-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - June, 2009
Growing up in Canajoharie, a small community in Montgomery County with about 2,000 residents, there was only one family of color. I never gave much thought to the statistical rarity because I went to school with the grandchildren and they were just like any of the other kids in my school.
During research awhile back I discovered that the number of blacks/mulattoes living in Canajoharie in the mid-nineteenth century, however, was almost ten times the population of the 1980s. Where did the families go and why did they leave? That one discovery began what has become a quest.
Many people associate slavery and large black communities with the South. However, African-Americans have been part of the New York population since the Dutch imported their ancestors in the sixteenth century. With a bustling commercial port and vast lands ripe for settlement, there was a need for economical labor. Over time, as with the white population, black numbers increased. Dr. Jennifer Lemak remarked that “New York State was not a slave society, but it was a society with slaves.”
We know that slavery existed here in the Mohawk Valley as well. Baptisms and marriages have been documented in our church records. One such record for the Reformed Dutch Church of Stone Arabia is the baptism of Augustus, born Oct. 18th 1811 and baptized Dec. 8th. His parents, Augustus and Diann were the property of two different owners, a Kilts and Eisenlord, while the baptism sponsors were another couple, Dick, property of G. Loucks, and Betsey, owned by Casper Cook. This was not an uncommon situation for a slave couple to be owned by two different individuals. Generally, the child would have been the property of the mother’s master.
Also, at some time, slave owners were required to register the births of their slaves with their town clerk. Jacob Enders certified on Sept. 23, 1815 with the clerk for the Town of Florida, that his black slave woman, Dean, had a female child, also named Dean, on the 23rd of March that year. Accordingly, slave owners also registered manumission papers with the town clerks wherein the Overseers of the Poor made a judgment as to the slave’s ability to support him or herself and children.
At the close of the Revolutionary War there was an attitude in New York State geared toward the abolition of slavery. In 1785, the state legislature made an attempt at the gradual emancipation of slaves. After vacillating between the Senate and Assembly for revisions and modifications restricting certain “freedoms” for emancipated African Americans (e.g. prohibiting interracial marriage and denying them from holding public office), the bill failed to pass. Three years later New York abolished importation of labor from the African slave trade.
A second, more significant, attempt at legislation in New York occurred in 1799 with “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Based upon the model in Pennsylvania, the law allowed all children born to a slave woman after July 4, 1799 to become free - not immediately, but at age 28 for males and age 25 for females. This way, the slave owner could still get a sufficient amount of labor from them while they were young and strong. Those born into slavery prior to July 4, 1799 remained so for life, although they were then identified as “indentured servants” rather than as “slaves.”
Before the results of the 1799 legislation could be fulfilled, the New York State Legislature, in 1817, passed another law that granted freedom to slaves born prior to July 4, 1799. Again, so as not to give too much too soon, the 1817 law could not provide that freedom until July 4th 1827. This did not, however, prevent non-New York residents from bringing their slaves into the state. Additionally, part-time residents also bought their slaves into the state temporarily, a fact illustrated by the 1830 census figure where Montgomery County had 1/3 of the state’s total slave population.
What precipitated the state’s gradual conversion from a slave to emancipated state? Was it moral righteousness? Was it empathy for the lives of the African Americans in servitude? The answer lies in economics. An influx of whites into the late 18th-early 19th century workforce who were willing to work for low wages outweighed the cost of providing life necessities for slave labor. Accompanying that was pressure applied by the New York Manumission Society, a group primarily consisting of wealthy Quakers, to various businesses for not perpetuating the institution of slavery. For example, newspaper editors were pressured not to advertise for slave auctions; and slaves, via free legal assistance afforded them by the Manumission Society, were suing their masters. Economically, slavery in New York State became an obsolete labor source.
Family life for the slaves, as illustrated in the church records, must have been difficult, either living in separate households (having different owners), or constantly in fear that they would never see their loved ones again if sold. Thomas James recounted in his biography, that when he was eight years old, his owner in Canajoharie sold James’ mother, brother and sister. He never saw his mother and sister again. James was sold as a teenager to George H. Hess, a wealthy Fort Plain farmer. He later escaped to the western part of the state and became a minister, also teaching school to black children, something he never received as a slave.
Families of free blacks had slightly different situations. The number of free blacks in Montgomery County increased over the first three decades of the nineteenth century with the highest population in the 1830 census. Although the number was greater, it was statistically a smaller portion of the overall county population.
African American families, although free, still feared the prospect of being kidnapped and sold south into slavery. Although I have not come across an incidence of this occurrence in Montgomery County, I am sure that the fear was a constant pressure. Especially when incidents like this were happening in nearby cities, such as case of Solomon Northup in Saratoga Springs who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years.
Since there is not a lot of documented evidence available to draw conclusions about African American families in Montgomery County, we have to rely upon census records. The 1850 census was the first federal census to list every individual in the household and to identify each one by race and their place of birth.
SUNY Oswego professor Dr. Judith Wellman, pointed out in extensive research on the Underground Railroad, that an examination of the birthplaces listed for African Americans, e.g. a slave state, Canada or unknown, in the 1850 & 1855 census may indicate whether certain individuals were runaway slaves. Also consider that the individual may have provided false information
In 1850, Canajoharie was home to 20 African American families, 18 of which had children living in the households. Thirteen African Americans resided in white households, probably as some type of servant or laborer. Seventeen adult males identified their occupations as laborer. Five were musicians and three were barbers. The remaining males did not list an occupation. Very possibly, commercial traffic on the Erie Canal and the railroad provided sufficient employment opportunities for unskilled laborers.
Further examination of the records will bring to light additional data and a greater picture of the lives led by nineteenth century African Americans in Montgomery County.