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.
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