The Fourth of July is the celebration of the Declaration of Independence, when thirteen colonies asserted their right to self-rule. Six years of war ensued, but in the end the new United States were victorious. Throughout the 19th century, Independence Day was celebrated as a unifying national holiday, even as the original thirteen states expanded to include all of the territory between two oceans. But like the war that followed the Declaration, the ensuing years were not without problems, problems which were often at odds with the freedoms espoused by the Declaration. Slavery, immigration, Indian Removal, and the struggle for women’s rights all marked the first 60-odd years of American history. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass’ scathing speech, “What, to a slave, is the Fourth of July?” given in Rochester, NY, illustrated many of the divisions present in our new nation.
The steamboat Mary Powell, called “Queen of the Hudson” from her launching in 1861, held many Fourth of July excursions over the years, with a schedule sometimes as long as 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. But one of her first Independence Day excursions was held on July 4, 1863. Unlike excursions in later years which focused on the celebrations and fireworks at Kingston Point Park, this advertisement, published in the New York Observer on July 2, 1863, focused on a daytime sightseeing cruise around Staten Island and New York Harbor. Mary Powell departed New York City for Kingston at “3 ½ o’clock,” missing the fireworks held in New York City that evening.
It was the middle of the American Civil War, and, unbeknownst to most Americans, July 4, 1863 would become a major turning point of the war. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were resoundingly defeated at Gettysburg, Virginia. At the same time, General Ulysses S. Grant’s six month siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi was finally broken on July 4 with the surrender of the starving Confederates.
These two victories were celebrated throughout the Northern states. On July 6, 1863, the New York Herald reported, “The great and glorious victory won the eve of the Fourth of July by our heroic Army of the Potomac has, we verily believe, settled the fate of the rebellion.” But it was not to be. Determined to hold on until the Presidential election of 1864, in hopes that Lincoln would be defeated and non-abolitionist Northerners would capitulate, the Confederacy fought on.
In New York City, which was largely pro-slavery in stark contrast to abolitionist Western New York, the first weeks of July, 1863 brought the Draft Riots. A new mandatory conscription law had been passed making every male citizen between the ages of 20 and 35, and every unmarried man between the ages of 35 and 45 eligible for conscription. Black Americans were not considered citizens, and therefore were not eligible for the draft. In addition, wealthy men could buy their way out of the lottery, avoiding conscription with a fee that equaled a year’s wages for the average laborer.
After the first draft lottery on July 11, 1863, tensions over the draft exploded. On July 13, thousands of White men, mostly Irish immigrants, attacked first government buildings, and later Black residents, including setting fire to the Colored Orphans Asylum. White dockworkers, including the Longshoremen Association, attacked waterfront businesses that catered to Black workers, attempting to drive Blacks out of the workforce altogether. Symbols of Black economic success and White abolitionists or sympathizers were also attacked. Black men in particular were lynched or beaten to death throughout the city. The official death toll was 119 people, although some historians estimate it may have been as high as 1,200. It took the intervention of New York regiments of federal troops, fresh off the Battle of Gettysburg, to quell the riots.
In just four days, White rioters had destroyed millions of dollars of property and left some 3,000 Black residents homeless. Between 1860 and 1865, New York City lost a quarter of its Black population.
1863 is also the year Captain Absalom Anderson added the “Goddess of Liberty” figurehead to the top of the Mary Powell’s pilot house. Representing Columbia, the personification of the United States, it’s difficult to say what she meant to Anderson. Did he have abolitionist sympathies? Was it a statement about maintaining the Union? We may never know. In 1864, the Mary Powell offered another July 4th excursion to New York City, and the Poughkeepsie Eagle News reported that her excursion around Staten Island was “the excursion of the day.”
In 1865, the assassination of President Lincoln just days after the end of the war with the surrender at Appomattox shocked the nation, but also derailed Lincoln’s efforts at Reconstruction. In 1865, the Mary Powell was sold to Thomas Cornell and although we can find no mention of a Fourth of July excursion that year, the advertisements resumed in 1866 and the trips seemed to continue throughout her career, with the last occurring in 1916. The Mary Powell’s last season of service was 1917, and her career, which had started with the Civil War in 1861, ended with the U.S. entrance into the First World War. Although the Mary Powell saw a period of incredible change in American life, one constant sadly remained. Like their grandfathers who had served the Union Army, Black troops returning from the First World War still faced discrimination and violence. And, like with the Draft Riots of 1863, White laborers still feared Black economic success. Summer, 1919 became “Red Summer” for its succession of race riots, including in New York City in July, 1919.
As it has since the beginning, the Fourth of July, American Independence Day has represented many different things to many different people. And, since the beginning, freedom has not always been accorded equally. But on this day we can look to the higher ideals and strive to form “a more perfect union,” one that truly affords everyone “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Bibliography & Further Reading:
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits and Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum.
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Today is Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the official end of slavery on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The message of freedom for enslaved people came late to Texas - more likely on purpose than by chance. It was not until the Union Army arrived to announce - and enforce - the order that people were finally freed from bondage. Galveston, Texas was the first to celebrate that holiday, and today for the first time in American history it becomes a federal holiday.
Although descendants of enslaved people have celebrated the holiday for over a century, this may be the first time you are learning about it. And while Juneteenth is a celebration (one you can join at the events listed below), it is also a commemoration of time spent in unjust bondage and a call to reckon with the history of slavery in this country. To that end, we thought we would take time today to share some resources on slavery in the Hudson Valley, so that everyone can learn that yes, there was slavery in the North, even in your own backyard. Keep scrolling for events, books, documentary films, online exhibits, organizations, and more.
