Close to Home: Slavery in Columbia County

Black History Month spurred us to investigate the institution of slavery in the Hudson Valley and, more specifically, Hillsdale.  Like most Americans, we’ve been inclined to think of slavery as largely a Southern institution. But it was hugely important in the colonial North. From the earliest days of Dutch occupancy right up to the Civil War, much of New York State’s bustling economy benefited directly from traffic in enslaved humans.

In the 17th and 18th centuries New York was second only to the southern states in its number of enslaved people. In 1703, 42 percent of New York City’s households had slaves, much more than Philadelphia and Boston combined. Among the cities of the original 13 colonies, only Charleston, South Carolina, had more. 

In the Hudson Valley, the first enslaved men were brought to Fort Orange (Albany) in 1626, only two years after it was settled, by the Dutch West Indies Company. By the mid 1600s Dutch ships were bringing thousands of men, women, and children in chains to New Amsterdam, many of whom were sold to upstate landowners to work on the vast farms and manor holdings of the Anglo-Dutch elite.  Enslavement was not only a source of cheap labor (since settlers were hard to come by in the Hudson Valley) but also cheap capital. 

In colonial Columbia County, the majority of enslaved people were concentrated in the older river towns of Kinderhook, Clermont and Claverack, held for the most part by the Dutch, the Germans, and Anglo-Dutch landholders. In Kinderhook, roughly a quarter of the white households owned slaves in 1790. Robert Livingston, the third lord of the Manor, ruled a literal plantation, with some of the forty-four slaves working at his ironworks at Ancram. In 1786 there were more than 1300 slaves in Kinderhook, Claverack, and Clermont, comprising 10 to 13 percent of those towns’ total population. 

In sharp contrast, the Yankee-settled hill towns of Hillsdale and Canaan along the Massachusetts border had far fewer enslaved people. In the first Federal census of 1790, enslaved Africans counted for less than one percent of the population of Hillsdale and Canaan. It is tempting to imagine that the hill town Yankees – emigres from Massachusetts which had abolished slavery in 1784, and Connecticut, which had passed an act for Gradual Abolition in 1784 — were more high-minded than their riverfront neighbors. But more likely they were just poorer, working as tenant farmers on the Livingston or Van Rensselaer manors, a condition of servitude unlikely to enrich them to the point where they could afford to buy enslaved people. Those who weren’t tenant farmers were considered “squatters” by the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons and were in constant danger of being chased back over the border by British troops at the behest of the great landowners. 

Americans won their freedom from Great Britain in 1785 but did not extend that freedom to people of color (or to women, for that matter). The first halting steps toward abolishing slavery in the state were being taken in New York as early as 1785 but were heatedly contested. Columbia County was split on emancipation. The anti-abolitionists were rooted in the riverfront Dutch/German communities where slavery was a fundamental part of the agricultural economy. The pro-abolitionists encompassed both the thriving city of Hudson, settled by Quaker whalers from New England, and the populist Baptist militants of the eastern hill towns of Canaan and Hillsdale, where slavery was much less entrenched. 

That is not to say that there were no enslaved people in Hillsdale. The 1790 census shows a total of 66 enslaved people in Canaan and Hillsdale, compared to 978 in Kinderhook and Claverack, and 386 in the south-county Livingston towns. Charles McKinstry, a prominent Hillsdale figure and member of the NY State Legislature, held five, and Ambrose Spencer (of Spencertown) held three. But both men, conscious of evolving anti-slavery sentiment, voted against their financial interests to support the abolishment of slavery in New York. 

After nearly 15 years of State Legislature squabbling, New York passed a gradual emancipation act in 1799. It freed no one immediately; only children born to enslaved people after July 4, 1799 would be liberated, and only after they served a lengthy indenture for many years. Practically, the system amounted to a form of remuneration for lost slaves, since freed children were often bound back to their former masters. An 1817 law went further, freeing slaves born before July 4, 1799.  But it did not go into effect until July 4, 1827. And children born to enslaved mothers before July 4, 1827 would be indentured for 21 years. These two laws reflected compromises with pro-slavery financial interests and were intended to protect slave owners by drawing out emancipation over generations.

Still, New York became a haven for slaves escaping from Mid Atlantic and Southern states. The militancy of the hill towns may have helped shaped the operations of the underground railroad in Columbia County, where stations in Hudson, Chatham, and Austerlitz hid fugitives coming up the river from New York. Advertisements offering rewards for escaped slaves tell a sad story.




Then came the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which nullified New York’s personal liberty laws and required state officials to help slave catchers and punished those who helped escaping slaves. Free blacks had to be on guard against gangs of kidnappers who would seize free men and women, falsely claim they were escaped slaves, and ship them south to be sold.

As pro- vs. anti-abolition sentiment roiled the country in the run up to the Civil War, Columbia County stayed largely in the anti-abolition column. Kinderhook native Martin Van Buren, the 8th President, was called the quintessential “northern man with southern principles” by a Black newspaper correspondent passing through Kinderhook, with Washington allies who were on a par with “the sultan of Constantinople, or the autocrat of St. Petersburg.” More interested in holding on to power than in resolving the question of emancipation, Van Buren lasted only one term in office. By 1840 the black communities in Hudson, Troy and Albany began to publish publications like the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate, the National Watchman and the Clarion, mobilizing African Americans in New York State galled by their nearly total disenfranchisement.

