Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“A Negro girl five Years old named Phillis”: Slavery in Northern New York

Detail of quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell.
Textile ca. 1785-1800
This post begins with a return to an item from the Alice’s collection that I’ve discussed several times before, on the blog and on North Country Public Radio’s “Adirondack Attic.” The quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell using a patriotic textile is truly one of the gems of the collection due to the unique nature of the object itself, as well as its connection to local history. Anna (1790-1861) was the daughter of Pliny Moore, one of the founders of the town of Champlain, and the wife of Julius C. Hubbell, a long-time prominent citizen and lawyer in Chazy. The quilt was donated to Alice T. Miner by Anna’s granddaughter Isabella Mygatt.

The textile that Anna Hubbell repurposed to make the quilt was originally part of the furnishings of Pliny Moore’s elegant residence in Champlain. In this post, I want to take a closer look at the residents of that household, which included not just Pliny Moore and his wife and seven children but an enslaved woman named Phillis. Although very little information about Phillis has entered into the official historical record, her life nonetheless opens a window into the often-neglected history of slavery in northern New York.
Map showing location of Kinderhook
and Champlain

First, let’s look at how and why Pliny Moore settled in Champlain. Moore was born in 1759 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Like many 18th century families, the Moores made several moves in search of new prospects—first to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and then to Spencertown, New York, near Kinderhook. During the Revolutionary War, Moore enlisted in a regiment commanded by Colonel Marinus Willett and earned a lieutenant’s commission. Moore’s Revolutionary War service would prove to be significant in a number of ways, not least of which was the fact that his second enlistment took place under a new law which offered land bounties for soldiers; as an officer he was entitled to receive 1,000 acres. As early as 1782, Moore began purchasing claims from fellow soldiers, or taking on the job of locating land on their behalf in exchange for a portion of their claims. Why, exactly, Moore was drawn to northern New York, remains unknown, but he began to formulate a project for a grant along the Canadian border in 1783.

For several years, Pliny Moore traveled back and forth between Kinderhook and what would become Champlain, surveying land, laying out lots, building dams and sawmills. During this time he also married Martha Corbin and their first child, Noadiah, was born in 1788. In the spring of 1789, the family settled permanently in Champlain, which was now part of the newly-created Clinton County. Moore tried his hand at almost every kind of business that could be done in northern New York—timbering, making potash, milling, carding and fulling wool, maple sugaring, along with farming and livestock raising. He became an agent for John Jacob Astor and others, receiving furs coming into the United States from Canada, and served as postmaster for the town of Champlain and county court justice and later judge.
Pliny Moore’s home, as depicted in an 1869 publication

During this period, Moore maintained his connections to the southern part of the state, where many members of the Moore and Corbin families still lived. In 1793, he purchased a slave from Isaac Van Slyk of Kinderhook. The deed of sale simply describes her as “a Negro girl five Years old named Phillis”; Moore paid £14 (about $65) for her. Moore likely purchased Phillis with the idea that she could provide domestic assistance for his growing family, which by that time included three young children. Owning a slave was also a sign of status. Like many people who moved to frontier regions during this period, Moore was eager to find ways to demonstrate that he was nonetheless a man of gentility. The house he built in 1801, furnished with fashionable items like patriotic textiles, would be the ultimate symbol of refinement, but even before then, Moore was showing his neighbors he was a man of substance by purchasing a slave.
New Amsterdam, engraving ca. 1640

For five-year-old Phillis, moving 200 miles from her home in Kinderhook to the remote northern outpost of Champlain could only have been deeply traumatic. Although we don’t know anything about her life in Kinderhook, it seems safe to assume that she was taken away from her parents and perhaps siblings and other relatives. Her first language may have been Dutch. In the 18th century, New York State had the largest population of enslaved people in the north, and most of them were concentrated in the Hudson Valley, where the early Dutch settlers had established large landed estates. Phillis thus would have been leaving a place where she was part of a large and long-standing black community, and going to a part of the state where she was one of a small handful of people of color (the 1790 census counted only 33 nonwhite people in all of Clinton County) and would be the only enslaved person in the Moore household.

