"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
 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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The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.