Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2018 issue of the Pilot Log.
Most of the people who lived in the Hudson River Valley 200 years ago are hard to spot now; all the more so, the black men and women from the Valley, who were invisible even at the time. We know that Blacks worked on the sloops, steamboats and canal boats, because - well, because they must have. They must have travelled along the canals and on the river, too. But we have not found many indications that they did.
New York State passed gradual manumission laws in 1799 and 1817, which led to slavery winding down until it was abolished altogether in 1827. [Editor’s note: Slavery continued unchecked in other states until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 abolished slavery for the entire nation.] During the years when it was still supported by law, there are advertisements for slaves who had freed themselves by escaping from their masters, or who were offered for sale. A $30 reward was offered in 1789 for Martineek, who was 19 and had been four seasons employed in a sloop between Albany and New York City. In 1794 an unnamed Negro man, 27, was offered for sale; he was an excellent hand for the slooping business, having been eight seasons employed on this river. In such cases, it is interesting, that the fugitive is richly, if briefly, described, while the owner, ironically is a blank, except for the name.
A warmer glimpse comes from a diary kept by an Englishman who travelled to Niagara Falls in 1800. The crew of the sloop he travelled on included Nicholas, a free Black acting as steward, cook, cabin-boy, &c. who had purchased his own freedom and that of his wife, hoping to soon buy his children; he "performs well on the violin, and is very smart. [3 days later] Went on shore; took with us Nicholas and his violin, the fiddle soon got the girls together; we kicked up a dance and kept it up till midnight. Treated with spruce-beer and gingerbread."1
Southern slave owners and their families fled the heat and diseases of the summer and headed to Ballston Spa and Saratoga. Naturally, they took with them their enslaved personal attendants. A striking glimpse of how oblivious the slave holders could be to the presence of their slaves is from one of a series of letters in a Boston newspaper about a trip along the Erie Canal, which shows a slave-holder from Tennessee discussing slavery in the hearing of his slaves with a Bostonian who hoped for the national abolition of slavery.
Arrived in Worcester at 9. In a few moments I was in the stage coach wheeling towards Northampton. There was a gentleman with his family in the coach from Vicksburg, and two colored servants or slaves. They, together with myself, constituted the whole load. We had a prolonged and full conversation upon slavery. *** He observed that he had conversed with one of these fanatical abolitionists the evening previous, who knew nothing at all about the subject; that his feelings had been much irritated, and that he finally dropped the subject by telling his opponent that if he would come down to Vicksburg, they would argue the case effectually for him with a piece of rope. *** Before the conversation closed, however, his feelings seemed very much changed and softened, and he declared that he was not only willing to stand to law and government, but that he believed the whole system of slavery to be wrong and evil -- that free labor would be much better, and that he should be entirely willing and even desirous of emancipating all his slaves upon his cotton plantation and substituting free labor, if any feasible means of accomplishing it could be devised.2
The abolitionist either didn’t notice or chose not to mention the efforts of the enslaved personal attendants to hide any sign of their interest in the discussion.
An English traveler on a steam-boat up the Hudson wrote of noticing a respectably dressed Black woman who had not joined the other passengers at dinner. The woman explained that "white people don't like to eat with colored people," and yet sleeping accommodations on the over-night steamboats and on the canal-boats were bunkhouse style, with a curtain dividing the cabin, women on one side and men on the other, so that white people would have to accept sleeping in the same room with the colored.
1. John Maude. Visit to the Falls of Niagara in 1800, London, 1826, 5, 16.
2. American Traveller (Boston, Massachusetts), September 20, 1836.
Editor's Note: Enslaved in a Free State
As northern states began to pass manumission laws in the early 19th century, slavery, once the law of the land, began to become legally complicated. Free Black communities dotted the landscape of New York State throughout its history, but even free people were never truly free. Solomon Northup was the free-born son of a freed slave and a free woman of color. He and his wife Anna were living in Saratoga, NY in 1841 when he was lured to Washington D.C. on the promise of a musician’s job (he was an accomplished violinist). When he arrived in the slaveholding city, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in New Orleans. His harrowing journey is recounted in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853. He eventually returned to New York with the help of abolitionists, and was freed in 1853.