In 1799, New York passed a gradual emancipation act, which freed children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799, though they would serve a period of indenture until the age of 28 (for men) or 25 (for women). Anyone already enslaved as of July 4, 1799 would be reclassified as a permanent indentured servant, but effectively was still a slave. In 1817 a new law was passed that would free those slaves born before July 4, 1799—but not until July 4, 1827. When, exactly, Phillis became free is not clear. In 1818, Pliny Moore wrote in his will, “I gave her her freedom many years since[. S]he has hitherto chosen to remain in my family as before her freedom.” However, the 1810 federal census recorded her as a slave in the Moore household. In a society where slavery was disappearing but still had no real place for people of color, “freedom” was a slippery concept.
There are no images of Phillis.
This drawing of a cook is by
Anne-Henriette-Marguerite de Neuvelle,
a French émigré who lived in
New York from 1807 to 1814.

How much difference it would have made to the material circumstances of Phillis’s life whether she was a slave, an indentured servant, or a free person of color, is a difficult question to answer. Moore framed Phillis’s decision to remain with the family as a choice, but her options were probably fairly limited, particularly because she had children to provide for. Moore stated in his will that Phillis had, in his opinion, “conducted vilely in lewdness & occasioned much trouble & expence with her children yet she has many good qualities is patient honest kind to all my family & much attached to them all.” He left her $10 per year, “as long as her conduct is virtuous,” and hoped that one his children would bring her to live with them after the death of Martha Moore.

Moore’s words raise as many questions as they answer. We can guess that her “vile” and “lewd” conduct was probably having children out of wedlock, but we don’t know for sure. How many children did Phillis have, when were they born, who was their father, and what happened to them? 

Moore believed that Phillis was “much attached” to his family, and she probably was—but again, she didn’t have a lot of choice, after being taken away from her own family at the age of five. Moore’s financial support was contingent upon Phillis’s good behavior, though it must be said that he used similar leverage on his own children, threatening to disinherit his son Royal, who had eloped with a “worthless Strumpet.” However, Moore also expected that his children would eventually become independent, whereas he assumed that Phillis would continue to be someone’s responsibility for the rest of her life.

Because everything we know about Phillis comes through the writing of Pliny Moore, she disappears from the historical record after his death in 1822. She probably continued to work for Martha Moore until Martha died in 1825, but what happened to her after that remains a mystery. As is so often the case when researching the lives of non-elite Americans, there are a lot of holes in our knowledge. Still, just acknowledging that Phillis was part of the Moore household and a member of the Champlain community helps to enrich our picture of life in northern New York in the early days of settlement. Pliny Moore is known today as a pioneer, but Phillis was, too. Her labor, and the labor of other men and women, enslaved and free, remembered and unremembered, was essential to the development of the North Country.


Pliny Moore’s papers, including documents related to the life of Phillis, are part of the McLellan Collection, Special Collections, Feinberg Library, SUNY Plattsburgh.

Information about the life of Pliny Moore and his family comes from Allan S. Everest, Pliny Moore: North Country Pioneer of Champlain, New York (Clinton County Historical Association, 1990).

An excellent overview of the history of slavery in New York is Slavery in New York, a book edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, and published in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name held at the New-York Historical Society in 2005.

Monday, February 13, 2017

William Lee and George Washington

Washington and His Family, engraved by J. Sartain,
published by Wm. Smith, Philadelphia, ca. 1850
One of the first things that visitors to the Alice notice are the many images of George Washington to be found throughout the museum. In sculpture, on ceramics, in print, and in painting, his familiar face is everywhere. While many of these images emphasize his military career, others depict him in a more domestic light, as in the engraving of Washington and his family that hangs in the second-floor hallway. This engraving, produced around 1850, is based on a portrait painted by Edward Savage in the 1790s. Savage himself made a number of different engravings of Washington and his family, and its many variations were popular throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Detail of Edward Savage’s painting
Both the painting and the engravings depict George and Martha Washington seated at a table at Mount Vernon, on which plans for the new capital city are displayed. Standing with them are George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, two of Martha’s grandchildren, who came to live at Mount Vernon after the death of their father in 1781. Standing behind Martha Washington is William Lee, an enslaved man who served as George Washington’s personal valet and had accompanied him throughout the campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

