Image from the Letterhead of The St. Lawrence County Antislavery Society From LH Evert’s A History of St Lawrence County 1878
At the time of the American Revolution there were more slaves in the state of New York than any of the other northern states in the newly founded republic. At the first New York State constitutional convention Gouverneur Morris introduced a resolution to ban the slavery. The motion failed.
In 1788 the New York State legislature passed an act banning the slave trade in the state. However the bill did not ban the indenturing of servants even for 99 years so after this date most slave sales were listed as indentures. New York State’s colonial slave codes remained in effect until the end of slavery in the state. As described by Ira Berlin in his book, Many Thousands Gone, New York and the other northern states were “societies with slaves rather than slave societies”. In most cases households owned just one or two slaves and they were housed with the owners family usually in an attic or cellar. Very few New York slaves were allowed to live in their own households or raise families. Population decline was a continual problem for slave owners in the state. Slaves also were not allowed to form churches or other community organizations.
In 1799 the New York State legislature passed, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery”. The act freed all children born to slave mothers after July 4, 1799. Male children would be freed at the age of 28 and female children at the age of 25. This allowed slave owners to recoup any loss by keeping these young slaves through their most productive years. Slaves born before that date were not freed to prevent unscrupulous masters from putting old crippled slaves on the public dole. The bill also barred the sale of slaves outside the state.
In 1817 emancipation was extended to all slaves born before July 4, 1799. They also were to be freed on July 4, 1827. However the indenture clause for children of slaves remained intact so many children remained in servitude until their 21st birthday in the 1840’s.
Owners were seldom prosecuted for selling their slaves out of state. Between 1800 and 1820 the black population of the state diminished significantly.
Slavery In De Kalb
Ownership of a slave in the first part of the 19th century in New York was a symbol of high social status. William Cooper owned a house slave named Joseph Stuart. Stuart often accompanied Cooper on his travels and most certainly accompanied his early trips to De Kalb.
Slaves are seldom mentioned in records of the time. They were treated as you would a horse or any other property only mentioned when it was necessary.
Such an event took place at a hotel during a trip to De Kalb. William Cooper’s son Isaac also owned a person only referred to as “your black man” in a letter of March 16, 1813 from a Mr. Gregory of Albany. It seems that Cooper’s man was suspected of stealing William’s hat (Mr. Gregory’s man). The hat stolen was a gentleman’s hat costing $6 or $7 that had been given to William by Lieutenant Fredrick De Peyster. It had been replaced by a shabby worn out hat. The exchange was witnessed by another man’s servant. A pair of blue broadcloth pantaloons were also missing.
Mr. Gregory was not sure if Isaac Cooper’s Man had the articles but wanted him to check. If he did not see them Isaac was instructed to say nothing, as Mr. Gregory did not want to wrongly accuse a man.
Joseph Stuart stands in the background in this painting of Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper
Besides the Cooper family, many of the other proprietors of the town owned slaves that accompanied them on their visits to De Kalb and tended their horses and took care of their laundry and other needs as they traveled north.
There were at least three, perhaps four enslaved black people who lived in De Kalb during the slavery era.
The first was the slave of the family of Salmon Rich. He is referred to in a letter from John Fine to Isaac Cooper in November 1815, “I omitted to mention to you that in the settlement with Benjamin it is wished you would ask for the bill of sale of a negro boy, given by Young Rich to induce Benjamin to exempt Thrall's Mill seat from his mortgage. This is the only personal property Rich has. “ (For the purposes of this narrative I will refer to this enslaved man as Rich.)
As was common at the time Rich’s custody was granted to Mr. Benjamin as part of a mortgage. He may have gone to live and work for Mr. Benjamin or he may have been rented out to some other person for cash. At this time an adult male slave brought $200 to $300, the price of a substantial amount of land on the frontier.
