PART II: BLACKS, SLAVERY AND FREEDOM IN OLD PLATTSBURGH

by Jerry Bates

In my last blog, I raised the question: “What motivated Thomas Tredwell, first to own slaves and then to release them?”  (Older blogs are carried below) I’ll try to answer that question in this session

In a later edition, I’ll list the remaining slaves that were noted in the Town records over the 23 years following the last entry that referenced Treadwell.

As for Treadwell’s and other’s motivation, digging some facts out of other resources can help us make a reasonable speculation. Treadwell was one of the original company with Zephaniah Platt that established the Town of Plattsburgh in April, 1785. Of the 33,000 acres of land claimed by Platt and granted by New York State, Treadwell received 900 acres. That is a lot of land to manage without help.

Treadwell and others in the company were from the Hudson River Valley prior to settling in Plattsburgh and their attitudes were likely reflective of that Valley’s culture.

The Hudson Valley was organized as New Netherlands by the Dutch West India Company (DWI) in 1621. The DWI sent 18 settlers to build a key fur trading settlement at Fort Orange (now Albany). The colony’s very existence and one basis for international recognition of the Dutch control in the new world were dependent on population growth. Population was also needed to defend its  place in the face of competitive English trade settlements in Connecticut and lingering Native American interests at the very gates of Fort Orange.

  Blog 8

Dutch map of Fort Orange in 1629

At great expense, the DWI went spent several years trying to recruit Dutch settlers to develop the agricultural fields necessary to sustain the colony. It didn’t work. While European immigrants were industrious, they often found it more profitable to turn to fur trading and other ventures. They could make small fortunes and return to Europe to live a more comfortable and familiar life style.

So the DWI, which through a complicated history, also controlled Caribbean sugar, salt and slave trade, resorted to bringing in slaves to solve their agricultural need. That practice made farming more attractive and profitable for European settlers. By 1640, slavery was effectively established in the Hudson Valley colony.

Lands were gradually accumulated into huge patroon estates. That discouraged European immigration further and increased dependence on slaves.Free blacks in New Netherland were trusted to serve in the militias, and slaves were given arms to help defend the settlement during the Indian war of 1641-44. They even helped to put down the Rensselaerswyck revolt of white tenants. Blacks shared coequal standing with whites in the courts, and free blacks were allowed to own property. They were free to marry whites, sometimes owned white indentured servants, and after a time gain a “half-freedom”.

But in 1664, the British drove the Dutch out. The land was titled to the Duke of York who had a major interest in the Royal African Company, also involved in slave trade. He actively promoted the marketing of slavery in New York which became the largest slave state north of Maryland. The condition of slaves deteriorated as the slave population grew especially in NYC. After some racial incidents, white fear of rebellion ballooned. Racism became entrenched and British official acts brutally suppressive. The use of slaves drove white porters and coopers out of work while slave traders and those port agents, lawyers, clerks, scriveners, dock workers, and others related to slave trade saw handsome profits.

The approach of American independence revealed that most revolutionary leaders in New York expressed anti-slavery sentiments, but the anxiety of war and a need for solidarity among the colonies facing Britain overshadowed the urgency to end slavery. During the war, many slaves fled to the English side which offered them freedom. The NY legislature finally voted in 1781 to manumit slaves serving in the armed forces.

In the year when Plattsburgh was formed, 1785, Aaron Burr led a push for immediate freeing of slaves in NY, but others who sought a gradual approach won the day. The latter feared the power of the black vote even though blacks made up just 8% of the population.

So I think that experience and attitude was carried north to Plattsburgh. Slavery, while debatable, was still widely accepted where a good excuse for needed free labor existed. Plattsburgh settlers needing to clear, plant, and harvest hundreds of acres of land, found the excuse.

By 1788, slave trade and special slave courts were banned in New York State, but ownership of existing slaves continued. But Quakers were now relentlessly pressuring for freeing slaves. A growing white population willing to work and who did not need to be maintained during periods of recession made ownership of slaves less attractive. “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” passed freeing all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799 when males reached 28 years and females at 25. Those enslaved before that date remained enslaved as “indentured servants” for life. Slavery did not officially end until 1827 though vestiges continued – which is another story.

So Mr. Treadwell and others motivation to manumit slaves was probably in synch with these social, economic and political changes and pushed along by Quaker sentiment centered in Peru. It was clearly not a smooth, peaceful transition in Plattsburgh, but that is another story.

#  #  #

 

Advertisements