"The Society of Negroes Unsettled": A History of Slavery in New Paltz, NY

Article excerpt

THE FOUNDATION LAID: SOME BASIC ELEMENTS DEFINING SLAVERY IN NEW PALTZ

The issue of slavery is a controversial one. Even today, communities are still grappling with the question of how to discuss the subject fairly without turning it into a political minefield. The subject is not a pleasant one, and is supercharged with the issues of forced labor, family separation, poverty, violence, racism, miscegenation, and rape. But the subject must be confronted if an accurate picture of early American society is to be formed. Indeed, the worst approach to history is the one that promotes silence. Thus, the main focus of this essay will be to bring the issue of slavery out in the open for discussion, examination, and in the end, one would hope, some degree of understanding and reconciliation.

Founded in 1677 by a small group of French Huguenots, the settlement of New Paltz in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley emerged during the next two hundred years as an "isolated, conservative, tightly-knit farming community" whose unique history has been much celebrated and studied in recent times.(2) Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.

The historical record of slavery in New Paltz begins in 1674, three years before its founding, when Louis DuBois purchased two African slaves at a public auction held in Kingston, then called Esopus.(3) The two slaves ran away from DuBois the following spring and were picked up elsewhere in the colony by a man named Lewis Morris of Barbados. From 1675 to 1680, Morris and DuBois engaged in a lengthy custody battle for the two slaves, with Morris claiming that the two slaves were kidnapped from his plantation in Barbados and sold illegally to DuBois. The final outcome of this case is unknown and no further mention of Anthony or Susan is made in any of the three wills made by DuBois.

Despite DuBois' difficult experience, more slaves were brought to New Paltz to support the settlement's growth. The Deyo family bought slaves in 1680 and 1694. Catherine DuBois, widow of Louis DuBois and since remarried to schoolmaster Jean Cottin, baptized a slave girl named Rachel in 1703 and later set forth the conditions for her manumission in her will dated 1712. It is uncertain whether the executors actually carried out the manumission.(4) Throughout the next 125 years, references to slaves continually appear in the historical records of the settlement. In 1703, there were 9 slaves out of a total of 130 residents of the town.(5) By 1755, as in the rest of the state, slavery was a very well-established part of the New Paltz community: the census from that year lists 28 slaveholders, who collectively owned 78 slaves over the age of 14 years with the large majority of slaveholders (82%) owning between one and four slaves.(6) The largest slave owners were Solomon DuBois and Abraham Hardenbergh, each of whom owned seven. The overall population of New Paltz grew rapidly to 2,309 in 1790, when there were 77 slaveholders owning a total of 302 slaves, or 13% of the population. Thirty-eight households now owned 1 to 3 slaves, and 25 households owned 4 to 6. Eleven households now held between 7 and 14, with the largest slaveholders coming from well-established third and fourth generation French and Dutch families such as Hasbrouck, DuBois, Freer, Wynkoop and Vandermark.

Before discussing more specific aspects about slavery in New Paltz, it is important to understand a major difference between slavery in early New York as compared to slavery in the plantation-era South, which unlike Northern slavery, has long been well-documented and understood. Through the examination of local documents such as census, legislative and court records, wills, account books, receipts, inventories, and correspondence, it is possible to uncover some of the stories of the individuals who bore so much of the economy of early New Paltz upon their backs; from the records, one can gain some understanding of the harsh and restrictive characteristics that defined the lives of slaves in relation to the comparatively easy and unrestricted lives of their owners. …