The Black population in Columbia County was stable or declining between 1820-1860 as freed African Americans left farms for cities or struck out for more fertile western lands when the Erie Canal opened. When the Civil War finally came, Columbia County was ambivalent, and efforts to raise a regiment failed in 1861. But Blacks in the county took the first opportunity to join the fight against slavery. Early in 1863 Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of Boston raised the first regiment of Black soldiers for the Union Army, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, largely from Berkshire County. All told, twenty-five Black Columbians served in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts.

Hillsdale has a somewhat tenuous connection with one of the founders of the NAACP. Thomas Burghardt (born in West Africa around 1730) was held in enslavement by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt in the Housatonic Valley. Thomas briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the 18th century. His grandson Othello in 1811 married Sarah Lampman, who was remembered by her grandson as “a thin, tall, yellow and hawk-faced woman” originally from Hillsdale. That child, born in 1868 and brought up in his Burghardt grandparents’ Great Barrington household, was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (W.E.B. Du Bois), the famed civil rights activist, prolific writer, scholar, sociologist, educator and a co-founder of the NAACP. 

On Dugway Rd. in Austerlitz, a marker denotes the approximate location where Peter Wheeler settled circa 1825. Born into slavery in 1789 and freed as a child in the will of his owner, Wheeler was re-enslaved at age 9 and endured unimaginable brutality until escaping in 1806 for a life at sea. He wrote his autobiography, Chains and Freedom; or, The Life and Adventures of a Colored Man Yet Living, a Slave in Chains, a Sailor on the Deep, and a Sinner at the Cross, in  1839. You can read it online here

Peter Wheeler, author of Chains and Freedom; or, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wheeler: A Colored Man Yet Living, a Slave in Chains, a Sailor on the Deep, and a Sinner at the Cross.



New York State Museum

Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson, John L. Brooke, University of North Carolina Press, 2010

© 2021 Chris Atkins and Lauren Letellier
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14 Responses to Close to Home: Slavery in Columbia County

  1. jdecourcy212 says:

    This was so very interesting. Thanks for shining a light on this part of NY’s history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating and revelatory. Here’s another connection that doesn’t literally speak of enslaved people here in Columbia County, but of the county’s historical entanglement with slavery. This occurred to me while walking the new section of the Empire State Trail that goes through Stockport. At a stunningly beautiful spot it intersects with Loomworks Road, and crosses Claverack Creek. There’s an interpretive display that tells about the loom factory once located there and powered by the creek, which supplied machinery to factories in the US and Europe.

    Looms=weaving=cotton=slavery in the South.

    How many other early Columbia County industries were likewise based on the slave economy?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jonathan says:

    But what’s so often overlooked is the ways that the slave economy, even when it slavery was only in the South, was so enmeshed with the economy of the country as a whole (not to mention that of the world), but in indirect ways, so that people could be blissfully unaware of the connections.

    Liked by 2 people

    • brendashufelt says:

      I remember coming across a knitting mill company in Hudson that the author believed had been contracted to make slave clothes (the description from the company seemed to indicate that). I’ve also heard that even though there was some law created that NYS (or Hudson specific?) couldn’t aid the southern states once they seceded there was one company in Hudson that still made uniforms for the Confederacy. That I have found no evidence for but supposedly when there was a fire in the building years later they found remnants of the uniforms. I will look for the information on the knitting mill though. And, to your point, yes, NYS definitely benefited economically from slave labor. It is good, as you indicate, not to be ‘blissfully unaware’ of this.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and the complicity in New York state was particularly egregious. A great book on this topic is “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery.”


  4. nancycohen says:

    really interesting – great job, hillsdale historians.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gregg Berninger says:

    What slave or near slave working conditions do we benefit from today? Our coffee, chocolate, and clothing come to mind…a $5.99 t-shirt at H&M…unlikely it was made by workers who live a fully free life like we enjoy.

    Thank you for your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Peter Bunten says:

    Hi — So glad you’re doing this. My organization has done a lot of work on slavery and antislavery in Dutchess County. One area where we connect is with the Quakers along the eastern boarders of Dutch and Colum. After holding enslaved people for two centuries, Quakers finally – in the late 1700’s – began to disown the institution and freed all their slaves. David Irish, of the Oblong Meeting in Pawling, was a powerful voice for freedom, and he took in freedom seekers, before sending them on — many of who went next to the Marriott family, located I believe, in Hudson. Eventually some freedom seekers ended up at a farm just outside Burlington, VT. The Powell family, original of Clinton before moving to Ghent, were Quaker antislavery folks. Aaron became a leader of the antislavery/abolition movement in the middle 1800s and for a time was the publisher of the Anti-Slavery Standard.

    Like you note for Columbia,
    the largest slaveholding areas in Dutchess were the river towns of Rhinebeck, Poughkeepsie and Fishkill. If you have an email list, I’d like to be added.

    Hope to keep in touch,

    Peter Bunten
    Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Julie Means Kane – Author and commented:
    Fascinating bit of history from the Historians of Hillsdale, NY, the town in which I live. Thanks, Lauren and Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jeanne Kiefer says:

    Lauren and Chris, so interesting! I was aware Hillsdale had relatively few slaves, but did not know much about the rest of the county. Some years ago I was shocked to learn my Long Island ancestors owned 6 slaves in 1710, but your account adds so much detail. Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy also tells a nuanced New Amsterdam slave story.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Julie Means Kane - Author Close to Home: Slavery in Columbia County

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