Hudson Valley Juneteenth Events
Harambee Juneteenth Celebration
Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Location: Pine St. African Burial Ground, Kingston, NY
Join us as celebrate Juneteenth- our African American Independence Day and the Grand Opening of the Pine St. African Burial Ground block party style with music, food, burial ground tours, children's activities and more.
FREE for all ages!
12:00 - Ubaka Hill & POOK – opening ceremony
12:20 – House Blessing by Pastor Hubbie (Pastor Doris Schyler)
12:25 – Burial Ground Ritual - Caru, Shambet, and Miss V; Libation by Rev. Evelyn Clarke
12:55 – Rev. Evelyn Clarke sings "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson)
1:00 – Welcome and Commemorations by Tyrone Wilson - CEO/Founder, Harambee; Julia Farr - Executive Director, Kingston Land Trust; Seth McKee - Executive Director, Scenic Hudson; Dignitaries: Congressman Antonio Delgado, NYS Senator Michelle Hinchey, Ulster County Executive Patrick Ryan, Ulster County District Attorney David Clegg, Ulster County Comptroller, March Gallagher, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, Mayor Steve Noble
1:30 – The Saints of Swing feat. Miss Renee Bailey
1:55 – Sax legend Eric Person Jazz Quartet
2:15 – New Progressive Baptist Church Choir
2:20 – Vocal Phenom Christopher McDole Jazz Quartet
2:45 – Enchanting Vocalist Ms Marleen Merritt
3:00- Anthropologist Joe Diamond on the PSABG and Honoring Mr. Ed Ford
3:15 – Energy Dance Company
3:30 – POOK
3:55 – Oliver King as Frederick Douglas - “What to a Slave is Your Fourth of July?”
Juneteenth: Passion & Perseverance
Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM
Location: New Rochelle, NY
9am-11am- Ward Acres Community Garden – 300 Broadfield Road, New Rochelle, NY 10804
• T’ai Chi Workshop
• Councilmember Sara Kaye
• Councilmember Yadira Ramos-Herbert – Juneteenth History
• Historian Barbara Davis – Carpenter Cemetery African American Burial Ground – Presentation
• Thelma Thomas – Storyteller
• Bokandeye African American Dance Theater
• Coffee and Pastries
12 Noon-2pm – New Rochelle City Hall – 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10801
• Bokandeye African American Dance Theater – Procession
• Juneteenth Flag Raising
• Lift Every Voice and Sing – Kay Boyd
• Welcome – Stuart Reid, President Board of Directors, The Lincoln Park Conservancy, Inc.
• Invocation – Minister Mark McLean, Pres. New Rochelle Branch NAACP and Pres., Interreligious Council of New Rochelle
Imam Mohamed Shaffieq Chace, Islamic Center of New Rochelle
• Remarks – State, County and Local Officials
• Councilmember Yadira Ramos-Herbert – Juneteenth History
• DJ Smithyboy (Maison Smith) – ALMS Student
• Juneteenth – A Narrative of Freedom – NRCA Rotunda Gallery Exhibit/Opening Reception
• Artist Richela Fabian Morgan – Juneteenth Quilt Workshop
• Solomon Darden and Darrin Greaves - NRHS Spoken Word Artists
• Martin Luther King Awards Ceremony – WestCOP Presentation
• Wayne Henderson Sextet
• Steven Vilsaint – Hip-Hop Dance Performance – Accent Dance NYC
• Lucia Jackson – Jazz Vocalist and Ron Jackson – Acoustic Jazz Musician with Dancers Sarita Apel and Andres Bravo – Accent Dance NYC
• Rocky Middleton Jazz Ensemble
• Benediction – Rev. Wallace Noble, St. Catherine A.M.E.Zion Church and
Rabbi Jessica Fisher, Beth El Synagogue
• Juneteenth Books will be on display at the New Rochelle Public Library
• Food Vendors, PPE Station
3pm – 9pm – Thomas Paine Cottage Museum and Thomas Paine Memorial Building – 20 Sicard Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10804
Thomas Paine Cottage Museum Family Activities:
• Arts and Craft Workshop – Creating Juneteenth Flag
• Scavenger Hunt
• Capoeira – Luanda New Rochelle – Performance
• Juneteenth Videos for Kids
• Juneteenth Exhibit and Self-guided Tours
• Juneteenth Desserts
Thomas Paine Memorial Building Activities:
• Freedom Exhibit – Artists Fred Spinowitz and H. Lloyd Weston
• Thomas Paine’s Letter on Slavery – Presentation/Discussion
• The Crossing and the Ten Crucial Days – Songs from the Play
Thomas Paine events conclude with a screening of Soul Food
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org facebook.com/thelincolnparkconservancy
Juneteenth 2021 Celebrations in New Paltz
Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
Location: Historic Huguenot Street
81 Huguenot StNew Paltz, NY, 12561
Join us on Saturday, June 19th the Elting Memorial Library and Historic Huguenot Street are teaming up to celebrate Juneteenth!
At 11am, June 19th, a kick off and benediction will be held at the Hasbrouck Park playground. This includes a placard dedication in honor of Julia Jackson, the last surviving enslaved woman to live in New Paltz and a revered historian, storyteller and beloved friend of the community. An important announcement will be made as well. Speakers will include: Mayor Tim Rogers, Rev. Jennifer Berry, New Paltz Town Historian Susan Stessin-Cohn, and Albert Cook with a performance by Resisterhood: New Paltz.
Next, join us at Huguenot Street 3 - 7 PM for live, local music and a family-friendly pot-luck or bring-your-own-picnic lunch on the lawn. Light refreshments will be provided.
