Charles Clark: De Kalb's Freeman
by Brian Thompson
On Sunday, July 2, 1865 a train pulled into Ogdensburg, on board were several freedmen including Charles Clark and Thomas Boyer. They were accompanying a number of returning union veterans of the New York 106 Infantry. Eleven residents of De Kalb were among the men discharged at Ogdensburg that day.
I became interested in these men and Charles Clark in particular when I was examining the 1892 New York State census for De Kalb. There on page 8 was the household of William Hurlbut that included a hired farmhand Charles Clark, a black man. William Hurlbut was my grandmother’s uncle but more importantly my grandparents had purchased his farm in 1906. My father was born in the house and I had grown up living 300 feet from it yet I had never heard of Charles Clark.
My curiosity was peaked and through out the 1990’s I asked anyone I met who might have known Charles what they knew. Soon a story began to emerge as I did interviews and delved into old records. It is not always pretty but a real North Country story.
Charles Clark was born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in Albemarle County about 1845-47.
On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation making good on a threat he had made the previous September. The proclamation among other things ordered the Union Army to “recognize and maintain the freedom of” former slaves. Henceforth, all slaves in areas captured by the advancing Union Army would be freed. As the Union Army advanced through the south the proclamation was read to the black population at each plantation.
In March/April 1864 the NYS 106 Infantry was transferred to the 6th Corps and soon found them under the command of General Sheridan. The 106th New York Infantry left Maryland to join a campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in August 1864.
Because the Shenandoah Valley had been used repeatedly to attack the north it was decided to render the valley uninhabitable and unable to support an army. This was the first scorched earth campaign of the war.
Every barn, factory, house and mill was destroyed and all crops confiscated or destroyed. All freedmen were carried with the Union army as they moved to Petersburg to continue the war effort. The Shenandoah Valley was left unable to support an army.
The freedmen like Charles Clark had endured a lifetime of bondage often without much knowledge of the outside world. Many Freedmen readily followed their liberators for safety and sustenance. In Charles case, it may have been a more a matter of life or death, stay and starve or follow the army and live. Camp followers such as Charles Clark did odd jobs for the soldiers for food, shelter and compensation.
When the army was quickly disbanded at the close of the war, the Freedman had to readjust and find new homes and occupations. Many accompanied their army friends and liberators home to the north. Gilbert Merrithew, a soldier from De Kalb, befriended Charles Clark. It was with Merrithew, that Charles debarked from Ogdensburg for De Kalb that day.
Charlie as his neighbors knew him was setting off for a lifetime working as a hired farm hand in the northwest section of the town of De Kalb. He never strayed far living on various farms on Maple Ridge Road, River Road and Rock Island Road for sixty years.
At first, he worked for Union veteran farmers, Jesse Streeter and Gilbert Merrithew and their families including Gilbert Merrithew’s daughter and son in law, Libby and Evan Thomas. It is with the Thomas family that Charlie proudly posed for a photograph on the family porch.
He eventually had to find employment outside the circle of his old Union veteran friends. This is the time in his life we know most about and when his lot in life seems to deteriorate. He never married and had no family of his own to care for him. His wages were meager; by the 1920’s he was earning just twenty-five cents for a weeks work on a farm.
He spent the last few years of his life working for Roscoe and Grafton Conklin. While he worked for them, he slept in the manger of their dairy barn and his food was brought to him on a plate to eat in the barn, as he wasn’t considered clean enough to enter a house.
While boys were allowed to meet and speak with Charlie in the barn with their fathers, girls didn’t even know he existed suggesting he did not leave his home in the barn very often. In the sixty years that Charles Clark lived in the town his name does not appear once in the local news columns.
By the end of 1923, Charles Clark was almost 80 and no longer able to work. He cried when Roscoe Conklin stopped paying him his twenty-five cent a week wages and called the De Kalb poor officer to take him away. The De Kalb poor officer had him committed to the St Lawrence County Poorhouse in Canton in early January 1924.
Charles Clark died of stomach cancer there March 28, 1926. There is no mention of his passing in the press. He was buried in the Wayside cemetery, Richville, NY in the Gilbert Merrithew family plot. His grave was marked with a simple footstone that said only “Charlie”. Sometime in the last 50 years, the stone was removed. Today, the freedman Charles Clark lies in an unmarked grave.