assistance in smuggling his pamphlet, “Walker’s Appeal,” into the Plantation South: he sewed copies into the coats of sailors. Walker was successful enough in the distribution of his pamphlet that Southern leaders offered a $3,000.00 reward for his head or $10,000.00 for anyone who could bring Walker to the South. Walker died in his home not too long after the second issue of his appeal was published, and although the timing is suspicious, evidence suggests that, like his daughter a short time before, he succumbed to tuberculosis.
In my talk, I provided these four profiles, from the Caribbean up to the Northeast United States, to highlight some significant and celebrated activist figures in the Afro Caribbean and African American maritime communities. They are examples of people working in a very public way to advocate for the end of slavery, but also for general democratic principles, and in the Early Republic period, for equal rights for free people of African descent. Less public but equally important were those runaway slaves, the men and women who thwarted attempts to extract all of their energy and labor value for the profit of the colonial and Antebellum slaveholders, who maintained connections to each other and to the broader Atlantic World in ways that resisted efforts to strip them of their dignity and humanity. Much of this resistance was accomplished with the aid of mobile maritime laborers who kept people and ideas circulating and contributed to a broader, long-term effort to resist the tyranny of the plantation complex and the cold economic calculus that it fostered.
When I teach students about the African American Civil Rights movement, a topic that comes up in standard United States history textbooks as a phenomenon starting in the 1950s and running through the 1970s, I work to correct the notion that concern and activism over rights was a twentieth century phenomenon. Using examples such as those I have provided here, I talk about the civil rights movement that began from the moment enslaved people were forced across the Atlantic and into the plantation complex and continues to today. This is not to downplay the powerful actions of activists from Thurgood Marshall, attacking segregation in the courts, to bold figures like Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, encouraging the mass action and civil disobedience to Stokely Carmichael and others who pushed forward with the Black Power initiatives. On the contrary, the economic success of black mariners, a success that extended well beyond the limited examples I have provided here, were instrumental in creating a foundation for secure black communities, first in the Northeast, but eventually throughout the urban United States, that provided the solid support system for the activists of the mid-twentieth century. A black middle class was an essential element for that period of activism, and black mariners from the Colonial Era through the Early Republic set the stage for that social and economic development. In this way, they were responsible for shaping freedom then and now.
These are some of the themes I emphasize in my classes, even for programs like the one I am teaching now. Connections between the United States and the Caribbean are complex but strong, and a comparative approach helps students contextualize everything from economic relations to the cultural mixing that comes from long-standing patterns of mobility throughout the Atlantic. I am looking forward to exploring more of this with my students in our upcoming port stops.
Again, it was a great honor to be able to share my work and teaching approaches with the friends of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Thanks to Lana Chassman for reaching out to me for the opportunity to speak, to Carla Lesh for inviting me to write this blog, to the rest of the staff of the Museum and to those who came out to hear my talk.
Craig Marin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Maritime Studies
Sea Education Association
Select Bibliography/Suggested Readings
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1998.
Berlin, Ira, and Philip Morgan, editors. The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. Portland: Frank Cass, 1991.
Bolster, Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Buchanan, Thomas. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Cecelski, David. Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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Tugboats are, and long have been, the workhorses of the Hudson River moving needed cargoes up and down the river in large quantities more cheaply than by other means. Today the tugs move bulk cargo like fuel oil, cement, crushed rock, and scrap metal. In earlier times the cargoes were somewhat different, but tugs have been needed going back well into the 19th century. Since demand for many products is year round, the tugs must work all year including during the winter when ice can freeze the river entirely.
Since about the 1940s, the U.S. Coast Guard has kept a channel open on the Hudson during winters of heavy ice. However, before that time, heavier commercial tugs from companies like Cornell were used as icebreakers in their home areas. As the accompanying photo shows, in severe winters in the early 20th century, even the best icebreaker tugs were not able to keep a channel open in the Hudson.
As the ice began to encroach on the Hudson River each year, many activities – fishing, shipping goods, passenger service – ceased. But unlike today, the coming of ice did not mean an end to all activity. For the Hudson River, winter was just another season of work and play.
