Slaves and Slaveowners in Dutchess County

By McDermott, William P. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Slaves and Slaveowners in Dutchess County


McDermott, William P., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Slaves and Slaveowners in Dutchess County

Sixty nine year old Rhinebeck widow, Margaret Benner, owned one slave, Tam, in 1755. Rarely referred to in public records as anything but Valentine Bender's widow, Margaret had managed the 151 acre farm since 1727, the year her husband died. Left with four children, the oldest just 12, Margaret needed help to maintain the farm. She purchased or inherited Tam at the time of her husband's death. The slim record of slavery in Dutchess County during the colonial period reveals nothing more about Tam nor about Margaret's slaveowning pattern. Early histories and subsequent studies provide little information about how widespread the practice of slavery was in Dutchess County, a primarily rural county during the eighteenth century. Typically, one does not think of one or two slaves in a household, nor does one imagine a sixty nine year old woman, Margaret Benner, with a black man as part of her household. And yet, Margaret Benner's stow cannot be over-looked, but neither can she be taken as the prototype for slavery in Dutchess County or in rural New York.(2)

Dutchess County, halfway between New York City and Albany on the east side of the Hudson River, was established in 1683. Initially the county was thought to be too cold or too mountainous to be fit for cultivation. Hence, its available land attracted little interest. However, following Governor Dongan's award in 1683 of a large tract of land in southwestern Dutchess County to Francis Rombout, Guilian Verplanck, and Stephanus Verplanck, other New York merchants, traders, entrepreneurs, speculators, and public officials acquired large tracts of land in Dutchess County. Only a decade and a half more passed before almost all of the land in Dutchess, approximately 1000 square miles, was acquired by a few wealthy individuals and political officials. The initial intent of Francis Rombout and others to expand the fur trade and harvest lumber was never realized but soon thereafter the rolling land in Dutchess County was recognized for its agricultural potential. Yet, settlement lagged until by 1714 there were only 67 families in the entire county, all of whom had settled near the Hudson River. Among these families, many of them Dutch, were the first slaves introduced into the county.(3)

Once settlement began in Dutchess County expansion was rapid. After 1714 when the first census was taken Dutchess County's population doubled each decade until 1750, after which it doubled again by 1771 and again by 1790. The 67 families and 29 slaves counted in the 1714 census swelled by 1771 to 21,000 individuals in approximately 3400 multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural families, among which were 1360 slaves. Initially the new arrivals and offspring of the earliest settlers huddled in three settlements close to the Hudson River, Fishkill, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinebeck. Beginning in the 1730s large inland tracts of unsettled land were subdivided. Attracted by less expensive land the county's growing population and new arrivals spilled into these farm size properties, still heavily wooded virgin forest land. In fact, from 1737 to 1775 inland communities accounted for 70% of the nearly sixfold increase in the county population. Almost exclusively agricultural these new settlements differed from the older settlements. The three communities along the Hudson River were a mix of agriculture and agriculturally related commercial enterprises. As conduits for products transported along the Hudson River Fishkill, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinebeck developed mills, stores, and shipping enterprises to serve their own communities during Dutchess County's early years. When expansion into the inland occurred entrepreneurs in these communities capitalized on the needs of the newer communities. Slaves supplied the increased labor needed to meet expanding services in these three communities as Dutchess County grew and the demands on these communities increased.

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