Credit: Marist College Archives and Special Collections

The African American Struggle Against Slavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley 1785 - 1827

Michael E. Groth

The following essay was a lecture given at a historical symposium sponsored by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill on October 30, 1993, entitled "Black-White Relations in Dutchess County in Historical Perspective".

In 1804, Gilbert Livingston's nineteen-year-old slave Sam "ungratefully" fled from his master's employ. Taking with him a dark brown coat, two waistcoats, pair of blue nankeen trousers, overalls, and several other articles clothing. Sam most likely did not intend to return. Livingston noted that slave dereliction service was particularly "base, because he purchased by me at own solicitation, 225 dollars price, on an express contract work out freedom, as knew I principled against slavery had manumitted several." One year later, James, mulatto belonging Israel Vail Clinton, having similarly negotiated for freedom. Gilbert Livingston, regarded such action "notoriously base requested all printers "throughout the United States "give this advertisement place in their respective papers."

These two advertisements reveal what Shane White has characterized as the "yawning chasm" which separated white from black perceptions of slavery and freedom. As slaveholders in the Mid-Hudson Valley reasserted their authority over their bondsmen and bondswomen in the after math of the American Revolution and acquiesced to only a particularly conservative scheme of gradual abolition, African Americans continued to struggle for their liberty. Short of violent rebellion, the act of running away constituted the most direct means of challenging slavery, and each fugitive undermined the authority of slaveholders in the Mid-Hudson Valley. However, as important as an examination of runaways is in understanding African-American resistance to slavery, it tells only a portion of the story. Although the evidence is fragmentary, the historical record for Dutchess County suggests that many more slaves resorted to less dramatic means of hastening emancipation. Prior to fleeing his master, Gilbert Livingston's slave Sam specifically "solicited" Livingston to purchase him on an "express contract to work out his freedom," and Israel Vail's slave James likewise requested his own purchase to negotiate his liberty. Although Sam and James did eventually abscond, the majority of slaves in Dutchess County were unable or unwilling to take such a drastic step. For these individuals, cognizant of their value to their owners, and empowered by the adoption of gradual abolition, negotiation with their masters was an alternative means by which they could secure their liberty. Although slaves in the Mid-Hudson Valley were incapable on their own of bringing about the end of slavery in New York, their persistence in demanding contracts for their freedom, and the willingness of some, like Sam and James, to flee when their needs were not met, rendered slavery more onerous to their owners and hastened the demise of the institution in the Mid-Hudson River Valley.

The Revolution had a dramatic impact upon the institution of slavery in the Northern states. Fueled by Enlightenment thought, a faith in the perfectibility of man, and Christian millenialism born out of the Great Awakening, opposition to slavery grew steadily in the wake of political ferment and war, as white abolitionists and African Americans linked the slaves' struggle for freedom with the colonial crusade against British tyranny. In the eyes of eighteenth and nineteenth-century abolitionists, the institution of human slavery was an economic anachronism antithetical to liberal conceptions of progress and offensive to Christian morality, natural rights, and democracy. By 1784, the states of New England as well as Pennsylvania had adopted measures, which either abolished slavery outright or prescribed its gradual abolition.

Michael Groth
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New York, however, presented an important exception. Slave labor played a much more indispensable role in New York than in the rest of the North, and the institution emerged more strongly entrenched in the society and economy of the state after the Revolution than it had been before. Slaveholders successfully parried several attempts by lawmakers to abolish slavery in the state until 1799, when the legislature finally adopted an exceptionally conservative scheme of gradual emancipation. "An Act for the gradual abolition of slavery" declared that all children of slaves born after July 4, 1799 were to be deemed and adjudged free but stipulated that all such children were to serve their mothers' masters until the age of twenty-eight for males and twenty-five for females. Slaves born prior to July 4, 1799 were to remain in bondage for the remainders of their natural lives.

