No­tices shed light on run­away slaves

News­pa­per items helped his­to­ri­ans with lo­cal ties write book about sub­ject

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Carola

They were field hands, cooks, mu­si­cians and black­smiths.

Some were “well made,” oth­ers lame. A few showed rit­ual tribal scar­ring from their na­tive Africa, oth­ers bore scars in­flicted by their mas­ters.

All of them — some 600-plus men and women — were black slaves who bolted for free­dom in up­state New York in the 1700s and early 1800s.

The de­tails of their es­capes are in­cluded in a new book by two Hud­son Val­ley his­to­ri­ans who ex­am­ine slav­ery in the re­gion through a cen­tury of news­pa­per no­tices seek­ing the re­turn of run­away slaves.

Su­san Stessin-Cohn of New Paltz and Ash­ley Hurl­burt-Bi­agini of Sal­is­bury Mills spent years scour­ing ar­chives for “In De­fi­ance: Ru­n­aways from Slav­ery in New York’s Hud­son River Val­ley 1735-1831,” re­cently pub­lished by Al­bany-based Black Dome Press. Their soft-cover book con­tains re­prints and tran­scrip­tions of

more than 550 news­pa­per no­tices pub­lished be­tween 1735 and 1831, four years af­ter slav­ery was abol­ished in New York state.

Most of the no­tices were pub­lished in pa­pers printed in a 10-county re­gion from Al­bany to Westch­ester County. Many con­tain vivid phys­i­cal de­scrip­tions of the 607 ru­n­aways doc­u­mented in the book, a frac­tion of the un­told num­ber of en­slaved blacks in New York who sought free­dom through es­cape. The in­for­ma­tion of­fers a unique glimpse into the lives of the North­ern slaves who worked the val­ley’s farms and toiled in its homesteads, the au­thors said.

“There’s so few sto­ries about en­slaved peo­ple (in the North),” said Stessin-Cohn, who serves as his­to­rian for the town of New Paltz. “Each lit­tle no­tice is like a vi­gnette, it’s a story on some­one’s life. It puts a face on this whole hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Stessin-Cohn is a for­mer pro­fes­sor of so­cial stud­ies ed­u­ca­tion at SUNY New Paltz and direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion for His­toric Huguenot Street. Hurl­burt-Bi­agini is a for­mer man­ager of col­lec­tions and ar­chives for His­toric Huguenot Street

While a hand­ful of the larger New York es­tates had dozens of slaves work­ing on them dur­ing the Colo­nial and an­te­bel­lum pe­ri­ods, the typ­i­cal up­state slave­holder owned one to five slaves, Stessin-Cohn said. While that meant Hud­son Val­ley slaves tended to pos­sess a va­ri­ety of skills, it also left them more iso­lated from one an­other com­pared to blacks forced to work on South­ern plan­ta­tions, she said.

Slav­ery in the North could be even harsher “be­cause they were so alone and they were un­der their en­slaver’s watch con­stantly,” Stessin-Cohn said.

The run­away no­tices served as the era’s all­points bul­letin, a way to get word of es­caped slaves to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion through lo­cal publi­ca­tions.

A typ­i­cal no­tice started with the words “Run Away” or the amount of the award of­fered, fol­lowed by a de­scrip­tion that in­cluded a slave’s name, age, height and skin com­plex­ion, along with any no­tice­able fea­tures such as scars or a pe­cu­liar gait. What the slave was wear­ing and car­ry­ing at the time of es­cape would also be noted, along with their work and other skills, es­pe­cially mu­si­cian­ship.

A pub­lished no­tice for a slave named Mingo, who ran away from his mas­ter in Westch­ester County in 1767, read: “He plays tol­er­a­bly well upon the Fid­dle, and has taken one with him.”


Su­san Stessin-Cohn, left, and Ash­ley Hurl­burtBi­agini are the co-au­thors of ‘In De­fi­ance: Ru­n­aways from Slav­ery in New York’s Hud­son River Val­ley 1735-1831.’

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