Other Hudson Valley Programs Happening on Saturday, June 19, 2021
White Plains Juneteenth Heritage, Inc. - Virtual Juneteenth Celebration
The 2021 theme "Preserving Our Legacy", illustrates the historical commitment of those who came before us and our determination to continue to fulfill their legacy. With that imparted, it is of great importance that we achieve our desired objectives which are to better communicate the history and celebration of Juneteenth, gain greater participation from the overall community, educate our youth in the importance of this historical holiday and strengthen funding so that this celebration will continue to thrive.
This virtual program was held on June 12, 2021 and filmed. The program is available online at the White Plains Juneteenth Heritage, Inc. Facebook page.
Slavery in the Hudson Valley
There are lots of great books, articles, and exhibits to explore to learn more about slavery in the Hudson Valley. Links are to purchase. Check your local library collections to borrow.
Long Hammering: Essays of an African American Presence in the Hudson Valley to the 20th Century by A.J. Williams-Myers. Dr. Wiliams-Myers addresses the integral role that African Americans played in every aspect of Hudson Valley society, which historically is the embryo of New York history.
In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831 by Susan Stessin-Cohn and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini. In Defiance documents 607 fugitives from slavery in the 18th and 19th-century Hudson River Valley region of New York State.
Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America by Myra B. Young Armstead. James F. Brown escaped slavery in Maryland and became a gardener at Mount Gulian in Beacon, NY. Dr. Armstead uses his diary to illuminate his life and the history of slavery and freedom in the Hudson Valley.
Watch Myra Young Armstead's recorded lecture for the Newburgh Free Library.
Peekskill's African American History: A Hudson Valley Community's Untold Story by John C. Curran. Highlighting African American stories in Peekskill from the American Revolution through to Paul Robeson and the Peekskill Riots of 1949 and beyond.
Slavery and Freedom in the Mid-Hudson Valley by Michael E. Groth. Focusing on the struggle for freedom in the central Hudson Valley prior to the Civil War.
The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells. In a rapidly changing New York, two forces battled for the city's soul: the pro-slavery New Yorkers who kept the illegal slave trade alive and well, and the abolitionists fighting for freedom.
Watch a recording of Jonathan Wells' lecture for HRMM.
The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage by John Harris outlines how even after the slave trade was made illegal, merchants based in the United States were still sending hundreds of illegal slave ships from American ports to the African coast.
Watch a recording of John Harris' lecture for HRMM.
"Where Slavery Died Hard," Cragsmoor Historical Society (2018)
Historic Hudson Valley has a whole host of videos on slavery in the North, but this video is a good place to start - "Introduction: Stories of Slavery in the Colonial North."
"Hidden History: Slavery in the Hudson Valley" short film by Vassar College.
The Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center works in the Ponckhockie neighborhood and throughout Kingston with community programs, children’s literacy and after school programs, and more, with hundreds of books available. The African Roots Library partners with the Hudson River Maritime Museum in co-hosting the Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley. You can learn more and donate at africanrootslibrary.org.
The Underground Railroad Education Center in Albany, NY tells the story of Stephen and Harriet Meyers, the Underground Railroad in New York, and its connections to today. The Underground Railroad Education Center is a new partner in the Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley. You can learn more and donate at undergroundrailroadhistory.org.
TMI Project: Black Stories Matter, also a conference partner – tmiproject.org/blackstoriesmatter
Harambee and the Pine Street African Burial Ground, also a conference partner – harambeekingstonny.org
The African American Historical Society of Rockland County – aahsmuseum.org
The Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project – pages.vassar.edu/mhantislaveryhistoryproject
The Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library in Poughkeepsie – africanrootslibrary.tripod.com
This is not a comprehensive list, but will hopefully give you a good foundation on the topic of slavery in the Hudson Valley. To contribute other resources to this list, please add to the History Alliance of Kingston's "Black History Collaborative Research Project." For Black history articles on the Hudson River Maritime Museum blog, explore our Black History category. And if you have a Black history story you would like to tell or research you would like to share, please send a proposal in to the Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley, held this year on Saturday, October 2, 2021.
Editor's Notes: This article, "Mr. Fillmore and His Friends" was originally published on August 18, 1856 in the Albany Evening Journal. It is a stinging critique of Millard Fillmore and his support for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Fillmore was born in 1800 in Moravia, New York and served in state politics before entering Congress as the Representative for NY's 32nd District. Winning the Vice-Presidency in 1848 on the Whig ticket, Fillmore became president in 1850 upon the death of President Zachary Taylor. Although he was not chosen as a candidate by any party during the election of 1852, he ran as a third party candidate in the election of 1856 under the Know Nothing party. This article was almost certainly in response to his candidacy. He ultimately lost to Democrat James Buchanan, a staunch proponent of state's rights who exacerbated tensions around slavery and made way for the four-way-split Presidential election of 1860, resulting in the victory of Abraham Lincoln.
The article also sharply critiques the Fugitive Slave Act. Passed by Congress in 1850 and signed into law by President Fillmore, the Act was a concession to Southern states in an effort to preserve the Union as part of the Compromise of 1850. Many Northern states had passed state or local ordinances requiring jury trials for fugitive slaves, denying use of jails or state officials in their retrieval, and otherwise attempting to protect fugitive slaves, or at least keep from getting involved. Tens of thousands of enslaved people made their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and '40s, joining free Black communities in Northern states and building lives and families.