In 1857, Dred Scott v. Sanford came before the Supreme Court. Scott had been born into slavery in Virginia, but was moved to the free state of Illinois in 1830 and later to Wisconsin Territory (also free), where Scott was legally married to Harriet Robinson (also enslaved). At that time, slave marriages were not recognized by law. When the slave owner returned to Missouri, he left Scott in Wisconsin Territory and rented out his services, which was illegal under territorial law. When the slave owner died, his wife inherited the Scott family and continued to lease out their services. When they attempted to purchase their freedom, she refused, prompting Dred Scott to sue for his freedom. After ten years of litigation, the case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1857, where Scott argued that having spent time in a free state, he was legally entitled to freedom. Their decision is widely regarded as one of history’s great injustices. They ruled that no Black person, free or enslaved, could claim citizenship, and were therefore unable to petition the court for their freedom. Only two justices dissented.
In New York State, abolitionist sentiments were strong. The Erie Canal was used as part of the Underground Railroad and helped many enslaved people escape to Canada. Hudson River sloops were also frequently mentioned in runaway slave notices as avenues to freedom. Thanks in large part to the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785, New York State passed gradual manumission in 1799. At that point, any child born after 1799 was legally free, but was instead required to serve as an indentured servant until age 28 for men and 25 for women. In 1817, another manumission law was passed which freed all enslaved people born before 1799 by 1827. Indentured children continued to serve out their terms until they were of age, meaning that people remained enslaved in New York until as late as the 1840s.
These famous accounts illustrate just a few of the problems Black communities, both free and enslaved, faced during the first half of the 19th century, even in free states.
George A. Thompson was a teacher and then a librarian, before he realized that what he really wanted was to be a harmless crackpot who goes time-travelling in 200-year-old newspapers. Being aware that our society values crackpots but doesn't reward them, he did not quit his day job, of course. Now that he is retired, he spends as little time as possible in the 21st century. One of the fruits of his travels was finding a paragraph in a newspaper from 1823 that reported on the earliest known baseball game in America -- it made him famous for about 72 hours.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2018 issue of the Pilot Log.
A remarkable family of African American river men participated in the transition from working sail to steam during America’s Industrial Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the Black Schuylers, the family began with one or more sloops early in the nineteenth century and seized the opportunity to acquire steamboats early in the 1840s. The Schuyler Steam Tow Boat Line figured prominently in the operation of steam tows on the Hudson River and by 1888 reportedly employed eighteen boats in Albany in the towing of canal boats on the river. The family acquired real estate in Albany’s south end between Pearl Street and the river, traded grain and coal, issued stock, and invested in railroading. Their wealth placed them in Albany’s elite business and charitable circles and their esteemed status led to their burial in Albany’s prestigious Albany Rural Cemetery alongside Albany’s other business and political leaders. That so little is known of this family and its accomplishments may be more a reflection of their race than of their accomplishments. The family’s identity as Black, while not a barrier to their early success in business, may have played a discriminatory role in their lack of prominence in the historical record. Ironically, the lighter skin of later generations may also have played a role in their lack of visibility in more recent Black History scholarship. While incomplete, it is hoped that this account may spur further research into the life and contributions of this Hudson River family.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Albany’s commerce and financial opportunities were almost entirely dependent upon the city’s position at the head of ship navigation on the Hudson River. The river served as New York’s “Main Street” well into the nineteenth century and Albany was strategically situated near the confluence of the upper Hudson River and the Mohawk River. Although Albany received larger ships, much of the freight and passengers coming in or out of Albany before the 1807 advent of steamboats was carried by single and double-masted sloops and schooners of 100 tons capacity or less. These sailing vessels continued to carry freight into the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, even as steamboats soon attracted much of the passenger business. Captain Samuel Schuyler, the progenitor of the Black Schuylers, began and sustained his career with these boats and raised his sons Thomas and Samuel on them.
