The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival held at the Dutchess County Fair Ground, Rhinebeck NY is one of the last remaining countryside traditions in New York State. Unlike the bawdy Duchess County Fair (started in 1842) the Sheep and Wool Festival (started in 1980) is very genteel. Affluent white people, mostly women (with compliant bearded husbands) and gay 30 something men pet Vicuna and jostle for home spun, naturally dyed, two ply.
In England we regularly honor the land and our relationship with it. Many of our country festivals have pagan origins. The Harvest Moon, St Michael’s Mass, Lammas Day, country fairs and garden festivals. When we celebrate May Day in my home town of Whitstable at the very edge of ‘The Garden of England’ on the North East Kent coast bordering the shallow, oyster clogged Swale, we revive a 16th century English tradition. Local people garland spring flowers and weave twigs of new leaves. Pussy willow, catkins and briar. With these we entirely cover a grown man. With his head dressed in topiary he often stands over nine feet tall. This walking bush became known as Jack ‘o the Green. The Jack is central to the Whitstable May Day celebration and leads a parade of Morris Dancers and mythical characters to the town square.
We celebrate our medieval past without too much shame. The colonial atrocities we care to admit, were committed elsewhere. We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land… and thank God for reminding us how lucky we are not to have seen the Boer War or Partition with our own eyes. In the USA, however, the recent past is not so easily side-stepped. The terrible ghosts white folk see: the ghosts of slaughtered First Nation people whose land they stole and the million or more slaves who made this land what it is today. In the North East embarrassed white people do not necessarily want to be reminded of their slave-owning ancestors or those who killed the thriving Algonquian people of the Hudson Valley.
7-14 million people lived in North America before the white man arrived. Today, little evidence survives of the people who lived here. Anyway, who visits North America (unlike Greece or Mexico) and thinks to see the First Nation pyramids of Louisiana or the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in Colorado? The Greek government loves to invest in the Parthenon and Greeks love to visit it. But First Nation sites are more likely to remind Americans of the Trail of Tears and treaty violations than appeal to their nationalism.
Dr. Adrienne Keene, a First Nation scholar and activist. “We are taught nothing was here, so Native people deserved to have their land taken away: that’s how white supremacy and colonialism work.”
What of the thousands of slaves brought to the Hudson Valley? Walk into the country side, look at the derelict shack, the rickety chicken coop. People once lived in those… shivering as the bitter wind and snow tore over the fields, daring not to faint as the scorching summer sun beat down on thousands of enslaved men, women and their children who cleared and farmed these lands. Driving from Red Hook to Tivoli the bucolic landscape of The Hudson Valley looks less benign.
Josiah Henson wrote, “Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room we huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering.”
On North Road, Tivoli NY opposite my Victorian home stands an elegant, marble obelisk erected in 1866 commemorating lives lost fighting the ‘Slave Holders Rebellion’. When I first read the crumbling text I was taken aback. What was the Slave Holders Rebellion? What did this inscription mean? Was it some local event? Nobody seemed to know. White people didn’t know. Black people didn’t know.
The Slave Holders Rebellion is how the Civil War was contemporaneously described. The meaning of the Civil War, the point of it…
Slavery is New York’s dirty little secret. Many people are shocked to learn that slavery existed in the North East. Yet, as on the cotton fields of the southern states, people as property were considered essential to further settlements and do profitable business. By reducing labor costs to the care and maintenance of their human chattel, settlers turned a huge profit on a relatively small investment.
In New York State, owning 10 slaves at the turn of the 18th century was considered a large holding. Michael Groth, in his article, “The African-American Struggle against Slavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley 1785-1827,” estimated that one in 10 households included slaves. All persons of consequence were expected to be in possession of slaves, but not every slave owner was wealthy. People of modest means owned slaves. The purchase of a slave was a worthwhile investment for a farmer with moderate income.
“Those that could afford it kept slaves, and each owner put a mark upon his black servants, and registered the same with the town clerk, in order that runaways might be more easily traced. For instance the mark of Mathew Wygant was ‘a square notch of ha’penny on the upper sie of the left ear’.”
For 200 years, from 1624 to 1824, the first Dutch territories were sparsely settled with white people. Enslaved Africans were a major portion of those first wave of immigrants, estimated in some areas at between one-fifth and one-third. In Ulster County, in 1746, slaves numbered 1,100 with the white population at about 4,100. It is unknown how many First Nation people they lived along side. The Dutch West Indies Company brought the first slaves to New York territories in 1626 to work on farms, roads and forts. The Dutch were frustrated at their inability to profit from lumber, fur and agriculture.
In 1644 the Dutch West Indies Company brought in 6,900 men, women and children from the African coast.