But Southern states were angry about the lack of cooperation from their Northern counterparts and the attrition of enslaved people to the North, especially in slaveholding states that bordered free states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was designed to force compliance of state officials, overrule state and local laws, fine state officials who did not arrest fugitive slaves, and fine and imprison anyone who aided or abetted a fugitive slave - a clause specifically designed to target abolitionists. Because habeus corpus was suspended in fugitive slave cases, Black Americans had little recourse to dispute accusations, no matter how much evidence proved them false. Several cases found in lower courts for the accused were overturned by the Supreme Court as a violation of federal law. Disturbingly, the Act also provided rewards for officers who captured fugitive slaves, regardless of whether or not they were actually fugitives.
These clauses not only led to some of the unjust events outlined in the article below, but angered many Northerners and turned more to the abolitionist cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 in response to the law. The novel went on to become one of the best-selling books of the century (surpassed only by the Bible). Although the Compromise of 1850 did temporarily hold the United States together, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a concession to slaveholding states that only exacerbated the divisions over slavery, and helped inflame the tensions that would lead to the Civil War.
"Mr. Fillmore and His Friends"
Mr. Fillmore’s supporters in the present canvass endeavor to palliate his signing the Fugitive Slave Law, by alleging that he disapproved of many of the provisions of the act. His own course proves the contrary. If he objected to any details of the bill, it was his privilege and his constitutional duty to return it with a statement of those objections. Instead of so doing, instead of even hesitating, he signed it immediately upon its passage, endorsed it in his subsequent Messages and Proclamations, lauded it in his speeches, rewarded those who voted for it with Offices and Patronage, and was constantly urging during the whole time he remained in office, that it ought never to be repealed, but should stand forever, as a “finality.”
In his Message of Dec., 1850, he alludes to it thus: -
“I believe those acts to have been required by the circumstances and condition of the country. I believe they were necessary. By that adjustment we have a firm, distinct and legal ground to stand upon.”
In his Message of Dec., 1851, after having tried the working of the Law for a year, he said: -
“It is deeply to be regretted that in several instances officers of the Government, in attempting to execute the law for the rendition of fugitives from labor, have been openly resisted. Prosecutions have been instituted against the alleged offenders so far as they could be identified, and are still pending. I have regarded it my duty in these cases to give all aid legally in my power, to the enforcement of the law.
“* * The Act of Congress for the return of fugitives from labor is one required and demanded by the express words of the Constitution.”
A brief review of the “several instances” which he alludes to will show not only the character of the act, but the spirit in which the acting President viewed it.
On the 27th of September, 1850, the same month in which the Law was passed, JAMES HAMLET, a laborer in New York, was seized in the street, handcuffed, thrust into a coach, carried to the Marshal’s office, and in two hours time, without having witnesses, a Judge, or a Jury, was in the hands of his alleged “Master,” on his way South. This was the first instance of the “legal ground” “stood upon” by Mr. Fillmore.
On Oct. 12th, a man named ROSE, who had come North by his owner’s permission, under an agreement to pay $100 per annum for his freedom, and had actually paid it for the first year, was seized in Detroit, and consigned to Jail until he could be sent back to Tennessee. The “Scotch Guards” and the “Grayson Light Guards” were paraded with a hundred fixed bayonets around the Jail, to keep the negro in, and to exemplify the “reign of peace and quiet,” induced by Mr. Fillmore’s Law.
On the 24th of October, William Harris, his wife and child, who had escaped from South Carolina, were aboard a Canal Boat in this State. When at Lodi Lock, near Syracuse, word was given that the pursuers were upon them. They all jumped overboard. The man and his wife were caught again, but the child was drowned - its death having been, as Mr. Fillmore remarks, “required and demanded by the Constitution.”
On the 8th of November, Election Day, when the freemen of this Republic were turning out to exercise their highest privilege, those of them who lived near Beechwood, Ohio, were regaled by the spectacle of a bleeding Mulatto on horseback, flying before half a dozen other horsemen at full gallop, who fired five times at him, while running, with more or less success. A peaceable Quaker standing by had a pistol presented to his head with the information that if he refused to join the chase, his brains would be blown out. This, we presume, was also “required and demanded by the Constitution.”
Three days after (Nov. 11th) a perfectly white woman and her daughter, old and well known residents, were taken before the Commissioner at New Albany, Indiana, on a charge of being chattels of DENNIS FRAMEL of Arkansas, and only escaped sentence to plantation life, by paying the Arkansas swindler $600. But this was doubtless “required by the circumstances and condition of the country,” as Mr. Fillmore remarked.
On the 21st of December, ADAM GIRSON of Philadelphia, was hauled up before Commissioner Ingraham, on a charge of being the slave of one Knight of Cecil county, Maryland. He brought witnesses who conclusively proved him to be a freeman. Nevertheless the Commissioner, after a hasty examination, lasting only from noon till dusk, sent him under charge of a bodyguard of 25 policemen down to Cecil county, Md. When they got him there and delivered to Mr. Knight, that gentleman declared he had never seen him before, and that having no claim on him, he would not take him. Only by the honesty of this Marylander was Adam Gibson released from the malicious imprisonment put upon him by Mr. Fillmore’s Law, and Mr. Fillmore’s Commissioner.
On Christmas Day, when the bells of New York were pealing anthems in honor of the birth of Him who came to “break all bonds, and let the oppressed go free” - HENRY LONG, a waiter at the Pacific Hotel, was seized while at work in the Dining Room, carried before Commissioner Hall, and was sentenced to bonds for the remainder of his life.
During the same month, the Tennessee papers exultingly announced that “Mr. MARKWOOD of Greenville in that State, and his friend THOMAS CHESTER have returned from a tour in Michigan with seven slaves” caught there, by the assistance of Millard Fillmore.
The Memphis Eagle also boasted that “five fugitives had within a few weeks been brought back with as little trouble as would be had in recovering stray cows.” Rather less, in fact, for a man cannot recover his Cow without witnesses and a jury. But he can get a Slave without either.