Albany grew rapidly in the 1820s and 1830s as a direct result of the surge in freight handling brought about by the much heralded completion of the Champlain and Erie canals in 1823 and 1825 respectively. Both canals terminated in Albany. Freight moving east and south from Canada, Vermont, the Great Lakes region and the interior of New York was shipped on narrow, animal-towed canalboats with limited capacity. 15,000 such boats were unloaded at Albany in 1831. These cargoes needed to be stockpiled and transferred to larger sloops and schooners for trip to New York City and other Hudson River towns. Over time, steamboats became more efficient and reliable, especially after Livingston-Fulton monopoly on steamboats in New York was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1824.
One innovation with implications for canal freight was steam towing which presented an economical alternative to “breaking-bulk,” the laborious process of unloading and transferring cargoes at canal terminals. Steam-powered sidewheel towboats appear to have been introduced on the Hudson River in the 1840s and could tow long strings of loaded canalboats directly to their destinations without unloading. Captain Schuyler’s sons capitalized on this concept and transitioned from carrying freight on sloops to towing rafts of canalboats and other craft behind powerful steamboats. They were at the right place at the right time and had the experience and extensive business connections to make the most of this innovation.
Captain Samuel Schuyler (1781-1841 or 1842) was one of Albany’s first African American businessmen. His origins in Albany are obscure but his surname suggests that he was enslaved by the Dutch-American Schuylers who were among Albany’s wealthiest and politically most prominent families. Philip Schuyler (1733-1804), known for his role in the American Revolution and early advocacy for canals, held slaves in Albany and at his other properties. Slavery was practiced extensively in Albany County until gradually abandoned in the early nineteenth century.
Albany County manumission records report that a slave named Sam purchased his freedom in 1804 for $200 from Derek Schuyler. It is possible, but by no means certain, that Sam is the same man later referred to as Captain Samuel Schuyler. The fact that Samuel married in 1805 so soon after this date lends further credence to this possibility.
Samuel Schuyler is described as a “Blackman” in the Albany tax roll of 1809 and a “skipper” and free person of color in the Albany directory of 1813. He was involved in the Hudson River sloop trade and owned property in the area of the waterfront which appears to have included docks and warehouses at the river and a home on South Pearl Street. He married “a mulatto woman” named Mary Martin or Morton (1780-1847 or 1848) and had eight or more children with her including Richard (1806-1835), Thomas (1811-1866) and Samuel (1813-1894). Richard was baptized in Albany’s Dutch church on North Pearl Street. Captain Schuyler came to own a flour and feed store as well as a coal yard at or near the waterfront. His sons joined the business which was known as Samuel Schuyler & Company in the 1830s.
The elder Captain Schuyler died in 1841 or 1842. After his burial, or perhaps after their mother’s burial in 1848, the younger Schuylers erected an imposing monument in the new Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, established in 1844. The monument is a tapered, four-sided column resting on a plinth. It is significant that the column is engraved with a realistic bas relief anchor commemorating his sailing career and the three chain links denoting the fraternal organization Odd Fellows to which he apparently belonged. An inscription notes that the monument is dedicated to “OUR PARENTS.” That Schuyler and his family were accepted in a prominent location in the cemetery in spite of their African-American heritage is noteworthy because at the time the Albany Rural Cemetery had a separate section designated for African-American burials.