When it came to transportation on the river in the winter, the boats often remained in the water as long as possible. In the days of wooden boats, some of the heavier boats’ hulls were reinforced with iron to enable them to break through the ice. Ferry services continued as long as they were able to break through the ice with their heavy iron or steel hulls. Larger tugboats pulled barges as long as their iron or steel hulls could navigate through the ice. Commercial vessels like tugs and barges were not removed from the creeks or river in the winter, but spent the season frozen in along the shores. In the 20th century, with the formation of the Coast Guard, their steel vessels patrolled the Hudson, breaking ice and looking out for boats that needed help.
As the Hudson gradually froze over completely and the ice thickened up, it was time for ice harvesting. Begun in the early 19th century on Rockland Lake to service New York City, the demand for ice soon outstripped the capacity of local freshwater lakes in New York and New Jersey to provide enough ice. Areas on the Hudson beginning around Kingston became the perfect place to harvest natural ice. Well above the salt line (south of Poughkeepise), and located where the river widens with easy shore access, Kingston became prime ice harvesting territory featuring enormous white and yellow wooden ice houses up and down the shores of the Hudson and the Rondout Creek. Over time ice harvesting expanded further north to Albany and beyond.
The ice had to be eight to twelve inches thick for optimal harvesting. Employing seasonal workers like fishermen, tug boat men, farmers, brick yard and quarry workers, and anyone else willing to brave the weather for some wintertime income, ice harvesting was an enormous business. Blocks of ice weighing upwards of 300 pounds were packed floor to ceiling in enormous ice houses and packed with marsh hay, or other insulators to keep the ice frozen until summer, when it would be loaded onto barges and headed south for New York City and locations as far away as the Caribbean and India.
To cut ice, the area in front of the ice house was marked off into a grid by an ice plow very much like a farmer’s plow which was pulled by a horse. Then men with large saws cut through the ice along the grid lines. After that the large cakes of ice were floated along a channel of open water into shore guided by men using long pike poles. On reaching shore the ice cakes were loaded onto a conveyor built powered by a steam engine and moved up into the ice house. In the ice house men with pike poles guided the ice cakes along into chutes to fill the ice houses rooms. In spring and summer the ice houses were gradually unloaded as the ice was shipped out.
The use of natural ice declined with the onset of both electric refrigeration and the use of electricity to create artificial ice, which was deemed to be purer and cleaner. Ice harvesting for personal use did continue on many of the Hudson River estates and in rural areas. In the 1930s some people were using gasoline-powered mechanized ice harvesting equipment, but horse-drawn and human-powered equipment was the norm for nearly one hundred years.
The onset of winter also offered recreational opportunities. Ice skating was a longtime popular pastime for young people, but ice yachting or boating was a Hudson River staple for decades. First popularized around the Civil War, ice boating fell out of favor until a revival around the turn of the last century. The sport was primarily practiced by wealthy sportsmen who loved the speed involved.
The enormous wooden stern steerer ice boats would be taken apart and stored in barns and outbuildings all year, just waiting for the winter ice to be thick enough for the ice boating season. Ice boats are extremely fast due to the lack of friction on their metal-capped wooden runners. Powered by the wind, the largest ice boats can top out at over 100 miles per hour. They were once the fastest vehicles on earth. Old stern steerers still exist today along the Hudson and when the ice gets thick enough on Tivoli Bay or Orange Lake or, best of all, the Hudson, you’ll find enthusiasts braving the icy cold winds for an exhilarating ride.
The Hudson River sloop was the main means of transportation on the Hudson River from the early days of Dutch settlement in the 17th century (1600s) until the advent of the steamboat as an affordable alternative in the 1820s. Based on a Dutch design, this single-masted sailboat carried passengers and cargoes up and down the Hudson River between New York and Albany and points in between for over two hundred years. There were hundreds of these vessels. A trip between New York and Albany could take anywhere from 24 hours (a very fast trip) to several days, as speed was dependent on wind and weather conditions. Passengers prepared by bringing food and drink to enhance what was offered on board, and something to do with their time, like books and sewing in case the wind was light. Sometimes if there was no wind a sloop would anchor, and passengers would go ashore for a picnic or a stroll.
