African-Americans in Jefferson County, New York; 1810-1910

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African-Americans in Jefferson County, New York; 1810-1910

Jefferson County, a predominately rural area even today, is located east of Lake Ontario in northern New York State. First settled in 1796, the mainstream of westward migration had bypassed the area by the 1820's. As a result, the county remained sparsely populated and comparatively isolated throughout the nineteenth century. The county was officially established in 1805. The 1810 federal census represents the first detailed information on the area's population. In that year there were 22 slaves and 18 free blacks in Jefferson County, a total of 40 African Americans out of a population of 15,337.(2) The free blacks were members of two families in the town of Champion, one of the earliest settled areas in the county. Of these, the Benjamin Hudad family had left the county by 1830. The Peter Sharp family, however, continued to reside in the county throughout the nineteenth century. The 22 slaves were scattered throughout the county but the greatest concentration, a full one half, lived in the Town of LeRay. James LeRay de Chaumont, a wealthy Frenchman for whom the town was named, was one of the county's largest slave owners, with just 3 slaves. LeRay's family had been supporters of the United States during the American Revolution and had housed Benjamin Franklin when he was the American ambassador to France. LeRay bought hundreds of thousands of acres of land in northern New York - including most of the northern half of Jefferson County. He built a mansion and for a number of years lived like a king in the wilderness before eventually returning to France. One of LeRay's slaves, a woman known only as Rachel, was nurse to his children. When she died, a free woman, in 1834 she was buried in LeRaysville's "Sheep Fold" cemetery. Her tombstone identifies her as "a good and faithful servant". A further inscription states that "This monument is erected to her memory by her loving children Vincent and Alexander LeRay de Charmont (sic) and Therese LeRay de Gouvello."(3)

Four other men in the Town of LeRay owned two slaves each. Three of those four had French surnames and were listed near LeRay de Chaumont in the census so probably were associates of his. Besides this enclave at LeRay, two merchants of New England ancestry, Samuel Hooker of Hounsfield and Olney Pierce of Watertown, each owned three slaves. Between 1810 and 1814, the black population of the county increased dramatically. By the time the New York State census was taken in 1814, the county had a black population of 247. No breakdown for the individual towns exists for this census but it is thought that most of this increase occurred in the Town of Hounsfield as a result of the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor, the principal village in Hounsfield, was the site of both army and naval installations during the war. Troops stationed there represented a major portion of all United States forces at the time. Sackets Harbor was also the main military shipbuilding center for Lake Ontario which brought an influx of civilian workers into the area.

It is known that blacks served on the warships in the harbor, often as members of the gun crews. They were also, undoubtedly, among the soldiers stationed in the village and the civilian workers as well. After the war, many of the blacks remained in Jefferson County. By the 1820 census the black population had dropped from the wartime high of 247 to 140, still a significant increase over the pre-war total of 40. Over one third of these lived in the Town of Hounsfield where a number of new free black households appeared. One such household was that of Julius Terry, a naval veteran who had served during the Revolutionary War. Terry, who collected a naval pension of $8 a month until his death in the 1840s, eventually owned his own farm in Hounsfield.(4) His descendants continued to reside there throughout the nineteenth century.

The number of blacks in the county remained fairly consistent during the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s. …