Many people conceive of the issue of slavery in American history as a Southern institution. However, the enslavement of human beings was part of the system of labor in New York -- including Schenectady -- from the earliest European settlements in the 1600s through 1827. 11 of the 60 people killed in the Schenectady Massacre of 1690 were slaves, which shows that slavery was a way of life in Schenectady at the time of its early settlement. By 1714, enslaved people constituted 7% of the population of Schenectady. This percentage increased to almost 11% by 1796.
Emancipation of slaves in New York State was gradual. Conversations among whites as to whether slavery should be permitted or abolished increased in number in the years leading up to and following the American Revolution. Both the British and Americans offered incentives of freedom and land to blacks in exchange for military service. In 1799, the Legislature passed an act to gradually abolish slavery in New York. According to the Act, any child born to an enslaved woman after July 4, 1799 was defined as an indentured servant; children born after that date would be required to serve their mother’s master until age 28 (for males) or 25 (for females). Enslaved people born before that date retained their enslaved status for their lifetime. A 1817 statute extended freedom for enslaved people born before 1799, who were to be granted freedom in 1827. Essentially, slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827 -- although a loophole allowed visitors from states where slavery was permitted to bring their slaves into New York for up to nine months out of the year. It was not until 1841 that slavery was completely prohibited in New York State, by residents or by visitors.
|Bill of slave for enslaved man, Cato, dated 1800. Cato was being sold from Peter Conyne, Henry Fonda, Peter Mabee and Simon Mabee to Jacob Mabee for £85. M-Slaves-3 from Mabee Family Papers, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.|
Free African-Americans who lived in New York did so at risk of enslavement. The burden was on African-Americans and persons of mixed race to prove that they were free to city and county governments. Those who could not provide proof of their freedom could be jailed on suspicion of being runaway slaves. Authorities in New York State localities had the power to arrest them and place advertisements in newspapers seeking their "owners." If no one claiming to the the person's slave owner came forward, authorities had the right to sell the person into slavery. Free African-Americans could also be kidnapped and sold into slavery below the Mason-Dixon line.
We have in our collection a number of materials that help to document the reality of slavery in what is now Schenectady County. lacking materials that give us the perspective of people locally who endured enslavement -- such as diaries or letters -- we must piece together fragments of information from those who owned, bought and sold, or freed slaves. Documents such as bills for sale of slaves, receipts for the sale of slaves, wills that show enslaved people appearing as property bequeathed to heirs, correspondence that discusses slaves, copies of manumission records, and newspaper advertisements offering slaves for sale or advertising a reward for the capture of an escaped slave. Records from institutions, such as local churches, can show the baptisms, marriages, and burials of enslaved people. A few documents that illustrate slavery in Schenectady are included throughout this blog entry. If you are interested in the history of slavery, the free African-American community, or the Underground Railroad and abolitionist activity in Schenectady County, please contact us or visit our library. We'd be glad to get you started in your research.