Slaves in the Backyard

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

This is a picture of my brother-in-law playing Frisbee with his young nephew (out of picture) in my wife’s family backyard. The two trees with the overgrown bushes between them are the Treadwell family graves. In the upper right hand part of the picture you can see part of Lake Champlain. That is Treadwell Bay. My wife and I use to walk through her grandfather’s pastures to swim and picnic there when we were dating.
Moore family picture, 1979.

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.”

New York slave market about 1730.
Source note: From A history of the American people. Wilson, Woodrow ; 1856-1924 ; author. New York : Harper, 1902-1903.
New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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.

Hon. Thomas Treadwell
From The Plattsburgh Sentinel Vol. 36 No. 6, Plattsburgh, N.Y., Friday, June 27, 1890

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.

An account of the number of people in the Province of New York, A.D. 1723
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Sale in New York.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 1, 2018.

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.



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47 Responses to Slaves in the Backyard

  1. Interesting article…

  2. Eilene Lyon says:

    I have heard of some early Quakers owning slaves. A vast majority did not, and possibly because most were too poor. I think some of their attitudes against slavery developed through the early 19th century.

    Did your wife know much about the cemetery when she lived on the property (assuming she doesn’t live there now)?

    • chmjr2 says:

      The little graveyard was part of the border between their backyard and her Uncle’s and grandfather’s farm pastures. It was there but they gave it little thought. When she was about 13 my wife did clean it out and fixed it up as best she could. She remembers trying to read the gravestones. The house is no longer in the family. The farm land is owned by a cousin but the farm itself has not operated for decades.

  3. Hi Charles, I have shared this blog post in a group I belong to on Facebook called “I’ve Traced My Ancestor’s Slaveholders”. I hope it will be a good research resource for some of the members. Thank you for sharing the needed information!

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for passing this blog to those who may be able to use it. I hope it will help someone to break down a brick wall or two. I hope all is well with you and family.

  4. KerryCan says:

    So interesting! Are you saying Henry Delord owned slaves? I worked at the museum for quite awhile and I had no idea!

    • chmjr2 says:

      This is from the Kent-Delord House website about Henry Delord

      ” At the age of 20 he emmigrated to the island of Martinique in the French West Indies. He worked on his uncle’s sugar plantation, later moving to the island of St.Lucia. Henry’s crops were cotton and sugar cane and his labor was provided by his numerous slaves. When the turmoil from the French Revolution, and war with England, caused an uprising among the slave population, Henry fled to the United States.”

      I also found records of his slave holding in Clinton County in the index I wrote about above.

      • KerryCan says:

        SO interesting! I worked at the Kent-Delord House in the 1970s, during and after college, when lots of museums white-washed such information about slave ownership (pun acknowledged!) I wonder if they talk about it now, at the KDH.

      • chmjr2 says:

        I would think so since it is front and center in their website. The records from the index above show he owned 3 slaves in 1800. He must have freed them before the 1810 census. As I stated above slave holding was never big in Clinton County but that would depend on if you were a slave or not.

  5. karen s harrison says:

    You mentioned her Uncle and Grandfather owned adjacent farms-which of the Monty line were you referring to? thanks, Karen ( Monty cousin)

    • chmjr2 says:

      The line goes from Francios Monty and Marie Bergevin o Joseph and Mary Lafayette to Edward L and Joyce Murphy, to Oreon Monty and Emma Craft to my wife’s grandparents Edward S Monty and Ruby Gonya.

      How does your Monty line go? Also are you still in the North Country?

  6. What a fascinating post. Having grown up in NY, I did not have a clue or remember learning anything about slave ownership. Curious about the graves on your wife’s families property. Have you written anything about them? Enjoyed your post 🙂 ~ Sharon

    • chmjr2 says:

      This is the first I have written about those graves. As far as my wife’s family they are all over my blogs. They were in that area from the 1700s on. I also agree with you that very little was taught about slavery in New York. History has taken a back seat to many other subjects in school much to our detriment.

  7. dlpedit says:

    Interesting (and I’ll bet unexpected) finding. You’ve touched on a problem in history that has bothered me for a long time, including when I was a history textbook author. (The powers over me refused to allow me to tell the whole story about slavery.) As the saying goes, “The winner writes the history,” so a teacher or writer is going against the grain in trying to tell the whole story rather than hiding part of it. A really interesting source for more information about slavery in the North and the role that Northern shipbuilders, ship owners, sea captains, and financiers played in slavery is the book _Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery_ by (not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans!) Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank of _The Hartford Courant_, Hartford, Conn. These three Northern journalists had the courage to tell the whole story. BTW, my family, all Southerners living in North Carolina at the time of the “late unpleasantness,” as they called it, didn’t own any slaves. They were poorer than church mice and barely made enough from subsistence farming to keep body and soul together! Thanks for another interesting read!

    • chmjr2 says:

      History is truly a story that can never be told in its entirety. I think that is why I love reading and studying it so much. You just can’t make up some of this stuff. The history of slavery has not even started to be told with all of its dark corners and twist and turns. I think this is a subject that you and I could spend hours on your front porch debating. When you mentioned your family being poor farmers I recall something Shelby Foote said about the attitude of many southern soldiers. I guess the saying was “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Also to the other point you made about getting the story out. I think a big step was taken by the John Jay College in this regard. This is truly a great work that they did. I wish more places would take up this type of not just record keeping but making it public for all to use. Thank you for you comments you make on my blog they do mean a lot.

  8. Amy says:

    I think I’d known about there being slavery up north, but not as late as 1829. That’s amazing and troubling. Am I correct in understanding that your wife’s family owns or did own that land where the Treadwells once lived? It’s surprising that the family sold the land and left the cemetery there. Great post, Charles.

    • chmjr2 says:

      All the land you see in the picture right up to the shore of the lake and much more was owned by my wife’s grandfather and uncle. They had a large family dairy farm. In fact my wife’s dad an attorney worked milking the cows for a few years to help with expenses while he set up his practice. I am sure that is why he had every farmer in the county and more for clients. My wife’s parents little part of the land is what you see inside the fence. They had a little house facing route 9 north. The farm is no longer active, but the land is still owned by her cousins. The house and backyard now belong to another family. How they got the farm land (it has been in the family for generations) from the tredwells I do not know. I do know the total of land they own is much more than the Tredwells ever had. I will have to look up the land records some day.

      • Amy says:

        It would be interesting to trace back how long they owned the land and whether the Tredwells were the prior owners.

      • chmjr2 says:

        Yes the Tredwells were the first owners of that land. The Tredwells owned from the lake right up to the road. They had a house by the lake long gone. The grave yard was at the other end of their land. A newspaper account I read said that the Miller family bought it after the Tredwells left. When or how it got into my wife’s family I just do not know.

  9. higginsmj says:

    Thanks for another fascinating read! I am sure the New York Slavery Records Index will prove a useful tool for those researching their ancestors.

  10. I hope the new website you mention receives good coverage in the media. The info you provide is very educational. I do not recall being taught as a child that even in the North there were slaves. I knew about indentured servants but that is different.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I noticed in my research for this blog post that as time went on the word servant was used instead of slave. Perhaps a way to ease our conscious and sweep away some dirt.

      • Yes, you are correct. It is a veil thrown over the condition to assuage discomfort. My late Mom always told me that if we now feel uncomfortable since becoming conscious of the social issues related to race and inequality it was a good thing. Conscience can motivate us to make the change in our thoughts and behaviors towards others. As far as I understand it, though, indentured servants were a notch above slaves in that they entered into service as a choice. A slave, on the other hand, was captured and sold against his or her will. I think indentured servants could work as a way to pay off a debt and in some cases the term ended when the payment was fulfilled. Slaves did not always get that opportunity. The one story regarding slavery that I still find hard to come to terms with is that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. It has made me look at him very unfavorably. Sally was his wife’s half-sister even though she was a slave. She entered the Jefferson household when he married his wife. Sally was just 7 years old. He watched her grow up. Then his wife died. And at around 14 years of age he took her as a mistress but she was still a slave. It is reported to have happened during a trip to Paris where Jefferson’s daughter brought Sally along.

      • chmjr2 says:

        I suggest you read “The Hemingses of Monticello An American Family” by Annette Gordon-Reed. You may have different thoughts after reading this book, or feel even stronger. It goes into much detail on the Jefferson and Hemings family relation. It also shows how he treated his slaves in general; somewhat. It is a detailed work and the chapter notes are great. I also agree with your mother her view on social issues.

        Also if we have ancestors that came over here in the 1600s and 1700s most likely many of them were indentured servants. Many also were bound to someone for training in a trade. In very old newspapers you will see ads for the return of these bound people. Many offering a penny for the return; this was meant as an insult to the runaway. But as you say a big difference between them and a slave.

      • Thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out.

  11. Valarie says:

    Your post is a reminder to keep our minds open to what our family history research is crying to be discovered, and once we find it, to share it. It really is an eye-opener for me, living just across that body of water, that my ancestors’ backyards may divulge a history I am not expecting.

    Thank you for this blog!

    • chmjr2 says:

      It is a big lake with much history on its shores and beneath the water. If our families lived for any time around this body of water then that is where we will find some of our family history. I am sure like you I have just started telling some of that history, with so much more to learn.

  12. Sheryl says:

    I learned a lot from this post, and look forward to digging into the New York Slavery Records Index.

  13. This is well written and really interesting. With Jamaica having once been a colony of Great Britain and myself having had a Jamaican slave ancestry, I only ever took an interest in the Jamaican slavery system, but this blog gives me another outlook and perspective about similar things happening in other countries. I hope these New York Slavery Records will be a great resource for those in search of their elusive brick wall slave ancestors of New York.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for your comment. I am sure that the Slavery records will help someone break through that brick wall. Also it is a great source for historical facts.

  14. chattykerry says:

    Excellent post, somehow even more poignant with the fun frisbee shot. I recently read an article saying there are more sub Saharan slaves than there was at any point in our history. They are being sold in Libya and then onto Europe.

  15. What an insult, that one man would take the present from another, while denying him his past. Your work here will give hope to many.

  16. Gary a Rieffer jr says:

    I’m Gary A Rieffer , I’m a descendant if Josiah & Jane Hicks who were slaves of Thomas Tredwell. My 5x great grandfather was George W Nutt his mother was Cynthia Hicks who’s freedom was purchased by her parents after they were manuscripted.

    • Gary A Rieffer Jr says:

      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.

      • chmjr2 says:

        I am happy you found my blog and for your comment. I could not help but wonder if you live in the Plattsburgh area or if you ever visited the area?

      • Gary a Rieffer jr says:

        I’ve never visited although I’d love to visit. Does Nigger hill cemetery still exist? People have a way of trying to cover the past by building on top of it. There have been a lot of old slave cemeteries discovered in Florida lately.

      • chmjr2 says:

        Sorry I never heard of that cemetery. I did a quick google search and none turned up for Plattsburgh.

      • Gary a Rieffer jr says:

        It’s near Beekmantown, when Judge Tredwell bought slaves on Long Island from a slave owner named Hicks he moved to Beekmantown and brought the slaves with. He gave them 40 acres of land and helped them build cabins one for each family. There’s a slave cemetery there with only fieldstone for markers. I’m only 1% black , I’m very diluted. But I’m related to the Hicks slaves. I traced it thru ancestry dna.

  17. artsbeercans says:

    Gary, It is my understanding that I am a direct descendant of James Crabtree and Cynthia Hicks. I can trace my heritage to John Crabtree Sr. Who is believed to be the son of James and Cynthia. Although I have not seen definitive proof of that. Curious of what records./DNA results you have that may shed some light on the this. I have had my DNA done it would be interesting to see if we are related. Thanks, Art LaComb

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