Despite the conservatism of slaveholders in New York, the Revolutionary experience emboldened slaves in their own personal struggle for freedom, and it was African Americans who kept the antislavery protest alive during the decades immediately following the conflict. The climactic events of the 1770's and 1780's left an indelible impression content to wait passively as they witnessed the abolition of slavery in neighboring states and listened to the heated debates over emancipation in Albany. A new mood of assertiveness among slaves manifested itself in the region. Residents of Ulster County organized the "Slaver Apprehending Society of Shawangunk" in response to the "uneasiness and disquietude" among local slaves, some of whom believed that the legislature had liberated them "and that they are now held in servitude by the arbitrary power of their Masters".

The act of running away constituted a direct challenge to a slaveowner's authority. Dutchess County newspapers contain advertisements for 200 slaves who absconded from their masters between 1785 and 1827. During the Revolution, African Americans in the Hudson River Valley had capitalized upon the anarchic situation of war by fleeing their masters, and slaves continued to abscond after the cessation of hostilities, although at a slower rate than that during in the war years. While ads for sixty fugitives appeared in the local press between 1777 and 1783- an average of almost nine runaways annually- advertisements for only three fugitives per year appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal between 1785 and 1799 (See Table A). During the decade and a half after the war, however, the number of runaways did noticeably increase; while twenty-two fugitives appeared in newspaper advertisements during the ten years between 1785-1799 (an average of 2.2 annually), twenty-four fugitives absconded during the five years immediately preceding the adoption of the gradual abolition act in 1799, or an average of almost five per year.

Although the numbers provide hardly definitive evidence, they do suggest that slaves in the Mid-Hudson River Valley grew increasingly restive during the final decade of the eighteenth century. The end of slavery in neighboring states and the intensifying debate over emancipation in New York must have convinced at least some African Americans that the days of slavery in New York were numbered but that they could ill afford to wait for the final outcome.

Indeed the adoption of gradual abolition seems to have been an important turning point. The number of fugitives appearing in the local press increased noticeably after 1799, doubling from an average of 3.1 runaways annually to 6.0 between 1800 and 1817. The number of runaways declined slightly after 1817, when the state legislature essentially mandated the end of slavery in New York in 1827, averaging 4.6 runaways annually, but the number of fugitives continued to exceed those prior to 1800. The passage of 1817 act, which freed all the slaves born prior to July 4, 1799 in 1827, must have rendered servitude even more abhorrent to younger African Americans who were born after July 4, 1799 and who were required to serve their masters until their young adulthood. Throughout the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, young adults and adolescents comprised the vast majority of runaways, and that proportion actually increased over time (See Table B). Between 1785 and 1799, fugitives less than twenty-six years of age accounted for three out of every four runaways, while that proportion increased to 78.5 percent of all fugitives during the eighteen years between 1800 and 1817. After 1817 nine of every ten runaways were twenty-six years of age or younger.

The decade after 1817 witnessed a change in the proportion of female runaways as well. During the more than four decades between 1785 and 1827, male fugitives outnumbered female by a ratio of four to one (see Table C). Familial considerations, as well as the difficulty single females would have encountered in supporting themselves as freed persons dissuaded most women from absconding. However, the number of female fugitives did increase gradually over time. Between the end of the Revolution and the adoption of gradual abolition in 1799, males comprised almost nine of every ten runaways, but that proportion declined slightly in the decade and one half after 1799 to 83.3 percent (see table C). After 1817,however, females constituted as many as one third of all fugitives. With the end of slavery all but a fact, young women seem to have been more willing to flee their owners in the after math of the passage of the 1817 statute.

In his path-breaking book on slave resistance in eighteenth-century Virginia, Gerald Mullin has distinguished between what he classified as "inward" and "outward" resistance. According to Mullin's model, inward rebelliousness was directed toward the slave's immediate environment and was impulsive, irrational, violent, and ultimately self-destructive. African-born, unacculturated, and unskilled field hands, lacking sufficient knowledge of a world beyond the plantation, usually resisted inwardly, sabotaging tools or physically attacking overseas. Outward resistance, on the other hand, was self-enhancing and directed toward the larger and loftier goal of permanent freedom form bondage. Unlike unassimilated slaves, acculturated and skilled bondsmen, proficient in English and more knowledgeable of the world outside the plantation, were confident in their abilities to deal with whites and were ultimately more willing to reject slavery altogether by fleeing their masters and by establishing themselves as free persons.