On the 5th of January 1851, Daniel Fossbeuner of Baltimore, a member of the Methodist Church South, came into Court, and claimed a young man and two girls, free since their birth, on the ground that their mother had been his slave nineteen years before! She had been allowed the trouble and expense of bringing them up during these nineteen years, by Mr. F., and he now estimated their worth in the market at $1,800. As the Judge pronounced their doom of her children, the bereaved Mother fell in convulsions on the floor of the Court room. This too, says Mr. Fillmore, is “required and demanded by the circumstances and condition of the country.”
On the 12th of January, 1851, Hamilton Jackson, a colored barber in Cincinnati, born and bred a free man, was seized and taken to Jail on a charge of being a runaway Slave. The jailor, however, happened to have known him all his life, and to know him to be no fugitive. So he “escaped,” which was one of the “circumstances” “deeply regretted” by Mr. Fillmore.
On January 23d, a man known as William Baker, was arrested while sawing wood, and taken before Commissioner Ingraham. He was accused of being Stephen Bennet, slave of Capt. E. B. Gallup of Baltimore. Without time to prepare or make any defence, without time to see his wife and child, after an examination of only two hours, he was hurried off, whether rightfully or wrongfully, will never be known in this world. This also was “required and demanded” by Mr. Fillmore.
Need we go on to relate how the “Chivalry” in Maryland presented a Service of Plate to the captors of Henry Long? - how the captor of Adam Gibson was unluckily detected in kidnapping a white child named Joel Henry, and prevented from selling it into slavery in order to save this glorious Union? Need we tell how Helen and Dick, wife and son of a boatman on the Pennsylvania Canal, were, in the absence of the husband and father, dragged - the mother from her wash-tub, the boy from the hay-field - and consigned to slavery by Judge KANE, and put in custody of sixty officers, who marched with them to the Ferry lest the man should unexpectedly return and save them? Need we recall the case of Shadrach, when the whole military and civil force of Boston turned out to catch a single negro, and when Millard Fillmore caused to be arrested and imprisoned, for treason, his counsel, and several respectable Lawyers, Clergymen and Merchants of that city, because the negro slipped through the slave-catchers’ fingers?
Need we quote the Special Message, in which Millard Fillmore consoled the defeated pursuers and promised them better luck next time, assuring them “that, so far as depends on me, the law shall be faithfully executed, and all forcible opposition to it suppressed,” and “deeply lamenting that the Massachusetts law forbids Massachusetts officers and jails” to help in catching runaway negroes? Or his Proclamation of Feb. 18th, calling on “all well disposed citizens” to ally to the support of the “Fugitive Slave Law,” and to “assist the civil and military officers,” and “especially directing prosecutions to be commenced against all persons who have made themselves hiders and abettors” of runaways, and “commanding the District Attorney to prosecute and arrest all persons who shall be found to have harbored or concealed a fugitive?”
Such is a brief summary of only the first six months of Millard Fillmore’s “execution” of the Slave Law. During the other two years of his term, similar scenes increased and were multiplied ten fold. These are the acts of which he boasts in his Messages. These are the scenes he urged ought to endure as “finalities” for ever. These are the grounds upon which he now asks the suffrages of American citizens. No President before him ever could be found debased enough to sign an Act containing such atrocious provisions. No President before him ever summoned the officials of the Union and “all good citizens” to assist in such degrading offices. Still less did any President but him, ever deem such scenes as these “required and demanded by the Constitution,” or that it “was his duty to give them all aid legally in his power.”
This article was located and shared by Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer researcher George A. Thompson and transcribed by Sarah Wassberg Johnson. All spelling, capitalization, quotations, and italics are reproduced here as in the original.
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"Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy" book cover: Clifford Ashley, Lancing a Sperm Whale, 1906. Like Herman Melville, Clifford Warren Ashley (1881 – 1947) an American artist, author, sailor, and knot expert took a whaling trip aboard the Sunbeam in 1904. Of the 39 crew all except 8 were black. He wrote “The Blubber Hunters”, a two-part article in Harper’s Magazine about the trip. The original oil painting hangs in the New Bedford Free Public Library.
In this recent lecture for the Southampton History Museum, author and historian Skip Finley discusses his research from his new book Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy (June, 2020).
Many of the historic houses that decorate Skip Finley’s native Martha’s Vineyard were originally built by whaling captains. Whether in his village of Oak Bluffs, on the Island of Nantucket where whaling burgeoned, or in New Bedford, which became the City of Light thanks to whale oil, these magnificent homes testify to the money made from whaling. In terms of oil, the triangle connecting Martha’s Vineyard to these areas and Eastern Long Island was the Middle East of its day. Whale wealth was astronomical, and endures in the form of land trusts, roads, hotels, docks, businesses, homes, churches and parks. Whaling revenues were invested into railroads and the textile industry.
Millions of whales died in the 200-plus-year enterprise, with more than 2,700 ships built for chasing, killing and processing them. Whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any diversity, and the proportion of men of color people who participated was amazingly high. A man got to be captain not because he was white or well connected, but because he knew how to kill a whale. Along the way he would also learn navigation and how to read and write. Whaling presented a tantalizing alternative to mainland life.
Working with archival records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives and studying hundreds of books and thesis, Finley culls the best stories from the lives of over 50 Whaling Captains of Color to share the story of America's First Meritocracy.
Editor’s note: This article contains racial slurs quoted as part of period newspaper articles and advertisements.
In the summer of 1881, the Kingston Daily Freeman ran a series of articles about what became known as “glee clubs,” made up of Black or “colored” crewmembers of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.
