History documents slavery in Upstate New York

Special Reports

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — New York played a pivotal role in the effort to free slaves from the South, but New York wasn’t always on the right side of slavery.

“Many wealthy people here in the Hudson River Valley had enslaved people in varied numbers.”

And it wasn’t just early settlers. The practice, which history has documented so precisely in the South, was also thriving Upstate.

“There was still slavery happening here in the first half of the 19th Century.”

Heidi Hill is the site manager at the historic Schuyler Mansion in Albany. She said Philip Schuyler had many salves over the years — oftentimes generations of people who descended from Dutch colonists — a part of life and culture of the times.

“I don’t know that people in this situation thought that it was wrong, necessarily.”

Slavery was different in New York — still brutal and inhumane — but different. Slaves performed specific jobs like working as a personal valet, domestic servant, carriage driver, tending to animals, and cooking and cleaning.

The work was also not easy.

“Here at Schuyler Mansion we have all sorts of records of shoes being repaired over and over again for the enslaved people.”

Across the river in what is now Rensselaer County, historians at the Craillo State Historic Site have similar findings. Sam Huntington described the conditions found on slaves who had been buried at Schuyler Flats.

“All of their remains showed signs of extremely hard lives of toil, and then also some cases of abuse and neglect.”

The Van Rensselaer family, another notable and wealthy family of the time, owned slaves as early as the 1600s up to almost 1820. It’s a part of the family history that Huntington and others have worked to share in an effort to educate.

“We hear that a lot when the first exhibit debuted. A lot of visitors said we never knew this or we were never taught this.”

The Van Rensselaers’ slaves were highly skilled tradespeople, but still lived in difficult conditions. Documents show slaves in New York lived in the attics and basements of their owner’s home. That was the case at the Schuyler Mansion.

Life was difficult, but there are also records of occasions where slaves could connect with family and friends.

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