Contested Ground: Hinterland Slavery in Colonial New York

Article excerpt

In pre-Columbian times along the mighty Hudson River, extending in a radius of a hundred miles on either side from its point of origin in the north to its estuary far to the south on the Atlantic Ocean, lay a pristine world of bucolic and serene landfall. This was a world mantled with lush forests that rimmed the walls and blanketed valley floors but whose coastal plains and flatlands had a much thinner layer. It was a world permeated with babbling, bubbling, tumbling freshwater brooks and numerous smaller rivers that meandered through the region snaking their way to larger bodies of water like the Raritan and Hackensack Rivers that emptied into the Atlantic. There were undulating hills and precipitous ridges that lay in the shadow of towering mountain ranges like the Palisades and Shawangunk on the lower and mid-Hudson to its west, and the mountain ranges of Catskills, Taconic and Adirondacks that rise magnificently from the valley floor. There were smaller valleys off to the southwest like the Passaic and Hackensack, with both the Piedmont and Jersey Highlands rising above them. Rainfall was seasonally heavy, and spring thaws brought streams of melting snow rushing down mountains to enrich rivers with topsoil that spilled from the rivers' banks inundating agriculturally rich flood plains. This was truly a cornucopia of natural wealth whose space was contested by indigenous bands of Algonquian-speakers and an abundance of wild life. Where the river emptied into the estuary, on its southern and western flanks, were scattered Native American bands of Manhattans, Hackensacks, Lenapes, Minisinks and Delawares, while bands of Wappingers, Mohicans, and Esopus lay across the middle span of the river, and with Mohawks and others further north. On the eastern flank of the estuary, on Long Island, were the Montauks, Shinnecocks, Matinecocks, and Massapequas.

The tranquility of this pristine world was traumatically shattered in the seventeenth century with the arrival initially of the Dutch and later the English in search of wealth, bringing with them alien ideas of land ownership through "purchase" and, barring that, outright conquest. The alien form of land tenure was part and parcel of an overall alien economy of individualism driven by the profit motive, and combined with equally alienating socio-cultural systems that slowly eroded, incorporated, and eventually collapsed an indigenous, more humane and collective socio-economic structure. Yet out of the clash of cultures would emerge a new, more dominant culture, whose staying power on what became contested ground, was as a result of a process of "grafting on" key cultural and economic elements from the vanquished. So in their efforts to ensure profitability in tapping the natural wealth of the region's hinterland, especially the trade in animal skins, the Dutch in the first three decades of the seventeenth century carved out from the landfall a trading station, Fort Orange (Albany), on the upper Hudson and a southern port city at the river's mouth which they named New Amsterdam. Laying claim to the vast extent of the river's environs and beyond southwest to the Delaware River, and naming it New Netherlands, the Dutch, in the wake of the collapse of the fur trade, moved to enhance the profitability of what was becoming an uneconomic colonial venture.

Future profits for the Dutch were envisioned in the exploitation of the potential agricultural schemes of land grants called patroonships, an alien form of land tenure that would forever alter this pristine landfall, creating a terrain of on-going contestation between intruders and indigenous folk and among the intruders themselves. Grant holders (patroons) were to exploit the land and other natural resources through the recruitment of "servants" (i.e., European, Native American and/or African) as laborers. Two of the early patroonships established were Rensselaerwyck on the upper Hudson, the personal holding of Kiliaen van Rensselaer a director of the Dutch West India company, and the patroonship of Pavonia of Michael Pauw on the lower Hudson across from New Amsterdam. …