During his lifetime, William (also known as Billy) Lee was something of a celebrity, and was probably one of the best known African-Americans in the nation. Because of his long and close association with Washington, we know much more about him than we do about most enslaved people of the Revolutionary era. Lee was also the only one of Washington’s slaves who was granted immediate emancipation upon Washington’s death. Billy’s story is therefore a good way to examine George Washington’s relationship to slavery, and particularly the tensions between the ideals of liberty and the reality of bondage that were at the heart of the Revolution.

George Washington became a slaveowner at the age of eleven, when his father died and he inherited ten individuals. Over the years, Washington purchased additional slaves, and inherited others. By the time of his death in 1799, he owned 123 people. Also living at Mount Vernon were 153 enslaved men and women who had belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Although they were part of Martha’s property during her lifetime, neither she nor George owned them outright. They could not be freed, and after her death they would pass to the remaining Custis heirs. 

Another (probably imaginary) depiction
of William Lee, by John Trumbull
William Lee was one of the slaves that George Washington purchased. He and his brother Frank came to Mount Vernon as teenagers after Washington bought them from Mary Smith Ball Lee. In addition to his duties as valet, Lee also accompanied Washington on surveying expeditions and served as huntsman during fox hunts. George Washington Parke Custis recalled that Billy “rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling, a French horn at his back, throwing himself almost at length on the animal, with his spur in flank, this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.”

In addition to his skill as a horseman, William Lee was known for serving George Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. Lee accompanied Washington on all his campaigns from 1775 to 1783, and was responsible for transporting and safeguarding Washington’s “most precious papers.” Washington and Lee returned to Mount Vernon in December 1783 and resumed their regular patterns. However, during a surveying expedition in 1785, William fell and broke his kneecap. It never healed correctly, and three years later, he fell and broke his other knee. Despite his limited mobility, Lee was determined to accompany President Washington to the capital at New York in 1790. Washington expressed his willingness to “gratify him in every reasonable wish” in recognition of his faithful service, but William Lee stayed only for a short time in New York before returning to Mount Vernon.

Detail of census of enslaved men and women
at Mount Vernon, 1799
Nine years later, as George Washington made his will, he again singled out William. His other slaves would only be freed after Martha Washington’s death, but Billy Lee was to be given immediate freedom, if he chose. Or, “if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment),” he could “remain in the situation he now is.” In either case, he was to be given an annuity of thirty dollars “as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” William lived at Mount Vernon until his death in 1810, and was the object of much interest among the many visitors who continued to visit Washington’s former home.

For over two hundred years, commentators have used Billy Lee’s story as a way to make their own points about race and slavery. For slavery apologists, Lee was an example of a good slave, one who had earned his freedom through good behavior and loyalty to his master. His life after emancipation, when he developed a drinking problem (no doubt due to his ongoing physical ailments), was seen by some as proof that black people could not really survive outside slavery. Others have looked to the relationship with Billy Lee to find  evidence of Washington’s true feelings about slavery. To some, Washington’s relatively indulgent treatment of, and his decision to emancipate, Lee, suggest that Washington came to question the morality of slave ownership. Their documented close relationship seemed to offer proof that friendship and genuine affection between slave and master could exist. 

On the other hand, Washington could have freed Billy, or any of the 122 other slaves he owned, before his own or Martha’s death. A law passed in Virginia in 1782 made it possible to emancipate slaves by deed (prior to that law, manumission required the approval of the Governor and council). However much he may have come to dislike owning slaves, Washington chose to defer any concrete action until after his death. He had no way of knowing, when he made his will, that Martha Washington would free his remaining slaves a year later, prompted by several suspicious fires that stoked fears of an uprising. When Martha herself died in 1802, the Custis slaves became the property of her grandchildren, but descendants of Washington and Custis slaves continued to live at Mount Vernon and in the surrounding neighborhood for generations, long after the Washingtons themselves were gone.


