"The Hills" in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The History of a Rural Afro-American Community in Westchester County New York

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"The Hills" in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The History of a Rural Afro-American Community in Westchester County New York

In the mid-nineteenth century, in Westchester County, New York, there was a thriving Afro-American community, called "The Hills," whose history reached back to colonial times. In this paper,(1) I will concentrate on The Hills community in the 1860s, but I will also briefly introduce the community's colonial roots and summarize its decline in the 1930s. I will draw from a variety of materials, the U.S. Federal Census, the New York State Census, The Weekly Anglo-African newspaper for the years 1859-1865, from church and school records, and from the compiled military service and pension records of The Hills men who served in the Civil War, in particular from five letters written by Sergeant Simeon Anderson Tierce of the 14th Regiment, Rhode Island Colored Heavy Artillery.

The circumstances in which Simeon's correspondence was preserved are themselves interesting. Simeon Anderson Tierce grew up in the Hills. In 1856, he married Sarah Jane Berrian, a widow with a young daughter, Sarah Ann, who was called Sissy. In 1863, Simeon enlisted in the 14th Regiment, Rhode Island Colored Heavy Artillery, was promoted to Sergeant, and served with the occupation forces near New Orleans. He died of typhoid on July 8, 1864. His widow Sarah Jane applied for a pension for herself and Sissy, claiming Simeon had treated her daughter as his own. She sent five of his letters to the Pension Review Board in Washington, D.C., to substantiate her claim, and in that way these letters were preserved, providing us with much of the information and clues for reconstructing this community.(2)

The Hills settlement was located in Westchester County, on the rugged terrain where the towns of Harrison, North Castle, and White Plains are joined. The settlement extended across the three town borders and at its peak covered approximately 400 acres. The best known area of The Hills, Stony Hill Road in Harrison, was designated a Westchester County Tricentennial Historical Site in 1983.(3)

The Hills history reaches back to colonial times. In 1771, there were 3,430 blacks in Westchester, and most of them were slaves. The average slaveholder owned two slaves, the exception being a few wealthy individuals, such as Thomas Thomas of Harrison who owned 11 slaves in 1790. The slaves worked as farm and domestic laborers, living in close proximity to their owners' families.(4)

The slaveholders in Westchester County included members of the Society of Friends, The Quakers. Between 1750 and 1780, there was considerable debate over slavery within the Society as a whole and within the Friends Meeting at Purchase in Harrison. Following the decree of the Society that members must free their slaves, the Purchase Friends, as well as other Friends in Westchester County, manumitted their slaves. However, the Society also considered the welfare of the freed blacks and ordered their members to make just compensation to their former slaves for their services. According to local tradition and early historical references, as a means of compensation, the Purchase Friends settled their freed slaves "in the northwestern portion of town of Harrison." They didn't settle them on their fertile farm land in Purchase, but rather on the rough land in "The Hills."(5)

Other manumissions occurred in this area at the same time, resulting from a similar debate among the Methodist-Episcopals in North Castle, including slave holders, were involved in a similar debate. In 1784, the Methodist-Episcopal Conference insisted upon "Full and entire emancipation of every slave in the possession of the members of the Church." Other area residents as well, under state laws of gradual emancipation in 1799 and 1817, manumitted their slaves. Many of the early Afro-American residents of The Hills bear surnames identified with either Quaker families or these local non-Quaker residents. …