It was company-owned slave labor that laid the foundations of modern New York, built its fortifications and made agriculture flourish in the colony so that later white immigrants had an incentive to turn from fur trapping to farming.
Between 1600 and 1860, the transatlantic slave trade brought 9 to 11 million enslaved Africans to the USA. In 1820, about 10 percent of the population of the Town of Kingston NY consisted of black slaves. By the end of the 18th century, New York held the dubious distinction of being the state with the largest slave population in the North. Ironically, the streets of Kingston and Rhinebeck NY were more diverse than they are today.
Slaves were sold in Kingston and New Paltz at public auction. Terms were made easy so people of modest means could afford them. A commodity bought and sold, used to settle debts and bequeathed to heirs. Slave sale notices were common in daily newspapers, next to advertisements for land and farm equipment. They described these men, women and children as “healthy” and “stout”, the same language used to sell livestock. It is clear from the advertisements that infants or children could be sold at the “purchaser’s option,” separating a mother and child with the stroke of a pen.
The cost of a slave today would be around $30,000.
Not everyone acquiesced. Reported slave rebellions and insurrections took place all over North America. More than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving ten or more slaves. I’m sure many more went unreported. Tiny acts of attrition.
18th century slave owners bragged how well treated and content their slaves were, but life for the enslaved African living in the North was cruel and un-rewarding. New York State’s slave laws were harsh and even small transgressions punished by public flogging. The hope of freedom inspired hundreds to risk absconding. If caught, a fugitive slave could expect punishments including amputation of limbs or death.
Runaway slave notices published in newspapers recount in detail the outer wear worn by slaves. The clothing described in these notices reflect the deprived existences they led. Style, color and material, hairstyle and type of headwear are recounted in great detail by slave masters. Most fugitive slaves ran away with only one set of clothes. “Young mulatto girl, wearing red calico, with blue petticoat.” Scars, missing ears, skills, behavior – insolent, plausible, bright… were all listed.
Most slaves ran away to be with their families. Some just fled, others planned carefully. A young man from Rochester NY took off with two sheep and a beehive. Many fugitive slaves found refuge in the woods of upstate New York. The woods not only provided cover and protection but a chance to seek Native Americans inhabiting the region. Many found shelter and safety with Native Americans and were welcomed into their tribes. Large rewards and treaty offerings for the return of runaways did not dissuade Native nations from harboring slaves.
In July 1799 the NY State Legislature enacted a partial emancipation. The law freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but only after at least two decades of forced indenture. Boys became free at age 28 and females at age 25. Until then, they were tied to the service of the mother’s master. Children remained enslaved because slave owners were confident that parents would remain with their children. Unrestricted freedom did not come to New York’s slaves until a new emancipation law took effect 28 years later, on July 4, 1827.
The freeing, in 1827, of adult slaves led to economic havoc in the North East. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 compounded the issue and destroyed the economy of the Hudson Valley. Meanwhile, freed slaves were left to fend for themselves. Those with good skills were undercut by white, cheap immigrant labor beginning to flood the Hudson Valley from New York City. The white immigrants were paid for their time and did not need to be fed, clothed and sheltered. Some freed slaves remained as tenant farmers. Up and down the Hudson River you’ll still find names like Africa Street where freed slaves formed their own small communities.
New York City was a reluctant supporter of the Slave Holders Rebellion. Its trading economy was heavily invested in the slave-based production of cotton. After the Slave Holders Rebellion, New York and New Jersey were alone among northern states in not abolishing slavery. Governor Morris and John Jay attempted to insert a clause into the founding state constitution suggesting the eventual elimination of slavery, but were rebuffed. As New York moved to abolish slavery, amongst the counties most vociferous in their opposition and who voted, “nay” were Dutchess County.
There is white marble obelisk in Tivoli, Dutchess County at the edge of North Road. It commemorates the lives lost of local people fighting the Slave Holders Rebellion. There is something heroic and magnificent about the title: Slave Holders Rebellion. It perfectly articulates the ambition of that war. And how it latterly became… the Civil War is testament to how black and brown people have had their history reframed by generations of white revisionists. Like the First Nation people before them the domestic history of enslaved men, women, children and their brutal slave owners has been wiped away by white folk, cruel, embarrassed and afraid in equal measure.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Star Spangled Banner by Slave Owner Francis Scott Key
Slavery remains the dirty little secret of New York State. Shared by almost every other northern state. In the south, for good or ill, white people upholding their racism and white supremacy, proud of their slave-owning past have inadvertently kept black history alive. The ancestors of northern slave owners do not celebrate the traditions of the land… for few white people ever worked it. Whilst english people were ploughing and scattering black slaves were violently forced to do the same. The history of this bucolic place, this upstate paradise, white folk keep silent… vanishing into the corn.