Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

Slavery in the Genesee Country (Also Known as Ontario County) 1789 to 1827

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

Slavery in the Genesee Country (Also Known as Ontario County) 1789 to 1827

Article excerpt

Slavery in the Genesee Country (also known as Ontario County) 1789 to 1827


This paper is not an exhaustive study of all the slaveholders and slaves in "The Genesee Country". Rather, its main focus is on the slaveholders and slaves in Ontario County. Ontario County was originally that part of New York State lying west of Seneca Lake. On the north it was bordered by Lake Ontario and on the south by Pennsylvania. This large county was formed from Montgomery County in 1789 and soon became known as "The Genesee Country". Over the next few years other counties were formed from Ontario County beginning with Steuben County in 1796, Allegheny County in 1806, Chatauqua County in 1808, and so forth. In spite of these county divisions, the area lying west of Seneca Lake continued to be known as "The Genesee Country".

Because of the scope of this subject I have, for the most part, limited this paper to the discussion of the slaveholders and slaves listed in the Ontario County census of 1800 and 1810. However, I have discussed some well-known slaveholders who, for unknown reasons, were not included in the above mentioned census. These men include William Helm, Robert Rose, William Fitzhugh, and John Shekell. William Helm was not listed in the Ontario County census, but we can document the fact that he did live first in Sodus, and then in Bath, New York. Likewise, Robert Rose was included in this paper because he was a very prominent slaveholder who was connected primarily with the Geneva area. Similarly, evidence exists that William Fitzhugh and John Shekell were prominent slaveholders in "The Genesee Country." On the other hand, a few slaveholders not included in the census, but mentioned in early articles or histories, were excluded from this paper because the information about them was very scanty. Clearly, more research is needed on this subject in order to give us a more complete picture.

The slaveholders and slaves who came to "The Genesee Country" faced many challenges. Some of them were able to surmount these challenges -- others were not. Some of the slaves lived to see the abolition of slavery in this state -- others died in bondage. All in all, whether slaveholder or slave, these people changed the fabric and texture of life in "The Genesee Country."

The Genesee Country began to attract slaveholders and other immigrants as early as 1789. While many types of people came to the Genesee Country for various reasons, the fertile soil and navigable waterways proved especially attractive to the southern slaveholder and the New England farmer. For instance, for the southern slaveholder whose plantation was suffering from soil exhaustion, the fertile and virgin soil of the Genesee Country promised a new beginning and an opportunity to maintain his station in society. Likewise, for the New England farmer who was barely managing to eke out a living on rocky soil, the fertile lands offered an opportunity for a better life.

Although many people were eager to make a new beginning in this region, they hesitated because of the Indian threat that still existed in 1789. This fact was illustrated by the 1790 census which listed only 1,075 inhabitants in all of Ontario County. However, by the summer of 1797 the Seneca Nation accepted an invitation from financier, Robert Morris, to meet at Big Tree at Geneseo to consider selling their lands west of the Genesee River. Three thousand members of the Seneca Nation came to Big Tree where for the last time, they were treated as a sovereign people by the white men.(2) The renown Seneca orator, Cornplanter, spoke the opening words at the council. Faithful to his reputation, he gave a dignified and moving oration, which befitted a great but dying nation. Once the preliminaries were underway, the Indians apparently decided to make the best of the situation, as the Council at Big Tree lasted one month and cost the land speculator, Robert Morris, $15,000 in food and liquor. …

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