For cargo that was perishable, a slow trip by sail could be a problem, but for many cargoes speed was not as crucial. Food produced in the Hudson Valley was important for centuries to the citizens of New York City, and sloops carried all manner of produce and live animals to provide meat for New York, as well as hay for the horses that traversed the city streets. Lumber, stone, and bricks to build New York City were also transported by sloops on the Hudson. Long after passengers had left the slower sloops for the new speedier steamboats, Hudson River sloops continued to carry bulk cargoes used to build the city. In fact, as late as the 1890s some of the sloops were still being used to transport heavy cargoes like stone, as the sloop was the cheapest way to ship when speed was not that important.
Today a replica Hudson River sloop, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson, as she has since 1969, carrying passengers and teaching them about the importance of cleaning up the Hudson and keeping it clean for the benefit of people and wildlife. A pioneer in the movement to improve the quality of the Hudson River for everyone, the Clearwater has been joined by several other similar and equally important organizations devoted to the cleanup and improvement of the Hudson River.
The Clearwater is also a testament to the beauty of the once common Hudson River sloop.
The Hudson River Maritime is soliciting spooky stories, historic or personal, about or on the Hudson River in preparation for its upcoming Halloween event, "Legends of the Hudson River."
HRMM staff will choose the best of the stories to be featured in our October blog post, where readers can vote for their favorite story! The winner will receive a free Household Membership to HRMM, good for 12 months.
Your story may also be featured in the "Legends of the Hudson River" program!
Legends of the Hudson River
Sunday & Monday, October 30th & 31st
Join the Hudson River Maritime Museum and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater for two days of family-friendly programs, with no-scare events for small children and slightly spooky events for older children and adults. Public sails on the Clearwater, storytelling, crafts, and more. Full schedule TBA.
To volunteer for our Halloween event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hudson River Day Line was the premier steamboat line on the Hudson River from the 1860s through the 1940s, carrying millions of passengers between New York City and Albany with stops at the major towns in between. The elegant and speedy steamers of the Day Line were widely known and popular with the traveling public.
Many travelers took the Day Line boats to the Catskill Mountains region for summer vacations accompanied by family and large trunks of clothes. Others took the boats to riverside parks like Bear Mountain State Park and Kingston Point Park where they could spend the day picnicking and relaxing, and then catch another steamer home again in the evening. Many groups from schools, clubs, and other organizations took yearly outings on the Hudson River Day Line.
Whatever the reason for travel, the Hudson River Day Line provided its passengers with comfort, elegance, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world at reasonable prices. The Hudson Highlands and West Point were known to travelers from Europe from illustrations in travel books, and a visit to New York was not complete without a trip on the Hudson to see these famous sights. A band or orchestra was always provided on board for pleasant travel, as was a fine restaurant and a cafeteria for less formal meals. Other amenities provided included writing rooms, news-stands, barber shops, and on one steamer, a darkroom for passengers to develop their own photographs en route.
The term "floating palaces" aptly described the Hudson River Day Line steamers. Millions of people had happy memories of pleasant summer days on the Hudson River Day Line boats including the Chauncey Vibbard, the Daniel Drew, the Albany, the Hendrick Hudson, the Robert Fulton, the Washington Irving, the Alexander Hamilton, and the Peter Stuyvesant.
The 1920s were perhaps the most successful years for the Day Line with nearly two million passengers carried in the peak year of 1925 when seven steamers were running. The Depression years of the 1930s, though, were down years for the Day Line, as they were for many other companies. After an upsurge of business during World War II in the 1940s because of gas rationing for cars, the company's fortunes declined. With a postwar return to prosperity, and a huge increase in the production of passenger cars, travel by steamboat seemed old-fashioned to many.
The Hudson River Day Line of the Van Santvoords and the Olcotts, the original owners, finished with the sale of the company in 1948. In the early 1950s three steamers remained on the successor Day Line-the Robert Fulton, the Alexander Hamilton, and the Peter Stuyvesant. In the early 1960s there were two steamers left, and in September 1971 the last survivor of the Day Line, the Alexander Hamilton, finished the glorious run of the steamboat on the Hudson River.