The prevalence of singing aboard steamboats on the Mississippi is well-documented. Sea musician Dr. Charles Ipcar documented some of this history in “Steamboat and Roustabout Songs.” Roustabouts, also known as stevedores, were regular or short-term dock workers who primarily moved cargoes and fuel on and off steamboats. In the American South, these laborers were primarily Black, and coordinated loading by singing, keeping the freight moving to a rhythm – much like sailboat crews would coordinate hauling lines by singing sea shanties. When these songs were doubly coordinated with specific dance moves, they were known as “coonjine.”
It is unclear whether or not Hudson River steamboats also had crews of roustabouts or stevedores who sang at their work. Most of the bigger steamboats were designed for passenger use, so the only cargoes were fuel and food for the trip, and passenger’s luggage. One newspaper article from 1890 indicates that Southern Black longshoremen did come north for work in New York Harbor, particularly after white longshoremen were organizing unions and strikes. That same article also indicated that at least one “Mississippi roustabout” was leading a group in singing roustabout songs. But while it’s not clear that steamboat crew on the Hudson River sang regularly, references to Southern roustabouts and their songs did occur frequently in New York.
Roustabout songs were often among those included in minstrel shows - often performed by white musicians in blackface enacting racist caricatures of the Black Americans they purported to emulate. The popularity of minstrel shows and music date back to the 1830s, but during Reconstruction (1865-1877), many Black Americans saw career opportunities in taking control of the narrative and performing their own minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment in 19th Century America. Many romanticized plantation life and depicted enslaved people as simple and happy with their enslavement. These depictions just as popular, if not more so, in the North than the South. Below are two examples from New York newspapers.
The headline “Mississippi Roustabouts” is a racist account of visiting the Mississippi, published in the Buffalo Evening News, September 15, 1904. The second is an advertisement for the Glens Falls Opera House advertising the show “The Romance of Coon Hollow,” a popular show that opened on Broadway in 1894. Songs or scenes listed in the advertisement include "The Great Steamboat Race" and "The Jolly Singing and Dancing Darkeys." These are just two examples of how racial caricatures of Southern and Black life had entered the mainstream popular culture in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is against this complicated backdrop that we encounter the “glee clubs” of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.
Initially referred to as “colored singers” (the “glee club” title came later), our story begins on July 29, 1881, with a short article in the Kingston Daily Freeman called “Musical Talent on the Cornell” :
“The steamer Cornell’s colored boys are fast coming into prominence as good singers, and it is believed that in a short time they will organize themselves into a vocal club. Wednesday night when the famous vocalist Mrs. Osborn favored the Cornell people with some selections from her repertoire, the boys started plantation songs and Mrs. Osborn, as well as several gentlemen on the steamer who are good judges of music, stated that the singing was excellent. If they organize they will give the Mary Powell singers a challenge to prove which of the two clubs is better.”
Four days later, the Freeman followed up with “A Challenge” :
“The Mary Powell Colored Singers Challenge the Singers on the Cornell.
“Last Friday evening the Freeman published an item commending the singing of the colored deckhands [dockhands?], cooks, etc. on the Thomas Cornell, and also said there was a prospect that they would organize themselves into a vocal club and then compete with the famous Mary Powell singers as to which is the better club. The Powell boys saw the article in the Freeman and are ready for the fray. They desire us to challenge the Cornell’s singers for a prize of $50, the contest to come off at any time the Cornell vocalists may select within the next two weeks; the place, judges and other arrangements to be mutually agreed upon. Several of the Powell crew have belonged to professional troupes, and they feel confident of outsinging their formidable rivals. One or two of them will stake $5 apiece on the contest. It is thought a good idea in the event of a match ensuing that some large hall be hired and that a small admission fee be charged, which will somewhat defray expenses. No doubt a large audience would witness the match. Come, Cornell boys, accept this challenge and show your prowess. You will have to work hard, though, for the Powell singers are very good.”
It is unclear whether or not these groups were simply recreational clubs for employees of their respective steamboats, or if the groups performed while on the job. The Mary Powell did have a reputation for musical entertainments, but according to surviving concert handbills, these were usually orchestral performances of classical music. In addition, one photo of the Mary Powell orchestra survives, and this incarnation at least, from 1901, is all white.
Eight days after the Freeman suggested a formal singing contest, the Kingston reading public got just that. “Cornell-Powell Singers,” published on August 10, 1881, reads:
“A Prize Singing Match for $50 a Side to Come Off Within a Short Time.
“About three weeks ago the colored singers on the Thomas Cornell were lauded by the Freeman for their excellent vocal accomplishments and at the same time we proposed the starting of a singing match between them and the famous Mary Powell singers. The Powell boys saw our article and authorized us to challenge the Cornell singers for a prize singing match, which we did and as a culmination of arrangements toward such an end a committee from the Cornell waited upon the Powell men yesterday morning to accept the challenge. Accordingly some time within the next three weeks Kingston will witness a first-class prize singing match in either Sampson Opera House or Music Hall for a prize of $50. Each club is to select and sing its own songs. Both clubs are now organized for business under the title of the “Cornell Glee Club” and the “Mary Powell Glee Club.” Constant practicing from now until the match comes off will be in order on these two steamers and passengers will have a rare treat.”
By renaming themselves as “Glee Clubs,” the steamboat employees were staking territory as professional singing groups. Originally created in 18th century England, glee clubs were small groups of men singing popular songs acapella, often with close harmony. Started on college campuses in the Northeast, glee clubs soon spread across the country, but remained primarily the domain of white men. By the end of the 19th century, many of these groups were regularly singing minstrel music and “Negro spirituals,” often in blackface.
