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Philipsburg Manor

The Hudson River Valley Review; Regional History Forum Volume 20, Number 2

Philipsburg Manor

Philipsburg Manor is a nationally significant historic site located in Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County. Once a thriving seventeenth and eighteenth century milling and trading complex, it now presents a recreation of colonial American life with an emphasis on the history of slavery in the North and its impact on the cultural and economic development of the region. Operated by Historic Hudson Valley, it is the only historic site in New York with a major focus on the living-history aspect of 18th-century slavery.

Originally, Philipsburg Manor encompassed more than 52,000 acres, which was owned by the Anglo-Dutch Philipse family. The property was divided into smaller plots of farmland, which was worked by tenant farmers and enslaved Africans. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Adolph Philipse, then lord of the manor, had become one of the wealthiest men in New York and one of the largest slave owners in the Northern colonies.

During the power struggle in colonial New York in the seventeenth century, the Philipse family shifted from being Dutch to English. This ensured them a thriving business based on trade between the newly founded colonies and Europe. Their business also included involvement in the slave trade of the middle passage. They remained loyal to England during the American Revolution; because of that, much of their property was confiscated in 1779.

Adolph Philipse was a merchant by trade. He conducted his business from an office in New York, handling the shipment of goods—primarily dairy products and grains such as wheat and rye—that were processed at the Upper Mills, the industrial heart of the manor, before making their way downriver. The water powered gristmill, located on the Pocantico River (a tributary of the Hudson), operated from spring through fall. On average, it produced up to 5,000 pounds of flour a day. Once reaching New York, the flour was shipped overseas, where it was traded for goods such as sugar and tobacco. Enslaved Africans were the heartbeat of the manor’s industry.

For a northern colony, New York had a large slave population. During the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly twenty percent of its residents were enslaved Africans. New York City was the second largest slave port in the colonies, and profits from the slave trade were highly lucrative. While many families in New York owned slaves, most possessed just one or two. The Philipse family was an exception: because of their wealth and property, they owned up to twenty-three enslaved men, women, and children. A list of slaves belonging to the estate of Adolph Philipse in 1750 listed six men fit for work and three who were unfit, as well as five women and eight children. From the names listed, historians were able to distinguish the master miller, named Ceaser, and the riverboat pilot, Dimond, as the two most important and skilled men working at the gristmill and wharf.

Ceaser was responsible for keeping the mill running; in fact, he appears to have been the only man on the manor who understood the milling process. (Ironically, the person most valuable to the survival of the manor was a slave.) Dimond captained the Philipses’ ship, which delivered goods to New York. Thus, he was also very valuable, although in a much different way: Because Dimond possessed freedom of movement, he could carry news, messages, and other information for his fellow enslaved Africans. This allowed much of the slave community to keep in touch with members of their families who had been displaced by the slave trade.

Most other slaves on the manor packed barrels of flour for shipment, or worked as blacksmiths, dockworkers, coopers, or carpenters. Others served as cooks, navigators, and deckhands. Enslaved women tended to the garden and livestock or worked in the dairy, where milk, butter, and cheeses were produced. They also spun wool and flax for garments and prepared medicines for the sick.

The slave community itself was not entirely powerless. Running away was one way that slaves tried to escape their captivity, but risks such as death, alienation from one’s family, and physical punishment were the possible punishments if caught. Insurrections did occur, most notably in New York City in 1741. A historical play entitled The Fire This Time: Cuffee’s Trial—about the slave insurrection of 1741—has occasionally been performed for visitors to Historic Hudson Valley sites. The play portrays the trial of a slave named Cuffee who participated in an uprising that led to the burning of the Philipse warehouse. The play is based on actual transcripts from the trial, which took place on May 29, 1741. Adolph Philipse’s nephew, Frederick II, was one of two chief justices who presided over the case.

Today, Philipsburg Manor consists of a gristmill and wharf, recreated using traditional tools and techniques from the seventeenth century; the rebuilt Manor

PICTURE: Re-enactors celebrating “Pinkster” at Philipsburg Manor. The 17th-century Dutch holiday became an African-American celebration of spring involving music, dance, and food. This year’s festival is planned for Sunday, May 16.

House, which has been restored to its eighteenth century appearance; an eighteenth century barn (moved to the site) that houses livestock and traditional farm equipment; an activity center that is used to demonstrate and celebrate the diversity of African and European cultures in the Hudson River Valley; and a slave garden, where traditional crops and medicinal herbs are grown. Costumed interpreters demonstrate aspects of colonial life and talk about the issues that affected the various communities that lived on the estate. The interpretation at Philipsburg Manor was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the encouragement of the community-based African American Advisory Board.

—Steven Foceri, Hudson River Valley Institute

Historic Philipsburg Manor is open to the public daily except Tuesdays from April 1 to October 31, with tours beginning at 10 a.m. The last tour begins at 4 p.m. Winter hours, from November 1 to December 15, are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $9 for adults and $5 for children. Group rates and discounts are available.

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