In 1923, the Hudson River Day Line created a recreational park at Indian Point, south of Peekskill on the east shore of the Hudson, for Day Line passengers. The original purchase of 320 acres, a former farm, extended more than a mile along the riverbank. Indian Point Park was a day trip destination for Day Line passengers set up to rival the popular park at Bear Mountain.
A 1923 Hudson River Day Line magazine article described the park as a “shady and always cool resting spot for those who wish to escape the city’s heat.” The park featured a cafeteria, picnic tables, swings, two baseball diamonds “for boys and young men” and lots of shade trees. The amusement area had rides and games for all ages, a dance hall, a beer hall and miniature golf.
Water activities included the riverfront beach, a swimming pool, rowing on a “tranquil mountain lake” and speedboat rides.
Indian Point Park provided a woodland respite for city dwellers. The Hudson River Day Line steamers left New York City docks in mid-morning, arrived at Indian Point Park at lunch time, giving passengers three hours to spend at the park before returning to the New York City docks in the late afternoon. The park property backed up to the Croton and Mt. Kisco reservoirs that provided water to New York City. Walks through the forested lands and along wildflower paths were outlined in Day Line brochures. In addition, a farm on the property provided produce for the meals served on the Hudson River Day Line steamers.
From 1923 to 1948 Indian Point Park was operated by the Hudson River Day Line. In 1948 the park was closed to be reopened under new ownership in 1950, at which point cars and buses brought visitors to the park. By the mid-1950s the amusement park closed and the property was purchased by Consolidated Edison Gas and Electric Company for the nuclear power plant that opened in 1962.
Earlier in March, the New York Times wrote an article about the digitization efforts of large museums across the globe. Dramatic increases in visitor traffic have endangered some collections and digitizing them – taking high-resolution photos or scans of documents, images, and objects – is one way of protecting the collections. But digitization is also about democratizing access and making collections available to people unable to visit the museum.
When we first opened in 1980, digitization was a distant dream and physical exhibits served the needs of our community. But today improvements in technology quality and cost have allowed even the smallest museum to begin digitizing its collection to become accessible beyond regular operating hours.
Starting with volunteers in 2006, the Hudson River Maritime Museum began digitizing its photo collection. Until recently the majority of these digitized images were relatively inaccessible to the public, although they are frequently seen in HRMM’s “Shipping News” feature in the Kingston Times.
In 2012, the Hudson River Maritime Museum undertook a large project in preserving several oral histories from local fishermen. We had received a grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in partnership with the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley, to record and digitize these histories so that researchers and the community would have access to the stories. We uploaded this project to Hudson River Valley Heritage, an online digital repository for cultural organizations throughout the Hudson Valley, and it is both accessible on our website and HRVH’s research portal. This small project – digitizing 20 cassette tapes – took three years of digitizing, training, and metadata creation and was an important first step in our digitizing efforts.
As we move into the twenty-first century, we have become accustomed to having a world of information at our fingertips. Archival information – the bulk of what historians and genealogists use – still remains locked away to the general public. While we at HRMM open our archives door to researchers and help researchers unable to travel to Kingston, NY, sharing our archives online allows for broader access. Recently museum and libraries have pushed to digitize their collections; the New York Public Library made tens of thousands of public domain items available to the public this past winter. Despite concerns that showing the public exhibits and archival material would drive down museum attendance, for the majority of institutions, attendance continues to increase in part because of these ongoing efforts.
Our new Assistant Curator, Carla Lesh, has been digitizing more of our Donald Ringwald Collection, which consists of thousands of photographs and pieces of ephemera, including extensive information on the Hudson River Day Line and Steamer Mary Powell. Mr. Ringwald quite literally wrote the books on the Hudson River Day Line and the Mary Powell.
Many of these images are already available online at HRVH.
Our plans are to continue to digitize our entire collection and share it with the public. Please continue to check our social media for updates on release dates for when these collections go live. We will also update our website to reflect these changes with links directly to the HRVH portal.
This blog is written by:
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
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The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.