The two groups of steamboat employees may have simply decided that being a “glee club” was more descriptive than “colored singers,” or more respectable, or might raise more interest among the general public.
The last sentence of the above article is also an interesting one, implying that the groups planned to practice, if not perform, while at their work aboard their respective steamboats. The reference of the songs being “a rare treat” indicates that singing while working aboard was not a common occurrence.
By August 12, the date was set. The Daily Freeman reported that the match would take place on August 20, 1881. Tickets were “thirty-five cents for general admission, and reserved seat tickets will be sold at fifty cents.” The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle advertised the same.
Two days after the concert took place, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle published a full account of the event, “Singing for a Prize: Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell” :
“We extract from the Rondout Courier’s account of the singing match at Music Hall, Kingston, Saturday evening, so interesting report of the contest between the colored employees of the Thomas Cornell and Mary Powell.
“Music Hall was a scene of most intense interest on the occasion. Our colored friends seemed to [own?] the whole town, and the great hall, although too large for the audience, as too small for them – Prof. [Jack?] Miner was Judge.
“As the Powell was late and the Cornell early, the Cornell Club was first on the stage. The stateroom [eight?] of the Cornell came upon the stage with determination written upon every brow. They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat [editor's note - the Thomas Cornell was a passenger boat, not a freight boat]. They had more depth of hold and breadth of beam, and there was more solidity about them. Their bass was very bass indeed, Mr. Lew Vandermark scraping the very [lowest?] of his lower notes, and the leader, Aug. Fitzgerald, kept steadily the main channel of his tubes. The marked [characteristics?] of the two clubs were brought out very distinctly when the Cornell Club, at the hint of George F. [?] sang, “Mary had a little lamb,” which had been previously rendered by the Powell boys. In this the “baaing” of the lamb is given, with variations.
“The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered 'broiled blue fish' or 'Spanish mackerel,' with Saratoga potatoes, while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies of a 'stateroomer supper.'
“The members of the clubs were as follows:
"Cornell Glee Club – Aug. Fitzgerald, leader; L. Schemerhorn, Eugene Harris, [Dav.?] Johnston, George Dewitt, Lew Vandemark, Chas. Van [Gaasbeck?], Dennis Johnston, Miss [Lizzie?] Hartly, pianist.
"Powell Glee Club – I. P. Washington, leader; J. C. Washington, James Poindexter, Wm. McPherson, B. G. Smith, Robert Martin, Harry Coulter, Prof. John [Mougan?]. The latter also acted as pianist.
“The audience was a fair one. It thoroughly enjoyed itself, an after the crews got fairly warmed up it got considerably excited, and stamped and shouted and clapped in the wildest manner, winding up in a round of cheers.
“The Cornell Club mainly confined itself to pious tunes; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Prepare Me Lord,” and the like, filling the programme, while the Powell boys had lighter pieces and evinced a strong preference for [fancy?] [selections?]. The Cornell crew sang “Sweet Ailleen” very prettily, and did better with the songs than the hymns.
“The audience was well pleased with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Oh Them Union Brothers,” in which the Cornell crew caught the wild melody nicely. The Powell followed with “Hark, Baby, Hark,” sang very prettily indeed, and “Row the Boats,” in which the sweep of the melody is very sweet. The Cornellites came up smiling with their religious tunes, of which “Pray all along the Road” was the most noticeable. Then came one of the gems of the evening, “Night Shades,” by the Powell boys, which the audience was highly pleased with and “Old Oaken Bucket,” which they sang nicely. For an encore they dipped into the religious vein, which seemed to stir up the Cornellites, who retorted with “Mary had a Little Lamb,” with which the Powellites had previously brought down the house. The version was a little different, but both took with the house. The audience at this point applauded the Cornellites very heavily, which caused the Powellites to bring out their best and “Mary Gone with a Coon” was given.
“The programme was finally closed with the Powell boys singing “Good Night” when Geo. F. [Kjerstad? Kjersted?] brought forward Prof. Miner. He made a few remarks in which he said he had tried to perform his duty as Judge honestly, and then disclosed that the victory rested with the Mary Powell club, when there was great applause, and the audience died slowly out.”
Here we finally get some details! We have names of the participants, for one, and details of the concert itself, including the songs.
Sadly, we also have a complicated blend of admiration and racism. Of the Cornell singers, the author writes, “They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat.” (Note that the Thomas Cornell was a passenger vessel build specifically to rival the Mary Powell, not a freight boat.) Whereas, “The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered ‘broiled blue fish’ or ‘Spanish mackerel,’ with Saratoga potatoes [potato chips], while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies [potatoes] of a ‘stateroomer supper.’”
Here, the author conflates appearance with singing talent, implying that the more slender and lighter complexioned “Powell boys” sang with more delicacy and finesse than the darker complexioned “Cornell boys.” One wonders if the Mary Powell crew were specifically selected for employment due to their lighter skin tone, or if it was simply coincidental. Shades of blackness and whiteness were very important in the racial hierarchy of the United States, with lighter skinned people often receiving better or preferential treatment when compared with darker skinned people. The persistent use of the term “boy” to refer to Black adult men is also a racist microaggression, designed to imply inferiority when compared to white men.
Ultimately, the Mary Powell crew were declared winners, a result backed up by a single line in the New Paltz Times on August 24, 1881. Although many of the songs listed are unfamiliar to modern audiences, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has persisted, as has “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was interestingly performed by both groups.
Preliminary search results for the members of the two glee clubs both before and after the concert resulted in few hits, although by 1903, a Lew Vandemark was part of a group called “Smith’s Colored Troubedours,” which gave a performance before the cakewalk at “Charley Conkling’s Masquerade” in Middletown, NY.