The Rich family, who owned Rich, were one of the first families to settle the town arriving in 1803 and taking up the south western quarter of the town in 1804. Rich could have accompanied them on the arduous trip from Otsego County to De Kalb. Between 1804 and 1815 the Rich family cleared and developed a substantial farm from the wilderness. “Rich” would have been there to help with the clearing and development of the land living in close proximity with the family.
There must have been a strong bond between the family and “Rich” as the 1815 letter goes on to say, “Rich would be glad to give him a piece of his 100 Ac to retain his boy .”
The next slave mentioned in town records in a slave in the family of Daniel and Sarah Smith. For the purposes of this narrative I will refer to this person as “Smith”. We don’t know the sex of Smith because she only appears on the 1810 US and 1814 NYS censuses which do not list slaves sex.
Daniel and Sarah Smith and their family were United Empire Loyalists who fled Connecticut for Upper Canada at the end of the American Revolution in 1784. These loyalist refugees brought many enslaved black people with them doubling the population of black slaves in Canada in just 10 years. “Smith” is probably one of that group.
Daniel and Sarah Smith settled with their family and “Smith” outside what is today Brockville, Ontario. They did well for themselves in Canada. It was a large family and they had several sons who they wished to provide with land as they came of age.
In 1804 they sold a well-established farm in Upper Canada for enough money to buy the Smith tract of 600 acres in De Kalb. Enough land to provide farms for all their grown sons.
The Smith family with their slave “Smith” moved to the undeveloped wilderness of De Kalb and started over again. Daniel Sr. died in 1813. No mention of “Smith” is made in his estate but a slave of the appropriate age is listed on the 1814 NYS census.
The third slave in De Kalb was Antonette Jones. She was the slave of the Borland family. She was born in New York State about 1806. She was listed as illiterate on the 1850 census. She was living with the families of Charles and John Borland in De Kalb by 1820. From census records she appears to have continued to live with the family until at least 1855 long after her emancipation. The Borland’s, father and son, with their families had settled on Boland creek about 1808. They erected a sawmill and gristmill on the sight and gradually cleared land for farming while living in crude log cabins. Antonette would have been an integral part of their household helping with all frontier chores.
The last slave I have been able to trace in the town is “Stacy” the male slave of the Isaac Stacy family. Isaac Stacy was a successful farmer and Inn Keeper in Otsego County before he migrated to De Kalb. He was part of the original De Kalb settlement party in 1803. He settled on a farm located between Old De Kalb and Cooper’s Falls where his family soon joined him. He built a large home, which sometimes served as an inn. He was also encouraged to speculate on the Northeast quarter of the town of De Kalb. Isaac Stacy was the first supervisor of the Town of De Kalb.
“Stacy” would have accompanied the family from Otsego County and worked along side them as they cleared their farm and built their large 20 by 40 house.
Isaac Stacy and Salmon Rich both were bankrupted by the recession that followed the end of The War of 1812. The Rich’s lost their slave “Rich”, but Isaac Stacy appears to have held onto “Stacy” who was still living in the town in 1825.
Both “Stacy” and “Smith” were living in the town in 1814. By 1825 there were two black people living in the town as free black citizens. “Stacy” and Antonette. “Stacy” left the town or died by 1830, as there are no black males in the town at that census. Antonette Jones disappears from records after the 1855 census. She may have died and been buried in the town (She would have been about 50 years old.) or moved on. John Borland, the last of her former owners, died in 1855.
Note: The entire 1820 US census for St. Lawrence County is missing the pages that list free and enslaved black people. Only total data by town survives.
Berlin, Ira (1998) Many Thousands Gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America Belknap Press of Harvard University Cambride, MA.
Hartwick College Cooper Family Papers, Letter to Isaac Cooper March 16, 1813 Letter to Isaac Cooper from John Fine November 1815.
NYS Census 1814, 1825, 1855 New York State Census Abstracts Albany, NY.
Taylor, Alan (1995) William Cooperstown Vintage Books New York.
United States Census Bureau 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850 US Census De Kalb, NY.