Photo: Lauren Thomas for the New Paltz Times, 2013.
Slavery in the North was less documented and systematic than it was in South, but no less real. In recent years, a great deal of research has been done on the history of slavery in the Hudson Valley, unearthing evidence that slavery was often just as prevalent as it was in the South. While the Underground Railroad did make inroads in the Hudson Valley, passage to New York State was by no means an automatic ticket to freedom.
Regarding the historical legacy of both slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Hudson Valley, Emmy Award-winning journalist Janus Adams tells NYSOM, “As a student in SUNY New Paltz in the 1960s, no one was even mentioning that slavery existed in the North. People were in total denial. When I was in school back then, I was one of the few African-American students. African students, yes — people could wrap their minds around that. But I was treated like I was from a different planet.” She continues, “When I moved back here a few years ago, it was like coming back full circle. The remnants of slavery are all around us in the Hudson Valley, and it’s essential that we study the evidence and recognize that everything around us was essentially built on the backs of slaves.”
The strain of such social and intellectual isolation took its toll on her, Adams confessed. In the evenings, she would stroll down New Paltz’s Huguenot Street to “soothe [her] brain and look at the mountains.” Coincidentally, this path was the same one that the abolitionist Sojourner Truth often used during her self-described “talks” with God. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York’s Ulster County in 1797, but escaped on foot through the Hudson Valley’s woods and fields with her infant daughter in 1826. She first found refuge at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenens, who eventually paid her slave owner John Dumont $25 for Truth’s freedom and her daughter’s.
For Adams, before one can understand the Hudson Valley’s role in the Underground Railroad, one inevitably has to go back in time and study the development of slavery in the region itself. Although hard to believe, New York once possessed more slaves than any other northern state. Until the 18th century, it had more slaves than Georgia did.
In the late 1990s, a slave cemetery was discovered in New Paltz, adding to the growing documentation of the town’s slave trading past. From the 17th until the mid-19th century, slavery was rife in the New Paltz area. Huguenots, that is, Calvinist Protestants who fled Northern France to escape religious persecution, colonized the Hudson Valley during the mid-17th century. In 1677, seven Huguenot families purchased 40,000 acres of land from the Esopus Indians.
Faced with wide swaths of untended land, the formerly oppressed became oppressors: the Huguenots turned to slave labor. The first record of slavery in New Paltz pre-dates its official founding, with Louis DuBois purchasing two African slaves at an auction in Kingston back in 1674.
By 1790, there were 21,000 slaves in New York State overall. In New Paltz, the population was 2,309 in 1790, 77 of whom were slaveholders in control of 302 slaves — about 13 percent of the population. Slaves were used to build and labor in the farms, mills and homes until 1827, when New York State abolished slavery.
Expected to do hard physical labor and given few provisions, slaves in New Paltz were generally housed in damp cellars. Escaped slaves, in turn, would often eventually find refuge in similarly damp cellars belonging to Quakers and other Underground Railroad activists. Adams points out here, “It’s important to do research and study the evidence, but actually seeing the places slaves, both escaped and working, lived in can be much more powerful. Unfortunately, records on where and how escaped slaves were kept on their road to freedom are a lot more scant than records of how existing slaves were kept.”
Currently, the most comprehensive informational site on slavery in the Hudson Valley is Historic Huguenot Street, a 10-acre National Historic Landmark district featuring a visitor center, seven stone house museums, a reconstructed 1717 French church, and a slave burial ground. All of the houses are recreations of original settler homes and include the cellar kitchens where slaves lived and worked. Similarly of note is the African Burial Ground, which is now marked by a small monument (in the shape of a stone bench with a rusted chain running between its legs) to commemorate the slaves who were interred there.
Titled “Steal Away: Escape to Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” Adams’ most recent project is an interactive multi-media set that she developed to educate children on the Underground Railroad. In it, she traces the movement of slaves on the run in the Underground Railroad, which had a branch that ran from New York City to Hudson Valley between 1842 and 1843. Regarding the arduousness of their actual journey, Adams elaborates, “Escaped slaves had to travel at night. They had to follow the North Star and learn some of the basics of astronomy, which they passed along to each other. They also passed along information to each other about how to study the moss on a tree to figure out which direction they were headed in — and if they had to be on the move during the day, they knew to always face south because no one thought an escaped slave would head in that direction.”
As the North basks in its participation in the Underground Railroad and the path to freedom for many slaves, learning more about New York’s past participation and complicity with slavery presents a balanced, holistic portrait of its treatment of African slaves. Time spent at historic sites like Huguenot Street provides visitors with the basis for a deeper education.
Editing by Ery Shin.