Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Monday, March 17, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 1: The Halsted Family and Their Slaves.

The story of slavery in the South is all too well known.  Images of plantations where overseers brandished whips over slaves picking cotton are deeply embedded in our national conscience.  The story of slavery in the North, however, has largely been hidden from public view.  The unmistakable truth is that slavery was a national phenomenon, and the North -- including Rye -- shared in the wealth it created and the oppression it required.  

From the earliest Dutch settlement until four decades after the end of the Revolutionary War, slavery was essential to the day-to-day survival and economic life of the colonial North.  No part of the North relied more heavily on slavery than Manhattan and the surrounding area, including Rye.  The earliest mention of slavery in Rye dates from 1689 when Jacob Pearce, then the owner of the Square House, left as part of his estate "a negro woman called by the name of Rose."  A census taken in 1712 lists 18 slaves in Rye Town out of a total population of 516.  With the rapid growth in population during the first half of the 18th century, the number of slaves in Rye had increased to 117 by mid century.  In 1790, the year of the first federal census, there were 123 slaves in Rye out of a total population of 986 -- nearly 12.5 percent.  At the beginning of the 19th century, nearly every family owned one African American "hand" or more.

Who were these families, and what do we know about the slaves that they owned?  The Rye Historical Society's archives and the records at the Rye Town offices tell us that slavery was a wholly unremarkable institution in 17th and 18th century Rye.  Slaves in Rye were viewed like tangible property -- equivalent to cattle, horses, farming utensils, and furniture.  They were bought and sold to suit the commercial purposes of their owners, with little thought given to the slave's well-being or that of his or her family.  Slaves had no identity, other than that conferred on them by their owners.  They had no family names (except for those of their owners), and their first names were Christian names given to them upon their arrival from Africa or the Caribbean islands.  Their education was spotty, confined to religious education in preparation for conversion to Christianity.  Although many slaves in the North were treated humanely, cruelty and harsh punishment also abounded.  Deep-seated notions of racial inferiority and racial discrimination permeated all aspects of life.

One Rye family, the Halsteds, left behind several important clues to their slave-holding history. The Halsted family moved to Rye from New Rochelle and purchased the Knapp House, today the oldest house in Westchester County, in 1769.  The Halsteds were among the largest and wealthiest landowners in the area, acquiring over time a total of 317 acres in Rye and Harrison.  They kept oxen, cows, cattle, horses, and geldings, and likely grew wheat for sale as flour, as well as rye and corn.  The 1790 Federal Census records show that the Halsteds owned seven slaves and were some of the largest slaveholders in Rye.  Ezekiel Halsted's Last Will and Testament that he signed on April 15, 1800 (see below) tells us a great deal about how the Halsteds viewed their slaves.  Ezekiel left his son Philemon and Philemon's heirs "forever all my Negro slaves," along with all of his stock of cattle, horses, and farming implements.  Ezekiel left his wife "my indented Negro girl Hannah."  When Ezekiel died on February 20, 1805, the inventory of his estate included "the time of a black girl named Hannah" valued at 30 pounds, "one Negro woman named Rose" valued at 100 pounds, and "one Negro boy named Jack" valued at 150 pounds.  The inventory also listed a looking glass and three window curtains with a value of 25 pounds, a cupboard and linens at 100 pounds, and one horse and chair at 150 pounds.

Last Will and Testament of Ezekiel Halsted, April 15, 1800
Credit: Rye Historical Society

There is no information in the Rye Historical Society Archives on the living quarters for the Halsted slaves.  Unlike the large plantations in the South or nearby Philipsburg Manor, slaves in Rye would have lived in close proximity to their masters, most likely either in attics or in separate small kitchen buildings.  In these one-room structures, which have been described as “containers for human chattel,” slaves lived and prepared meals for their masters.  The small number of slaves in each household and the geographic distance between Westchester’s farms resulted in a greater connection between slave and master than on large southern plantations.  Some slaves even shared meals with their owners.  Sarah Kemble Knight, a Boston woman who wrote a diary of her travels from Boston to New York in 1704 (which included a stop in Rye), commented disdainfully on the custom of masters allowing slaves “to sit at table with them (as they say to save time), and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” 

We also know little about the family lives of the Halsted slaves.  New York State law did not formally recognize slave marriages until 1809, but many slave owners, troubled by the destructive effects of slavery on the slave family, encouraged civil or religious ceremonies to upgrade the significance of the marital relationship.  Records kept by Christ’s Church in Rye note the marriages of slaves and free Blacks beginning in 1791.  On July 28, 1805, not long after Ezekiel Halsted's death, Jack, now owned by Philemon, married another slave, Nanny who belonged to Nathaniel Penfield, then owner of the Square House.  Philemon's slave Rose was married on June 5, 1808 to another slave named Jack who was owned by the Delaney family.  Some slaves lived together as a family with both parents and their children in the same household.  That was more likely to occur, however, in Westchester’s large manors where owners had several slaves of both sexes.  In Rye, given the dispersed nature of the slave population, it is more likely that slave families were divided among several owners and were only able to see each other on their limited free time, and then only with their owner’s permission.

Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827, but many families in Rye began freeing their slaves several decades earlier.  A year before he died in 1805, Ezekiel Halsted freed his slave Duke.  Philemon freed Rose in 1809 when she was 36 and Philemon's son freed another family slave in 1810.  The legal regulation of manumission varied from town to town, but the crux of all of the regulations prevented masters from abandoning aged or infirm slaves under the pretext of freeing them.  "Overseers of the Poor" appointed by each town to assume responsibility for indigent freedman had to approve the manumission of each slave.  In Rye, the manumission process required that the Overseers of the Poor examine the slave, determine his or her approximate age, and determine whether he or she was of a "good and sound” constitution or “of sufficient ability to provide for himself.” The slaveowner then signed a formal document setting the slave free. 

Ezekiel Halsted's Manumission of Duke, dated August 17, 1804
Credit: Rye Town Records

We will never know precisely what motivated the Halsteds to free their slaves, but we do know that the Halsted family played a prominent role in establishing the Methodist Church in Rye, and the Methodist movement was strongly anti-slavery.  Unlike most churches that routinely segregated  Black worshippers, the Methodists welcomed Blacks as full participants.  Many years later, on the eve of the Civil War, Underhill Halsted gave land in the town of Rye for the African Cemetery.  Today, the African Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and contains the gravesides of African American Civil War veterans and the descendants of many freed slaves from Rye.


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1 comment:

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