Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 2: The Economics of Slavery.

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.  

In 1621, the government of Holland granted the Dutch West India Company the territory stretching from Manhattan to Albany along both sides of the Hudson River.  The colony, named New Netherland, was conceived as a private business venture to exploit the North American trade in animal fur.  From the very outset, the Dutch settlers encountered an acute scarcity of agricultural labor.  The West India Company had no interest in investing any more in labor or infrastructure than was necessary to maintain the enormously profitable fur trade.  The English settlements in the New World relied heavily on indentured servants, young men and sometimes women who agreed to work without wages for a fixed period of time, usually five or six years, in return for passage to the colonies and room and board.  With Holland's relative prosperity, however, Dutch laborers had little interest in serving as indentured servants or in making the long and dangerous journey to this strange new land.  As a result, in 1626, the West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to work on farms, public buildings, and military works.  Governor Peter Stuyvesant (whose descendants many generations later lived in Rye) was the largest private owner of slaves, having 40 enslaved African men and women.  Stuyvesant supervised what was probably the colony's first auction of human beings in 1660, and New Amsterdam soon became a major center of slave trading.

After 1640, the fur trade in the colony declined in importance.  Agriculture began to expand, new lands were brought under cultivation, and settlers took up farming with a view to staying permanently.  Slaves facilitated this transition by providing inexpensive labor that made farming attractive and profitable.  This was particularly true in the farming areas in Westchester County and the Hudson River Valley where the shortage of free workers was acute. The demand was so great in these areas that some planters offered to buy "any suitable blacks available."

By 1664 when the British took control of New Netherland and renamed it New York, slavery was firmly entrenched in Manhattan and the surrounding counties.  Roughly ten percent of the population of Manhattan was of African origin in 1664, nearly all of whom were enslaved.  The Duke of York, who ruled the territory, was determined to heighten the colony's reliance on slave labor and to make Manhattan the chief North American slave port.

Even merchants and farmers who didn't participate directly in the slave trade benefitted from it.  Farmers, in particular, profited from feeding the increasingly large numbers of Africans in the West Indies and providing the materials to operate the vast sugar plantations.  In the classic shape of the Triangle Trade, New York and the other northern colonies sent food, livestock, and wood to West Indian sugar plantations.  Sugar was then shipped back north, probably in barrels made in New York of New England wood.  Northern distilleries turned the molasses into rum to trade in Africa for new slaves who, in turn, were shipped to the West Indies plantations.  The sugar planters in the West Indies imported most of what they needed from the northern colonies and Europe so that they could devote all of their land to the sugar crop.  Even small farmers like those in Rye could load a few bags of flour or garden crops onto a dock and become part of this global venture.  Many of the farmers throughout rural Westchester County used slave labor to produce the products that supplied the sugar plantations.

Slaves were legally the property of their owners.  Their owners had the right to lend, lease, sell, or otherwise dispose of them at any time for any reason.  Slavery, in essence, transformed human beings into commodities that were to be bought and sold for profit.  The American colonists accepted hierarchy, injustice, and exploitation as a normal condition of human life, and differences in skin color and religion made it easier for the colonists to justify the enslavement of Africans.  Since most slave owners in Rye were small farmers, they bought and sold slaves according to their economic need.  Slaves were sold to liquidate estates for the benefit of heirs, to satisfy the claims of creditors, to reduce costs during the winter months or an economic downturn, or just to earn a profit.

The Rye Historical Society's Archives and the Rye Town Records contain several examples of slave transactions.  The earliest record of a slave sale in Rye dates from 1689 when James Mott sold his 14 year old slave Jack to Humphrey Underhill.  In 1764, the executor of Nathan Brown's estate sold his possessions, including his two slaves, to settle his estate.  Twenty years later, David Pugsley, in order to raise funds to satisfy his debts, sold his horses, cows, and all of his household goods to William Vail.  In addition to his furniture, tools, linens, tableware, casks of meat and tubs of butter, Pugsley sold "one Negro wench goes by the Name of Aunt Lill" and "one Negro girl named Grace about fourteen years of Age."

Sale of Slave by James Mott, dated July 4, 1689
Credit: Rye Town Records

Excerpt from Sale of Assets of the Personal Estate of Nathan Brown, 1764
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Excerpt from Sale Agreement between David Pugsley and William Vail, dated March 29, 1785
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Sometimes, children were placed into slavery or into long periods of indentured servitude because their parents (usually their single mothers) were unable to provide for them.  On August 14, 1708, Mary Wood, a White servant to the Episcopal minister George Muirson and his wife, agreed to give over her mixed race, illegitimate child to Jonathan Hart of Rye.  Mary agreed that her son would serve the Harts for the rest of his life.  To secure her performance, she posted a bond of 40 pounds (the equivalent today of over $16,000).  Similarly, on February 4, 1771, David and Mary Lane agreed to take in a mixed race "Mongrel" girl, Marget, left in their care by her unnamed mother.  Marget was required to serve the Lanes for more than 17 years.  During that time, she was not to "play with cards, dice tables, nor any other unlawful games" nor "absent herself day nor night without leave."  At the end of her service, the Lanes were to give her one good suit of clothes, in addition to her working clothes. 

Indenture Agreement by Mary Wood, dated August 14, 1708
Credit: Rye Town Records

These records reveal in stark terms the harsh realities of slavery.  Slaves were bought and sold like any other item of personal property and every element of their daily lives was controlled by their masters.  Parents might be separated from their children by economic necessity and those children given over to a life of servitude.  Little thought was given to the slaves' well-being or to that of their families.  We are left to wonder how the people of Rye came to accept, perpetuate, and justify a system based on exploitation and dehumanization.

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Hodges, G.R. (1999).  Root & branch: African Americans in New York & East Jersey 1613-1863.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press.

Lepore, J. (2005).  The tightening vise: Slavery and freedom in British New York.  In I. Berlin & L. Harris (Eds.), Slavery in New York (pp. 57-91).  New York, NY: The New Press.

Taylor, A.  (2013).  The internal enemy: Slavery and war in Virginia 1772-1832.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 

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