Amy Jacaruso, Marist ’12
As the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it might be easy to forget that the Hudson River Valley had a long history of slavery, proliferated by the region’s role as an important agricultural center. In 1790, when slavery was at its peak, there were over 21,000 enslaved people in New York, with almost 10 percent of that number living in Dutchess County.1 The area was not safe for escaped slaves seeking freedom, as there was an interest in capturing and returning fugitives. Emancipation was a slow process in New York: the state banned further importation of slaves in 1785, and after 1788 allowed manumission (the freeing of slaves from their bondage). A law was passed in 1799 that began the process of gradual abolition, decreeing that all children born into slavery after July 4 of that year would be freed after they had reached a certain age: 28 for men and 25 for women. The final blow to slavery in New York was delivered by an 1817 law declaring that all slaves born before July 4, 1799, would be freed on July 4, 1827.2
The region also has strong ties to abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery c. 1797 as Isabella Baumfree in the hamlet of Swartekill (now known as Rifton), Ulster County. In 1810 she was sold to John Dumont of New Paltz after three previous owners, and it was from here that she would escape to freedom in 1826 with her youngest daughter, Sophia. She was then employed by the Van Wagenens in Wagondale, after they paid Dumont twenty-five dollars in exchange for Isabella and her daughter. From 1827 to 1828, Isabella successfully fought at the Ulster County Courthouse for the freedom and recovery of her son, Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. The lawsuit was the first ever won by a black parent. Although five-year-old Peter had been badly beaten, Isabella was granted custody of her son. After moving to New York City, and then Massachusetts, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883, a tireless supporter of equality to the very end of her life.3
For all of its involvement in the support of slavery, the Hudson River Valley also was home to individuals and groups that played a significant role in the Underground Railroad, which was run by local Quakers and abolitionists. The railroad originally began as a way for local slaves to make their way to freedom, in response to efforts in the area to groups like the Society for the Apprehending of Slaves, formed in 1796 in the town of Shawangunk, Ulster County.4
The Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project (MHAHP) was formed to keep alive the history of antislavery efforts in the area through research, publications, and events. Formed in 2006, the MHAHP is a non-profit group comprised of a network of over 60 researchers, educators, civic leaders, and community members. Its goals are to:
• conduct and synthesize research on the history of antislavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley, with special emphasis on the Underground Railroad;
• interpret this history and share these interpretations with a wide array of residents and visitors in our area, with particular attention to students and youth; and
• place this local history in the broader contexts of racial slavery in the New World, the African-American experience, and antislavery legacies today, including the impact of this historic grassroots movement on subsequent struggles for racial and social justice.5
The MHAHP’s first public event brought a replica of the schooner Amistad to Poughkeepsie in October 2006. The original Cuban ship was the scene of a slave rebellion in 1839. It was captured by the United States off the coast of Long Island. The court case to determine the status of the slaves was taken up as a cause by abolitionists. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered the slaves to be freed.
The arrival of the Amistad replica brought together musicians, students, historical reenactors, and researchers, all of whom commemorated this important step forward in the antislavery movement. The MHAHP’s other events have included a March 2008 reenactment at the First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie of a sermon, titled “Our Solace and Our Duty in this Crisis,” originally given there on the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Also affiliated with the MHAHP are the Dutchess County Antislavery Singers, who research and perform, in period attire, abolitionist music that would have been performed at rallies and conventions. The group’s website also contains a list of classroom resources for teachers, including primary documents concerning local abolitionist efforts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as outgoing links to other websites with information, resources, and lesson plans concerning slavery and antislavery in the Hudson River Valley.
The MHAHP’s research has culminated in its first publication: Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad. The book provides a history of both slavery and antislavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley, as well as a guided tour of fifteen sites—fourteen with connections to antislavery efforts or the Underground Railroad and one that was the home of a known slave owner and secessionist. Four of the locations listed in the guide are active churches, two are cemeteries, three are Quaker meeting houses, two are historic sites with regular hours, and four no longer stand.
Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad places these sites on two different Underground Railroad trails. The first is the Quaker Trail to Freedom, which ran through the eastern part of Dutchess County and includes a slave cemetery and multiple Quaker meeting houses. The second trail is the River Trail to Freedom, which ran from Beacon to Rhinebeck and often transported slaves by disguising them as workers on barges or steamboats to help them move northward. Although no boats with known connections to the River Trail to Freedom survive today, in 2004 the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, based in Albany, purchased the home of Stephen and Harry Myers, black abolitionists who helped many slaves who used the Hudson River as a means to freedom.
The MHAHP hopes to expand this project by investigating more potential sites, as well as designing tours for visitors based on the sites described in Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad. The tours would include guides and the involvement of Dutchess County Tourism and tour bus companies.
The MHAHP’s preservation of abolitionism in the region makes sure that that this crucial time in American history is never forgotten. Driven by Europe’s demand for sugar, transatlantic slavery’s 350-year history links ports on four different continents in almost 3,500 slave voyages. Slavery connects the Hudson River Valley to this entire system, and ties the region to Africa, the Caribbean, and Brazil in a system that transported over 10 million Africans from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century.6 The antislavery efforts in the Mid-Hudson links multiple local groups—Quakers, white and black abolitionists—to the much larger efforts of the entire Underground Railroad. Although it might be easy to forget that the Hudson River Valley was a place where slavery once thrived, it should not be forgotten that it was also a place where men and women risked their lives to help their fellow humans. The MHAHP exists to preserve that legacy.
More information on the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History project can be found by visiting www.mhantislaveryhistoryproject.org, or by emailing MHAHP.firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project, Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad: A Dutchess County Guide. (Poughkeepsie: Netpublications, Inc.), 1.
2. Ibid., 2-3.
3. Nyquist, Corinne. “On the Trail of Sojourner Truth in Ulster County, New York.” http://www. newpaltz.edu/sojourner_truth/
4. Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project, Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad: A Dutchess County Guide. (Poughkeepsie: Netpublications, Inc.), 3.
5. Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project, “Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project.” http:// www.mhantislaveryhistoryproject.org/.
6. Emory University, “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Voyages.” http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces