Slavery Not Tolerated Here!

By Don Rittner

".SLAVERY! How much misery is comprehended in that single word"

--Henry Highland Garnet, 16 August 1843

Slavery is a crime against humanity that rates high on the dumb list along with genocide and "ethnic cleansing." Unfortunately, slavery was practiced in this country for many years before the Civil War.

Slavery was introduced in New York in 1626 when 11 blacks were brought in for forced labor.

When the federal government conducted its first census in 1790, there were 1474 slaveholding families in Albany County owning 3,722 slaves. At least 23 of those families had 10-19 slaves each. Rensselaer County was part of Albany County until 1791.

By 1800, Rensselaer County had 890 slaves, decreasing to 750 in 1810, 433 in 1820, and by 1830, none. Slavery was abolished in the State in 1827.

On the reverse, there were 632 free slaves living here in 1820 rising to 1058 free slaves before the Civil War began.

So, for thirty years before we fought the Civil War, there were no slaves in the Capital District.

Many people, especially in the northern states, believed it was wrong to own another human being.. The abolitionist movement during the three decades prior to the Civil War made the slavery question the prime concern of national politics and quickened the demise of slavery in America. But the end of slavery began much earlier.

In 1774, Connecticut and Rhode Island banned importation of slaves. In 1776, Society of Friends (Quakers) abolished slavery among its members. The following year, Vermont prohibited slavery. By 1780, Massachusetts adopted a freedom clause interpreted as prohibiting slavery. Pennsylvania adopted gradual emancipation. In 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws. Four years later, Connecticut prohibited residents from participating in slave trade.

On March 29, 1799, New York State passed a gradual emancipation law declaring that after July 4, 1799, every child born to a slave within the state would be free, although he/she would remain with the owner, mother, executors, or assigns until the age of 28 if male, or 25 if female. Every black person born before July 4, 1799 was free after July 4, 1827.

However, in the Capital District, slaves were set free (called manumission) as early as 1795. Elkanah Watson freed one of his slaves, Sarah March, and recorded the deed in the minutes of the Town of Watervliet. Many other manumissions are recorded as well from other slave holders.

Troy played an important role as part of the Underground Railroad, a loosely formed network of whites, free slaves, and anyone else sympathetic to smuggling southern slaves to Canada or other Northern U.S. States. It actually began during the colonial period as a reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This act provided for the return of escaped black slaves between states.

The law was hardly enforced in the North since slavery was being abolished, but as a concession to the South a second and stronger fugitive slave law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. This law was tested in Troy ten years later.

In November, 1834, the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church was being dedicated on the north side of Liberty Street between Third and Fourth Streets. Its new paster, The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet was brought in from Oberlin College, staying for several years. While Garnet was here, he formulated strong anti-slavery views. Garnet delivered a "Call to Rebellion (read it at" at the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York, in 1843, encouraging African-Americans to resist slavery by means of armed rebellion. At the party convention for the Liberty Party in Buffalo, Garnet served on the nominating committee while African Americans participated directly for the first time.

The abolitionist movement took off in the 1830’s, partly as a result of the evangelical movement that swept the north starting in the 1820’s. It not only called for the end of slavery but also called for women’s rights. By 1838, more than 1,350 antislavery societies existed with almost 250,000 members, including many women.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which became an effective piece of abolitionist propaganda was first performed in America in Troy, in 1852, in Peale’s Museum on the corner of Fulton and River Street.

The fugitive slave acts were detested. When a runaway slave was captured, he or she was taken before a Federal court or commissioner, denied a jury trial and his/her testimony was not admitted. Only the statement of the master claiming ownership, even if absent, was taken as the main evidence.

Obviously unfair, new personal-liberty laws contradicting the legislation of 1850 were passed in most of the Northern states. Abolitionists openly defied the 1850 act.

The northern newspapers have several episodes where citizens took it upon themselves to help runaway slaves. More than 1000 soldiers had to be used to guard escaped Virginia slave Anthony Burns in Boston when Bostonians failed to free him after they stormed the federal courthouse. A riot broke out in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a federal official ordered Quaker bystanders to help catch a runaway - they didn’t. The Quakers were prosecuted, but not convicted.

In Troy, we have the famous case of Charles Nalle. Nalle was a coachman for Uri Gilbert, Troy businessman and later Mayor. At the age of 28, he escaped from the plantation master Blucher W. Hasbrough of Culpepper County, Virginia, on October 19th, 1848. He made it to our area and first worked for William Scram at Sand Lake as a teamster. He told his secret to Horace F. Averill, a lawyer in Sand Lake who notified Hasbrough. Nalle was arrested on April 27, 1860 and brought to the U.S. Commissioners office on the second floor at the corner of First and State. Several hundred people waited for Nalle to be brought out and rescued him, taking him to the woods in Niskayuna, and later Amsterdam, before they eventually bought his freedom for $650. He returned to Troy a free man.

Civilization is a great concept and someday humanity may achieve it.

©1999 Don Rittner. Got History? Join Don at a book signing for Images of America - Lansingburgh at Clements Frame Shop on July 31.