The Material Realities of Slavery in Early New York
In colonial New York, as now, certain New Yorkers amassed extreme concentrations of wealth. Unlike today, these extremes of wealth often derive from colossal accumulations of landed property, in the form of manors. Resembling European feudal estates, these massive tracts of land were often tilled by tenant farmers who paid rent to work the land. Many also had proto-industrial operations, like mills. Manorial wealth also rested on slavery.
The Philipsburg Manor was one of the many important manors just north of Manhattan Island. At its height, the Philipse land spanned from Spuyten Duyvil in the south, to the Croton River in upper Westchester to the north, and from the Hudson on the west to the Bronx River on the east. It encompassed some 52,000 acres, covering much of what is today the Bronx and Westchester County. As part of the ongoing Early American Manuscripts Project, NYPL has recently digitized the estate record of Adolphus Philipse, begun after his death in 1749. It is a record of the property and capital holdings of the member of the Philipse family in control of the “upper mills,” north of Yonkers. The record throws into sharp relief the vast wealth to be made through manors, as well as the material realities of slavery that were embedded in that system.
A number of enslaved people are included in the “Inventory of all and singular the goods, Rights chattels & credits of the Estate of Mr. Adolph Philipse.” “1 negro man John” was valued at £75, while “1 negro: woman Sarah” was listed without an assessment.
The presence of slavery in Philipse’s world comes through in other ways. Listed among a number of items in a chest were “2 Cats of nine tails.” These whips were commonly in the military and in slavery.
Slavery looms largest in the list of property on the manor itself. As of February 12, 1749, twenty-three “Negros” were on the manor, and listed and sorted in the estate record according to their gender, age, and ability to work. Strikingly and tellingly, a list of cattle directly follows the names of the enslaved laborers.
A few pages later, the record notes the property “In the Negro House,” which amount to “2 old rip saws,” “1 old broken Iron pott,” and “some Rubbish.” The description of this property would be stark in almost any context, but especially when it is sandwiched between sixty or so pages of the trappings of wealth accumulated by Philipse.
Manor families were among the largest slaveholders in the colony, but it was far from unusual for New Yorkers to own slaves. While the loyalist Philipse family lost their land during the American Revolution, slaveholding survived in New York for a time. The first detailed numbers we have come from the first federal census of 1790. According to that census, fifteen percent of the residents of Yonkers—the center of the old Philipsburg Manor—were enslaved. Across Westchester more broadly, six percent of the population was enslaved and fourteen percent of families owned at least one slave.
In much of the current five boroughs and large chunks of Long Island, slavery was an even bigger presence. Kings County (Brooklyn), where almost 33% of the population was enslaved, was the most heavily enslaved place in New York. In 1790, the percentage of Brooklyn's population that was enslaved was in line with the state average for Maryland, and higher than North Carolina. Yet even in Brooklyn, not a single person owned more than twenty slaves. By way of comparison, at least one person in every county in Maryland—including the city of Baltimore—owned upwards of twenty people. Generally, slavery in the New York City hinterlands functioned quite differently than it did in the South. Northern slaveholders tended to own fewer enslaved people, and the concentrations of slavery were usually less dense as a result.
|County||% of Families that owned slaves (1790)||% of population enslaved (1790)|
|NEW YORK COUNTY||18.47||7.17|
|New York STATE AVG.||14.21||6.23|
|Maryland STATE AVG.||36.72||32.23|
More striking is the large proportion of families in the New York hinterlands that were invested and involved with slavery. 36% of all families in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island owned at least one slave, which is higher than the proportion of families that owned slaves statewide in North and South Carolina, and more or less equal to Maryland’s statewide rate. Those rates held true in parts of Manhattan, Westchester, and to a lesser extent Suffolk, but slaveholding was patchier in those counties.
All of which is to say that Philipse’s slaveholding was unusual only in degree. Despite slavery’s obvious importance to early New York, New Yorkers have only slowly come to terms with it. The fact remains, though, that in large chunks of the New York City area—if not in the heart of downtown Manhattan itself—the proportion of people who were directly implicated in slavery was comparable to places that historians consider to be “slave states” or “slave societies.” As the Philipse estate record attests, that reality contributed to the major disparities in the distribution of material resources and wealth that characterized early New York, a story that has modern echoes.
About the Early American Manuscripts Project
With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.