Thursday, October 24, 2013

Documenting Slavery in Schenectady

In this document, dated 1809, Phillip Vedder grants permission for his female slave to marry Peter Jackson. Enslaved people in Schenectady, as elsewhere, faced numerous restrictions on their behavior and needed permission from their owners for many life choices, in addition to being used for their labor. Misc 476 from Historic Manuscripts Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Image of advertisement for sale of enslaved woman and her six-month-old child by Christopher Ward of Schenectady in 1796. This advertisement appeared in the local newspaper of the time, the Mohawk Mercury. Notices for slaves for sale and notices about runaway slaves were not uncommon in Schenectady newspapers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Image from microfilm of Mohawk Mercury newspaper, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

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. 

Letter from John Hansen to Ryer Schermerhorn dated 1772. Hansen, acting on Schermerhorn's behalf, proposes trading Schermerhorn's unnamed "Negro wench" for rum and sugar. From New York State - Slavery, Documents Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

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. 

Photostat copy of first page of a legal agreement dated 1805 between Yat, an enslaved man, and John and Sarah Glen of Schenectady, who owned him. In the agreement, the Glens promise to release Yat from slavery after six years, but only if he agrees to abide by a number of restrictions on his behavior -- including when he can see his wife, when he is permitted to play his fiddle, how often he is to attend church -- and must pay his masters $90.00 at the end of this six-year term. If Yat failed to live up to any of the several expectations listed in the document, he was to "remain a slave forever and [would be] subject to be sold." Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

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. 

Letter from John Sanders of Scotia to the overseers of the poor for the city of Schenectady. This document illustrates the role of bureaucracy in the years of gradual emancipation. Sanders wished to free his slave, Meg, according to an 1801 act. Under those terms, the overseers of the poor had to confirm in writing that a slave under consideration for manumission was under 50 years of age and "of sufficient ability to provide for themselves." GenL 55 from Historic Manuscripts Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

1 comment:

  1. I am trying to determine from whom and from where in the Mohawk Valley the black abolitionist Thomas Van Rensselaer escaped. Can you shed any light on this story?

    St. Paul
    A Modern Onesimus.
    "Not now as a servant, but above a servant."

    Early in the year 1819, a young man who was a slave in this state, took his freedom. His offended master issued hand-bills, sent messengers in all directions, and traveled himself as far as Canada - but all in vain. - No trace of the fugitive could be found. It was reported in the neighborhood that the slaveholder had murdered the lad! After a variety of adventures, the fugitive got a foothold in this city, married, established himself in business, united with a church of Christ, became joint superintendant of a Sabbath School, a Vice President of an Anti-Slavery Society, &c. &c., and on the first of August last, presided at a meeting of between 2 and 3000 persons, at the Broadway Tabernacle, to celebrate the passage of the British Emancipation Act of 1834! A few weeks ago he undertook a journey to see his old master, from whom he had separated himself 18 years ago. He found him (now an old man,) living on the same estate, surrounded with his children. The absentee introduced himself, and was most kindly received. He told his adventures, and his old master related his. The old gentleman did more: he invited the runaway, now his friend and equal, to lodge at his house, to sit at his table, to ride in his carriage, and treated him in all respects with kindness and respect. And what is more, although not a religious man himself, this old slaveholder requested his former slave to give thanks at table, and to offer family prayers, he having for the first time in his life assembled his household for that purpose! The next day the old gentleman took his colored friend in his barouch, and rode around to call upon his neighbors, to show them that the supposed murdered lad was now alive, and that he had arisen to the dignity of a respectable citizen. He gave his former slave the only remaining copy of the hand-bill circulated when the escape was made, but frankly said - "I am glad I did not get you!" Our readers' curiosity will be
    further gratified by seeing a copy of the hand-bill, and to be told that the runaway slave is no other than our worthy and must esteemed friend, Mr. THOMAS VAN REANSLAER, corner of William and Ann Sts.


    “St. Paul,” The Colored American, October 28, 1837.

    The bio for Van Rensselaer  that circulates on the internet says he was a "former slave from the Mohawk Valley. " The above article does not mention that. I would like to know the source of the Mohawk Valley information, if you have ir, as I would like to know the name of the man who had owned him.

    Thank you.