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.

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