The younger Samuel Schuyler (1813-1894) and his brother Thomas (1811-1866) both began their careers in the sloop trade. Thomas began his career as a cabin boy in his father’s sloop and progressed in skill and responsibility. Samuel attended the old Beverwyck School in Albany and began his apprenticeship aboard the sloop Sarah Jane at age 12. He became the master of the sloop Favorite and later the Rip Van Winkle. He then purchased the Rip Van Winkle and together with his brother Thomas bought the sloops Anna Marie and Favorite. Samuel Schuyler married Margaret M. Bradford (1816-1881) and Thomas Schuyler married Ellen Bradford (1820-1900). The brothers appear to have bought their first steamboats, including the Belle, in 1845. The towboat enterprise was operating in the 1840s as the Schuyler Towboat Line and may have been incorporated in 1852. In that year the Schuylers financed and built the America, the powerful and iconic flagship of their fleet. Samuel became the company’s president and Thomas became the firm’s treasurer. Both men were active in Albany business and charitable circles serving as officers of bank, stock and insurance companies, trade organizations and charitable endeavors. Their business interests extended beyond towing as evidenced by a $10,000 investment in the West Shore Railroad built along the Hudson’s west shore through Newburgh, Kingston, Catskill and Albany.
Schuyler’s towboat business clearly prospered. In 1848, Samuel bought a relatively new but modest brick house at the corner of Trinity Place and Ashgrove Place in Albany’s South End and greatly enlarged it. Among other changes, he added an imposing round and bracketed cupola at the roof, making the house one of the largest and most stylish in the neighborhood. The house still stands. Thomas appears to have been a driving force in financing and building a new Methodist-Episcopal church nearby at Trinity Place and Westerlo St. in 1863. The Albany Hospital and the Groesbeckville Mission also benefitted from his philanthropy. Thomas died in 1866 and was buried alongside his father beneath a Gothic-style tombstone. His brother Samuel published a tribute to his brother which memorialized his many contributions to the Albany community.
An 1873 stock certificate indicates that the Schuyler’s company was at that time doing business as Schuyler’s Steam Tow Boat Line. The certificate proudly includes an engraving of the America and indicates that D.L. Babcock served as
president, Thomas W. Olcott as secretary and Samuel Schuyler as treasurer. Thomas W. Olcott, a wealthy White banker prominent in Albany society was known to be sympathetic to African Americans, most notably having an elderly Black servant buried in the Olcott family plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
By 1886, Howell & Tenney’s encyclopedic History of the County of Albany has little to say about Schuyler other than a perfunctory sentence that he “now employs eighteen boats, used exclusively for towing canal-boats.” Other Albany businessmen and industrialists are profiled at considerable length, but aside from a brief sentence about Schuyler and his very large business, nothing further is mentioned. Is it possible that his African American heritage, despite being half “mullato” from his mother, had now become a negative consideration in his social standing in the community?
Samuel Schuyler sold his large 1857 towboat Syracuse to the Cornell Steamboat Company in Kingston in 1893. He died in 1894 and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery some distance away from his parents in a new but equally popular area of the cemetery. His burial plot is located near the “Cypress Fountain” where other prominent New Yorkers including the Cornings and U.S. President Chester Arthur are buried. Close at hand is the imposing monument dedicated to Revolutionary War Major General Philip Schuyler. Samuel’s ponderous granite monument is designed in the popular Victorian style of the day and is a proportional expression of the family’s wealth. Samuel and Margaret’s children and possibly his grandchildren are buried alongside of him.
There are many unanswered questions about the Schuylers and their careers on the Hudson River and conflicting accounts that need resolution. It is hoped that this brief account may lead to new research that could shed light on this family, its social and business contributions and the ever evolving issues surrounding race in eighteenth and early nineteenth century New York.
Samuel Schuyler Jr's granite stone monument in section 32 of the Albany cemetery. His monument is near that of the Erastus Corning family (steamboats and railroads) and near the mid-nineteenth century monument erected to Rev War Major General Philip Schuyler. It is in what was one of the premiere areas of the cemetery in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Stefan Bielinski, The Colonial Albany Social History Project; The People of Colonial Albany, website hosted by the New York State Museum, exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov
Howell & Tenney, History of the County of Albany, W.W. Munsell & Co., New York 1886.
Abbott, Reverend W. Penn, Life and Character of Capt. Thomas Schuyler, Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons, Albany, 1867.
Albany County Hall of Records, Manumission Register.
Tashae Smith is a former Education Coordinator of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. She has a BA in History from Manhattanville College and is attending the Cooperstown Graduate Program for her MA in museum studies.
