Slavery in Oneida County, New York

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Slavery could be Oneida County's best-kept secret. Many people who are particularly knowledgeable of local history, such as town historians and life-long residents, are completely unaware that the region witnessed the struggle of bondage. Few realize that at its peak there were at least 84 enslaved African Americans and 55 slaveholders in Oneida County. This article examines the history of slavery in Oneida County: how it began, flourished, and ended; who were the slaves and the slaveholders; what happened to the slaves after emancipation; and how slavery affected African Americans in Oneida County.

This study grows out of an effort to learn why Black Oneidans, especially those living in Utica, have remained particularly poor and socially isolated in the late 20th century. In 1990, 56% of Oneida County's African American households were headed by females; only 2 out of 5 children had 2 parents. Seven out of 10 black children were impoverished. Oneida County's African Americans faced greater rates of single-female families, poverty, and unemployment than the nation's black population in general. (2) My initial hypothesis was that past discrimination rooted in slavery created the conditions that left so many Black Oneidans living in impoverished single-mother families. I now conclude that my hypothesis is partly supported. While slavery and its racist ideology seriously sabotaged the efforts of New York's black people to achieve economic prosperity, slavery did not undermine Oneida County's black families or their drive to participate in the larger society. Published accounts provide very little information about local slavery, the documentary evidence is very thin, and the events themselves took place in so short a time period that they have been easily overlooked thereafter. Nonetheless, the hidden history of slavery and its consequences in Oneida County can finally be told.

It is easy to understand why so little is known about slavery in Oneida County. For instance, the many Oneida County and Utica histories that have been compiled for 150 years are the standard sources of local information, and they pay slavery only anecdotal attention. These accounts, taken from the earliest to the most recently written histories of Oneida County, are typical:

        Francis Dana .... owned a colored woman, who, through fear of
       being sold, jumped into the river with her child, and both were
       drowned.... Slave sales, which once had not been uncommon in
       Utica, were no longer announced in the papers, an issue of the
       year 1817 containing the last of such announcements that the
       writer has met with. (3)

        When (General William Floyd) removed from Long Island, he
       brought with him a considerable number of slaves of both sexes.
       He was a kind and good master and provided everything for their
       comfort. When the law for the abolition of slavery in this State
       went into effect, these slaves became free, and many of them and
       their descendants yet remain in the town. (4)

       One might assume that Oneida County's first black resident was a
       slave to some wealthy merchant. Although there were 50 slaves
       enumerated in the census of 1800 for Oneida County, there were 73
       "other [than white] free persons listed." (5)

Similarly, the literature concerning prominent Oneida County slaveholders virtually ignores their slaveholding, General William Floyd being the significant exception, as we shall see. (6) Most of Oneida County's 26 towns and 2 cities have their own written histories and all of them overlook the slaves of their forefathers. (7) An exhaustive review of the local literature leaves little understanding that slavery had once prevailed here.

Another reason for the lack of information is the small size of the enslaved and free black population. Oneida County's non-Indian population has always been overwhelmingly white and this was even truer when slaves first arrived. …