Most of the information about the life of William Lee comes from Mary V. Thompson, “William Lee and Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington and Slavery,Journal of the American Revolution. Additional information on Washington and slavery can be found at Mount Vernon’s website.

Two popular 19th-century accounts of the life of Washington that discuss Billy Lee are George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859)  and Benton J. Lossing, The Home of Washington: Mount Vernon and Its Associations (1871).

For an example of one of Washington’s contemporaries who did free his slaves during his lifetime, read about Robert Carter III.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Talking About the Things That Aren't There

February is Black History Month, which means that it’s the time of year when museums around the United States take the opportunity to highlight objects in their collections that tell the story of black Americans. And every year at this time I think about how the Alice can mark the occasion when the collection doesn't seem to include much of relevance to African-American history. In tackling this question, it’s important to think about why the Alice’s collection looks the way it does, and use that knowledge to shape a more inclusive interpretation.

One of the American Wing’s period rooms,
depicting the home of a wealthy Philadelphian.
The Alice is very much the product of an approach to collecting that was typical in the early 20th century. Collecting antiques was largely the hobby of well-to-do Americans of northern European descent, and for the most part they were interested in acquiring the sort of items that would have been owned by their ancestors or people like them. They wanted to collect items that were examples of fine craftsmanship, and ideally objects that had some connection to people who had played an important role in the founding of the nation. This was also true of the museum collections of early American decorative arts that were being founded during this period, such as the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Wing’s curator, R. T. H. Halsey, wrote in 1925 that the period rooms were “representative of the homes of men—parsons, planters, mariners, merchants, and tradesmen—by whose efforts and sacrifices the Republic was made possible.”

Historians, curators, and collectors of the early 20th century generally had a fairly limited view of whose “efforts and sacrifices” were worth remembering. Working people and the poor rarely played a part in their accounts of the past. The existence of slavery was acknowledged but its significance was minimized. In some cases, authors felt that slavery was an embarrassing aberration that was best glossed over, while others upheld the view that it had been a benign and paternalistic institution. And it must be said that many white Americans simply didn’t think that black Americans had contributed much to the nation, nor did they think they really belonged as members of the national community. 

Dr. Carter G. Woodson
However, during this same period, African-American scholars and activists were working to educate the public about black history. They wanted black Americans to realize that they had a history, and that history was not wholly defined by the experience of slavery. They hoped to instill racial pride by emphasizing the economic, political, military, and cultural contributions of African-Americans. At the same time, they hoped that these messages would reach white Americans and help to counteract assumptions about black inferiority. They wanted everyone to understand that black Americans had a distinct history, but one that was also inseparable from US history.

One of the most important individuals in this movement—and the reason why we have Black History Month today—was Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875, the son of former slaves. Largely self-educated as a young man, he eventually completed a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912, becoming only the second African-American to earn a doctorate. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and became the editor of the Journal of Negro History. Woodson believed that prejudice was “the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” Education, then, would be key to bringing about social change.

Negro History Week Bulletin,
1946, with message from
President Truman
To this end, Woodson and the ASNLH established Negro History Week in 1926. They chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14), two days that had long been commemorated in the African-American community. Woodson and the Association set a theme for the celebration each year, and distributed materials: “pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people.” Originally the object of Negro History Week was to encourage the teaching of black history in public schools, but it soon spread further. The growing black middle class was particularly receptive to Woodson’s ideas, and black history clubs were formed in many communities.

By the 1940s, Negro History Week had expanded to the entire month of February in some localities, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s encouraged the trend in that direction. The official shift from Negro History Week to Black History Month came in 1976, as it was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as part of the Bicentennial commemoration.

Carter Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would eventually die out because it would become commonplace to teach black history as an integral part of US history. That hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly is true that Americans today are more aware of the importance of black history (witness the overwhelming response to the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture). And the more I thought about it, the more  I realized that since black history is so intertwined with broader US history, it shouldn’t really be that difficult to find it at the Alice—we just might have to look a little bit harder to find it. Over the next month, I’ll be telling some of these stories.


“Origins of Black History Month,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History