Editor's Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article written by George W. Murdock, for the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman newspaper in the 1930s. Murdock, a veteran marine engineer, wrote a regular column. Articles transcribed by HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan. For more of Murdock's articles, see the "Steamboat Biographies" category at right.
No. 20- Dean Richmond
With the engine from the wrecked “Francis Skiddy” reconditioned and placed in a new wooden hull, the steamboat “Dean Richmond” came into being in 1865 as the property of the People’s Line running in night service between New York and Albany. This vessel like all the other splendid crafts built for the People’s Line was the acme of steamboat construction at that time.
While the vessel was still on the ways, newspapers persisted in reporting the progress being made in the building of the “General Grant”, but the officials of the People’s Line saw fit to name the vessel “Dean Richmond” in honor of the president of the New York Central Railroad.
Misfortune dogged the patch of the “Dean Richmond” in a like manner as those of other river craft, and on a moonlight night of September 20, 1867, she was in a collision with another vessel and sunk. While sailing south just below Rhinecliff, she sighted the Troy night boat, “C. Vanderbilt.” William Vanderburgh blew the customary one whistle which was answered by the “C. Vanderbilt” in a like manner, but unfortunately a propellor tug following the “Dean Richmond” also blew her whistle, causing a misunderstanding. The “Dean Richmond” changed her course but the “C. Vanderbilt” did not, and the latter vessel crashed into the larboard quarter of the “Dean Richmond” 30 feet aft of the bow, staving in the forward cabin. The engineer of the stricken vessel immediately raised the safety valves thus averting an explosion. The bow of the “C. Vanderbilt” was so firmly wedged into the “Dean Richmond that the latter boat was held up long enough to allow her passengers to climb over the wreckage onto the decks of the “C. Vanderbilt” before the water rose to the upper tier of the “Richmond’s” staterooms. A colored porter employed on the “Dean Richmond” drowned and his body was recovered by George W. Murdock.
The “Dean Richmond” was afterward raised, repaired, and again placed in service on the night line.
On June 14, 1877 just above Rockland Lake on a trip to Albany, the “Dean Richmond” met with another accident. This was caused by the breaking of a connecting rod and the end of the walking beam snapping off. No lives were lost, or anyone injured in this accident, but several thousand dollars worth of damage was done to the engine of the vessel.
The “Dean Richmond” was again repaired and placed in regular service until the advent of the steamboat “C.W. Morse” in 1904 when the “Richmond” was laid up and used only as an extra boat. After the burning of the “City Of Troy” belonging to the Citizen’s Line of Troy, on April 5, 1907, the “Dean Richmond” was placed in service on the Troy route. Finally in 1909, having outlived her usefulness, the “Dean Richmond” was sold to wreckers in Boston and sailed to that port on her last trip where she was burned for the old metal that was used in her construction.
George W. Murdock (b. 1853-d. 1940) was a veteran marine engineer who served on the steamboats "Utica", "Sunnyside", "City of Troy", and "Mary Powell". He also helped dismantle engines in scrapped steamboats in the winter months and later in his career worked as an engineer at the brickyards in Port Ewen. In 1883 he moved to Brooklyn, NY and operated several private yachts. He ended his career working in power houses in the outer boroughs of New York City. His mother Catherine Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse for 50 years.
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.
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.
Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriels’ Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993 .
Farr, James Barker. Black Odyssey: The Seafaring Traditions of Afro-Americans. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slave: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Hall, N. A. T. “Maritime Maroons: ‘Grand Marronage’ from the Danish West Indies.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 42, No. 4, Oct., 1985, 476-498.
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Knight, Franklin W. and Peggy Liss, Editors. Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Lemisch, Jesse. “Jack Tar in the Streets.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 25, No.3, July 1968, 371-407.
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
Nash, Gary. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Viking Press, 2005.
Putney, Martha S. Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Pybus, Cassandra. Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007.
Scott, Julius. “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution.” PhD Dissertation, Duke University, 1986.
Young, Alfred. The American Revolution : Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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