If you would like to assist us by researching these men (and one woman!), their names are as follows.
Thomas Cornell Glee Club members:
Mary Powell Glee Club members:
I have found no further reference to either glee club, nor similar groups connected to Hudson River steamboats, but I hope that by sharing these stories we can discover more information about the club members and their work.
If anyone would like to see original images of the newspapers, or has leads on any of the people listed above, other references to the glee clubs, or to other singing clubs associated with steamboats, please contact us at email@example.com.
 Charles M. Ipcar, “Steamboat & Roustabout Songs,” paper presented at the 2019 Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival.
 “Colored ‘Longshoremen,” The Sun [New York], March 23, 1890.
 “Musical Talent on the Cornell,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 29, 1881.
 “A Challenge,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 4, 1881.
 “Cornell-Powell Singers,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 10, 1881.
 “Glee Clubs – Minstrelsy & Negro Spirituals,” University of Richmond Race and Racism Project, https://memory.richmond.edu/exhibits/show/performancepolicy/glee-clubs---minstrelsy---negr
 “The Cornell-Powell Prize Singing,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 12, 1881.
 Untitled, Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, August 17, 1881.
 “Singing for a Prize: Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell,” Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, August 22, 1881.
 “Charley Conkling’s Masquerade,” Middletown Daily Press, November 23, 1903.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum and is the co-author and editor of Hudson River Lighthouses, as well as the editor of the Pilot Log. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and has been with the museum since 2012.
Filmmaker Ken Sargeant has compiled many of Henry's stories, including with footage from a filmed oral history interview, into "Tales from Henry's Hudson."
In 2013, Arts Westchester put together this short video of Henry, combining oral histories from the Hudson River Maritime Museum and film interviews by Ken Sargeant. You can watch more of Henry on film below:
For today's Media Monday, we thought we'd highlight one of the best storytellers on the Hudson River. Henry Gourdine, a commercial fisherman on the Hudson River since the 1920s, was a famous advocate for the river and its fishing heritage. Born on Croton Point on January 7, 1903, his reminiscences of growing up along the waterfront, defying his mother to spend time there, and his working life on the river, captured the imagination of the region at a time when commercial fishing was under threat from PCBs.
A boatbuilder, net knitter, and fisherman, as well as a storyteller, Gourdine helped preserve many of the fishing crafts. He taught boatbuilding and net knitting at South Street Seaport, recorded descriptions of many heritage fishing methods on tape, and would happily talk about the river and fishing to anyone who asked.
Henry Gourdine passed away October 17, 1997 at the age of 94. Read his New York Times obituary.
In 2006, the New York Times published a retrospective on the impact of Henry Gourdine on local communities throughout the valley.
Henry Gourdine on Film
Henry Gourdine Oral History
The Hudson River Maritime Museum has an extensive collection of oral history recordings of Hudson River commercial fishermen. Marguerite Holloway interviewed Henry Gourdine several times between 1989 and 1994, covering a whole host of fishing-related topics. Those oral histories now reside at the Hudson River Maritime Museum and have been digitized for your listening and research pleasure. Click the button below to take a listen!
Henry Gourdine's Fishing Shack
Built in 1927, Henry Gourdine's fishing shed stood for decades along the Ossining waterfront. But the days of the working waterfront were over, and Ossining sold the property to developers in the early 2000s. By 2006, work was set to begin, and Henry's shed was not part of the for condominiums overlooked the Hudson River. Despite pleas from local conservationists and the Gourdine family, including a temporary injunction from a court, the shed was ultimately demolished in May, 2006.
Henry's fishing equipment and two boats were salvaged from inside and saved by Arts Westchester and family members.
Preservationist and cataloger of ruins Rob Yasinsac cataloged the shed and its contents in April, 2006, before it was bulldozed. Read his account and see more pictures.
Sadly, the development soon stalled, and ground was not broken on the condos until 2014.
Henry Gourdine Park
Perhaps as an apology for the demolition, the condominium development known as Harbor Square created a waterfront park and named it Henry Gourdine Park in honor of the man who fished off its shores for nearly 80 years.
The park was opened in June, 2018. You can learn more about the park and its amenities and visit yourself.
Did you ever meet Henry Gourdine? Have you ever fished on the Hudson River? What's your favorite Henry Gourdine story? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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Editor's Note: These articles are from 1761 to 1818. See more Sunday News here.
March 23, 1761 - New York Gazette (Weyman's)
To Be Sold. By the Widow Egberts, in Albany.
A good sizable Sloop, used in the Trade between that City and New York, together with her Apparel, & c. As also, a likely young Negro Man, fit for Town or Country
January 9, 1809 - New-York Gazette & General Advertiser
for sale, The fine and staunch sloop EDWARD, 73 tons burthen, built on the model of the patent brig Achilles, and is supposed to be the swiftest sailor on the North River; has been employed as a packet between Poughkeepsie and New-York, and has elegant accommodations for passengers; her rigging and sails (which are new) in prime order. She may be viewed in Lent's bason, near Whitehall. Price low and terms of payment liberal. Apply to JOHN RADCLIFF.
March 21, 1818 - Mercantile Advertiser (New York, N. Y.)
FOR SALE The staunch sloop KNICKERBOCKER, burthen 93 tons, built of the best materials, 18 months old, well calculated for a coaster or the North river trade. One half or the whole, will be disposed of on liberal terms. Apply to WM. R. HITCHCOCK & CO. corner Peck-slip and South-st.
Thank you to HRMM volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. And to the dedicated HRMM volunteers who transcribe these articles.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
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.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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