Sometimes a story that needs to be told could be right outside your door. Perhaps you just failed to comprehend, or it just grew too familiar and as a result, gave it no real thought. This post is a small footnote in the telling of this much larger story, and I hope a means for some to help find their family’s story. This story was found in my wife’s backyard in her childhood home
The story of those hidden gravestones was brought forward by a newspaper article I read about the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. With much effort by a team of graduate students lead by professors Ned Benton and Judy Lynne Peters over 35,000 records pertaining to slavery in New York were indexed and made available to the public. According to the website, you will find “census records, slave trade transactions, cemetery records, birth records, manumissions, ship inventories, newspaper accounts, private narratives, legal documents, and many other sources.”
When we think about slavery in America, we usually think about the southern states. However, all 13 colonies had slaves at one time or another. New York had a gradual process of abolishing slavery, starting in 1799. In that year slave children born after July 4, 1799, would be free but this was to be done over time and involved an apprenticeship program. Then in 1817, a law was passed that freed slaves born before 1799 but not until 1827. Slavery in the most northern regions of New York was never taught or fleetingly mentioned in history class.
This brings me back to the Thomas Tredwell (often spelled Treadwell) grave sites. Tredwell graduated from Princeton College where he studied law and took up the practice. He moved to Plattsburgh, New York where he bought a farm that bordered on Lake Champlain in a spot now named Tredwell (Treadwell) Bay. He was to serve in the Provincial Congress of New York; the state constitutional convention was a member of the New York State Assembly, and the New York State Senate. He was also the Surrogate for Clinton County from 1807 till his death in 1831. Tredwell was one of the pioneers and builders of my home town of Plattsburgh, New York. He also was a slave owner. According to an article in the “The Plattsburgh Sentinel” newspaper dated June 27, 1890, he “brought with him in 1794 some forty slaves who were subsequently emancipated and colonized by Judge Treadwell on the high regions a few miles north-west.” According to the New York Slavery Records Index, I saw that he owned four people in 1800 and three in 1810. In the book “History of Plattsburgh, N.Y., From its First Settlement to Jan. 1, 1876” by Peter Sailly Palmer dated 1877 is the following on page 22; “The town records show that on the 16th day of August, 1794 the “negro man Hick and Jane his wife,” were manumitted by Judge Treadwell. In September following, Hick bought his daughter Cynthia off the Judge for seventeen pounds ($42.50). Judge Treadwell, about this time, also manumitted his man, York…” I know of one other slave also. The website Northern New York Tombstone Transcription Project shows the Tredwell cemetery was transcribed in 1935. The following graves are listed, Thomas Tredwell, His wife Ann, his daughter Elizabeth, his daughter Mary P., Joel Stratton, and finally Phyllis, the slave. A diagram of this small cemetery shows that Phyllis lies at the feet of Judge Tredwell. I found many records of slaveholding by the early settlers of Plattsburgh in the New York Slave Record Index. Names that would be very familiar to the people of Plattsburgh and the area such as Peter Sailly, Henry Delord, Thomas Miller, Benjamin Moores, John Bailey, Patrick Conroy, as these people have streets, towns, and schools named after them. Even Zephaniah Platt for which Plattsburgh is named and his extended family owned slaves.
To be fair slavery was never wide spread in Plattsburgh or in Clinton County of which Plattsburgh is the county seat. In Clinton County, 1790, census 16 slaves were listed, in 1800, 58 slaves were listed, in 1810, 29 were listed, and in 1820, 2 slaves were listed. The general population during those years rose from 1,615 in 1790 to 12,070 in 1820. In total (I could have missed some) I found only 35 different men who owned slaves in that time period in Clinton County. While slavery was not a big part of the history of the county, it certainly was for those forced into slavery, and perhaps this new website will be of help to tell their story.
I am hopeful that this new website will be an aid to those who are trying to breakdown that brick wall of slavery that so many have found impossible to get through. Also, I hope those of us who have slave owners in our family history may get a better understanding. When I checked the index for my family, I did find that Simon Dakin who is a first cousin six times removed did own nine people at one time. This was surprising as I thought he was a Quaker. I will have to do more research on that.
So if you’re looking for a publicly searchable site in which you will find over 35,000 records pertaining to both the enslaved person and the people who owned them, then click on the New York Slavery Records Index. It may take you some time to learn how to navigate this site, but it is well worth the effort. I have spent hours looking over this site and the time just seemed to fly away. I hope that this site is what is needed for someone to break through their brick wall. At the very least it should be one more arrow to put in our quiver for use in our genealogy pursuit.